He said to me, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” —2 Corinthians 12:9
Strong and Weak Links
A couple of weeks ago, Malcolm Gladwell gave a talk where he articulated some of his analysis of – you guessed it – the coronavirus outbreak. If you’ve followed Gladwell before, you may have heard him refer to the idea of “strong links” verses “weak links.” Sports, Gladwell explains, offer a good way to understand the principle: Basketball is a classic “strong link” sport. There’s no faster way to upgrade a basketball team than getting the brightest superstar you can. Soccer, in contrast, is a prime example of a “weak link” sport. To upgrade a soccer team, you replace the worst player with someone better. In basketball, the star makes the play. In soccer, the weak point breaks the play.
Gladwell continues, “What I think this crisis has brought home very powerfully… is that this is the classic weak link crisis. This has the economies of the West brought to a standstill because we don’t have enough masks and gowns.” Places like the US have Nobel laureates, the greatest teaching hospitals, and the most prestigious research universities, yet “are incurring trillions of dollars in economic damage because we don’t have on hand millions of dollars of medical supplies.”
Applied to Churches
How might this principle apply to churches?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard comments that the only churches who are going to survive are those that have dedicated video and tech teams, state-of-the-art studios, and elaborate digital expertise. This is a classic “strong link” point of view. It assumes that something of exotic quality is required to prevail – that LeBron James is the only one who can win the game.
However, I contend that this way of thinking means approaching a weak link problem with a strong link solution. This crisis has, among other things, helped to strip away the superfluous and impose a reconsideration of the fundamentals. For example, individuals are now making masks in their homes; no rockstar scientist required. Tackling weak link problems is accessible to far more people. Likewise, churches of varying sizes, budgets, and ages can meaningfully engage at least two “weak link” phenomena that are crushing far too many people: 1) receiving true communication and 2) finding true community.
True Communication and True Community
Throughout this pandemic, there has been no shortage of articles in our newsfeeds citing two accelerating trends: the rise of distrust and misinformation, and the rise of loneliness and isolation. These are weak link crises. Discerning truth from falsehood and fostering meaningful relationships are not remarkable experiences reserved for the elite, but fundamental human experiences that confront everyone. Furthermore, damage to truth and damage to relationship are precisely the kinds of things that churches specialize in helping to repair. Since the inaugural sermon in the book of Acts, unflinching yet understandable communication of truth has been at the forefront of the church’s mission. And since the earliest church gatherings, building a new and sacrificial community has been central to the church’s durability.
Every church and church leader can ask how they can be meeting these two weak links. Gospel communication and Christian community are our paper gowns and masks. They appear too simple, too fragile, too weak to be of any real value, yet crisis reveals their true saving strength. Helping people to see and percieve all that Jesus has done to draw them into restored relationship to himself has the power to change everything about them.
Churches Doing What They Do Best
Relatively simple footage of a compelling gospel presentation will be more resonant to the heart than yet another highly produced self-help video or TED talk. Text messages or lo-fi phone calls will be more meaningful than off-the-charts Facebook “engagement” numbers. Small groups and Zoom groups with real friends and guests will pave the way for self-giving community in a way that collecting Instagram “likes” cannot.
Churches can and should engage the digital channels at their disposal, but it would be a mistake to think that staging the highest production levels or competing with professional Youtube influencers are the only ways to “survive” the crisis. Social and digital media are tools in the kit that churches can apply for greater ends. Mere survival thinking is missing the big picture. Churches have set before them the same weak links that they have always served, those social and individual vulnerabilities that have perennially existed but that have become freshly raw and exposed in these days of COVID19.
Local churches are made for this: contextually and creatively engaging real people in real places with real truth for real relationship with the real Jesus – our strength in weakness.
A version of this article first appeared on Orchard Group's blog