Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Off My Shelf

So, let me try to sum up in a sentence the three books I have read most recently: Little things matter, and so I should trust my gut when I am looking at them, but not too much because things are not always what they seem.

In the last several weeks, I have read Blink and The Tipping Point, both by Malcolm Gladwell, and Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. It has been very nice to be out of the Christian publishing realm and reading some very interesting, very well-written books, simply for the fun of it. All of them are chock full of statistics and studies, and, to be very honest, reading them made me feel smart. But they are not boring. They *cough* narrative flows easily and engagingly in all three. Let me just say upfront, if you are looking for a book to read, I would highly recommend any of these.

Blink is Gladwell's second book and it is about how we all make split-second decisions, thin-slices, he calls them. But we don't tend to trust them. We think that we need to do more research, study things more to come up with a definitive and reliable answer. But often, it is our gut reactions that turn out to be most accurate. Frequently, we don't know why or how we know something; we just know it. For example, have you ever met a couple who has started dating and after meeting them, turned to someone and said, "They're never going to make it"? That's thin-slicing. We get better at it when we know what to look for, like contempt in a dating relationship. And we get better at it when we know the pitfalls, like subtle forms of racism.

The implications for understanding the nature of faith and the effectiveness of evangelism are interesting. Why is it that some people just believe? They just know the gospel is true and trust Jesus, giving their lives over to him instantly. Is there a way to identify these kinds of people - not to the exclusion of anyone else, of course? And can our evangelism be honed to be more effective in reaching them?

The Tipping Point is Gladwell's first book, in which he argues that little things make a huge difference in the world. It is a book about culture and why some things make it big in culture and others don't. He argues that there are three things that cause something to reach the tipping point - a few people who are connected to others as salesmen and mavens, a memorable sticky quality, and the right context in which to bloom. He examines everything from Paul Revere’s ride to Blues Clues to teenage smoking to Rudy Giuliani’s crime strategy in NYC.

As a person who thinks a lot about how to get things done, especially in a church, these three things fascinate me. Who are the connectors? I charted out everyone who is a part of Vintage. Know what? Most of them can be traced back to just a handful of couples or individuals. How can we empower connectors? How can we attract more? What makes Vintage - and our message - sticky? Will we actually make a difference in people's lives? And how can we craft sermons to be stickier? And what are the small things in our church context that will draw - not repel - people from us? Is our move from the theater to the music hall about to do that? These are the questions I am asking.

And I just finished the rogue economics book Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. It is probably most famous for its amoral assertion that the legalization of abortion is most responsible for the drop in crime in the 90s (not, sadly, Rudy Giuliani’s crime strategy) because it thinned our population of those individuals most likely to become criminals. A fascinating, and probably justified idea, but certainly not worth the trade-off in my mind.

It is also full of other interesting tidbits - like swimming pools are more dangerous than guns (gulp), that a balding, short, chubby unemployed guy who posts his picture on a dating website is far more likely to get dates than the tall, good-looking rich guy who doesn't post his picture, that sumo wrestlers and teachers cheat a lot, that adoptive kids don't do well in school but usually end up well in life, and that Ebony is the second blackest girls’ name (which I just find ironic and amusing).

All in all, it's a book about how conventional wisdom is not trustworthy. The authors say that conventional wisdom is frequently produced by an expert who is given a platform by a journalist. They need each other to survive, and they both need their tidbits of information to be as shocking and sensational as possible to gain and keep an audience. So they bend the truth, see what they want to see, and sometimes just make it up.

So how does that affect me as a pastor? Well, it makes me slow to believe the conventional wisdom and jump on the latest fad. Do I have to believe the apocalyptic doomsayers, be they Algore or John Haggee? Do I have to buy the solutions that are being sold for education, healthcare, and church growth? Maybe there are better answers.

Better answers are what I am searching for.

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