What Research Tells Churches About Influencing Change

Robert Cialdini’s classic work Influence: Science and Practice has two million sales to back the six techniques recently presented in Joseph Grenny’s Influencer.  He gives some further keys to understanding the conditions necessary for bringing change, but his six principles then markedly influence our actual impact on people. These factors are actually vital for growing healthy churches.

Firstly, Cialdini says that showing genuine care for people is foundational in building the trust necessary to welcome change. Many churches that struggle to retain visitors and new Christians often don’t have enough members who genuinely care about the needs of those people. Stories abound of cliques that meet the friendship needs of established members but become hard to break into. Sometimes these include the very people who were more welcoming when ‘on duty’ during the previous visit. Ouch!

Personalised and individualised care is important, being built upon the old premise that seven friendships are typically needed for people to remain in a church.  Without a relationally-strong sense of belonging, most people either fail to connect or even disconnect, caring not how much we know until they know how much we care.

Whether a church is welcoming and friendly is determined by the visitor and not by the pastor or leaders.

Cialdini also suggests that it is in highlighting potential loss that people will be motivated to change. New Christians are often motivated by a fear about their eternal destiny, or a consciousness of being incomplete without embracing a relationship with God. Loss of more immediate, temporal comforts and securities will typically inspire change amongst current church members which can explain grater attendances at services during times of economic unrest, ill health, relational trouble or job loss

Established Christians may therefore need a greater ownership of the plight of others, whether this is because of social isolation, spiritual lack, or community need. However, it is often necessarily dependent on first contemplating the direct and negative personal impact that may be possible if change is not forthcoming.

A ‘we must do something’ response is dependent upon first creating the feeling – whether perhaps because of widespread community problems, an adverse impact on children, or a potential loss of friends – that ‘we can’t possibly continue to respond the way we are currently.’

The six keys for inspiring change, the sort that flows naturally and fluently, overlap with the findings of Grenny’s research. These fuel a response that needs to be felt at the emotional level and will then inspire a difference.

  1. Consistency. People will be more likely to honour a commitment that they have made and therefore to act in a manner that is internally consistent. This involves personal ownership of change. People themselves articulate a need for change, rather than it being imposed or even offered too forcefully. This aligns to Grenny’s desire for ‘personal motivation’ to inspire a response, whether for churches this comes through sermons, service leadership or personal encouragement.
  2. Authority. People respect competence and experience and this requires convincing them beyond a mere emotional appeal. Reason needs to be aligned to emotion and enhance the ‘no brainer’ case for change with a call to specific, credible and necessary action. Grenny sees that is shaping ‘personal ability’ where the know-how in churches must come through teaching, equipping or personal follow-up.
  3. Consensus. People are motivated by perceived popularity which creates social proof of the need for change. Grenny sees this as ‘social motivation’ and larger churches demonstrate it through the popularity of young adults or youth programs and service atmosphere. Like attracts like and friends cluster to places with more potential friends, provided the other reasons for belonging are credible. Smaller churches can also create atmosphere, though, through intentional creativity, positivity, values, and the showcasing of unique strengths.
  4. Likeability. Change requires trust and this is established through rapport. This implies a certain ‘social ability’ for Grenny, which needs churches to upskill their people in basic friendliness and outward focus. Far from manipulating, this leverages the best that people have to offer without often considering how (or why). Friendly churches build friendships to build a cohesive and growing membership and this includes the creation of clear contexts in which newer people can develop friendships and a sense of shared community.
  5. Reciprocity. This creates a generous and giving environment that increases an internal obligation to align. It is the ‘structural motivation’ advocated by Grenny. Everything about the church’s approach to excellence, outreach, people, or conduct enhances their intrinsic benefits and taps the best in prospective people to inspire them to belong. It is about giving first, before evoking the response you hope to see because, for churches, believing is seeing.
  6. Scarcity. People want what they cannot get elsewhere. That which is rare and inaccessible can be compelling. For churches, replicating what people can (and do) find online will be futile. Instead, they create small-group and large-group experiences for a community that values each person and their unique gifts. They inspire contexts in which people can make a difference together. This is Grenny’s ‘structural ability’ in which positive outcomes are enhanced.

Finally, Cialdini’s most recent book, Pre-suasion, has since outlined a seventh principle. He suggests that we increase our influence on others by first encouraging them to identify with us. The environment of a message becomes an important pre-condition for receipt of that message and builds the trust and connectivity needed for influencing change.

This is unsurprisingly essential for any church. The environment that all Christians create in weekly services, whether through greeting visitors, playing an instrument, leading publicly, cleaning, serving, or welcoming children, will all play a vital role in building trust and engagement. A person is more likely to respond to a message if they feel an affinity for the community in which they hear it.

People need to believe that they could ‘see themselves here’ before beginning to connect in practice.

Naturally, the quality of a sermon, the giftedness of the speaker and the power of both Word and Spirit are vital. Change in churches cannot be manufactured and is never devoid of a genuine connection with God, but research again shows what we know intuitively and anecdotally about impacting people.

It also reinforces just how vital it is that every member of a church brings their best intention to engage passionately as influencers on the atmosphere around them. This is, after all, a purposeful and worshipful response to the God who is encountered.

It also reminds us that the power of community sees that it is in our unity that the greatness of God is contextualised. This ultimately depends upon more than just one expert or a mere handful of gifted persons carrying the load.

Influence inspires the ‘can do’ in moving individuals toward what we ultimately do best together.


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