The Actual MVP

Michael Metzger

Dwight Howard was not the actual MVP.

A few years back, the woeful Washington Wizards upended the Orlando Magic in an otherwise forgettable game. The press highlighted the game’s high scorer, Orlando’s Dwight Howard. Yet the NBA’s scoring system graded him as only third best that night. Highlighting the third best player is a minor matter but it raises a major question: Does the church use a scoring system highlighting those who historically proved best at spreading the gospel? Does it know the actual MVP?

Dwight Howard was highlighted because the press operates by a rather simple system. It celebrates stars like Howard, who had a good night with 23 points and 11 rebounds. The Washington Wizards’ Brendan Haywood on the other hand is viewed as a mere mortal in the pantheon of NBA gods. He only scored 18 points. But according to the NBA’s complex scoring system, he was the game’s actual MVP.

The NBA uses a formula developed by Kansas City Star reporter Martin Manley called Efficiency Rating (EFF). It measures more than scoring. The EFF formula is: Points + Rebounds + Assists + Blocks + Steals – Missed Field Goals – Missed Free Throws – Turnovers. EFF considers complexities such as missed shots as well as made shots, missed free throws as well as made free throws. A player will likely cause his team to lose if he makes 15 shots, scores 30 points, yet also misses 25 other shots.

In the Wizards/Magic game, Brendan Haywood scored 18 points but didn’t miss a shot. He was most effective in part because he was most efficient. Haywood went 6-for-6 from the floor, 6-for-6 from the foul line, had no turnovers and pulled down 18 rebounds. His EFF was 32. Howard’s was 24. Haywood was the game’s actual MVP, raising a question for the faith community: Does it have a scoring system that highlights those who historically did the best job of spreading the gospel? It doesn’t appear to.

In many cases, the church highlights evangelists, clergy, and missionaries as the MVPs. Church planters and evangelists of course do good things. But according to historians, it was businesspeople circulating from city to city who had the most significant effect on spreading the gospel in ancient times. “Although wandering preachers may have been the first Christians to reach Rome,” writes Rodney Stark in Cities of God, “it seems likely that the primary bearers of the new faith were rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial reasons.”1 They were the Early Church’s MVP.

This scoring system is spelled out in many books, including Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom, and The Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne A. Meeks. By starting in cities and changing commercial enterprises, the gospel rode the wave of business travelers who proved to be the most efficient (and effective) way to spread the gospel. Their success was so great that by A.D. 350 the Christian population of the Roman Empire had grown very large. As Lucian the Martyr put it early in the fourth century, “almost the greater part of the world is now committed to this truth, even whole cities.”2 This isn’t to say pastors and evangelists aren’t valuable players. They are—but they’re not the most valuable.

There’s a reason why clergy in supportive roles works so well. It’s found in scripture, when Jesus said if you want to be great in his kingdom, be the servant of all. It’s found in the findings of David McClelland and David Burnham. Their research indicates the most effective leaders and companies “return authority”—a phrase that might be hard to fathom. McClelland and Burnham define return as give back and authority as those having the most practice and proficiency. In the past, managers “took” authority from workers, assuming managers were the authority for solving business problems. They were the MVP. But McClelland and Burnham have discovered that practitioners—workers on the shop floor or salespeople in the field—are the most effective and proficient in knowing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of problems and challenges in the workplace. They are the better authorities. When C-level leaders “return authority” to the actual MVPs in the workplace, company performance improves dramatically. This dynamic of “return authority” is not only effective in the workplace, it actually explains much of the Early Church’s success that Stark, Meeks, Brown and others have observed.

The Early Church’s growth was primarily due to those in commerce, with clergy assisting businesspeople. The church viewed those in commerce as the best authority for making the gospel meaningful in the workaday world. Clergy recognized business professionals as most proficient in knowing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of cities and commercial enterprises. Businesspeople were the actual MVP—a reality all too often missing in today’s church.

“We have attempted to transform our cities for years without success,” writes Peter Wagner, a former professor of Church Growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary. “I now believe the reason is because pastors and church leaders do not have the authority to do so. That authority lies within those leaders in the marketplace. When we recognize and affirm the apostles in the marketplace we will begin to see the transformation of cities.” Wise words from a wise sage.

It’s been said revolutions occur “when the shopkeepers get it.” Yet it is hard for shopkeepers and business professionals to get it when the faith community mostly highlights the heroics of vocational ministry leaders. These people matter, but they are not the actual MVP. The church needs a truer scoring system highlighting those who were historically the best authorities for spreading the gospel. If the church wants to get the gospel back in the game, clergy are not the MVP. It is actually those in commerce.

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1 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), p. 73.
2 Stark, Cities, p. 64.

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6 thoughts on “The Actual MVP”

  1. I get your point, but struggle with the underlying utilitarian base you seem to assume as foundational. Utilitarian cost-benefit formulas applied to people are almost always problematic. . . .

  2. Read Matthew 20, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, and the request of the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

    Read also the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18, and the Widow’s Mite in Mark 12.

    To worry about MVP’s, or who has the front row seat in the synagogue, who gave this much or that much, or who founded the most Churches, or who will be greatest in the Kingdom, this is the mindset of those Pharisees Jesus reprimanded. All this is vainglory, and is not of God.

    There was a certain Orthodox nun, an Abbess, who was very distraught over her failing monastery. One day, while she was praying and lamenting her many failures, the Theotokos appeared to her and told her to stop punishing herself over her perceived failures. “It’s not what you think,” Mary told her, referring to heaven’s point of view concerning the ‘failing’ monastery, “it’s all quite different.”

    It is with great difficulty and spiritual struggle that some men begin to see things through heaven’s eyes, and quite often, they discover that it’s not what they thought at all, but it’s all quite different.

    What we men perceive as great “success” may not be the truth of the matter at all, for it is heaven, and not men, that sees the true causes and end of things. We must learn to see with heaven’s eyes…

  3. I agree with Marble that I am preplexed at the necessity for designating an MVP for matters that require God “to give the increase”. One man sows, and another waters. Need there be an MVP?

    I agree that “shopkeepers” are part of the body of Christ (God’s wintess on the earth for spreading the gospel)and carry an equal call to be a faithful witness whereever the “go/live”.

    But, it seems odd to designate that the “ear” (shop keepers) is more important than the “eye” (preachers).

  4. Good timing- with the Wizards upending the magic again in an forgettable game last week. I would be interested in your thoughts on the book “A Theology as Big as the City” by Ray Bakke- the centrality of cities for cultural change.

  5. Mike Metzger

    Spreading the gospel is a divine/human enterprise – God’s providence alongside human agency. In growing the kingdom, God doesn’t need us. He has chosen to use this. The remarkable role of businesspeople is not utilitarian but simply one of the many means God used to spread the gospel. Understanding means (or “causes”) is critical according to Aristotle. Think of a table.

    Tables do not simply “happen.” The first means is the material cause. It is the wood out of which tables are made. Tables also have a formal cause—the form or shape of tables. They’re not just blocks of wood. Tables have an efficient cause, the carpenter by which tables are made. Finally, tables have a final cause, the purpose for which tables are used—either as desks, eateries, or other things.

    What caused the gospel’s rapid spread? Many things, including businesspeople as one of the primary efficient causes.

  6. As the owner of a restaurant, it’s easy to forget we are in the game because ordering produce, scheduling college students and rolling out 352 breakfasts on a Sunday morning doesn’t even seem a component of the game we are playing. Oftentimes our thinking is skewed towards the thought that our business isn’t really the business of evangelism. However, every single week, so many times I can’t count, I am able to tell people who I would never, ever meet in church that God is my Help in a business that fails over 50% of the time. I need to remember God picked me for His team and will play me how and when he wants!!!

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