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*This is the 3rd in a series of entries inspired by books I’ve read on the subject of the “missional church.” Please read the ground rules before beginning. Also, try to read entries in chronological order as they tend to build on the previous entry, okay?

Many of you might not have ever heard of the Law of Competitive Balance. A baseball writer named Bill James used the term to explain how a team could lose a big lead they developed early in a game or even how a strong championship team could decline in a few short years. It reads like this:

“The Law of Competitive Balance: There develop over time separate and unequal strategies adopted by winners and losers; the balance of those strategies favors the losers, and thus serves constantly to narrow the difference between the two.”

There are also corollaries to it, which include:

1. Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another, and therefore every form of strength is also a form of weakness and every weakness a strength.
2. The balance of strategies always favors the team which is behind.
3. Psychology tends to pull the winners down and push the losers upwards.

How this plays out in a short-term situation might be that a high school football team might jump out to a large half-time lead, say 24-0. That team is likely going to go into the locker room and talk about continuing to do the things they’ve been doing. The team that hasn’t scored is likely to make a series of changes, from players to the strategies they used on both offense and defense. Sure, sometimes the team that was behind didn’t come back to win or whatever, but the point is that the team who is struggling actively searches for solutions.

Long-term it might look like a team that won the World Series isn’t likely to replace their catcher who is performing poorly because, well, they won the World Series so why mess with success? Meanwhile, the teams that finished in the bottom of the league standings are bringing up players from the minors at various positions to try and get more competitive.

It works in other areas, too. In the short-term it might look like a salesman who isn’t doing as well as expected might spend a great deal of time trying to find new clients or attend seminars or find mentors to improve their technique. In the long-term, it might look like a business who made record profits might put up with the sub-par performance of a salesman or two because, well, they made record profits that year. The idea is that the “hungry” will work harder, and the “fat” will be content with the state of play.

And churches aren’t immune to the reality, either.

As I mentioned yesterday, our student ministry had a situation which most youth workers dream about. And, when things were going well you could kind of put the thing on auto-pilot. There were so many kids coming that it was hard to even notice if a few never came back. The room was painted and redecorated three years ago and still looked pretty good, so no need to change it, right? The yearly calendar worked pretty well last year, so let’s just keep it as-is for this year and we’ll make adjustments in the next budget cycle if things go south. There were more meetings to go to, so maybe we could skip going to eat lunch on campus with the kids or going to their play or choir concert for a few weeks. You get the idea.

But it wasn’t that way when we first started and the ministry was smaller and we didn’t have our new building. We knew if ONE kid wasn’t there and we’d ask their friends who were if everything was okay with him. We didn’t have a dedicated room, so we’d arrive early and set up the auditorium to make it welcoming and spend a lot of time in prayer beforehand. We were constantly tinkering with events and calendar because it was more noticeable if something worked or didn’t work. Budgets were smaller and hard to hide fat within. We were relentless in showing up at school lunches as well as events (we even showed up en masse to watch the girls’ volleyball team run a mile at midnight to open tryouts because we had a bunch of them going out for the team) or plays or games. You get the idea.

And, if we’re honest, much of what the suburban American church is going through is that they’ve jumped out to a big lead and because it “worked” there’s no real need to make adjustments at this point.

See, we built our buildings (or are focused on getting out of that elementary school auditorium and into a building, or adding on to our current building). If we’re building, something’s got to be going well, right?

See, we have our programs. In a lot of ways, the church is like a chain restaurant. Like a Chili’s or something. Your Big Mouth Burger is available at every one of them and is going to have the same delicious goodness at every one of them. But you can find your [insert name of prominent Bible study writer/speaker here] course available at three churches within 15 minutes of you. You can get the [insert name of nationally orchestrated specialty group’s curriculum here] niche program here to help you get plugged in. You can find your [insert behemoth children’s, men’s or women’s or student’s] organization franchise at these churches.

And their strength is that they “work.” Kind of. People come…and it doesn’t matter if there’s 9 people in the room or 90, really. People are there, and they’re “being ministered to” or “fed” or “enjoying the services” and all that. So, everybody gets content. The weakness is that they “work.” Kind of. Nobody really asks hard questions because there’s no real need to do that. Ministry and feeding are taking place, right?

Well, as I noted yesterday, there’s some doubt as to the inherent effectiveness of these programs.

But that’s not the biggest danger: The milieu of the current suburban church is that most Christians are deluded and believe that the church and church life are actually central to the culture at-large. Many Christians, well-meaning, well-intentioned, truly loving people, spend so much time “being ministered to” or “getting fed” or “enjoying worship” that they wind up insulated from non-Christians. They can’t relate to the Red-Ocean, Blue-Ocean reality that exists…they don’t “get” that the vast majority of our culture (as mentioned two days ago, some 80%) doesn’t notice church or church people. Because we see our buildings with people in them and our class attendance lists with a bunch of check marks and our programs attended by enough people for them to break even (or take up a love-offering), well, things are good.

And, the unintended long-term consequence of this, you ask? The type of people who are showing up at churches are coming to get their own “needs” met rather than the type of people who want to fulfill their role in the Body of Christ and what He’s doing in the world.

Thankfully, God finds a way to use certain types of people to initiate change in the Body of Christ. It’s one of the things He’s doing in the world, no? The movements & changes always…

…ALWAYS…

…start out on the “fringe.”

With people who have an almost constant dissatisfaction with the status quo. They feel a sense of urgency all the time and aren’t afraid to agitate for positive changes. They care deeply and are deeply compassionate–even if most people don’t sense that. They are comfortable on the fringes and aren’t afraid to try new things and fail a lot…a real entrepreneurial spirit. They have a comfort level with CEO’s and the oppressed and everybody in-between. They understand big-picture thinking and how multiple systems interact…very holistic in their approach to long-term solutions. They are okay with taking the long-term solution rather than the quick-fix. They are visionary and lovingly confrontational and…

…because of this…

…the status quo doesn’t “get” them. Sees them as a threat rather than an asset. Sees them as rabble-rousers rather than using their God-given passions and talents to truly serve/help.

Because the missional movement is still a fringe movement. Even if those who consider themselves missional feel like what they’re doing has been hijacked by folks who see this as the “next big thing” and commercialized the grass-roots entrepreneurs with their conferences and applying the term to their programs. Much like the social revolution of the 1960’s, or the punk/grunge/rave music scenes, or even the “Occupy” movements of late, they started on the fringe. Then they became the mainstream (granted the jury’s still out on “Occupy”)…

…just like the “attractional” model of doing church, no?

And I firmly believe that change is afoot. Slowly and incrementally. Doing just what our generation did in designing the attractional way of doing ministry: Spotting deficiencies, dreaming up ways to correct them, and designing/implementing systems to change. The Law of Competitive Balance was in effect then.

The missionals are the underdogs. They have little to lose because they love their God and believe deeply that their cause is worthwhile. They’re on the fringe for now, but remember that the balance of strategy favors the team that’s behind, folks. Ignore them at your peril. I mean that. We better make sure some of these folks get seats at the planning and vision tables and give them a hearing. We can learn much from them.

And we’ll start talk tomorrow about the key aspects that define “missional.”

But for today, a few questions to get your brains working over the cup of joe:

First, do you agree that strengths all have weaknesses and weaknesses all have strengths? Why or why not?
Second, think of somebody you know that’s “missional” by the phrases 8 paragraphs above. What do you like about them? What rubs you the wrong way about them?
Finally, do you see “missional” movement moving from the “fringe” to have true effects or do you think it will remain fringe and eventually fizzle? Why or why not?

Have at it, kids…