title church and the infinite game

Church and The Infinite Game

Are you trying to play an infinite game with a finite mindset?

Just less than a month ago, Simon Sinek released his new book The Infinite Game. I had been waiting with anticipation for it for several months, and having read and reflected, I want to talk about how Sinek’s ideas in The Infinite Game can help us think in some healthy ways about how we do church. Most content for the ideas in this post derives from Sinek’s book. When I can, I will reference locations in the Kindle edition.

What Are Infinite Games?

If you grew up playing games like Monopoly or Checkers, you may tend to think of a game as something with set rules and parameters, a finite number of roles and resources, and a definite starting and ending point. These kinds of games make for a nice evening with a few friends. Everyone plays by the same rules from the same beginning, and at the end, someone is declared the clear winner. This is how finite games work, but it isn’t generally how life works.

Especially with the rise of MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) we have seen people thinking about games in new ways. In fact, a person may have a single character in one of these games that they develop over years of involvement in the game. Some key differences between finite and infinite games:

  • In finite games, all players are known and their roles are defined.
    In infinite games, there are both known and unknown players who enter and exit the game at all different times.
  • In finite games, there are firm agreed-upon rules.
    In infinite games, there may be general laws that set broad boundaries for how players conduct themselves, but they may freely improvise within those boundaries.
  • In finite games, when the time runs out, the game ends and the players live on.
    In infinite games, it is the players whose time runs out, and it is the game itself that lives on.

Playing the Wrong Kind of Game

Sinek’s book is written with business in mind, and it is from the business world that he derives most of his examples. He warns about the problem of executives thinking finitely, playing to “win” rather than to continue a worthy ideal-driven endeavor which possesses potential to inspire and motivate a company over generations.

Many of his examples involving Microsoft Executive Steve Ballmer are unflattering demonstrations of a finite mindset.

“But in the last thirteen years, I bet we’ve made more money than almost anybody on the planet. And that, frankly, is a great source of pride to me.” It seems Ballmer was trying to say that under the thirteen years of his leadership, his company had “won.”

Location 317

Sinek would remind us that much of what we do in life and business is not nearly so closed off at certain milestones:

We can beat out other candidates for a job or promotion, but no one is ever crowned the winner of careers.

Location 126

“Winning” at Church

Sinek’s description of this limited, finite mindset reminded me of my experiences with a particularly large church. At least, a formerly particularly large church. I was never employed here and never attended here other than a visit here or there, but it was not hard to find long-tenured members who could never get past the glory days. They had been a huge church. They had the “best” preacher at their helm for many years, who was indeed a visionary leader and gained for a lot of attention. But those days are gone.

For many people I know who ministered after this time period, everything was always evaluated through this attachment to the past of when they were “winning.” They hired, chewed up, and spit out ministers in a rapid fashion. For several of the older members I spoke to from time to time, were you to ask them for their vision for the future, it would have required a time machine to implement. “If only we could get back to when we were the best…” As each subsequent new leader failed to get them back to that point, they dropped him and moved on, treating a problem with their mindset as if it were a problem with their staff’s performance.

To paraphrase Sinek: We can temporarily beat out other churches in size or growth rate, but no church is ever crowned the winner of churches.

We can set and achieve temporary goals, and even some very impressive ones, but what is it that can really drive us to be healthy and to maintain our health over a longer period of time?

Cultivating an Infinite Mindset

Drawing from Sinek’s principles, I want to suggest ways we can orient ourselves and our churches to a more infinite mindset.

1. Develop a Greater Mission that drives your church.

Sinek would call this a “Just Cause.” He says that a Just Cause must be (Location 540):

  • For Something – Affirmative and optimistic
  • Inclusive – Open to all those who would like to contribute
  • Service Oriented – For the primary benefit of others
  • Resilient – Able to endure political, technological and cultural change
  • Idealistic – Big, bold, and ultimately unachievable

It isn’t sufficient to settle for a goal of growth. Growth needs to be for something. Sinek says, “growth for its own sake, is like eating just to get fat. It pushes executives to consider strategies that demonstrate growth with little to no consideration of any sense of purpose for that growth (Location 810).”

There is particular benefit to developing a Greater Mission that is articulated in a positive, future-leaning way. Rather than, “Our goal is to be the biggest church in town,” try, “Our goal is to bring as many people with us to Heaven as we possibly can.” Rather than, “Our goal is to fight the moral corruption in America,” try, “Our goal is to live into a Christian view of what a good life can be, shining light on a path so that others can follow.”

It is also helpful to remember that no church can be great at everything. Many churches stretch themselves too thin trying to be generalists who attempt too many things but fail to do any of them with excellence.

It may be worth interacting with your congregation to try and establish what you all consider to be your congregational style and to lean into this as you cultivate your Greater Mission. In his book The Whole Church: Congregational Leadership Guided By Systems Theory, Kenneth Reeves mentions four typical styles with which a congregation might identify.

  1. The Sanctuary Congregation. The church provides an opportunity to withdraw from the trials of daily life and receive spiritual support within a community of fellow believers. Worship taps into the sacred, inspiring its members.
  2. The Civic Congregation. The church supports existing social and economic structures. It takes up social issues by providing a forum within which those issues can be discussed, enabling members to act, mostly on their own. To address hunger, this kind of church would host a soup kitchen.
  3. The Activist Congregation. This church engages in corporate-level action to transform social and economic structures with the goal of a just and loving society. Contrasted to a Civic Congregation, an Activist Congregation would lobby for justice, rather than start a soup kitchen.
  4. The Evangelistic Congregation. This church focuses primarily on bringing people into the faith. It communicates in a way that is externally-oriented to reach people with a saving message of hope, love, freedom, or meaning.

Your church probably has a style of operating that falls within one of those categories. While it isn’t necessary to stay only within one category, there is no harm in discerning your strengths and cultivating a goal that feels consistent with your congregation’s gifts and personality. As you develop and articulate your Greater Mission, it makes sense to build it in ways consistent with the church’s pre-existing identity and strengths.

2. Find and Empower People Who Embrace Your Greater Mission

I think one of the harder transitions for leaders, especially in a church with growth potential, is to have self-awareness of what their presence needs to be, and to adjust appropriately. Sinek mentions an example of an executive who formerly excelled at making sales who is now no longer responsible for selling, but for taking care of the people who do the selling (Location 932).

Especially in a church trying to break through size barriers of 200 or 400, many leaders struggle with the change in size dynamics. (By the way, if you’ve never looked at Tim Keller’s Leadership and Church Size Dynamics, it is a short document that every church leader out to consider seriously.) Instead of being the pastoral caregiver of the whole congregation, a leader may need to become more of a rancher who aids and empowers others who care for and lead the flock directly. To try and be everyone’s all-in-all will burn you out and make you a bottleneck who inhibits rather than aids good practices.

Even with a great vision, delegation is a critical skill for leaders who desire the reach of their organization to increase. In his enormously popular book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes five components necessary for effective delegation to occur:

  1. Desired Results. NOT methods. What is to be done and when? If you appoint someone you believe is competent, allow them to craft their own approach.
  2. Guidelines. What are the parameters within which the results are to be accomplished?
  3. Resources. What do they have available to them (human, financial, technical, or other forms of support) to help them accomplish their results?
  4. Accountability. What are the standards of performance and when will you be checking in to see how things are going?
  5. Consequences. What good things can happen if they follow through with this? What would happen if they didn’t?

3. Find Admirable Sister Congregations Who Inspire You

Sinek says that rather than maintaining a mindset focused on winning against our competitors, it is better to find other groups doing something similar to us with admirable excellence and to think of them as “worthy rivals.”

A disadvantage of churches of Christ and our insistence upon total autonomy is that we often miss out on the wisdom we could gain from deeper ties to sister congregations who have already worked through problems that we haven’t figured out how to solve yet.

We are all playing the same game. We are all working for the same cause. Why not take advantage of the wisdom of others who have worked through the very issues you are facing? Why not learn, both from their mistakes and from their victories?

Only a foolish leader would insist that every good idea must come from his or her own head. Get to know key people at other congregations you admire so they can help you gain an insider’s view of what it looks like when things are done well.

The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church about the Christians in Macedonia. In the midst of a “severe trial”, they practiced “rich generosity” and gave “even beyond their ability” in ways that “exceeded our expectations.” It helps us to know about other people who are doing things similar to what we are doing, but with greater excellence than we have done them.

A “worthy rival” can inspire us to do more and do better.

4. Commit more to the Greater Mission than to any particular path or strategy in pursuing it

The goal of an infinite game is to keep playing the game. There are numerous examples of businesses who have failed to innovate as the times have changed, and for that reason no longer exist.

In churches, our Gospel-derived core beliefs and values do not need to change. But the way we go about pursuing our mission might need to. Certainly, the rise of technology produces both new opportunities and new challenges. New conversations in culture provide us opportunities to reflect on ways we have done things to ask again whether these are still the best ways.

Sometimes it helps to let one approach to a ministry fizzle in order to start a fresh one. When this happens, we need to show love and appreciation to those who kept the old method going, but we don’t need to do this at the expense of missed opportunities.

In my own congregation, I have the occasional older member who is a little disappointed to learn they can’t get a “tape” of last week’s sermon. But I should always be willing to help them learn how to reach our podcast on their phone or computer. The innovation to podcasting and video sharing has helped us reach exponentially more people than our previous method of tapes or CDs. It has been a good change. But I shouldn’t let the success of a newer method cause me to be disparaging toward those who were comfortable with the old. One day, this new method will be the old method, and someone will need to innovate again. If I am a participant with an infinite mindset, I should help encourage this process when the time comes, rather than inhibit it.

Technology is one example. Your church’s demographics may be shifting. The demographics of your community may be shifting. In any of these situations, the needs will also be shifting. It’s important to minister to the people God has placed around you in the present time.

Consistency Over Intensity

Mature faith isn’t an achievement you unlock. It is an ongoing way of being. In this infinite game of life, our goal is to maintain and increase our spiritual health throughout the seasons we encounter. By attaching ourselves and our churches to a vision that is greater than any one person or congregation can accomplish, by working with people we respect and empower, and by allowing ourselves to be inspired by others who live into the same Greater Mission that we embrace, we can find purpose and satisfaction as participants in the mission of God. When we exit the game, we have ideally left our fellow players in an even better position to continue playing it well.

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