The World Series is over, which means no more baseball until next spring. But forgive me for still having a little baseball on the brain. You see, I just recently caught the new baseball film, Moneyball. From most accounts, Moneyball is a pretty good movie. Fans of baseball, Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, and underdog stories in general all have plenty to love. As a historical drama, it does play a little fast-and-loose with the facts, but it captures the emotional essence of the subject matter. And as baseball movies go, it’s decidedly less crass and more inspirational than many of its counterparts, which could make it popular among conservative, faith-based audiences.
Seems like the only people who aren’t that enthused about the film (which adapted Michael Lewis’ 2002 chronicle of the same name) are the actual baseball executives whose stories are depicted in it, primarily Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his stat guru assistant Paul DePodesta (fictionalized as Peter Brand, because DePodesta didn’t consent to allowing his name to be used).
Their main complaints of the film stem from what DePodesta and Beane believe to be an overly dramatized schism between the GM’s office and the rest of the scouting and management. In the film, Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as Brand/DePodesta are continually at odds with the A’s grizzled corps of veteran scouts, most of whom have a rigid sense of orthodoxy concerning what good draft prospects look like, and who resent Beane for discarding their sage advice and picking players using advanced statistics. This conflict is a source of constant tension, especially because it pits general manager Beane against manager Art Howe, who refuses to fill his lineup with any of Beane’s recent draft picks.
If baseball were a religion, Moneyball would play out like a classic faith-versus-science debate. In this sense, the divide between traditional scouts and the proponents of advanced metrics in baseball mirror the divide between conservative Bible literalists and liberal scholars who view the Bible only as literature. In both cases, the generalizations that depict the former as backward and the latter as enlightened are just that — generalizations, more useful for establishing a dramatic narrative than for arriving at an accurate assessment of the truth.
Truth is, there are plenty articulate, enlightened Bible traditionalists, and plenty of close-minded so-called progressives whose view of the Bible is woefully ignorant. Likewise, plenty of older baseball scouts use quality stats to back up their intuitions, and plenty stat geeks are led astray by faulty or incomplete data sets. The best talent evaluators rely on both what the computers say as well as what their eyes tell them.
As a matter of fact, Billy Beane has said on the record that he never set out to revolutionize baseball’s decision-making process. He just needed to find ways to stay competitive against teams with larger payroll budgets. But the larger story of how the Oakland A’s front office changed baseball remains a compelling story, and church leaders in particular would do well to find the lessons that go beyond the typical Hollywood platitudes.
Avoiding False Choices
Despite the magnified conflict in the film, one lesson that the fictional Billy Beane manages to get right over time is avoiding the false dichotomy, or as I like to call it, the Dis-Or-Dat trap. This is the fallacy that assumes that two traits that appear dissimilar can never inhabit the same space. Getting caught in a Dis-Or-Dat trap causes people in pressure-filled situations to ignore the nuances and hastily choose between extreme contradictions in thought or behavior. So women are viewed either as virginal girl-next-door types or slutty femme fatales. Bosses are either rigid taskmasters or softy pushovers. Blacks are either the noble oppressed or immoral and degenerate.
(You get the idea.)
Over time it became clear to Billy Beane that he couldn’t simply rely on either his eyeballs or his stats; he had to do both. This is the kind of thinking that more church leaders should use. It’s not enough for pastors to either know the Bible well OR be great communicators. They need to do both. The same goes for speaking grace and truth. And the worship leader shouldn’t only have to choose between traditional or contemporary music, as if there is no one under 25 who appreciates a good hymn or no one over 40 who appreciates good hip-hop. If the church in America is to thrive, there must be room for both.
Value in the Refuse
Another kingdom value on display in Moneyball is the idea of finding value in hidden places. The main way the Oakland Athletics were able to compete with a smaller payroll was by picking up players that others had overlooked or discarded. And there’s nothing quite so Hollywood as watching a group of misfits and oddballs beat the odds together.
Given this, how amazing would it be if American churches were identified primarily as places where people’s lives and contributions were valued, regardless of class, talent or achievement? Pastors and worship leaders would feel less pressure to become multimedia superstars, because in God’s economy, everyone brings something to the table. And material success would be the default standard in ministry, because defying the odds is nothing new for God.
Doing more with less? Please. He invented that with five loaves and and two fish.
The most significant lesson of Moneyball is, interestingly enough, the one most up for interpretation, like that spinning top at the end of Inception.
At one point in the film Beane laments that winning 20 games in a row doesn’t matter if you lose the last game of the year. As a postscript, the film notes that Billy Beane is still searching for that final win.
However, it also says that after he turned down their offer to hire him as GM, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series by adopting Beane’s statistical approach.
So the lingering question is obvious … was he successful, or not?
Well, how does one define success?
Pitt played Billy Beane as a man whose life goal was to win at baseball, yet he never really achieved that goal in a meaningful way. Walking out of the theater, I couldn’t help but notice his resemblance to another cinematic tortured soul — Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Both men, flawed as they were, experienced a measure of redemption.
But it required accepting a different definition of success, one that measured influence and relationship higher than the more tangible signs they’d been waiting for — for Mr. Holland, his final musical masterpiece, and for Billy Beane, a World Series title.
This is the lesson that pastors, worship leaders, and other church ministers need to receive the most.
Our success at ministering in the church must be defined first and foremost by our ability to know God and be in right relationship with Him. There’s a reason why Matthew 6:33 doesn’t tell us to seek God’s kingdom and his achievements … because outward signs of success are included in the “all of these things will be added unto you” portion of the verse. His righteousness is the thing we are instructed to pursue first.
That doesn’t mean that outward signs shouldn’t follow. After all, James tells us that faith without works is dead. But it does mean that if we truly trust God with everything, then we’ll allow Him to set our agenda and allow Him to change our definition of success if it derails us from His.
* * *
The irony for Billy Beane in Moneyball is that his professional success was about maximizing output with minimal money, yet his personal success brought him the opportunity for so much money that he was in danger of losing his sense of self and relational significance … which was what drew him into baseball in the first place.
The good news for believers in Christ is that we don’t need our stories retold on the silver screen in order to have peace and prosperity. And we don’t need to collect trophies or achievements to have personal significance.
All we need to do is receive the gift of salvation,
VISIONARY: Apple cofounder Steve Jobs recently stepped down from his revered role as CEO of the company. Photo: Beck Diefenbach/Newscom.
Despite being a member of the young creative class, I’ve never really been a Mac guy.
Being a Windows computer and Android phone user, I’ve often poked fun at the cult of Mac, a common term for the religious fervor surrounding every new hardware or software release by Apple. When Apple launched the iconic “I’m-a-Mac” commercials, I was consistently entertained, though annoyed at the characterization of PCs as old and stodgy. And I was stoked when Microsoft fought back with their “laptop hunters” ad series, because for a lot of people picking a computer most often comes down to price. My refusal to drink the “iKoolAid” has been a stance of righteous indignation.
But let me be real: for many in my generation, Apple has always been the gold standard for professional grade technology with user-friendly interface. And there are many reasons why the company has remained the #1 purveyor of all things creative and digital. Most of these can be traced to Apple’s iconic (and at times, iconoclast) founder Steve Jobs, who last week announced his resignation as CEO of Apple. Under Jobs’ direction, Apple has become an innovative juggernaut, particularly in its influence in popular culture.
And if there is any class of people who should be interested in creating and influencing culture, it should be pastors. After all, Macs and iPhones are just as embedded into the stereotypes of emerging church planters as skinny jeans, coffee shops, and thick-rimmed glasses.
So in begrudging honor of the cult of Mac (and the hopeful advent of the iPhone 5 with Sprint), here are five lessons, with direct applications to church leadership, that pastors can take from Apple’s Steve Jobs:
Lesson #1: Form and function maximize each other.
The thing that usually sets Apple products apart from the competition is the combination of high-quality components and attractive design. Long before HP launched its campaign proclaiming “the computer is personal again,” Apple had already cornered the market on personalized computers. Remember all of those cute little iMacs that came in different colors? People loved those things because they worked well and they looked fabulous.
Pastoral Application: You must have both form and function to compete. All pastors who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ are on the same team. So remember, as a pastor you’re not competing with other churches. You’re competing with sports leagues and video games and book clubs and live performance art and all manner of forms of entertainment and leisure that people spend their time doing when they’re not in church.
Therefore, it’s not enough to have EITHER a distinctive style of presentation OR effective programs with solid theology. If the service is all sizzle and no steak, people might be amused or entertained, but not necessarily transformed by the renewing of the mind. On the other hand, how will people come to know the truth about Jesus if there is nothing interesting or attractive to bring them in? Form maximizes function, and vice versa.
Lesson #2: Being first is overrated.
Apple did do many things first, but it did many more things better.
For example, I get irritated every time I see or hear people refer to the iPhone as “the first touch screen phone.” Maybe it was their first touch screen phone, but the HTC Touch Pro had a touch-responsive interface well before the iPhone came out. What Apple had was the first touch-screen phone that was a bona fide hit with consumers. And in the end, that’s what most people will remember, in the same way that only a select few remember the fact that GoBots preceded Transformers on the small screen and in the toy stores. (Yep, I’m a nerd.)
Pastoral application: What matters more is making a connection with people. Being a pastor is fraught with temptations, and one of them is the temptation to join the technology arms race. How many pastors wanted to be the first church in their neighborhood to have a digital projector? Or their own mobile-optimized website? Or iPhone app? Or the first to use a hit TV show as a theme for a sermon series?
What matters more is how well you are connecting with people. Folks won’t give two whits about whether or not you were the first on the scene with the latest gadget or trendy sermon illustration if it doesn’t help them grow closer to God. But when God is moving in their lives and the local neighborhood church is the place where it happens, they might not know if that church has the latest and greatest growth techniques, but they’ll know that God changed their life there.
Lesson #3: Better culture beats better numbers.
One of the things that used to crack me up about Mac users was the claim that their operating systems were inherently safer or more secure because they never had to worry about viruses. This is a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, as avid West Wing fans should remember. The people who write malicious code tend to target Windows machines not because Windows operating systems are less secure, but because there are many more Windows machines in operation. This has, more or less, always been the case. Digital criminals go where there is the most amount of money to be taken.
But this Mac-is-safer spin is a great example of how Apple used the power of marketing to change its biggest weakness (less market share) into its biggest strength (dedicated fandom). Part of being cool is the novelty of being apart and distinct from the mainstream, and nobody does cool better than Apple. Starting with the “Think Different” campaign and continuing with the Mac-versus-PC television ads, Apple leveraged its underdog status into a cultural phenomenon that transformed Apple products from mere electronic devices into elite, stylish status symbols. And in so doing, it further dominated the market share of higher-end computers.
Pastoral application: Create a culture, numbers will follow. Church leader and vision strategist Andy Stanley once said something brilliant that I’m choosing to slightly modify. When it comes to churches, I believe that the culture in the hall trumps the mission on the wall. Therefore, it’s not enough to just have good programs or a radical vision.
There must be a culture that embodies your God-given unique vision breathing in every part of your church. It should be something that one can see and feel and notice by spending time with people in the church community. If you can create a culture that does this, you won’t need to worry about chasing the latest fad or trying to intentionally do things to create numeric growth. Chasing after numbers is a lot like chasing after wind. But if you effectively create culture, then you won’t have to spend tons of money on marketing. A compelling Christ-following community sells itself.
Lesson #4: Don’t apologize for excellence.
In the smartphone arena, most of the competition lately has been between iPhones and Android phones, which ideologically means the difference between open standards versus closed standards. Many people prefer Android over the iOS, because Android offers more flexibility and more of an open atmosphere.
Google’s Android platform gained a lot of market share in smartphone sales in the last few years, but Apple had so much market share in the first place because it prioritized a good user experience over customization and openness. There are certainly users who complain about the closed aspect of the iPhone experience, but most of the people who flocked to the iPhone didn’t care about what it couldn’t do, because they were too busy being impressed by what it could do really well.
And the credit for this goes to Steve Jobs, who once said the following:
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
The subtext is clear — y’all better get used to it, because I’m not changing. Where others saw arrogance, Jobs saw a commitment to a vision. Steve Jobs was a leader who expected excellence of himself and the people around him, and did not apologize for having high standards, even when he took criticism for it.
Because let’s face it, as much as Apple has been an overall success story, there have been plenty of times where Apple products were heavily criticized for things they didn’t have — that is, features that people expected but were left out. Like the lack of floppy drive in the iMac G3. Or no copy-and-paste on the iPhone 3G. Or no Flash support or 4G network access for the iPad 2.
Did Steve Jobs ever apologize for any of these perceived shortcomings? Of course not. Because they were still game-changing products that sold like hotcakes.
Pastoral Application: Be Unapologetically You. The point is not to be arrogant or to never listen to criticism. That would be foolish. The point is to know who God called you to be as a leader, and refuse to be anything or anyone else.
People will always find things to complain about, and will always find a way to compare your ministry to the ministry down the street or the up-and-coming ministry that’s always in the news. And some of your lay leaders might want to know, Why aren’t we active in these areas? Why aren’t we doing some of these ministry events?
You need to have answers to these questions, answers that are grounded in prayer and conviction. You need to be secure enough in your vision to be willing to be confident in your role in the kingdom of God, and to let other churches and other leaders fill their roles.
If it’s true that we’re all one body, then not everyone needs to be a foot or a nose or an elbow.
Be you, let them be them, and everybody wins.
Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to change.
Compared to most of its product launches, one of the most important defining moments in Apple’s rise to dominance was met with a collective yawn. But when Apple Computer became Apple, Inc., it was more than just empty symbolism. It was an outward sign of the shift that had already taken place from being a company that focused exclusively on a computers to a company that sought to rule many aspects of consumer electronics — phones, televisions, software, and downloaded media in the form of music, TV shows, and movies.
In other words, it was the final marker that Apple, under Steve Jobs, had fundamentally altered its own business model.
It’s not a surprise, then, to read one of Jobs’ most famous quotes about customer service:
“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”
Steve Jobs was not content to simply stay on top of the present market conditions. He was bent on finding out where the market was heading and positioning his company in the best possible way to serve and expand his customer base in light of that coming reality. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition. And except for a few missteps along the way, Jobs and Apple generally succeeded in anticipating the future and changing accordingly.
Pastoral application: Allow God to change His church for the better. This is one of the hardest things for successful pastors to understand, that what worked in the past is not necessarily a predictor of what will work in the future. Too many successful ministries become victims of their own success, whereby they get stuck in whatever mode or brand or style of ministry they started with, and they spend the rest of their existence trying in vain to replicate their initial wave of success.
In Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase, this is how John 3:7-8 is rendered:
So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.
This is Jesus talking to a confused religious leader about what it means to truly be born of the Spirit. And I think that sometimes when Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, tries to get us church leaders to move in a new direction, we give Him the same response Nicodemus gave, which was essentially … “Wait, what? How?”
According to Dr. Reggie McNeal in The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, churches are no longer viable organizations when they exist to operate solely as vendors of religious goods and services. We must ask God where and how He is moving, we must listen for where He is calling us to go, and then we must be courageous enough to move ourselves and our organizations into that space.
We’ve got to be willing to change.
And maybe if we do, our churches can do a better job of telling people the truth. And instead of giving people a gospel of hope based on technology, we can give them a gospel of hope based on the person and work of Jesus.
This article was originally posted on August 29, 2011.
LARGER THAN LIFE: Pastor Zachery Tims' mysterious death sent shockwaves through the faith community.
On Friday night in Apopka, Florida, hundreds of people waited in line for more than an hour to pay their final respects to Rev. Zachery Tims. The 42-year-old megachurch pastor, who was found dead in a New York City hotel room on Aug. 12, will be laid to rest on Saturday morning.
Of all the things to be said about Tims — some great and perhaps not so great — one thing will almost certainly be true: he was a man.
Knowing nothing about this man, I heard “Pastor. Dead. Hotel. New York City,” and my imagination conjured the most depraved of possibilities that could validate the combination of those words. The scattered details following reports of his death, including that of a white powdery substance found on his person, only made my internal speculation worse.
Soon after media confirmed the news, Facebook and Twitter exploded with condolences, expressions of shock, and, in some cases, blame directed at Tims for his own death. He wasn’t new to controversy, after all. Long before his move to Florida, he’d battled drug abuse but said on the church website that he was “miraculously saved, instantly delivered … and called into ministry.” In 2008 he admitted to an affair, and he and his wife later divorced.
Drug abuse and marital problems unfortunately fall into the tragic categories of normal life for normal people. It’s only abnormal when it’s public and it involves the pastor.
How could someone bearing that title and the spiritual responsibility of thousands, commissioned by God with the Spirit upon him to preach the gospel, heal the brokenhearted and preach deliverance to the captives be in the bondage of sin himself? The answer is simple: even the man of God is still a man.
We frequently lose that fact in the face of pastors and other church leaders who appear to have arrived at the place people stake their lives on trying to go.
Many are the best dressed, driving the nicest of cars, and living in houses that look like they’re straight from MTV Cribs. And even for leaders with more modest incomes, preaching every Sunday, they appear smart, confident and even fearless. Their holiness is apparent; their anointing is strong, the words they speak prophetic. They stand over hundreds, thousands, and — thanks to online worship — maybe millions of people, continually holding attention and commanding respect. And if you miss that it’s the Spirit of God holding that man or that woman up, you’d think he or she holds power that no ordinary person does.
Throw in a sense of humor, a certain “swag” (like my pastor), and the good looks of Tims (who was often likened to Will Smith), and you’ve got a larger-than-life superstar who’s everything to everybody every hour of the day.
When this is all we choose to see, we inevitably make titans of our teachers and hold them to a supernatural standard. The pastor becomes our idol — no longer a man of God but, instead, a god of man.
And we know there is only one God, who is God all by Himself. All other manmade gods eventually fall — just as all humanity does, just like any man or woman would. Regardless of his or her position in the church, every believer has the challenge of walking through the struggles of this fallen world in pursuit of God’s truth and the life that comes with it.
Victory over the sin struggle sometimes isn’t so easy, particularly for church leaders who, though surrounded, are isolated physically and spiritually. They cover entire flocks but live uncovered themselves. With little to no support, accountability and the weight of others’ burdens, perhaps anybody would do anything just to endure — even the pastor. Maybe your pastor. Maybe even the late Zachery Tims.
Following the announcement of his death, I read of Tims’ encouraging words, his amazing testimony, and the altruistic work he did as pastor of New Destiny Christian Center. Though I didn’t know him, I’m convinced he probably was a great man, even an anointed man of God — but a man nonetheless.