Below is some reading I’ve been doing. Each title links to some good quotes that I’ve been gathering.
For anyone who keeps half an eye on film and television journalism, you would have noticed the brouhaha over the conclusion of the television series Breaking Bad. I don’t need to add any more veneration, but I do wish to discuss a comment I heard in an interview by the show’s team of script writers. When asked about how they knew when to stop redrafting a script, they said they went with the adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good:” a phrase attributed to Voltaire in his poem La Bégueule (The Prude) about a woman who had a good life but nevertheless was discontent and so had an affair just to feel something exciting. Thus,
Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
In his writings, a wise Italian
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.
says that the best is the enemy of the good.
In the same way that people can become depressed about the humdrum of a good but normal life, so too can artists be easily dissatisfied with their good work, holding out hope that they might be capable of something greater. The pursuit of perfection, for example, can cripple the writer such that they never publish. Settling with the ‘good’ version of the manuscript would have meant something for the world to experience. But for the unrealistic perfectionist, the draft remains in the top drawer, the film an unfinished edit, and the album a demo. The Breaking Bad writers polished and polished but to a deadline, and then finally pressed [send] with attachment in time for production. Pursuing perfection is important for any artist: Voltaire was not advocating mediocrity. But the artist who never says, “this will do,” will only ever have unfulfilled potential.
What is true for life and art, is also true for leadership. An important lesson I have learned as a church leader who has tried to be entrepreneurial is that while my new ideas might be ambitious and seem ‘perfect’ (in my own head), to make them a reality, I must aim for a ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ implementation. Am I setting a low bar for myself? Au contraire, the bar is still high. I am simply ensuring that I actually make a jump for the bar – even if I mess it up.
My logic goes: I am limited in my leadership capacity; my team is limited; the strategy needs more refining; I don’t have all the capital or resources I need; and I usually run out of time. Actually, limited time is as much self-imposed as it is forced on me. My personality is such that unless there is a deadline, I won’t get it done. With my music recording projects, we set the album launch date, then work backwards with the recording timeline. It may not end up perfect, but at least we are not still sitting around waffling about the idea of recording an album. Similarly in my doctoral research, my supervisor always pushed me to just submit something every month – even if it was unfinished and a bit of a mess – the act of forcing something on to the page was an important step in the process.
My motivation to operate this way is also theological. Paul writes in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice…Do not be anxious about anything….I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” These words from Paul reveal his response as a devoted disciple of Christ to his unpredictable living conditions as a traveling missionary Apostle. They also reveal a basic principle of Paul’s approach to leadership – I seek to be at peace with God no matter what happens in my life. I don’t need to feel anxious. I rejoice in the Lord because of what He has given me. Even when I suffer or go without (or try something and it fails) I rejoice because I know that God loves me as his child. If one should learn to be content in God in their personal life then so should they be in their ministry life.
In fact, the wisdom of Voltaire and Paul applies well to ministry leadership. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ should be a golden rule for those who have an unrealistically high expectation of their own ability, or a sense of entitlement or fantasy view of their own capacity. Or, in the other extreme, it should become the mantra for those who carry a deep-seeded fear of failure. Many pastors feel quietly ashamed at their lack of success: “why is my church not as big as his?” This lack of contentment in the good that God has given them makes them insecure. And thus, as they forever pursue a more idealistic outcome, they struggle to achieve anything at all.
Another way philosophers have described this phenomenon is as ‘The Nirvana Fallacy’ – the idea that you unfairly compare a realistic option with a perfect world fantasy, and then dismiss the realistic option on the grounds that it is not good enough. The Nirvana Fallacy can be explained using this simple logic formula:
X is what I have got
Y is the Nirvana ideal
Therefore, X is not good enough
The Nirvana Fallacy creeps into church leadership all the time: trying to preach the ‘perfect’ sermon every week by spending three or four days preparing and still making edits minutes before the service which means you never get to do a read-through; not appointing a staff member because you won’t settle until you have a saint like Dietrich Bohoeffer or Mother Theresa; having Sagrada Familia as your standard for church architecture; closing a ministry because you don’t see thousands of conversions; or remaining unemployed because you haven’t found the dream position.
So how can a church leader respond and apply the proverb to their leadership?
- Make wise decisions
- Aim high but be wise enough to see the ‘good’ that God has given you
- Create deadlines for yourself and stick to them
- Try your ideas even if you are under-resourced
- Thank God for what he has done through you
- Always rejoice
- Don’t criticise other’s work for not being perfect
Fellow friend, minister and entrepreneur, Rev. Dr. Adam Lowe, adds some wise words in response to this post:
“…given our imperfection, the perfect of our own accord is most certainly not attainable. And then, if we were to afford some favourable evaluation of our own merit (thinking it were perfect), how quickly pride would become the focus instead of the perfection only found in Christ…”
And, here are some further thoughts from an English friend, hand surgeon, Dr. Tim Halsey,
“Voltaire’s quote is one that goes through my head daily in the operating theatre, having the wisdom to leave things alone that are good but not perfect, because often tweaking things can lead to making them worse and there’s no rewind / delete button in an operation!… The other saying I was brought up with was that “a job worth doing is worth doing well”, it is one of my grandpa’s favourites. We were challenged about it by a Godly friend who pointed out that sometimes a job worth doing is worth doing, full stop, and that the drive for perfection hinted at by the “worth doing well” bit can stifle us from ever trying for fear of failing to do it well. If its worth doing, it’s worth doing.”
Part 2 will apply ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ to discipleship
Church strategy reductionism is where simplistic ministry strategies are formed based on a mechanical understanding of church systems.
System theorists love to use the imagery of organisational ‘bikes’ and ‘frogs’. A bike can easily be broken down into its individual parts and put back together again. But when you take an individual part away from the bike it stops working. A frog is a highly complex and comparatively robust system that cannot be taken apart and put back together again, but when you remove one of its limbs, the system is sophisticated such that it usually can adapt. Frogs can grow substitute limb stumps surrounded by skin, or in some cases a fully regenerated limb. Understanding and manipulating a complex frog like system requires a combination of smarts and informed intuition. Most complex organisations, like churches, where human interaction and psychology play a major role in the system, are mostly frog but also include some functions and processes that are bike.
The frog systems in a church include functions and operations such as mission, discipleship, community, pastoral care, and worship. Ministries, and the people that they include, interact and respond to each other in an organic way. When you factor in the mysterious work of the Spirit who “blows where it pleases” (John 3:8), then the systematic complexity multiplies. If church leaders don’t grasp this complexity, simplistic and ineffective strategies follow.
For the sake of clarity, it is worth mentioning that a ‘simplistic’ strategy is not the same as a ‘simple’ strategy. Simple strategies are ideal because they are easy to communicate and implement. However, one must be aware that while they are simple, they exist within a complex frog system. A simplistic strategy, on the other hand, is designed with the naive understanding that it is part of a mechanical bike system.
Strategy reductionism seems to be a particular danger for churches whose leaders are:
- …ideologically and myopically aligned to a particular model of church. These are models which are not necessarily based on reductionistic logic, but through mis-application and selective overemphasis, reductionism follows: leaders latch on to features of their favorite model, and push them too far.
- …non-consultative, domineering, alpha-male/female, or arrogant. These leaders, who are often proud and aggressive, push past any kind of process like a ‘bull in a china shop’ thinking that they’re being decisive. While they do make decisions, they leave a trail of destruction behind them not having considered consequences.
- …poorly self-differentiated / low emotional intelligence. These leaders might come up with ideas, but they are too insecure to open their strategic thinking up to consultation. Also, they can find it difficult to be empathetic and consider how a strategy might work for people not like them. Part of understanding the frog system is being able to calculate how different ages, genders and cultures will respond in a given situation.
- …quick decision makers who don’t take the time to think through consequence. While some leaders are brilliant intuitive strategic thinkers who can just envision the plan out of the ether, most cannot do this and need time to experiment and consult as they understand the church frog system.
- …inexperienced. Sometimes inexperienced leaders are savvy enough to see the frog, but usually this comes with time.
- …very experienced but assume church systems work the same way in every context. The risk with older and experienced leaders is that if they have had some success in ministry in their earlier years, they can be convinced that the strategies that gave them that success still apply 20 or 30 years later. While a bike might always be essentially a bike, frogs adapt over time to fit in with their changing ecosystem.
When you think about it, many churches have leaders who fall into one or more of these categories. The great thing is that by the grace of God, their simplistic strategies are still used and bear some fruit. However, if they were able to start to see their church as more of a frog, and develop some sophistication in their understanding then their ministry and church would run more efficiently, smoothly, and effectively.
Example – Evangelism
What does it look like when bike thinking is imposed on a frog system to create strategy? By way of example, you might have heard arguments such as: “Attractional programs are so 1980s mega-church. Attractional activities just pander to church shoppers. We should stop putting effort into programs to bring consumeristic Christians in and got out and be missional so that we can reach real non-Christians.” Notice the ‘bike’ logic of cause and effect,
attractional programs -> church shoppers ≠ new converts ∴ be exclusively missional
However, if you listen to people’s testimonies about coming to faith, you’ll discover that their stories are complex and unpredictable: rarely do their experiences conform to simple rules. One individual might have interactions with twenty different Christians, and three different churches, and then respond to an alter call at a rally. Another person living in a Muslim country might have a dream about Jesus, and then go seeking out a church. While another person might experience miraculous healing from prayer and come to faith that way. My point is, the ‘system’ whereby a person is evangelised, cannot be reduced to bike logic – it is far better to see the frog in the system that is evangelism.
Church strategy reductionism that dismisses all attractional evangelism fails to accept (what was the elephant in the room for the emerging church movement) that there are many attractional strategies that are effective. In children’s ministry, for example, playgroups, Mainly Music, and Messy Church are attractional strategies that – depending on their good implementation – have great success in bringing non-Christian people in contact with churches and on the journey towards faith in Christ. In addition, there are great benefits to attractional evangelism: it can visibly communicate to the congregation a value of excellence, the idea that serving God is important, and that this church expects the Holy Spirit to be guiding people towards us because we are a “light to the nations” (missional activities can achieve all of this too but not as easily).
It’s not that the critique about attractional strategies is completely unfounded. It is important for churches not to over-rely on being attractional lest they become a church that mainly “preaches to the choir.” The problem is the simplistic strategy that followed.
A more informed and nuanced strategic thinking about evangelistic strategies, might look like a mind map, where the complexity of the frog system is taken into account:
The following are some examples of reductionistic ministry logic leading to simplistic strategies. These are functions of the church which should be thought of as complex ‘frog’ systems, but are often given a mechanical ‘bike’ logic. Remember that each reductionistic logic statement will have some truth to it and that the simplistic strategy might also have some merit.
Reductionistic logic: It’s the ‘priesthood of all believers’ so we should resist putting leaders on a pedestal.
Simplistic strategy: Let’s have no one main leader, but share the leadership.
Reductionistic logic: The church has become feminised which is why men don’t really want to come to church anymore
Simplistic strategy: Cultivate a macho persona in the leaders
Reductionistic logic: ‘Sermonettes’ create ‘Christianettes’
Simplistic strategy: 70 minute sermons
Reductionistic logic: The Bible is all about Jesus
Simplistic strategy: Land every sermon at the cross
Reductionistic logic: I want to preach Spirit empowered sermons
Simplistic strategy: Improvise your sermons – let go and let God
Reductionistic logic: Australians don’t like group singing
Simplistic strategy: No group singing in church as a way to be incarnational and relevant to outsiders
Reductionistic logic: Spiritual intensity in music is directly related to time.
Simplistic strategy: Songs that are repeated lots of times, and really long song brackets
Reductionistic logic: All contemporary worship music is theologically shallow and individualistic: Jesus is my boyfriend songs
Simplistic strategy: Only sing hymns or non-emotive and theologically dense ‘we‘ songs
Reductionistic logic: We’re here to disciple the kids not baby-sit them
Simplistic strategy: Don’t run social events
Reductionistic logic: People prefer worship that is from the heart and authentic rather than pre-planned and tightly controlled
Simplistic strategy: Never use pre-written prayers in public worship
Reductionistic logic: Church services should always engage children because it is wrong to think they are the future of the church – they are the church
Simplistic strategy: Sunday services must have a children’s talk or children’s song
Reductionistic logic: All that Christians need in a marriage partner is that they are of the opposite sex, single, and Christian
Simplistic strategy: Encourage people to marry without regard for cultural difference or even if there is no physical or intellectual attraction
Strategies to improve on frog strategic thinking
- Pray and ask God for wisdom
- Be slow to speak and quick to listen
- If you are on a ministry hobby horse then get off it
- Read and associate with ministry people who are outside of your ministry tribe
- Consult and use teams to make strategy
- Learn to know your leadership limitations
- Don’t assume that because a strategy worked once it applies a second time
- Invite people who you often disagree with to critique your strategies
- Have a healthy trust in your gut instinct, which means being willing to let it be critiqued and changed
- Draw a mind map of how ministries strategies relate to each other
- Go to counseling and work on your emotional intelligence
Finally, watch out for people who say, “yeah but…”
Because churches are frogs, there can be a problem that decision making becomes stifled by those people who always see alternatives and risks or problems with your strategy. You don’t want to never be able to make a decision. You will know of people whose default mode is to confidently disagree with any idea anyone suggests. Those are the people who will be reading this post right now, and saying to themselves, “yeah but…” If this is you, then stop, take a breath, and work out how to make the idea work rather than being an unhelpful blocker of creative thinking. You can still offer your thoughts but do it in a generous and encouraging way, and let others have their say.
We evangelicals can be myopic in our conception of the gospel. Perhaps we have learned a formula at high school or uni that has once worked like Two ways to live, Alpha, or a tract etc…
But Keller reminds us that while these methods might have merit, we should not cling to them too tightly, because there is no standard way to explain the gospel. In the Synoptics, for example, the writers emphasise the Kingdom, but John emphasises eternal life. In the NT, Christ’s salvific action is described using different phrases where redemption is derived through substitution: Jesus pays the debt of sin, defeats evil powers, bears the curse and wrath of God, secures us salvation by his grace, and is an exemplar (see p. 40).
The gospel is intrinsically tied to the storyline and themes of the Bible. We can read the bible and see the gospel as it sits in systematic theology (sin, forgiveness, covenant etc) or we can read the bible diachronically which draws out the narrative themes (creation and fall, the incarnation etc). The systematic and diachronic approaches compliment each other and help us to understand the gospel from different angles. Keller gives a helpful diagram (p. 41) showing how to think about the gospel using the different narrative threads in the bible.
Here is an example
- At creation made for: God’s kingdom and kingliness
- Sin is/results in: idolatry, causing enslavement
- Israel is: looking for a true judge/king
- Jesus is: the returning true king, who frees us from the world, flesh, Devil
- Restoration: true freedom under the reign of God
A similar logic can be applied to other themes such as:
- Rest and sabbath: how do we enter God’s rest?
- Justice and shalom: how can we restore peace?
- Trinity and community: how can we become part of the community of God?
- Righteousness and nakedness: how can our sins be covered?
- Marriage and faithfulness: how can we find true love and closure?
- Presence and sanctuary: how can we flourish in the presence of God?
- Image and likeness: how can I become truly ‘myself’?
- Idolatry and freedom: what or who do I need to commit my life to in order to find freedom?
- Wisdom and the word: how do I become wise?
With all these examples, Keller demonstrates that the “gospel is not a simple thing.” (p. 44) The Bible is a well of treasure for us to draw our questions, imagery, narrative, and logic. Therefore, because the gospel can be explained in different ways it should be explained in different ways. We should be committed to the art of contextualisation – finding the best cultural inroads so that the gospel can be heard, just like Paul explains that he did to the Greeks, Jews and Pagans (1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Acts 13, 14, 17).
I really good friend of mine and ministry colleague who I respect, recently asked me in a gentle but slightly concerned way, “Do you think the Bible is intrinsically interesting?” The question came out of a conversation where I had been explaining different strategies I was exploring for preaching. I had recently watched a lecture from Ira Glass from This American Life on his method of constructing narrative and I was hoping to apply some of his ideas in my sermon the following Sunday. My friend has heard me ramble on over the years about different ways to be creative in evangelism and preaching and I guess he started wondering if I was trying to overcompensate for a “boring Bible.” My answer to him was that of course I believe the Bible is inherently interesting, but that does not mean that everyone in the congregation listening to the Bible being read, or reading it at home for themselves, will see the interest. If you don’t understand what you are reading or hearing, if it washes over you and becomes babble like slabs of Shakespeare does when you are at the theatre and you can’t keep up, if the long Hebrew names of Kings and places and the dense theology of the Pauline epistles confuse you, then all the beauty and “interestingness” will fly through to the keeper (as we say in Australia). My endless pursuit of different methods of communication, of crazy creative ideas, of video clips, illustrations, songs, newspaper articles and quotes are my attempt at contextualising the gospel.
I think from what Keller is saying, the thing I have to do to become better at contextualisation, is to work more intimately with those big biblical themes. If I start there, really get my head inside what the Bible is saying about idolatry, marriage, kingdom, community or whatever theme I choose, then I think my gospel communication will have effect. This requires some discipline because it’s easy to get distracted finding the right movie clip.
Tip for me: Start in the Bible, look at all the thematic angles and choose one, then move to culture.
Keller challenges us to clarify what we think The Gospel is. He presents the following framework.
- …is good news not good advice
- …is good news announcing that we have been rescued or saved
- …is good news about what has been done by Jesus to put right our relationship with God
- …is not the results of the gospel
- …has two equal and opposite enemies
- Enemy 1 – Unbelief
- Enemy 2 – Religion
- …has chapters
- Ch1. Where did we come from? From God: the One and the relational
- Ch 2. Why did things go so wrong? Because of sin: bondage and condemnation
- Ch 3. What will put things right? Christ: incarnation, substitution, restoration
- Ch 4. How can I be put right? Through faith: grace and trust
- …is not “doctrine for beginners” that preacher/teachers should move on from once they have taught “the basics”
I find this framework rings true for me. I remember experimenting with different ways to explain the gospel. Many years ago, I tried explaining the chapters differently.
- Ch 1. The world/life is amazing (why because God made it that way)
- Ch 2. But the world/life is also terrible (why? because of sin and the effects of the fall)
- Ch 3. What will put things right? Christ: restoration, Romans 8 etc
- Ch 4. What is the hope? The hope of recreation of the whole universe when Jesus returns – Revelation 21, Isaiah 65 etc
The problem I found with my explanation is that people never became Christians. I think it’s because they weren’t really hearing the gospel. According to Keller’s framework, they weren’t really hearing about being rescued or saved, or about their relationship with God (it was more about the restoration of the universe): it emphasised the results of the gospel rather than the gospel itself. At one point Keller summarises the gospel in three words as “Christ saves sinners.” I have found this a helpful reference point when I’m checking to see if I’m communicating the gospel.