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Probably most of you have heard of Malcolm Gladwell, the author behind such best-selling titles as Blink or The Tipping Point. If not, then just know that it’s stimulating, easy to read non-fiction that Wikipedia calls “pop sociology.” (Although I realize that someone could easily edit it if you wanted to fact-check me and change it to Andrew Peterson impersonator).
Anyway, Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, holds interesting truths within and specifically for the church. And it’s something I’m particularly drawn to since I believe the consequences could be huge.
Let me back up a bit by saying that I’m in the middle of 1 Timothy in our teaching series at church. One verse within mentions doing everything without favoritism and remaining impartial in selecting leaders. All of our teaching weeks have focused on the development of a new community – that our world around defines us by our job, our status, our race, our class, our gender. But the radical reality of the Kingdom of God wrecks all those identities and erases all those lines.
Gladwell’s basic premise (Spoiler Alert!): we are all the same in our ability to succeed. To argue his point, Gladwell enters the realm of athletics, law, politics, corporate millionaires (et al.) to realize that from Bill Gates to Wayne Gretzky, they were simply a product of luck or chance and hard work. And anyone else in their same shoes could succeed on the same level if they were also willing to work hard.
The idea might sound far-fetched because we’re taught from the beginning that some are “gifted and talented” – as my school called it – and the rest were, well, not. Thus those who are deemed as “special” are given the extra chances to be even more special, thus continuing to separate the lines between the haves and the have-nots. In the end, you’re left convinced that Gladwell is onto something and that our society has ruined countless opportunities to embrace the down and out because we’ve bought into this sociological lie.
This is beautiful news to someone like me, trying to get a community of people to realize that all are equal, that all are called children of God, and that the body of Christ shouldn’t play favorites. What if we didn’t choose our favorites from class, but instead worked with all kids equally and made sure they all had that same chance? What if we created systems of learning or tutoring that believed that every child who entered that room could – given the chance – become something “special?”
I’ve always been privileged. Sure, I have my downer stories (growing up in a trailer park, etc.) but my reality was that I had very active parents (mom mostly) who worked with me incessantly. I knew the alphabet forward at one and a half, backward at 2, books of the Bible memorized at 3 and reading small books at 4. Someone chose me early and made sure I would be something.
Gladwell’s book goes beyond “cool cultural insight.” What it does is give us some proof, some solid reasoning, behind the Christian calling to make things level – that we would follow Jesus into his interactions with the poor and oppressed and marginalized. And that along with our feet and Good News, that we might bring some opportunity with us to help call someone “special” who has never heard those words before.
Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.