The Risk of Tribes

“An individual artist needs only a thousand true fans in her tribe. It’s enough.”

Seth Godin, Tribes: Why We Need You to Lead Us

Church leader-types read that and universally underlined it. They thought “Seth Godin said it, I believe it, that’s absolutely true. I need that in my life.

They did the math in their heads. “If a thousand people like me and donate to my thing or buy my stuff… that’s all I really need to make it.

As an entrepreneur & small business owner I certainly resonate with that idea. Part of my own work the past few years helping folks create tribes of their own around their ideas.

And it works. 

From a business perspective you don’t even need anywhere close to a thousand true fans. Many businesses thrive with about 10-15 loyal and active clients. (or donors or customers)

If you follow me on social media you know that I’m outwardly “evangelistic” (marketing term) about a few tribes I’m a part of.

  • San Diego State sports
  • Joes on the Nose coffee
  • Mailchimp
  • WordPress
  • Southwest Airlines
  • to a lesser extent, 30 Hour Famine, Zenpayroll, 6sync hosting

Tribes Lead to Tribal Thinking

Let me first say that I’m a fan of the Tribes concept. I think that it helps narrow the focus for a lot of people. Whether they are pastors or coffee shop owners or leading a tech start-up.

But my primary world, the Christian community, is starting to take the Tribes concept to it’s next logical place, Tribal thinking.

The idea of gathering with like-minded people is great. The idea of clustering together to share ideas/concepts and rally around them is great.

Having a tribe is amazing and, I think, completely healthy. For those who work in churches I think finding a tribe where you belong is one of the most important things you can do. It helps to be part of a larger grouping and have a group of people who are somewhat similar to you to process what the group is doing for your distinct tribe.

But tribal thinking is dangerous.

  • Tribal thinking is exclusionary.
  • Tribal thinking is self-promotional.
  • Tribal thinking is self-congratulatory.
  • Tribal thinking pumps up your way as the only and best way and intentionally shuts down outside ideas.
  • Tribal thinking limits the natural morphing of ideas and practices as people try them,  learning from success and failure.

In short, tribal thinking leads to isolation and exclusivity whereas simply being “in a tribe” as part of a much larger group is really, really healthy.

Guarding Against Tribal Thinking

Each of these new tribes needs to intentionally foster within the groups dynamic roles of the muse or truth-teller or dissenting voice. Not because each tribe needs a pain in the neck person… but because tribal thinking is something to guard against.

And likewise, I think each of these tribes needs to create space within the group’s dynamic for people who are connected to multiple tribes, people who cross-pollinate, offer outside insight, and help create shared understanding and values between tribes.

Moreover, as Christian ministry gets increasingly tribal we need to be reminded of the value and importance of other tribes role in the larger community.


One response to “The Risk of Tribes”

  1. Gene Avatar

    I would go so far as to suggest that Christians who don’t “cross-pollinate” with those outside their own tribe have surrendered one of the key defining aspects of what it means to be a follower of Christ and transmorphed into something that is actually less than truly Christian.

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