I recently completed David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. The subtitle is “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”. It’s left me with some cool new thoughts about the church.
This is the first Gladwell book I’ve read and his reputation for storytelling is well-earned. David and Goliath is divided into 3 parts, with the Introduction helping us understand the David and Goliath story from 1 Samuel. Essentially, David used a disadvantage (his size and strength) to his advantage (forced to compete in a different manner). This famous story serves as a springboard for Gladwell’s exploration of advantage, disadvantage, wisdom and leadership. While I read this book to gain a better understanding of myself as a leader, I also gained insight in to the nature of the church.
Part One: The Impressionists
Part One of the book is titled “The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages)”. There are multiple stories of people over asserting themselves only to be fooled by the allure of size and prestige or of people forced to change their mode of operation due to distinct disadvantages only to prevail due to the changes forced upon them. Chapter 3 is about Caroline Sacks, a promising science student who struggles academically at Brown University. Woven into the story about Caroline Sacks, is a tale about the Impressionists in 19th C. Paris.
I learned from Gladwell that in Paris the leading art gallery in 1860 was called the Salon. They were generally unimpressed with this group of guys who would later become known as the Impressionists: Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet. The Salon controlled what it meant to be a successful artist. Those they accepted became quite successful. They did not accept many. The pressure to be accepted by the Salon drove many an artist mad, even to the point of suicide. The Impressionists decided to branch out on their own and open their own gallery (Boulevard des Capucines). A smaller space allowed for more exposure (versus the Salon) and the rest is history. The Impressionists changed their dynamic: instead of trying to be a big fish in a big pond, they redefined the pond in a manner that allowed them to be big. And 150 years later, their names are among the biggest in the history of art.
Defining the Pond
My congregation is 90 strong on a Sunday morning. Like many others, they remember being 120+. And like all churches that have lived long enough, they have had disputes over the years that have cost them members. Less talked about are those eras where the church excelled in reaching others. No matter the size of the church, the congregation has to be wise about their mission field. This is not to say that a small congregation can only do small things. A church can do as much as God allows it to. But it behooves small congregations to have a target on which to focus their attention. Our congregation may not be in a position to be “big” in town, but we can be big to our local elementary school kids. We can be big to our local parents. We can be big to our local population of senior citizens.
I really loved the work that the Impressionists did to create their own gallery. It wasn’t their art alone that changed the world, it also was that people could see and experience it. How many college houses have that Monet poster of the girl in the field of flowers? It’s beloved for good reason. What other art is rusting away in the corner because the Salons of the world are unwilling to accept it? Moreover, who around us is in need of a Boulevard des Capucines? The church often struggles to find purpose. One of the church’s purposes is to provide ‘voice’ to those being ignored. What would it mean for the church to rediscover its purpose of giving voice to the ignored? What kinds of genius are in need of a place to be heard? In what ways can the church re-become a gallery for new perspectives?
Part Two: David Boies
David Boies is a high-powered trial lawyer. He is also dyslexic. Malcolm Gladwell surmises that these two features are deeply connected. He also succinctly points out that “kids with dyslexia are more likely to end up in the juvenile system, because they act up” (pg 102). What made Boies different? He began learning by listening and memory. Dyslexia forced the development of this skill. Gladwell refers to this as “compensation learning”. As a result, Boies has become a bulldog in the courtroom, hearing and remembering the nuances that most people, even most lawyers miss. Part Two of David and Goliath is entitled “The Theory of Desirable Difficulty”. It’s a bit misleading in the sense that one would not desire dyslexia. Given the juvenile detention rate, it’s no joke either. The point is that difficulties bring us to a moment of decision: will I be crippled by this inability or will I find away around this obstacle? For David Boies, he found a way around, and the way around has become a formidable advantage.
Gladwell couples Boies’ story with the Five Factor Model of measuring personality. The five factors are:
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous versus secure/confident)
- Extraversion (energetic/gregarious versus solitary/reserved)
- Openness (inventive/curious versus consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (orderly/industrious versus easygoing/careless)
- Agreeableness (cooperative/empathetic versus self-interested/antagonistic)
In Gladwell’s assessment, disagreeableness is a trait common among innovators. The social and academic difficulties that come with dyslexia have a tendency to produce disagreeableness. Disagreeableness can lead to prison or it can lead you to founding Apple.
The Disagreeable in the Church
Of course people come to church with all sorts of difficulties. Some are born with them, others create difficulties for themselves through their life choices, others have difficulties forced upon them from others. Through spiritual disciplines and our redemptive purpose, church is one of those arenas where one’s difficulties can be mined for their lessons and advantages. Thus there is a deep connection between the pastoral function of the church and its prophetic function. If it is true that we all have a story, then what are the disadvantages sitting in the pews? And what is the opportunity for ministry if we can mine those experiences for their usefulness? How splendid work there is to be done to explore with people their pains and their losses. And what a splendid testimony to the redemptive power of God to discover the ‘compensatory lessons’ deriving from those pains and losses. Just like the recovering addict is best suited to minister to addicts, each congregation has within it people who have overcome great difficulties.
Mining the Pain
In recently teaching about the UMC’s statement on baptism (By Water and the Spirit) I came across a remarkable and galvanizing statement (emphasis mine):
The church affirms that children being born into the brokenness of the world should receive the cleansing and renewing forgiveness of God no less than adults. The saving grace made available through Christ’s atonement is the only hope of salvation for persons of any age. In baptism infants enter into a new life in Christ as children of God and members of the body of Christ. The baptism of an infant incorporates him or her into the community of faith and nurture, including membership in the local church. The baptism of infants is properly understood and valued if the child is loved and nurtured by the faithful worshiping church and by the child’s own family. If a parent or sponsor (godparent) cannot or will not nurture the child in the faith, then baptism is to be postponed until Christian nurture is available. A child who dies without being baptized is received into the love and presence of God because the Spirit has worked in that child to bestow saving grace. If a child has been baptized but her or his family or sponsors do not faithfully nurture the child in the faith, the congregation has a particular responsibility for incorporating the child into its life.
Baptism, and the church through Baptism exist on the boundaries of life and death. The solemnity of baptism is multi-fold: we die, and not always at a ripe old age; we suffer losses, even the unthinkable; we commit grievous sins; suffering rains on the just and the unjust. The joy of baptism is also multi-fold: God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death; God meets us in foxholes and operating rooms; God teaches us how to forgive and rely and love with stunning levels of compassion and justice.
But the church cannot claim the redemptive power of God if we are not, as a community, coming to grips with the suffering within us. One gift that the church must relearn how to give is the opportunity people need to acknowledge pains and losses and find God in the midst of those tragedies. I think of the tree of life in the middle of the city of God in Revelation 22. The leaves are “for the healing of the nations”. While the church is not the kingdom of God, we are a portal into it. And healing, insofar as it is a function of God’s grace, is a function of the community of God’s grace known as the church. Often when I’ve read about Wesley’s small groups, I’ve thought of them in terms of people committing to God. I’ve less associated them with healing the effects of sin and pain in our lives.But isn’t that what salvation is, the healing of wounds of sin (even those self-inflicted). Perhaps Gladwell meant to show me that my losses and pains have redemptive potential. But I also saw the need for a community arena for healing of wounds deep and invisible.
Part Three: Brownsville Police Department and the Crisis of Legitimacy
Throughout this book, I found it difficult to place the church in the various stories Gladwell tells. It may be tempting to think of ourselves as Davids and the big, mean world as Goliath. All at once we get to be the victims, the underdogs and the ultimate victors. That seems disingenuous. When even the most vile, bigoted, violent and divisive presidential candidates have to go to church in Iowa to prove their mettle, then the prominence of the church (institutional, at least) is undeniable. At the same time, I do feel puny and isolated and overlooked by society. I see the potential greatness of the church. And I know our current state of decay. And I feel the great gap between our reality and our potential greatness. And I know that Jesus favors the meek and the overlooked, but I still want to be big. There is a conundrum of identity in the church and I’m privy to that conundrum. I joined the church to be part of the solutions to society’s great problems. I came with missional vigor. A decade in, I’m nursing wounds from ordination and from the institution beating against a dude who sees things differently. But I also see my current situation’s fertility and know that all is not lost.
Men and women joined the Brownsville NY’s police department under similar motivations. But they found themselves in a community ravaged with violence and hostility, especially among the youth. They began a program called J-RIP to help keep kids out of trouble. The surveillance was powerful, the policing strict. But whole families had generations long distrust of the police. No one trusted them to join their program. But the department Chief Joanna Jaffe made several right moves, beginning with hiring a cop who really loves kids named David Glassberg. Glassberg’s love of kids was the key to changing the course of the J-RIP program. He and his squad bought a Thanksgiving turkey for one of the ‘bad’ kids of the Brownsville projects. Glassberg understood that there were seven other kids in the home that needed J-RIP’s intervention. Jaffe caught wind of it and bought turkeys for all of the kids targeted in the J-RIP program. As Glad well writes (emphasis his): “Now, why was Jaffe so obsessed with meeting her J-RIPpers’ families? Because she didn’t think the police in Brownsville were perceived as legitimate.” Gladwell expounds on the reasons why Chief Jaffe was right, citing incarceration rates for black men in America and connecting that reality that communities ravaged by mass incarceration do not perceive the police as fair.
Crisis of Legitimacy in the Church
No amount of political maneuvering at General Conference is going to save the United Methodist Church in America. The crisis within the church is certainly potent. But the external crisis of the legitimacy of the church as a whole is a much bigger matter. I would hope that General Conference would strategize about this reality, but I remember last time and am not holding my breath. The external crisis is characterized by the perception that the church is a relic of a by-gone era that the rest of the world has evolved away from. People cite political meddling, ethical neglect and suspicion of science as a reason to say no to church. And then there’s the whole ‘churches are full of hypocrites’ thing.
If I’ve learned anything from arguing with atheists online it’s that arguing with atheists online is largely futile. And ‘winning the debate’ is not really the best approach for the church anyhow. Caring for people wins more hearts than any academic debate. People want to know if we care. Communities are ultimately collections of people, so the community will continue driving by the church apathetically until we are known for our caring. Just like the Brownsville PD were perceived as part of the problem, so too, the church is perceived as a haven of bigots and science-haters. Rather than fighting fire with fire, the church ought to know it’s pond and care for the good of that pond as best as possible.
When I was in high school, a kid started ridiculing me in class. Rather than debunk his foolishness, the teacher, who knew me in other ways began listing all of the things I did: from church to choir to delivering newspapers to soccer to mowing grass, etc. The kid was shamed by his ignorance and his lack of mouth-control. I’ve always thought that a solid reputation is a great antidote to the scorn of others. The church builds its reputation the old-fashioned way: by caring for widows and orphans in their distress. Haters are always going to hate. Let us therefore build up others…and let that goodness speak for itself.
I have shared 3 bits out of a book full of bits and bites. I found David and Goliath to be very insightful into the psyche of individuals and groups facing difficulties and looking for solutions. Certainly the Church is in a season of difficulty and rightfully so, a season of soul-searching. But just as God can be found in the bowels of Sheol, so too can this season bear fruit for God’s future kingdom.