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A Theory: Speed of Growth Determines Speed of Decline

Theory: The rate of increase, often determines the rate of decline.

In my early twenties, I was working in retail and this theory developed in my mind as I watched dozens of items gather immediate interest, grow rapidly in popularity, quickly rack up sales, but then as a fad changed, the item sales just as quickly decline.  I called it my “fad theory”.  Other items grew slower, but styles changed gradually and so they slowly began to decline in sales.

Let me give you two classic examples I observed firsthand:

Item One: Michael Jackson “Thriller” jackets – Do you remember the red, multi-zippered jackets made popular from the music videos? When that video came out, the song and the jacket became an overnight success. We couldn’t get the jacket fast enough. Every order we received sold out within hours.  They couldn’t make enough of them. Then one day…right after we received a huge shipment of jackets…another overnight success happened in the music industry. I don’t remember the song, but I do remember no one wanted a Michael Jackson “Thriller” jacket.  We had racks of them remaining, but sold some for $1.88 in a Moonlight Madness sale and gave many of them away to charity.  We lost all our profits from the rapid sales in the rapid decline.

Item Two: Penny Loafers – Do you remember the leather loafer that had a slot for a “penny” in the front?  Although loafers had been around for years, and continue to be worn today, in the 1980’s Michael Jackson gave them attention again, as he was continually seen wearing them.  The growth, however, was gradual.  It took a couple seasons for their popularity to spread through the culture, but soon our retail shelves were full of them.  They remained popular for several years, but gradually, as new styles were introduced, their sales began to slowly fade.

I wondered at the time (and still do), that if we could somehow measure the rate of growth, if we could better predict the rate of decline.

I have continued to observe this theory outside of the retail environment, so many times that I’d almost call it a principle.  I’ve seen it in business, in churches, and even in relationships.  The speed of the growth will greatly play a part in the speed of decline.

Please understand, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with fast growth…I kind of like it…but we should know that the rate of decline, should decline occur, may be swift.  Additionally, this is not a theory that reinforces the saying “what goes up must come down”.  I’m not completely sure I agree with that one.  This is a theory about velocity…that if something does begin to decline, it will decline at a similar speed in which it grew.

As a closing application example, in my current church, I have continually reminded our staff that because we have experienced rapid growth, what we have is more tender…our people don’t have as deep of roots and we don’t have the solid financial base of an established church, etc. I’m not hoping for, predicting, or expecting a decline anytime soon, but what it does remind me is that if we ever had something dramatic occur in the life of our church, such as a moral failure of a key pastor, that our rate of decline could be as fast as our rate of growth has been.

There’s my theory…apply as needed.

Does this theory make sense to you? Have you seen an example you could share with us here?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • Ron,
    Thanks for offering that insight. I've actually been thinking the same thing lately as I've observed some things happening in the church where I am currently serving. It also lines up with some thoughts I heard Rick Warren recently share in an interview with Andy Stanley where he said that a healthy, long-lasting church isn't grown quickly (like most people want), but slowly – one life at a time.

    But, I would agree that rapid growth doesn't mean that rapid decline will happen right away. I think the risk of rapid decline is greater when rapid growth happens, and the leadership of a church isn't prepared to handle it, or doesn't respond to adequately assimilate the new growth. But if the church recognizes what's happening and responds appropriately, then they will be ready.

    Thanks for the insights. I really appreciate reading the many different things you post. They have been incredibly helpful and clarifying in my current ministry season.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Your right Chris. Developing the structure/foundation is critical to sustaining the growth. Thanks!

  • Jon says:

    I wonder if it has more to do with society today. Your Thriller jacket is a perfect example. Everything, well not everything, but most things have obsolescence built it. Products are not made to stand the test of time because the consumer has such a short attention span. I just threw away a perfectly wonderful laptop at my work today because it was going to cost more to fix it than to buy a new one; and it was only a couple of years old.

    I have teenagers and am bombarded with lots of the new music…and it all sounds the same. There are basically three categories of really popular music today: rap, hip-hop and whatever the voice-enhanced stuff is. We were listening to a New Years Eve show a couple of years ago and I hadn't been paying attention to who was on and I realized that the person I thought it was had left a couple of songs ago, but the new artist sounded so much like the other one that I hadn't really noticed.

    And while we're on music, I suggest that we will be still listening to people like Rod Stewart, James Taylor, ACDC, Vanhalen, and the like long after people like Justin Bieber, Usher, and Lady Gaga have long faded into people's memory; why? Because, no matter what you think of the music or the individuals making it, the people on the former list took the time to create something with melody and power and drive or an atmosphere to pull at our minds and hearts. They created unique sounds that will live on for years. The people on the latter list have created music that represents sameness whose main feature is the beat and whose audience is the "I want to dance like I'm having sex on the dance floor while I am high on ecstasy" crowd; apologies to posters who like these individual's music. They are here to create something that will capture people's minds in the moment that works off of the current popular trends and then moves on; which lends credence to the fast rise and fast decline.

    So basically I agree with you. I think there are probably exceptions in both directions, but I think you are mostly right.

  • ronedmondson says:

    I agree. In our case, we've not been able to contain the growth…and don't want to….but it has added to our stress.

  • Laurinda says:

    There is something to slow growth and character building versus faster growth. If the character is not developed along the way then the decline is as quick as the growth. We see rising stars all the time that suddenly fad away to the next rising star. Joyce Meyer said it best, most people have talent that can take them somewhere their character can't keep them. I've been a part of a churches with rising star pastor only to have a scandal bring it down.

  • artie Davis says:

    Ron, loves this post bro, and so many applications and WARNINGS in the church application. Noted!

  • joshhunt says:

    I'd like to hear more on your ideas as to how to prevent the decline. I have heard change theory that has to do with thawing, moving to another level, then refreezing at the new level.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Josh. That's pretty much what all the other posts I write are about, but I can see a post shaping that addresses this specifically.

  • Kevin Glenn says:

    This is why it's so important for churches, businesses or any other organization to be sure their leadership (staffing, staff development) infrastructure (procedures, policies, facilities, parking, greeters and other logistical/administrative issues), and resources (financial, personal /volunteers) grow along with the increase in attendees or customers.

  • Micah Yost says:

    Have you done in actual tests or case studies into this theory? You might enjoy reading Jim Collins case studies from his book "How the Mighty Fall". Great research into what causes the decline of companies. I tend to think that the actual growth rate has little to do with the rate of decline. It is more likely other factors caused by increased growth rates. For instance, companies with excessive growth may develop a bravado that eventually leads to very poor decisions and greed. It would be interesting to do some research into your theory

    • ronedmondson says:

      No, I haven't…it's all in theory in my mind. Could be an interesting to look at it from the angles you mention. Thank you.

  • Dr. Tom Cocklereece says:

    Ron, I like your thoughts about the rate of growth and decline. The theory seems to hold in many cases, but not all. I think of the apostle Paul going into Arabia for three years after his conversion during which he must have grown quickly to be a great leader of leaders among early Christians. He never declined from it. Perhaps the Holy Spirit and what I call private discipleship are the difference. Without the Holy Spirit's presence, we may be unable to absorb and learn from rapid growth experiences, resulting in rapid decline. The same may be true of churches that fail to build a sustainable disciple-making process and instead opt for rapid growth without effective discipleship. Private discipleship prevents premature decline.

    • ronedmondson says:

      I totally agree. You actually hit on some of the outtake I hoped would come from this post of what we must do to insure continual, steady, healthy growth.