Book Summary


by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Summary by Jeff Dunn-Rankin

We  in vocational ministry live for the moments when an encounter with Christ produces the kind of “new creation” that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5:17. We’re eagerly looking for evidence of authentic transformation in our people.

What drives us nuts, though, is that the momentum often staggers toward inertia.  Nothing changes. 

A couple of professors from the University of Chicago have an idea of what the problem is and what we can do about it.

The simple and challenging premise of  “Nudge” is that thousands of tiny factors are swaying our decisions – for better or worse – every day. Anyone in a position of influence is automatically a “choice architect” with “the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.”

These little nudges are important, according to the professors, because study after study shows that mankind is predisposed to cling to the status quo. We walk into the future backwards, subconsciously evaluating every new idea and habit against our misplaced optimism that what we’re already doing is working just fine. 

Like it or not, every nuance matters. That means we have to re-examine the little ways our rooms, processes and conversations nudge the people around us. The book was written mainly for politicians, law-makers, and large institutions, but the rules clearly apply to ministry. 

For example, as a youth minister I’m eager for every student to have a Bible they can understand and enjoy.  I love giving a free Bible to anyone who wants one.  But Thaler and Cass would ask: Have you set up the room, set up your announcements, and thought through your conversations in a way that nudges students toward asking for a Bible? Of course not. Despite my declared intentions, I have the Bibles stored on a bookshelf behind a closed door. 

What would happen if the Bibles were out on the coffee tables in the youth room with a tag that said, “Take Me Home”, or we decided to ask every student individually if they had a Bible they enjoyed reading? 

People are particularly in need of a nudge if the decision they are contemplating is infrequent or confusing or if the outcomes are not immediately clear. Sounds like great adjectives to describe salvation, God, and discipleship.

Here are a few tools they suggest.

Create a new herd: People often follow trends, not because they like them, but because the herd nudges them in that direction. The good news is that a new nudge can create a new bandwagon. Key celebrations and a small group of committed leaders can nudge a toxic culture toward better health.  

Prime the pump: Ask someone the day before an election whether they intend to vote and they are now 25% more likely to vote – just because you asked.  What questions are we asking our  people about discipleship and behavior? Have them write down “when and how they plan to do it,” and the odds go up again.  It reminds me of a youth group in Dallas that gives its students a Discipleship Map in September. Each student is asked to indicate what events, programs, and personal disciplines they want to embrace in the coming year. This could be implemented churchwide. (And if your church doesn’t have a discipleship plan for all life stages, click here.)

Frame the context: That discipleship map is especially intriguing because this church divides the options up into four quadrants: “Worship,” “Growing toward Christ,” “Building Community,” and “Blessing the World.”  As you review the map, it becomes crystal clear if you are ignoring worship or if you never serve.  There’s no requirement to check something in all four boxes. But the choice is framed in such a way that each person is encouraged to examine several aspects of their Christian life.  

This approach to change is more about evolution than revolution. It just takes you a few steps closer to your long-term goal. If you need help thinking about how to move forward, one of our Ministry Architects consultants would be happy to spend 30 minutes with you for free.

See? That was a nudge.