Quitting in droves
My mother quit smoking long ago. Yet she didn’t quit her bowling league where teammates smoked like chimneys. And she didn’t break up the monthly bridge club that left our home reeking of stale cigarette butts the morning after. Mom’s never been entirely clear why she quit but two researchers think they know. Their findings – when placed next to your Sunday bulletin – reveal an obstacle and opportunity for anybody trying to connect Sunday to Monday.

Between 1971 and 2003, Nicholas Christakis (a medical sociologist at the Harvard Medical School) and James Fowler (a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego) tracked 12,067 people to discover why the number of smokers in this group plummeted from 45 percent to 21 percent. The Framingham Heart Study began with 5,124 participants but mushroomed to 12,067 as researchers uncovered a network of spouses, neighbors, friends, and co-workers. This proved to be the most powerful influence for kicking the habit: social networks. “People quit in droves – whole groups of people quit together at roughly the same time,” Christakis said. “You can see it ripple through a network. It’s sort of like an ant colony or a flock of birds.”1

A person whose spouse quit was 67 percent more likely to kick the habit. If a friend gave it up, a person was 36 percent more likely to do so. If a sibling quit, the chances increased by 25 percent. Remarkably, the influence of a single person appeared to cascade through three degrees of separation. “The point is, your behavior depends on people you don’t even know,” Christakis said. “Your actions are partially affected by the actions of people who are beyond your social horizon,” yet in the broader network. But that’s not all.

Christakis and Fowler discovered that the size and shape of the networks did not change over time. Whether or not a person quit smoking, people stayed within their existing network. It’s why droves of smokers would quit almost simultaneously and were not aware of the reason, like my mom. This phenomenon of networks also explains why multitudes of people came to faith early on in the church.

When Paul and Silas were freed from prison by an earthquake, the jailor asked what he must do to be saved. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31). There was a cascade of conversions as the jailor “believed in God with his whole household” (Acts 16:34). From the Book of Acts on, droves of people quit paganism and embraced Christianity through social networks. But the networks were different in one respect from what I see in most Sunday bulletins.

Rodney Stark says that the early church encouraged new converts to stay within existing networks or, if they launched a new network, to keep it open to outsiders. Why? “Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semi-closed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow,” writes Stark.2 This means that early Christians met for worship and house to house, but these groups were populated by people from existing social networks – believers and those not yet of faith (Acts 2:46 & 5:42). A mish mash.

It is well documented today that shortly after conversion, believers desert most of their existing social networks and are drawn into networks of Christians – Bible studies, home groups, and so on. This might account for George Barna’s finding that the average Christian will never lead another person to Christ.3 They don’t stay in the club. We mean well, but if most of our social networks are advertised as “Christian,” we create an obstacle for connecting Sunday to Monday. It’s a closed or semi-closed network. If you’re a Christian and want to put shoe leather on Christakis and Fowler’s study, list your social networks and ask yourself two questions: Have you stayed in your old mish mash networks, the club? Or have you mostly joined closed or semi-closed “Christian” clubs?

C. S. Lewis believed that “Christian” is not an adjective. Closed or semi-closed networks are obstacles, but encouraging believers to remain in or develop social networks open to all provides wonderful opportunities. Working with Habitat for Humanity is one example. A neighborhood dinner club would be another. I help businesses and organizations connect Sunday to Monday by drawing people into a network often described as a “blue ocean.” It’s not original, but it’s not a closed network either.

In AD1000, the farmers of Iceland voted to adopt a single “Christian law” and become followers of Christ.4 The entire social network cascaded into the kingdom. My mother says that over the years many of her friends have kicked the habit. They probably couldn’t put their finger on why, but I bet the network was the reason.

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1 Rob Stein, “Social Networks’ Sway May Be Underestimated,” Washington Post, May 26, 2008; A06.
2 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), p. 20.
3 George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2005), p. 32.
4 Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity 200–1000 AD (Making of Europe) (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996), p. 301.

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One Response to “Staying in the Club”

  1. Douglas says:

    Sticking around in our social networks seems to fit with Rom 12:2 “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”

    It would seem that we can’t expect to influence others to ‘kick the habit’ [of unbelief] if we aren’t there with them. Makes sense why Jesus was often found amongst the ‘greatest’ of sinners…

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