The Actual MVP

November 29th, 2010

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Dwight Howard was not the actual MVP.

A few years back, the woeful Washington Wizards upended the Orlando Magic in an otherwise forgettable game. The press highlighted the game’s high scorer, Orlando’s Dwight Howard. Yet the NBA’s scoring system graded him as only third best that night. Highlighting the third best player is a minor matter but it raises a major question: Does the church use a scoring system highlighting those who historically proved best at spreading the gospel? Does it know the actual MVP?

Dwight Howard was highlighted because the press operates by a rather simple system. It celebrates stars like Howard, who had a good night with 23 points and 11 rebounds. The Washington Wizards’ Brendan Haywood on the other hand is viewed as a mere mortal in the pantheon of NBA gods. He only scored 18 points. But according to the NBA’s complex scoring system, he was the game’s actual MVP.

The NBA uses a formula developed by Kansas City Star reporter Martin Manley called Efficiency Rating (EFF). It measures more than scoring. The EFF formula is: Points + Rebounds + Assists + Blocks + Steals – Missed Field Goals – Missed Free Throws – Turnovers. EFF considers complexities such as missed shots as well as made shots, missed free throws as well as made free throws. A player will likely cause his team to lose if he makes 15 shots, scores 30 points, yet also misses 25 other shots.

In the Wizards/Magic game, Brendan Haywood scored 18 points but didn’t miss a shot. He was most effective in part because he was most efficient. Haywood went 6-for-6 from the floor, 6-for-6 from the foul line, had no turnovers and pulled down 18 rebounds. His EFF was 32. Howard’s was 24. Haywood was the game’s actual MVP, raising a question for the faith community: Does it have a scoring system that highlights those who historically did the best job of spreading the gospel? It doesn’t appear to.

In many cases, the church highlights evangelists, clergy, and missionaries as the MVPs. Church planters and evangelists of course do good things. But according to historians, it was businesspeople circulating from city to city who had the most significant effect on spreading the gospel in ancient times. “Although wandering preachers may have been the first Christians to reach Rome,” writes Rodney Stark in Cities of God, “it seems likely that the primary bearers of the new faith were rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial reasons.”1 They were the Early Church’s MVP.

This scoring system is spelled out in many books, including Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom, and The Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne A. Meeks. By starting in cities and changing commercial enterprises, the gospel rode the wave of business travelers who proved to be the most efficient (and effective) way to spread the gospel. Their success was so great that by A.D. 350 the Christian population of the Roman Empire had grown very large. As Lucian the Martyr put it early in the fourth century, “almost the greater part of the world is now committed to this truth, even whole cities.”2 This isn’t to say pastors and evangelists aren’t valuable players. They are—but they’re not the most valuable.

There’s a reason why clergy in supportive roles works so well. It’s found in scripture, when Jesus said if you want to be great in his kingdom, be the servant of all. It’s found in the findings of David McClelland and David Burnham. Their research indicates the most effective leaders and companies “return authority”—a phrase that might be hard to fathom. McClelland and Burnham define return as give back and authority as those having the most practice and proficiency. In the past, managers “took” authority from workers, assuming managers were the authority for solving business problems. They were the MVP. But McClelland and Burnham have discovered that practitioners—workers on the shop floor or salespeople in the field—are the most effective and proficient in knowing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of problems and challenges in the workplace. They are the better authorities. When C-level leaders “return authority” to the actual MVPs in the workplace, company performance improves dramatically. This dynamic of “return authority” is not only effective in the workplace, it actually explains much of the Early Church’s success that Stark, Meeks, Brown and others have observed.

The Early Church’s growth was primarily due to those in commerce, with clergy assisting businesspeople. The church viewed those in commerce as the best authority for making the gospel meaningful in the workaday world. Clergy recognized business professionals as most proficient in knowing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of cities and commercial enterprises. Businesspeople were the actual MVP—a reality all too often missing in today’s church.

“We have attempted to transform our cities for years without success,” writes Peter Wagner, a former professor of Church Growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary. “I now believe the reason is because pastors and church leaders do not have the authority to do so. That authority lies within those leaders in the marketplace. When we recognize and affirm the apostles in the marketplace we will begin to see the transformation of cities.” Wise words from a wise sage.

It’s been said revolutions occur “when the shopkeepers get it.” Yet it is hard for shopkeepers and business professionals to get it when the faith community mostly highlights the heroics of vocational ministry leaders. These people matter, but they are not the actual MVP. The church needs a truer scoring system highlighting those who were historically the best authorities for spreading the gospel. If the church wants to get the gospel back in the game, clergy are not the MVP. It is actually those in commerce.

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1 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), p. 73.
2 Stark, Cities, p. 64.

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