Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast yields yet another parallel to church structure and processes.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his great podcast Revisionist History, has an episode about philanthropy in the higher education. He compares the impact of a $100m gift to a small rural New Jersey state university with a $800m gift to Ivy-League Stanford University in California. The New Jersey gift started an engineering school that educates 500 rural blue-collar engineering students, whereas the Stanford gift started an Oxford Scholar-style program for 112 elite students.
Gladwell uses the terminology of “strong link” and “weak link” to describe the difference between these two models of philanthropy and education:
- Strong-link models make the best better. Donations to Stanford make their education and recruitment better and the possibilities for breakthrough higher. In sports, Basketball is a strong-link sport where the 1-2 star players on each team really earn their money where the rest of the bench is less important. The strongest links need to become stronger to bring new things to society.
- Weak-link models make the worst better. Gifts to the rural New Jersey school educate blue collar students and raise the general knowledge of a region. In sports, Soccer is a weak-link sport where it takes 8 really great passes to set up the ninth brilliant goal-scoring kick by their star striker. One bad pass in that chain would rob the striker of their ability, so the weakest links need to be strengthened.
Denominational Weak Links (Not a bad thing)
I think this framework better articulates one of the primary differences between non-denominational and denominational churches in America.
Denominational systems are one of two kinds:
- Connectional Systems have the churches networked together under some top-down authority who assists with placement of clergy leadership, missional focus, and general church agencies, usually supported by the local churches tithing. Methodist, Episcopalian, and Lutheran Systems are in this model, along with the Roman Catholic Church.
- Congregational Systems have the churches more loosely connected through shared beliefs and identity, usually not under a top-down authority (though there are general church resources and agencies). Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and Baptists are examples of this.
Denominations, we see, are weak-link systems. They use their resources to make the smaller and weaker churches better. They have a missional and structural ability to have mission outposts in every corner of the country, not concentrate in one region. There’s places for the best pastors and the worst, the best churches and the least, and the largest churches pay into the system to benefit the smallest churches throughout the world.
Non-denominational Strong Links
Non-denominational churches are strong-link churches. They make themselves better. They pop up in an area of need, either planted by another church or perhaps even a denominational system that doesn’t require ties to theirs. And they serve the community, but are always about getting the best programs, musicians, preachers, etc. Strong link churches make themselves better, so they can serve better.
It is of little wonder that non-denominational churches originated the multi-site phenomenon: they have found the best form of worship for their context and now they replicate it in other areas.
I think of LifeChurch, a network of multi-sites originating in Oklahoma and now spread across the Bible Belt. They focus their locations on where will make the most impact and growth–with incredible savvy. One popped up by my parents’ home in Jenks, Oklahoma, and it seemed like they were out in tthe outskirts of town, but within 1.5 years, an entire shopping system had popped up around them and now their real estate is ridiculous and the adjoining business parking lots are available on Sunday mornings.
This sounds negative to say they focus on making themselves better, but it isn’t: it’s the nature of the model of philanthropy that we’re examining.
“Why throw money away?”
At the end of Gladwell’s episode, he talks about the sentiment that money given to weak link non-profits is being given to places that don’t know how to handle money like strong-link places. $10 billion dollars given to Stanford would be better handled than the same given anywhere else–their President knows exactly what to do with it.
There’s a sentiment of “why throw your money away” when it comes to philanthropy (which makes Gladwell mad). This is why the strong-link colleges and universities get incredible gifts and donations–and they make the strong-link world a perpetual arms race.
We see the same problem in Christianity as strong-link churches offer the most bang for your buck. If you gave $10,000 to a strong-link church, you can bet it would serve more people. This is why megachurches can build such huge plants: donors know their money is being used effectively and numerically superior to building a new sanctuary for a rural 3,000 person town.
So how can weak-link churches work best in a strong-link world?
Benefitting the Weak Links
I know I’m biased, but given the structure, it seems that a denomination is the best of both worlds: weak-link church systems that have strong-link churches in them.
The strong-link churches can be beneficiaries of the big gifts, can manage them well, and then their church tithe helps the weak-link churches. Properly managed, we see a denomination funnels gifts to churches that make the biggest and the smallest better…which is our call as Christians in one Body throughout the world.
There are exceptions outside of denominational systems. LifeChurch, as a strong-link church loosely connected to a denomination, has a theological and missional commitment to giving away free resources, studies, sermons, apps, etc through their Open website. This way, a strong-link church is helping weak-link churches in places that they cannot go…yet.
Thoughts? How does this image sit with you?
- Do denominations focus on their smallest churches and the weak links, or do you feel the money and resources flow to the weak links?
- Do non-denominational churches focus on the strong-link model, or are they more mobile and agile and okay being the weak links?
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