A while back I heard Len Sweet say that our society is moving away from the "bell curve" and toward something called the "well curve." His comment got me doing some research on the topic and thinking about what all of this means for church leaders. Who knew that bells and wells were such important topics for church leaders to consider?

Since high school we've known all about the bell curve: that fundamental law of natural science and statistics that defines normal distribution as being massed near the middle while being low on the extremities. Represented on a graph, the distribution looks like a bell-shaped curve. The bell curve implies that most people gravitate toward the middle or average and avoid the extremes. For example, most people are of average height, have moderately sized families, and earn a "C" in statistics; few people are really tall or really short, few have very large or very small families, and few earn A's or F's.

But within the turbulent days we live, a new phenomenon is being recognized. The distribution for some of our choices is an inverted bell curve, or a well curve. In these cases, the population gravitates toward the ends or extremes and is lowest in the middle. The well curve describes many economic and social phenomena. For instance, television screens are simultaneously getting both larger (60" plasma!) and tinier (watch the latest episode of 24 on your iPod!); stores are getting larger (Wal-Mart) and smaller (specialty boutique stores); people are eating more healthful food (organic) and more fast food (McDonald's).

Perhaps more significant than the rise in the extremes is the decline of the middle: consider the disappearance of the middle-class, the demise of mid-sized companies, the loss of status for anything considered average, and the polarization of politics in America. Our tastes and choices are shifting away from the middle and toward the extremes.

The well curve helps describe a number of interesting church trends going on these days: how the church is moving theologically liberal and conservative, with the disappearance of the moderate; how churchgoers increasingly prefer megachurches and microchurches, but not mid-sized congregations; and how the church is both growing and losing prominence within the larger society.

On the local church level, pastors and other church leaders need to pay attention to the well curve for another important reason: it describes how churchgoers participate in the life of a given congregation.

The New Churchgoers: Very Active or Hardly Active

In a bell curve context, church leaders could expect most members to be moderately involved in the life of the congregation while the fringes were inhabited by the highly involved at one end and the minimally involved at the other end. But in a well curve context, leaders can expect few people to be moderately involved; instead folks will be either highly involved or barely involved.

The question is: How can pastors and other church leaders deal effectively with the well curve involvement of their church members?

As a coach to pastors and congregations, I've noticed four trends among churches that are adapting to this new context.

  1. Membership. Churches are rethinking membership in seismic ways. Some consider anyone on the mailing list to be a member or they drop membership altogether. Other congregations emphasize membership and heighten the bar of what it takes to join the church. Church leaders who are embracing the well curve reality allow for a sense of belonging at both ends of the spectrum. This often results in leadership strategies that make membership available at two polarities: membership that is quick and available to practically anyone, and a level of membership that signifies considerable choice and high expectation.
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