The Spandex Rule

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Just because you should, doesn’t mean you can.

Tis the season for resolutions and big hairy audacious goals—for churches as well. This is when we resolve to have 8,000 baptisms by February, raise 2 trillion dollars to fight world hunger and to hasten the Lord’s return with our amazing acts of righteousness.

Good luck with that.

What I’m about to say isn’t cynical. It’s actually something I hope might bring some freedom and encouragement to your church.

Doing more doesn’t mean you’ve done more. It often means you’re simply more busy. More isn’t better. Better is better. In fact, solid ministry strategy might lead a church resolve to do less — reducing activity/spending for the sake of it’s actual mission—making disciples. Often, churches succumb a belief that if they do less of something in 2012 than they did in 2011, the church is, by default, heading downward.

Sometimes that’s true. But…

The problem with always hiking goals for money given to missions, the number of ministries a church is involved in, or the number of activities a church offers is it creates ministry bubbles with high expectations of perennial achievement that can’t possibly be met–and perhaps shouldn’t.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Of course we should have goals. We just need to make sure that doing more of what was God’s leading ten years ago is God’s will for us this year. Many churches assume so. The thought process works like this: if God wanted us to support a missionary in the Congo in the 1990s…he still wants us to and success in missions is defined by how much money we give toward the Congo compared to in years past.

Sound familiar?

There is always a point at which such a system becomes unsustainable and the forced reduction process an expensive lesson in humility and focus. More importantly, such an undisciplined ministry system fragments attention, resources and focus. It also keeps new ministry from being born because there’s no time, attention or resources to give to it.

When churches focus on preparing themselves emotionally, intellectually and spiritually for mission–they find mission clarifies and is more easily achieved because they have freed up the time and resources to go after it with unfragmented vigor. They also avoid those painful days when they will inevitably have to lay people off, bring missionaries home, or shut the doors—because they succumbed to the “more is always better” ministry lie.

I recently came across this in Harvard Business Review: “Scott Bedbury, the marketing genius who helped build the Nike and Starbucks brands, has a funny term for this same idea. He warns big brands against extending themselves too far — entering new markets, launching new products, selling their products in new retail environments — if there’s no strategic integrity behind the moves. He calls it the “Spandex Rule” of branding. (Inspired by the insight that just because you can wear Spandex jogging clothes doesn’t mean you should, as anyone who runs in public parks can attest.) “A great brand that knows itself also uses that knowledge to decide what not to do,” he argues.”

For Christians, it’s not a matter of brand management, but of missional clarity. It’s about pursuing what God wants us to with everything He gave us to do it with.

Many churches could (and should) stop doing 1/3 of their activities and ministries. In most cases, they would upset only those leading those activities and a few other devotees. The time and resources freed up could launch new ministries more on the mission mark—or increase involvement across other existing ministries. Why? There is more available bandwidth of time, resources, and focus.

Why won’t churches do it? Two reasons: first, because it sounds bad to say you’re stopping things–it sounds like failure. Second, because they lack the courage.

There’s that tricky dyad again: just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and just because you should, doesn’t mean you can.

A much more prevalent problem for churches is to know what they should do and not be able to do it. Why? Because of their polity, because of a dysfunctional system of doing church sown over years of tolerating what shouldn’t be tolerated and allowing themselves to be forced to do what they can do but shouldn’t.

This new year may be a great time for your church to take stock and resolve to do less and in doing so, become more. Sometimes doing more is the right thing to do. For most churches, however, we should be doing less better—and saving the “more” for things we aren’t already doing. Sometimes doing more is better. Not always.

So, set goals, but set good ones.

How about this one: to discover new opportunities for ministry and courageously clear the brush to journey there.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

6 thoughts on “The Spandex Rule