Are We Very Shrewd? (Part 4)

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 begins with understanding the times. If Christians are exiles in a land of exile, the third implication is that a lot of us fail to measure the most important thing.

In Daniel 1, we read that Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz to bring in the sons of Israel to serve in the king’s court. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah had a mission of assisting Babylonian institutions in flourishing. This was the same task given to every exile – make flourishing cultures – except at an elite level. Notice however how the Jews were to gauge success. They were to seek the peace and prosperity of the city, “pray to the Lord for it, for as it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7).

God said the Jews’ flourishing came only as they promoted flourishing among their captors’ culture and in their captors’ institutions such as family, agriculture, and business. Shalom was for everyone but the remarkable benchmark was that the flourishing of the Jews’ flourishing was linked to the flourishing of the Babylonians. They do well, the Jews do well. For the church in exile this is the most important thing to measure – whether your city is flourishing.

In my eight years as a pastor, I can’t say that we linked our flourishing to the flourishing of Annapolis. In my 10 years as a consultant, I have rarely seen faith communities measure their success by the flourishing of their city’s commercial or educational institutions. Some might say they do, but I’ve learned to listen for unedited benchmarks. You can learn what a church actually measures by asking, “How is your church doing?” The immediate unedited reply gives away the game. Regardless of how the mission statement reads, Edgar Schein says whatever is most frequently said is the actual mission.

Schein is a MIT professor and author of “Organizational Culture and Leadership.” He writes that whatever an organization most often measures becomes its actual mission. For example, in the auto bailouts, Washington, GM, and the unions measured success by saving jobs. Will Durant founded GM to sell cars. That was the original mission. By changing how it measures success, GM is actually changing its mission. This is mission drift, an indicator of organizational decline. The decline is due to a progression – measure, means, mission. Schein says whatever an organization measures creates a culture and the culture determines the means an organization uses to achieve its mission. When saving jobs became GM’s measure of success, it created a culture where bailouts became the best means of sustaining GM’s mission. You have to measure the most important thing.

Dallas Willard says most churches measure the ABCs – attendance, building, and cash. This creates a culture where showing up matters most. The means used to achieve this include pouring significant resources into a showcase Sunday service. The result is rather shallow measurements such as how many attend church or are in small groups. When I ask pastors how their church is doing, I have yet to hear one reply, “It depends on how well Goldman Sachs is doing.” Measuring the flourishing of the city is not the only thing we gauge, but it is the most important thing, according to Jeremiah 29:7. It keeps faith communities from mission drift, self-reporting success, or the kind of mushy measuring that particularly plagues the not-for-profit social sector.

In his monograph in Good to Great, Jim Collins says the not-for-profit sector, including the church, fails to measure mission in meaningful ways. Of course, we have to be careful not to make an idol of measurements. “Not everything that counts can be counted,” Einstein noted, “and not everything that can be counted counts.” We have to be cautious about our propensity to use measurements (such as attendance or growth) to bolster our pride or provide a sense that God is using us. There is an element of mystery in the service of God and faithfulness counts as much as fruitfulness, but given the declining influence of the American faith community over the last 175 years, it seems particularly important to measure our cultural influence. I understand that some react to saying this is the most important thing as seeming to be reductionist. I don’t believe it is. Jeremiah 29:7 sets the bar exactly at “as the Babylonians flourish, so shall you.”

I believe shrewd churches can gauge whether crime rates, out of wedlock birthrates, or divorce rates are declining in the community. They can measure whether business people are practicing conscientious capitalism or if churches are assisting in raising reading levels in local schools. Linking the flourishing of a church to the flourishing of a city’s institutions seems to be shrewd. It can serve as a buttress against self-reporting success. After decades of idolatry, this seems to be a streetwise move. Of course, to assist local institutions in flourishing requires a considerable amount of cultural capital. That’s the fourth implication from exile. And the subject of next week’s column.

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6 thoughts on “Are We Very Shrewd? (Part 4)”

  1. I agree Mike that it we should be able to measure, “…whether crime rates, out of wedlock birthrates, or divorce rates are declining in the community. They can measure whether business people are practicing conscientious capitalism or if churches are assisting in raising reading levels in local schools.”

    The question is how do you measure the church’s part in those needles moving? So many factors could be affecting those measurements how can you determine what part the church is playing?

    Also, where I live many churches are working to change some of the issues you listed. They partnered and began work in earnest just as the economy tanked. They really focused on families about to get evicted with real results, yet we know that those evictions went up. What then?

    Finally, how do you measure your specific church’s faithfulness in a larger community? I agree we have to figure out a way to measure this stuff but to what level? How often? Do you have any examples of how churches elsewhere are doing their measuring in a way that is helpful to keep them mission focused and encouraged?

  2. Mike, thanks for this excellent series. I just have one thought. In many ways, millions of Christians are “embedded” in existing institutions, companies, corporations, small businesses, etc. In this way, my guess is that many, if not most, are working hard to make a difference within their spheres of influence. This vast effort is somewhat silent, not very flashy. A particular church does not “sponsor” the work of these Christians. There might not be any faith institution organizing or funding their work. But it would be hard for me to imagine if all these people weren’t helping society flourish. I would be interested in your thoughts.

  3. Mike Metzger

    To Mike and Glenn:

    A church ought to be able to ask its parishioners, “Are we assisting you in an way, shape, or form when it comes to translating your faith in your workplace?” Socrates said generalities are the refuge of weak mind. The church too often thanks and vague generalities rather than asking specifics regarding whether is it is proving to be of assistance.

    As for Glenn’s comment, I agree that there are millions of Christians quietly going about their work in marvelous ways. The church does not “sponsor” them, but how often do you see a businessperson commissioned by their church? How often do you hear businesspeople present their challenges in the workplace to their worship community, asking it pray and perhaps offer suggestions?

    Finally, the question I am asking in this series is: are we shrewd, especially when it comes to what is required to change the world? Randall Collins describes culture-changing movements as requiring dense, overlapping networks of leaders – not simply isolated individuals here and there doing their best. Being faithful matters of course. But we have to be more shrewd than that, if we are intent in altering the trajectory of today’s culture.

  4. Is it fair to say that seeking the good of Babylon was not the purpose of the captivity but God’s instructions for how to past the time?

    The purpose of the captivity was for those who served strange gods in God’s land to learn to serve God in a strange land.

    Perhaps the argument could be made that the best way to measure if the church is serving God is to measure the human-flourishing of its community.

    And since in a Christian culture we turned from serving God, perhaps it is in a non-Christian culture that we will learn to serve Him again.

  5. Mike Metzger

    Gerard:

    God’s instructions were not for simply passing the time. The Lord has bigger to fry that that. Seeking the flourishing of others is how we love God and others – the Great Commandment. Your second paragraph gets closer to the truth (I had to read a few times to “get it!”). Your third paragraph is good – yes, we measure human flourishing. Your last paragraph probably would benefit from a bit of editing. There is no such thing as a “Christian” culture. But yes, in the wider world we probably learn better how to serve others. Thanks for asking.

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