Why is Missional Church in a Small Church a Little Like Pro Baseball in Oakland?

Why is Missional Church in a Small Church a Little Like Pro Baseball in Oakland?

(Or, Why is the Institutional Church More Like Pro Baseball Than it is Like the Early Church?)

Okay, fair warning.  This is probably going to tick a lot of people off.  And it is probably going to tick off a lot of people who are much smarter than me…and much more powerful than me.

Anyone who’s seen “Moneyball” probably knows a little bit about the woes of relative financial poverty that have plagued the Oakland A’s through the years.  But everyone who’s seen that film also knows that money is not the only way to play ball.  For a long time, the Oakland A’s were kind of like an extension of the minor leagues because as soon as a player got good, they would go to bigger market teams because that’s where the money was.  The A’s couldn’t afford to keep them.  The conventional wisdom of the league was that big-name players making big money won more games than teams that could not afford either big names or big money.  Then along came Billy Beane who was desperate and fed up with losing, and he started looking at the metrics behind the game and realized that it wasn’t really big names or big money that won games.  It was something much more subtle.  It was on-base percentages.  And a lot of the players with the highest on-base percentages were languishing in obscurity and could be put to work for a lot less money (and with a lot more gratitude and humility) than big-name players who cost a lot and were largely prima donnas. Billy and the A’s changed baseball when nobody thought anyone could ever change baseball.

Small congregations have, for the longest time, been kind of like the minor leagues for the big churches. In institutional circles, the small churches stay small, and the big churches are like flagships for the denomination.  Historically, small churches bring in someone early in their career and allow them to develop, but as soon as they really get good at what they’re doing and really hit their stride, they move on to the bigger church with the bigger salary.  Often, they have to in order to pay for the loans they took to get the big-name diploma that got them a look from those bigger churches to begin with.  When the talent leaves, the church is right back to square one with the wind once again knocked out of it and wondering whether they have it in them to try it one more time.  They buy into the conventional wisdom. They have it sold to them by denominational representatives schooled in it themselves who are coaching them through the interim processes. They get their hope behind the big-name pro, and when he or she trades up, they once again find themselves back in the emotional and spiritual basement.  It’s the way that the institutional church has worked.  It is what a “career track” looks like in conventional thinking.  The conventional thinking is that you have to have a big-name preacher with a diploma from a big-name institution using a whole lot of expensive theological words that nobody really understands but are sort of like a bona fides for ecclesial legitimacy.

The question that I am wrestling with is, “What is the actual metric that small churches should be looking for in candidate for pastor?” The sad truth is that denominations don’t even give small churches a look at people who might be the right person because denominations have their own metrics that suit their needs but may have nothing to do with what might actually be the right metric for smaller churches.  It’s like the denominational “scouts” are only looking at their version of the Division 1 programs. The denominational gatekeepers are looking at diplomas…they require them. A candidate will not get full accreditation in most denominations without one.  Without diplomas, people of great giftedness don’t even make the first cut.  And yet, time and time again, in the reality on the ground, a diploma has proven to be a very bad metric for predicting actual performance. It certainly wasn’t diplomas that enabled the original disciples to grow the Kingdom.  And it certainly was not the institutionally recognized credentials of the day that Jesus used in selecting those first disciples and apostles. In fact, it can be well-argued that Jesus specifically chose people who had not made the institutional cut.

So if expensive academic credentials are not a good predictor of performance, what is? What did Jesus look for in the people that he first called to “Follow me”?   What produces fruit for the Kingdom?  I would argue that if a person didn’t produce fruit from the harvest BEFORE they got that piece of paper, then they most likely are not going to produce fruit from the harvest AFTER they get it, either.  Peter never got a diploma.  What he got was spiritual giftedness…and real-deal faith. Seminaries do not bestow spiritual gifts, and they do not have mechanisms for recognizing them either.  I am not sure that it is part of their purpose to do that.  It is spiritual giftedness that produces fruit from the harvest, not intelligence measured by academic performance.  Most seminaries worth their salt admit that right up front.  I am not saying that there is no place for academic preparation.  What I am proposing is that small churches need to be reaching their mission fields in highly effective ways, and they need to be making new disciples, not attracting highly-educated Christians who appreciate a brilliantly nuanced sermon.  For small churches, the critical metric is not the ability to please people who are already in the overflowing pews; nor is it to compete with other churches in attracting people who are already in the faith to sit in their pews.  The critical metric for small churches is the ability to reach completely unreached people groups who are not in the pews yet. The metrics that measure that ability are not in current use in any denomination that I know of.  I’m not even sure that any of us know what those metrics are. However, many of us are at least starting to look for them because the effectiveness of our mission depends on it.

The first thing a small congregation should be asking is not, “Where did you go to graduate school?”   It shouldn’t even be, “Did you go to graduate school?” It is, “Where did you bring your first person into the Kingdom of God and exactly what did that look like?” A better indicator of a good fit for a small congregation would be to ask a candidate what vocational success looks like to them.  How would they know that they’ve been successful?  If their answer is largely couched in terms related to institutional advancement, and metrics related to reaching the already-reached, then they are probably not going to be successful or happy for very long in the small church environment. They are going to be looking to impress the larger congregations that will be offering them the next step up.  They will do their time, and then they will look for the bigger and better deal. If, however, their response is about reaching the lost for the Kingdom of God and leading others to do the same, then they will not need to go looking elsewhere for their next step.  Their spiritual giftedness will allow them to grow into the next step right there in that small congregation as that once small congregation grows the Kingdom of God all around it.  Will they need education? Yes.  But they can get it along the way as it makes sense for what they are called to do.

Is your community looking for a new leader? If so, what are you looking for in that leader? What will be the measure by which you will judge the leader’s potential to lead your community into the future that God is preparing for it?



  1. Sam Said:

    Thanks for your thoughts Max. I am not mad 🙂 or not any more mad then usual at institutional thinking. My thoughts are that we need to even back away from “small” church “large” church categories and ask what is it that the church needs in leadership.

  2. julie king Said:

    good thoughts. Though to be truthful, I have seen pastors with no graduate school or affiliation with a denomination go into a church and blow it out of the water. they had their own agenda and ideas and dogma without the background or education on dealing with congregations and eventually killed the churches they worked at

    • You’re right, Julie. I have seen that, too. I think it is clear that arrogance, a chip on your shoulder, something to prove, and spiritual/emotional immaturity are not the metrics we are looking for. And I see that stuff from people with MDivs just as often. We can’t just be putting anybody that “wants to be a pastor” into leadership. In fact, having been a pastor for a while now, anybody who says they “want to” do this is highly suspect to me. If you want to do this too bad, then either you really don’t understand what “this” is, or you fit somewhere into the metric I mentioned above. I try to tell people who are being called into ministry, “try everything else first.” If God wants you to do this, you won’t be able to get away from it. What I am asking is, if a diploma is no longer the metric, what is?

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