Church Leadership

Moving towards the polite middle

As I think about the church and the 5%-10% of people we reach in the community I wonder where we fall on the bell curve.

Something tells me that it looks a little like this.

I wonder if the positions we take attracts, appeals to, and connects a certain type of people? And I wonder if church leaders are going for the sucker pin of thinking of going more conservative (politically/socially/by American cultural definitions) or more liberal is going to lead to growth in their congregation? However, this is counter to what we know about behavior from the bell curve. This just means that to attract more people “like us” we need to have a wider reach and draw people from a larger and larger geographic area.

Sidebar: Now, immediately I have some people who will read this upset because they don’t really like my labels. And they especially don’t like that I’ve lumped nearly all churches into two categories. And some are going to be quick to point out ways that their church is neither liberal nor conservative. That’s OK. This is just some generalization and hyperbole to make a point.

Here’s my neighborhood on the bell curve. Again, full of hyperbole and generality.

Our neighborhood is not unlike any other urban or suburban neighborhood I’ve lived in. We have our cooky people on the fringes, we have our people who are just a little bit political, but who will quickly drop it for the sake of community… and we have the vast majority of people who probably have some personal opinions but just want the neighborhood to be a nice place to live, are willing to politely disagree on some stuff, and otherwise would rather be defined by their neighborliness than their political leanings.

Think strategically church leader!

Instead of trying to out-conservative or out-liberal ourselves, where we will find decreasing populations and have to incur the expense of widening our reach, the reality is that reaching the majority of the population will come as we lay aside our ideals and move towards the middle.

As Stephen Phelan, my pastor, put it yesterday– The two extremes will come together when we focus on a common mission. For instance, if we focus on feeding and housing the poor, both extremes agree that we should do it for their own ideologies, and people in the middle are just happy to participate in something cool. The happy middle will agree to be a part of it because everyone knows it’s good to take care of the poor in your community.

For example. I’m an egalitarian. I would love to see more women in the pulpit. And I’ve turned down positions on boards that were all male with the exception that I’d join the board if they moved towards 50% board membership by females. But I go, love, and support a church in my neighborhood that is PCA. (Which doesn’t allow women to preach or hold pastoral roles.) How do I deal with that contradiction between what I believe the Bible teaches about women and the church I attend? It’s easy… I’m in love with the mission of our church! Just like we overlook the flaws of our spouse because of our love, so I overlook this disagreement because of my love for the church. While I disagree with that one position, I am in full agreement with their strategy to reach our community and I love the staff as brothers and sisters in Christ. That over-powers my personal preferences.

How to reach more people

If you want to grow, from a population standpoint, you need to better represent your zip code and move to the middle. To do  this, you’ll need to take a sober judgement of your congregation. Walk around the place with centrist eyes. Ask yourself, “What is in this building that could be offensive to the general population? What would make people feel uncomfortable? What would make them feel like they didn’t fit in?

Over the past few months people have approached me and said that I present both radical and simple ideas… that their church would never go for. The reality is this: Move to the middle to find growth and those naysayer voices will be overcome by the reality of your strategy. Focus on what we all know to be true… Jesus called the church to be good news to the neighborhood. It’s a centrist position that only feels extreme to people on the extremes scared to be pulled towards the middle!

To move towards the middle you may need to realize that your leadership might just be on the leading edge one way or the other. That doesn’t mean that they can’t hold those positions. But it might mean that they can’t represent those personal convictions on behalf of the church.

golf hmm... thoughts

The Sucker Pin

17th hole at TPC Sawgrass | Photo by nsaplayer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

One of the hardest skills to teach a competitive golfer is what I call The Sucker Pin Principle.

A sucker pin is a pin placement that is inviting you to take a dangerous or unnecessary risk. This takes advantage of an aggressive player.

The sucker pin principle rewards the patient golfer while punishing the aggressive. Application of this principle is what separates a talented high school golfer from an all-conference high school golfer.

For most golfers sucker pins are irrelevant because they just aren’t good enough to worry about pin placements. But for competitive golfers on every hole they are not just trying to hit the ball on the green from the fairway or the tee box on a par 3, they are trying to hit the ball to the area of the green where the pin is so that they can try to score. (e.g. birdie the hole)

Sucker pins come mostly into play on a par 3 hole. If the greenskeeper wants to make a hole more difficult, he may place the pin to a comfortable distance, say 150 yards, but place it far to the right of the green near a bunker. The safe and smart play in that situation is to play the ball to the center of the green. But the aggressive player will be tempted to play to the right and flirt with the being in a short-side bunker.

When I coached high school golf I would always say, “Play to the middle of the green, don’t fall for the sucker pin.” In practice this was fine. Players would amuse their coach. But in a match, particularly if they had bogeyed the hole before, they were tempted by the opportunity to get a stroke back. The lure of an easy birdie would be too much, they’d go for it, inevitably miss the green, and bogey another hole.

If you watch golf on TV you will see that professional golfers pick spots on the course where they can be aggressive. But they show respect to certain hole and their pin placement, go for the middle of the green, and pat their caddy on the back as they walk to the next tee box with a par.

Commentators talk about it all the time. “He picks his spots well.” or “He manages the golf course like Seve.” “Golfers are attacking this pin placement today.”

More often than not, the golfer who picks his spots to be aggressive is going to win while the golfer who is overly aggressive is going to take too many risks, pay too many penalties, is going to lose.

If you watched the final 9 holes of The Masters this year you saw a case study in this principle. Tiger Woods climbed up the leaderboard, chose a spot to be aggressive and came up short. Lee Westwood tried to be conservative all day and he was too patient. But Phil Mickelson chose to be aggressive on the 12th hole (I screamed at the TV) and he nailed it and hoisted the green jacket.

The same principle applies in life. Life is full of sucker pin opportunities. Any major transaction in life is doubly full of sucker pins. You may just have to pay a price for your aggressiveness. But if you are patient and pick your spot, you can come out ahead.

Specific areas of sucker pins:

  • Work life
  • Parenting
  • Investing money
  • New ventures
  • Love interests
  • Friendships
  • Choosing the color to paint the house

What are sucker pins you fall for all the time?