The Underdog Church

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “David and Goliath,” he argues that many times we view the underdog incorrectly.  One of those instances is in the very well-known story of David vs. Goliath.  For thousands of years now, we have touted David as the underdog and that his victory over Goliath was improbable, if not impossible!  But, if you look at the facts of the story, Gladwell argues, David ought not be viewed as an underdog, because he had many advantages that Goliath didn’t.

For instance, Goliath was huge and couldn’t move around very well.  Many medical experts believe that he had a serious medical condition called acromegaly, which explains Goliath’s massive size.   One of the common side effects of acromegaly is vision problems.    Many believe the reason Goliath needed an attendant to come with him in battle is to help him see his way down the path into the valley.  He even asks David “Why do you come at me with sticks (plural),” when the only stick (singular) that David was carrying was his shepherd’s staff.

In addition to this speculation, there is another reason we shouldn’t view David as the ultimate underdog.  In ancient battle, there was more than one type of warrior.  Goliath was a foot soldier, wearing armor, and carrying swords and shields.  Another type of warrior is the projectile warrior, what we would call today as “archers” or “slingers.”  Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice, but in experienced hands, like David’s, the sling was a devastating weapon.

When Goliath calls out to the Israelites, mocks their God, and asks to fight them, clearly he is wanting to engage in combat with swords and shields.  And if anyone were to fight Goliath in this sort of combat, even with all of his deficiencies, they probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance.  But David had other ideas.

Saul, the king of the Israelites, doesn’t give David a chance to beat this Philistine giant.  Saul tells David, “You are too little to fight this giant.”  But David insists and so Saul tries to give him his armor.  It doesn’t fit, but it doesn’t matter.  David doesn’t want it or even need it.  Why?  Because David was never planning on fighting Goliath in hand-to-hand combat.  He was going to flip the script and fight him the way that he knew best…with slinging!

The battle begins, and if we are honest, it wasn’t much of a battle!  David slings his first stone.  Goliath doesn’t see it or can’t get out of the way.  He gets hit in the forehead, falls to the ground, and is defeated.

The story is over…the underdog wins!  But was he even an underdog?

He had so many advantages over Goliath that perhaps we shouldn’t view him that way.  I do agree that if David were to have fought Goliath the way that Goliath wanted to fight, then he would have been an underdog.  But he chooses a different way to fight, outsmarts his opponent, and will forever be the victor in that battle.

Gladwell then gives two excellent more current examples of “underdogs” winning.  First, he mentions a basketball coach who had a team of 8th grade girls that he was coaching.  The team wasn’t that great at shooting and didn’t really have that many “great” players on the team.  And so what the coach did, like David in the battle verse Goliath, is he chose not to play by the same “unwritten” rules that everyone else played by.  When most teams make a basket, they then retreat about 70 to 75 feet to the opponent’s side of the court.  They will then defend their opponent after the opponent brings the ball to their side of the court.  Most teams allow the opponent to dribble and pass the ball up the court uncontested.  This particular coach decided he was going to have his players defend the entire court the entire game.  So when they made a basket, they would line up and defend the other team right away.  In basketball terminology they would be doing a full court press the full game.  This is rarely ever done today.    The coach took what many would have called an average team all the way to the National Finals where they would eventually lose that game.

The next example he gives is the most fascinating to me.  He says that in battle when you have one side that has 10x the amount of people on the other side, you would expect the side with 10x the amount of people to victorious every time, right?  Wrong.  Historians have researched and found that in cases like this, the side with 10x fewer people has actually won the battle 28.5% of the time.   How is this possible?  Because much like David and this basketball coach, the side with fewer people decided not to play by the “unwritten” rules of how battle is supposed to happen, but instead took an unconventional approach to battle, outsmarted the opponent, and became victorious.

In all three of these cases, if David, the coach, or an army were to engage the other side in the way that they were “supposed to” or the way that the other side was expecting, they most certainly would have lost.  They didn’t stand much of a chance.  They would have been the underdog.  But because they flipped the script, and changed the way they did things, they were victorious.

I started thinking, then, if this could apply to church. In many ways, the church today is perceived as the underdog.  You can look at all the statistics in our country and see that our church is struggling today.  Membership and attendance is down across the board, perceptions about church have never been more negative, and our morals and beliefs seem to be very much at odds with the culture that we live in.  What can we do?

What does the church have to hold onto?  What traditions and rituals must we keep?  And what things can be changed?  Are there things that we can do as a church to flip the script?  Can we play, still within the context of the rules, but differently, than those before us or the “normal” churches today?  And what does this look like?

For me, the constant has to be Christ crucified and risen for the sake of the world.  That, according to Paul, is the number one mark of a church and the unifying principle of the church.  We must hold onto our Sacraments of baptism and communion, as these offer the very real grace of God to the world.  We also must hold to the Bible as the Word of God.  What else must we hold onto?

But what can we do that’s different?  I started thinking about our church.  In what ways have we or can we flip the script and do church in a different way than most of those before in order to ensure greater success at growing God’s church and His Kingdom?

Here are a few that I came up with:

1) Do as many events as possible in the community, not at the church
2) Do church in a public place, where life is already happening, like a storefront
3) Welcome all people, both sinners and saints, and promote a place where you don’t have to be perfect or have it all together to be a part of it
4) In our Lutheran Church, we are unique as we embrace a contemporary and modern style of music, yet hold to the teachings and doctrine of the Lutheran Church
5) In our community of Mount Dora, we have particular focus on the younger family in our larger events, rather than the number one demographic of retired and elderly where so many other churches are focused
6) Creating 40-day challenges for the whole community of God to put Jesus’ words into practice

What more can you come up with?  What other ideas or events or philosophies can you add to the mix to help the church grow?

Here’s the good news: even though the church may be perceived as an underdog, we know that in the end, the church will win because it is God’s!  God has chosen to work through human beings to grow His church.  Men and women, empowered by the Holy Spirit, go with God’s blessings and with the confidence that the church is His and will be victorious!  But that doesn’t mean we just have to accept the state and condition of the church for what it is.  We must seek to be creative, interesting, and compelling in this world and do whatever it takes to bring the world to know Jesus, even if it means, doing things differently and flipping the script!

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4 thoughts on “The Underdog Church

  1. I like the idea of Saturday Night church maybe even over an early morning Sunday service.

    A bus ministry for kids and families that can’t get to church.

    Hand in Hand stay an outreach of the church.

  2. A few Thoughts/Ideas: cardboard testimonies; offering boxes in foyer instead of passed around (shows trusting God instead of relying on reminders by men); don’t assume every one in attendance has held a Bible, let alone opened one – talk more about the book itself, here and there; design part of sermons more to the unbelievers, seekers, skeptics, and doubters, so they don’t feel so out of place; have longer introspective confession time with music; don’t assume everyone who walks in knows how to “do church”; include more parts of prayers for unbelievers and seekers; have a suggestion box for songs (some songs touch people’s hearts in deep ways); have a time/place for young kids to say real heartfelt prayers (talk to God) out loud. That’s it for now. Lol

  3. Ah yes, the underdog american christian. Why, only 80 percent of the population self indentifies as christian! And there are only 50 states that you cannot be barred from holding public office, unlike those dominionistic atheists who ARE barred from public service in 7 states. And let us not forget how christians aren’t allowed to have a church on every corner in every city, town or village in every state in the union. Yup, underdogs. Try pastor ryan bell’s experiment: question your faith and live as an open atheist for a year. He got fired from his jobs and was out on the street in no time.
    You do realize that, due to modern communication technology, everybody on earth has heard the word of jesus, but 5 billion of them aren’t interested. Your evidence free supernatural claims are ignored in favor of their own evidence free supernatural claims.

    1. Hey Adam, thanks for your comment. Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve been able to respond. We will agree to disagree on this I’m sure, but the way I see it, the morals and belief system of the Christian church seems to be at odds with culture, leadership, government, and media. And while 80% may self-identify as a Christian (which seems like a high number to me), nowhere near 80% are active, Bible-believing, church-participating, regularly giving Christians. And of course Ryan Bell wouldn’t hold a job. It makes no sense for a Christian pastor to be an atheist…he would be teaching bad theology to his people and he no longer would be fit to have a job as pastoring a church if he didn’t believe in God anymore and was teaching others not to. Thanks for the dialogue and I’m praying for you…it seems like you’ve been burnt bad by the church or rather, some people in the church or identified as Christians in the past, and that’s too bad. Either that, or like I said in a previous post, you are looking for a rational God that you can explain away everything, of which you will never find. It is only through faith, and this faith if foolishness to those who have not received it. God bless you!

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