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Gladwell’s Cellular Church

September 21st, 2005 · No Comments

John Hagel discusses a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell:

What do the Communist Party, Alcoholics Anonymous, evangelical Christians and al-Qaeda all have in common? They adopted and refined the technique of organizing in small cells to achieve change. This is the fascinating theme of Malcolm Gladwells new article, The Cellular Church (alas, not available online), in the September 12, 2005 issue of The New Yorker (actually, I added al-Qaeda to the list based on a posting that I will mention later).

Gladwell uses the story of Rick Warrens Saddleback Church in Orange County, California to make this theme come alive. For those of you not familiar with Rick Warren, he is the author of The Purpose-Driven Life (23 million copies sold so far and it is just getting started) and founder of the Saddleback Church, an evangelical Christian church with 20,000 members in its congregation and the hub of a global network of 1,100 other evangelical Christian churches.

Gladwell focuses on a core challenge confronting any voluntary organization how to make it scalable. On the one hand, many voluntary organizations want to grow so they need to have low barriers to entry. But if they grow too fast or too big, they begin to lose the sense of community and identity that is necessary to retain members. He notes that historically, churches have sacrificed size for community but that this changed back in the 1970s and 1980s when the evangelical movement began to build megachurches. It turns out the cellular model has been key to the success of megachurches cells helped them to solve the scalability challenge.

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