Are We Very Shrewd? (Part 2)

Michael Metzger

Jesus said “streetwise people are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. I want you to be smart in the same way.” Are we? Shrewd begin with understanding the times. If Christians are exiles in a land of exile, the first implication is that a lot of us are guilty of whittling rotten wood.

In 605 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II became ruler of the Babylonian Empire. He defeated the Egyptian army with the result that Judah, a vassal state of Egypt, came under his control. Nebuchadnezzar had built Babylon by plundering other cities, so Jerusalem was next in line. In 597 the Babylonians swept into Jerusalem for the first of three deportations. The initial one included King Jeconiah and his court.

Exile should not have come as a surprise. For hundreds of years God had prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. Exile meant the judgment had come to pass. This was tough for some of the Jewish leaders to admit, so they denied the deportment was exile. They assured the Jews it was a brief excursion and would prove temporary. One such prophet, Hananiah, predicted that within two years the Jews would return to Judea and Jerusalem would be restored. But God begged to differ. Through the prophet Jeremiah, he explicitly called the Jews “exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:4). He told the Jews to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (29:7). They were to ignore their leaders. “Do not let your prophets in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them” (Jer. 29:8-9).

It’s not easy to ignore some of our recognized religious leaders. Exile was God’s plan for renewal (Jer. 29:10-14). Renewal is Greek for the Latin innovation. In his highly acclaimed book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Harvard professor Clayton Christensen writes how this requires disruption, which presents a dilemma. Leaders of established institutions tend to resist disruption since it upends their system. They have a tendency to protect assets (i.e., jobs) and embrace only sustaining technologies that make incremental improvements. If the church is operating in exile, the implication is some of today’s religious leaders will protect their turf rather than admit failure.

I regret not giving this more consideration over the years, especially as a consultant. Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem in the frame that created it. You only solve problems by reframing them. I have consulted with pastors and parachurch staff who wanted to engage culture. We reframed the gospel as a broader story about reality and often saw success. Success however rattled supervisors who saw their programs being upended. In many cases, the staff I was working with was told to return to the fold or resign. Their leaders were not interested in reframing paradigms. They were looking for new programs. Consequently, I’ve been instrumental in getting 40 to 50 pastors and parachurch staff thrown out of work. Not very shrewd.

I’m not called to a ministry of getting people canned. I failed to take into account that trying to renew established organizations is often simply whittling rotten wood. The implication from exile is that religious leaders are going to be more likely to try to tweak the system, urging believers to be more determined and to work harder, rather than admit failure and overturn the system. Looking back, I wish I had more carefully gauged the kind of wood I was working with. Neil Postman said any change is total change. Innovation is total change, requiring repudiation of established assumptions. It is a rare individual who does this, but my friend Tom Nelson fits the bill.

Tom wrote “Work Matters,” a book about faith and work. Yet in researching the subject of work, Tom realized he had long overlooked the contributions of the European Reformers. I understand this, as Tom and I went to the same seminary. We didn’t learn much about the work of the Reformers. In fact, some of our professors seemed highly allergic to them. Tom’s admission is a repudiation of much of our educational tradition, and rightly so. But it takes a very secure individual to do this, and that describes Tom. Working with his church has proven to be whittling good wood.

Tim Keller says the best way to make new Christians is to make new churches, but with the right DNA. Being shrewd to whittle good wood is part of the right DNA. Yes, this will often prove disruptive and require repudiation of some paradigms, but that’s how reality works. Repudiation is what sociologists say is part of a paradigm shift. Such shifts require a long time – the second implication from exile. And the subject of next week’s column.


Morning Mike Check


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  1. Mike, I appreciate this candid piece.

    I have been “whittling rotten wood” for quite a while. When I ask myself, “why?”, I realize my own insecurities are a big part of it.

    What you proved is that change requires us to suffer. We won’t likely sustain faithful presence while suffering if we are not compelled by a stronger hope.

  2. . . . and what of those who’ve gotten canned? Do they stay in No Man’s Land forever, shot at by both the religious establishment and the Babylonians? Waiting. . . .

    Looking forward to the next chapter, to see how the good vs. bad wood conflict plays out – and what happens to the whittler.

  3. Thanks Mike. Good post. Clayton Christian, Harvard MBA prof, understood this in his book Innovators Dilemma as well. You must create new entities in order to foster true innovation and sustain it over time. The DNA in those organizations are just too different than the older organizations’.

  4. I am not being simplistic when I say that those who were canned have an opportunity to align more closely with how reality actually works as well as how human nature operates. I’m not saying it’s easy to make this switch, and you’ll likely lose a few friends in the transition who view the switch as being disloyal to the status quo – but I am saying it can be done and there is no need for staying in No Man’s Land.

  5. Amen on the rotten wood. Early in my efforts with Numinous (, God’s word to me relative to trying my ideas with established churches to being akin to putting new wine in old wineskins. I realize there are many other aspects to this point by Jesus, but for myself, I felt God saying that the old wineskins should not just arbitrarily be destroyed and if I tried to force new wine into them, that is what I would be doing. So, instead, we created a model of a unique take on disruption, to use your terms, Mike.

    And I agree with your last statement in your #6 note above—it can be done. But, as you are hinting, it is done with a cost. Make no mistake….in Babylon, you are in exile. There will still be many religious leaders in each city who believe they are still in Jerusalem and will reject you, ignore you or even mock you. Disruption is not desired by these leaders. And, often, you find that even trying to reach to others is tough because the average Christian is NOT looking for your church—its tough being a believer in Babylon.

  6. Jim Collin’s latest book, Great by Choice, found that the truly great companies weren’t more innovative than the competion- they simply leveraged their innovation and coupled it with fanatic discipline. They knew when to innovate and when to sustain existing momentum.

    What could this mean for the Church? Is part of discerning the times,knowing when to innovate (stop whittling rotten wood) and when to press forward with what’s working?

  7. Brent: Yes, you press forward when you are assured that what you are doing is effective. It largely depends on how you define “what’s working,” and that depends on what you measure and how you define success. In the Babylonian exile, the Jews were told that their flourishing was linked to the Babylonians flourishing. Success therefore (or what is “working”) has to be linked to the flourishing of your city’s institutions. How’s that working in your church?

  8. Mike, thanks again for the humility in the last few blogs. As one who is committed to change, is around a lot of rotten wood, has not yet been fired and has not saluted and returned to the fold, what is your current thinking on change. Is a skunk works the preferred vehicle for healthy disruption. For your encouragement, we are seeing glimmers of hope and change in a big organization. Thanks again.

  9. Bailey: Good to hear. Yes, a properly run skunk works is the best proven model. There have been over 1,000 skunk works in business, producing the mouse, for example.

  10. Each week look forward to reading your articles – thank you for sharing! In the first post you drew parallels to the exiles of Israel and the state of the church today, particularly in highly individualistic and consumerist America. In considering those parallels, how do you think the life, death and resurrection of Christ makes a difference? Is our shrewdness shaped differently since we have the benefit of looking back to the finished work of Christ and looking forward to the return of Christ and fulfillment of God’s kingdom? Does the Gospel reality help us understand the rotten wood and time aspects differently? Just some questions I’ve been pondering and wanted to share.

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