Friday, February 28, 2014

Where is the Miracle?

If you haven’t read it yet, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. He has an amazing way of making academic work accessible… usually relying on research from the social sciences. He is skilled at marrying interesting research with interesting stories.

It is not mostly about the Biblical account of David and Goliath… but rather a collection of stories and observations about overcoming obstacles (usually significant obstacles) like disease, or broken systems, or discrimination.

It is not mostly about the Biblical account of David and Goliath… but the story serves as the introduction and basis for the book. This isn’t a Christian book from a Christian publisher. It is not anything like a commentary or the sort of thing to accompany devotions or a Bible study. But it does provide a useful perspective. It is a good book that I’m glad to recommend.

Gladwell effectively challenges what may be the most common way this story is perceived.

The people of God, under King Saul, were in danger of being overrun by the Philistines. The battle lines were drawn at a valley that had seen many wars before and would see many other wars throughout history. On one ridge stood the Philistines, and on the other stood King Saul’s army. 

A giant, Philistine champion named Goliath sought to end the battle with a personal challenge. He ventured into the valley and called on the Israelites to send someone to meet his challenge… winner take all. But nobody from Saul’s army was up for the challenge; the giant was too fierce, and fear paralyzed the Israelites. 

Into the scene stepped young David. He wasn’t part of the army, just a boy who was sent with provisions for his brothers that were among the fighting men. Nevertheless, full of the Spirit of God he responded to Goliath’s challenge. Without the weapons designed to meet Goliath’s challenge and without armor to protect him from the giant’s blows, David ventured out to fight in the name of the Lord.

He put a stone in a sling, and desperately flung it at the giant… and miraculously, the giant was slain. Just like that, the battle was miraculously won by David’s small stone and God’s mighty act.

That’s pretty much how we know the story… isn’t it?

One question we might ask is: Where was the miracle? When precisely did the miracle occur? Where can we trace God’s action?

I think Gladwell would agree that there was something truly extraordinary, even miraculous, here in the story… but if we think that the miracle occurred spontaneously as the stone was in the air, Gladwell would not agree. And I’m convinced that he is right.

Gladwell makes a convincing case that both David’s weapon and David’s strategy were suited for a win. David’s sling was certainly a deadly weapon.

And then there is the matter of David’s strategy. Goliath was calling for an Israelite to meet him on the battlefield on the giant’s terms. He was calling for someone to suit up and slug it out with swords and spears. It was the sort of thing that happened from time to time throughout history. It was a gamble… but if it worked out (for either side) it could bring an end to the battle and save countless casualties.

But that is not exactly what David had in mind. It turns out that it really wasn’t anything new that a warrior like Goliath (heavy infantry) was susceptible to air assault. Maybe you’ve seen battle scenes depicted from bronze-era battles. A scene from the Lord of the Rings will do… take out the orcs and the wizards and you have something like a typical bronze-era battle.

When the infantry pressed in, the artillery would go to work. Bowmen would send arrows flying. Catapults would be unleashed flinging their cargo. And slingers would deploy their weapons. A significant portion of the infantry would be lost in this first melee before they were even close to be able to use their swords, spears, and axes. Goliath knew, in general, that a skilled slinger could take him out.

But Goliath wasn’t concerned about a slinger. He expected his foe to be another slugger, weighed down with heavy armor. David’s strategy caught Goliath entirely by surprise. He may not have ever realized what was happening to him… and if he did realize what was happening, it was clearly too late.

So… was it really just a matter of a boy’s small stone and God’s mighty act?

Like I alluded to earlier… I don’t dispute God’s involvement in the story. I believe that there is a genuine miracle here. The question remains: When did the miracle occur?

Our answer could say a lot about how we believe God works through us. If you believe that the miracle spontaneously occurred when the boy slung the rock… then your approach to God’s work through you may be more a matter of a sort of haphazard or even reckless approach, hoping that just maybe God will do a miracle. But if you, like I do, think that the miracle included the preparation and practice and ingenuity of David… then your approach to God’s work through you may be more comprehensive and disciplined. 

This is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on 12/29/13; check out the audio and my manuscript here.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Diversity for the Majority

I keep an eye on my friend Justin Lathrop’s blog. In a post last week that he titled How to Grow A Multi-Cultural Church, he made the following great point: “If your church is not very diverse, work to diversify your leadership team.”

Justin is absolutely right. Furthermore, diversity in the leadership team isn’t only important in growing a multi-cultural church; it is important in attracting majority-culture people too. Here’s a story.

I had an opportunity in 2012 to serve a team at Microsoft for several months. They were responsible for the marketing and operations to bring billions of dollars of server and tools products to the US market; I was responsible to resource them with business management services (I did a lot of Excel and PowerPoint). I’m confident that I earned my keep… but in those six months I learned a ton; the experience was more valuable to me than I was to them (yet they paid me… it was great). 
One of my tasks was to help resource their monthly business review meetings, a half-day meeting that put every aspect of the business under the microscope. During one of these meetings I counted 24 people around the table, each with significant responsibility for the business. They were all highly capable; each one had been promoted to their position from other roles in the company. They were climbing the ladder, and being around that table was evidence of their success and expertise. At one point during the meeting it occurred to me that there were very few people like me around the table… that is, there were only three white men born in the US (12.5%). The majority were women (including the General Manager, the team leader). Countries of origin included those from Europe, Asia, India, Africa, and South America.
This didn’t have much in common with the last leadership team I served in a local Christian organization. In that case it was an executive team of eight. Now we did have one foreign born member, and one Asian, and one woman… but that, of course was all wrapped up in the same person; the rest of us seven were white guys born in the US (87.5%... the opposite of the Microsoft team).
And then it dawned on me… it is no wonder that the churches and Christian organizations I serve seem so irrelevant, out of touch, and even backward to these people. And, of course, these people (and tens of thousands more like them) are precisely the people I am devoted to reach and serve through our church. It isn’t just minority cultures who are turned off by the typically-white-and-male leaders in our churches and Christian organizations, majority culture finds it troublesome too.
So, again, Justin is certainly right, we need multi-cultural leadership teams… but it more than merely a matter of being relevant to multi-cultural populations. It is simply a matter of being relevant. Period.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Put On Your Glasses

I’ve never been one to subscribe to such quips as “there is no such thing as a bad idea” or “every opinion has worth.” There are plenty of bad ideas. And as far as opinions go… you may have heard it said that “opinions are like armpits; everyone has a couple and most of them stink.” 

So how do I reconcile all that with the sorts of things I wrote about yesterday in my post about unity and uniformity? Here’s a story.

After wrapping up my MBA, I left the employ of my alma mater (North Central University) to serve in the administration at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. My role as Director for Marketing and Public Relations put me on the management team (Office of the President). While driving to Massachusetts I learned that my first days on the job would be at an off-site meeting of the management team. The on ramp for my new job was short and steep.
Around that table I wasn’t merely the newbie… I was the youngest and least experienced. These were seasoned, distinguished leaders who clearly earned their positions as they served this significant institution. Just as Dorothy explained to Toto that “we are not in Kansas anymore,” I wasn’t at my Bible college in the Midwest anymore (it was North Central Bible College back in those days).
A few weeks into the job I was talking with the Executive Vice President. He was a remarkably perceptive guy; he could see that I wasn’t sure how to function around the table with the management team. Once he got me to admit it, he offered this advice: put on your glasses.
He explained that I was right, nobody cared about my uniformed opinions or my dumb ideas… but what they wanted was my perspective. I didn’t have any great insights (at least in those days) about the nuances of governance in higher education, or the finer points of accreditation, or the different pedagogical approaches that should be applied for traditional verses in-career students, or any number of other highly technical issues that might pass through the team's agenda. But I could carefully consider each issue from the perspective of my role.
Sometimes my education and experience helped me see important things from my perspective. Other times it was just a matter of concentration… being purposeful to see things from the perspective of my role. Every issue that crossed that table had marketing and public relations aspects that should be considered… and sometimes those considerations needed to be voiced so that they could be considered by the entire team.
Whenever I came to the table, I needed to be sure to put on my marketing-and-public-relations glasses. This has stuck with me as an indispensable model, both as I contribute in teams and as I lead teams.
So the question (explicit or implied) is never, “What do you think about this or that,” but rather “What do you see from your perspective?” This approach helps me keep from voicing uniformed opinions or baseless ideas; it helps me speak from a position of expertise and authority. And when leading teams, it helps me qualify, redirect, and even draw out useful input from around the table.
When discussions are largely about team members working through ideas from their various perspectives (expertise, responsibility, background, etc.) meaningful progress toward unity is made.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in... uniformity?

     How good and pleasant it is
         when God’s people live together in unity!
     It is like precious oil poured on the head,
         running down on the beard,
     running down on Aaron’s beard,
         down on the collar of his robe.
     It is as if the dew of Hermon
         were falling on Mount Zion.
     For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
         even life forevermore.  
Psalm 133

I think it is really easy for people to confuse uniformity for unity, and that is especially tragic among Christians.
There are cases when uniformity is really important. First responders wear uniforms and follow uniform procedures to maximize efficiency and effectiveness during emergencies. Soldiers do the same to accomplish their mission, preserving the chain of command.
But the Church is something different. The Bible often describes the Church as the Body of Christ… not merely with various parts for different functions, but I believe with various parts with different perspectives, passions, and understandings too.
It is vital that we see the difference. In places where uniformity is more important than, or even mistaken for, unity… we likely have something more along the lines of a cult than a true expression of the Body of Christ.
Uniformity stresses conformity to style; unity seeks agreement on substance.
Uniformity focusses on shared distinctives; unity celebrates diversity.
Uniformity prizes excellence; unity values broad participation.
Uniformity excommunicates; unity redeems.
Uniformity has a long list of rules; unity has a tight list of essentials.
Uniformity doesn’t tolerate tension, ambiguity, or paradoxes; unity gets comfortable with uncertainty.
Uniformity only listens to one voice (be that the majority voice or the voice of the powerful); unity works to hear and consider the minority voice (even speaking for those who can’t).
Uniformity circumscribes, defining who and what must be kept out; unity expands the territory, seeking more who can be in.
Uniformity blesses itself by celebrating sameness; unity is bestowed with the blessing of God, “even life forevermore.”

Pulpitarian – The Launch

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had a few people ask me to write more. I’ve blogged from time to time is spaces like and Leadership Commentary, but in those spaces I’ve tried to stick to the topic of the blog (sometimes, I admit, I’ve only been slightly tethered to the topic). I decided to fire up another space, hence I picked the name pulpitarian for a few reasons:

  1. It is really rare to find a one-word domain name that is either available or affordable. Since most of the one-word names were grabbed long ago, new domain names these days are either compound words (like or made up words (like Pulpitarian, of course, isn’t exactly a common word… but it is a word. Even though I got a red, squiggly line under the word when I first typed it into Word, Merriam-Webster says it is a word so I’m standing with that authority (with a certain amount of self-satisfied glee).
  2. I am a preacher, and much of what I might write here at may have some tangential relationship to the things I’m saying, thinking about, or researching in relation to my responsibilities at Pleasant Bay Church. With that said… this is my blog and the what I write here does not necessarily represent the views of Pleasant Bay Church or Cedar Park Assembly of God or any other organization.  
  3. Furthermore… I intend to use the word more liberally than merely a church pulpit. We all have various pulpits... platforms from which we speak to our various spheres of influence. I won’t limit myself to the kinds of things I might say from a church pulpit as an ordained Christian preacher; I’ll also stand up to this online pulpit from various perspectives including citizen, husband, father, friend, educator, businessman, aficionado… you get the picture.
I hope to gather readers who will join the conversation; please leave comments. I will turn on the moderation feature, mostly just to filter out spam… so if you don’t see your comment right away, give me a few hours and check again.

Finally, thanks for checking out the site and welcome! Feel free to suggest ideas for future posts.