Bellbrook Presbyterian Church

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The Power of Positive Deviance

Posted on 8/6/2017 by SuperUser Account

In 1990, aid worker Jerry Sternin had been sent to open a new office of Save the Children in Vietnam. The government of the nation had invited Save the Children to open an office, yet when he arrived there, the foreign minister let him know that not everyone was pleased at his presence. “You have six months to make a difference,” he was told.

Sternin knew much about malnutrition.  It was often a result of a number of problems, problems which were intertwined.  Sanitation was poor.  Clean water was not readily available.  Poverty was high.  People were ignorant about nutrition.  But even though he knew these things, the information was useless.  He was not going to increase sanitation throughout the country, or clean water, or even the level of awareness about nutrition among the majority of families in Vietnam in six months.  He needed another strategy.

So he traveled to rural villages across the country and met groups of local mothers.  These mothers divided into teams and went out to measure and weigh every child in their village.  Then Sternin and the mothers pored over the results together.  “Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?” Sternin asked.  The women nodded and answered yes.  “You mean it is possible today in this village for a very poor family to have a well-nourished child?” he asked.  They again nodded and said yes.  And so Sternin and the mothers set out to see what these families were doing.  How do poor families in rural villages have well-nourished children?

Sternin was looking for bright spots.  He was looking for children who were healthy despite their disadvantages.  He did not have time or money to fix widespread root causes.  But if a small number of children were healthy, could every child be healthy?

To find a replicable solution, he knew he had to eliminate any bright spots that weren’t typical.  For example, a family might have a relative in the government who could send extra food to them.  While this would work for one family, it was not something that could be replicated across all families.  He needed a bright spot that could be applied over and over to each family.  And he needed it in six months’ time.[1] 

Sternin needed a positive deviant.

A positive deviant is someone or something, or a group of someone’s or something’s that do well in spite of their odds, and typically when others in their same situation are not doing well.  One of you told me a story about a little boy who was late to kindergarten every day.  But he made it to school and school was a priority, and he apologized for his tardiness each day.  As it turned out, the child was getting himself up, dressing him and his younger sister, and preparing breakfast for the two of them each morning - - coffee toast - - and then he got himself to school.  That child is a positive deviant.  Other kids in such a situation would likely not prioritize school, would oversleep, or at least would tell the sister that she’s on her own.  It is a special kid that wakes, dresses, eats, cares for sister, and gets to school eager to learn.  That’s a positive deviant.  They are all over if you look for them.

And positive deviants are important because they have a lot to teach all of us about how to solve problems that are overwhelming and multifaceted.  If there are children in Vietnam who are in poverty but still are nourished, maybe they are the positive deviants that Sternin needed and maybe he could help connect other mothers with their knowledge so that more children would be nourished too.

Back in the United States, in Canada, across Europe and in other “Western” parts of the world another problem exists - - much different from the one that Sternin was working on in Vietnam.  In the Western world, the church, as a whole, is in decline.  That is not to say that there are not growing churches, because there are, but across the board, churches are fewer in number and fewer in membership.  There are many people - - people who have PhD’s in anthropology and missiology and theology and sociology and statistics and many other professional fields who are studying this baffling situation, writing books, consulting and seeking that positive deviant that will “save the church” - - the silver bullet, so to speak.

In 1990, in our presbytery here in Greater Dayton, there were 67 congregations.  Today there are 49.  I hear pastors and elders ask all the time if God is done with congregational ministry. 

See the decline of the church fits perfectly with changes in social constructs and what are perceived to be standard behaviors.  In the 1950’s through the 1970’s and even a bit into the 1980’s, it was socially important to go to church.  So people went to church because it was perceived to be the thing to do; we still had shared values and priorities as a culture at that point, and those shared values were strong enough to get people to do what the majority of folks were doing.  And some people took their faith very seriously and the Gospel very seriously and lived their lives passionately for Jesus Christ.  But others were just there because everyone else was, and church was just church and it wasn’t really about life at all.  In the 1990’s church was getting less mainstream.  And today, church as we know it - - traditional worship in buildings just like this one - - is not mainstream at all.

Our culture is no longer bound by shared values.  The culture has preached pursuing our individual truths to the point that many people today wonder if there is truth at all.  It is frightening.  But it is also a tremendous opportunity for the Gospel.  People are thirsty for truth, for something bigger than themselves, for something sure and certain, for boundaries, for hope!

But instead of looking at the mission field opportunities, many congregations are panicking.  Numbers are down.  Dollars are down.  And we are afraid.  And when we are afraid, naturally, we move to protect ourselves.  In the church, that means a tight grip on everything that we can grab hold of - - who comes in and who goes out, how things are done, what pennies are spent and which are saved.  We think that if we hold on to the church tight enough, if we control what happens here, if we only dole out the minimum of what we have we just might outlast this trend until church is cool again.

But church is not going to be mainstream cool again.  It is going to be countercultural and work in the face of looming forces we are only beginning to see and understand.

And as such, a tight grip doesn’t work. 

Instead, the churches that are the “bright spots” or “positive deviants” are not those who are holding out, but those who are opening themselves up to the Spirit of God.  One of the most interesting locally is Huber Heights; a church with a preschool that was packed to the gills with a waiting list but declining worship.  The pastor and leadership team began to ask an interesting question - - what if instead of us being a church with a preschool, we were a preschool with a church?  They are expanding the preschool out of one designated wing into the rooms used for Sunday School - - these rooms can still be used for Sunday School on Sunday mornings, but were getting little use during the week and now are generating revenue.  And the children have been joining the pastor in the sanctuary each day for worship and prayer.  Rev. Maggie Gillespie shared recently how she starts to pray during prayer time and then listens as three and four year olds gathered in a circle with her begin praying in their own sounds and words.  She said their relationship - - that of the church with the preschoolers and their families has totally changed.  And guess who are beginning to come to church on Sundays?  Preschoolers who are bringing moms and dads.  That is courageous, Spirit led change.

But when churches don’t have a preschool or another such initiative, what do churches do?  They have to figure out a way to connect with, bring service and meaning to, their community.  How in the world do you do that?

Years ago a staff person from the National Office of the Presbyterian Church came to Dayton.  At least one elder from this congregation attended and remembered not only the name of that man, Rev. Phil Tom, but also much of his presentation.  As I hope you read in the Bellringer, through a series of Spirit led events, I was able to spend some time with Rev. Tom at his church in the Bronx in New York on July 5th.  And what he shared with me was fabulous.  It is an intentional process designed to connect a congregation with its community and in doing so, to connect the community to the church which then will result in the church building and growing in partnership with the community. 

Rev. Tom said to pick four weekends, knock on as many doors in Bellbrook as possible, and don’t try to sell anything!  Don’t ask people to come to church, don’t tell them what time services are, don’t tell them how fabulous we are.  Instead, do this.

“Hi, my name is Diane and I am from the Presbyterian Church right there across the street.  We are out getting to know our neighbors today and I wonder if you would mind if I ask you four quick questions.  (1) How long have you lived here? (This is a softball question, designed to warm them up a bit, but also informative.)  (2) What are the three things that you worry most about or that you think are biggest needs in our community? (Culled with data from all of the other conversations, this identifies the greatest needs.)  (3) Would you be willing to help work on ways to address any of those needs if there was a community effort to do it?  (We make a list of potential helpers as we go.)  (4) Who else should we be talking to?  (Helps to find community leaders/connectors.).  Thanks for your time.  I appreciate your taking time to talk with me.  Here is my phone number if you think of anything else you might want to share.  Have a good afternoon.”

Then we take the info from all of those conversations, figure out what the most significant needs are and pick one or two or three that we as a congregation would like to live out the Gospel in regard to - - maybe it is serving veterans, maybe older adults, maybe school age children - - who knows.  The options are endless but instead of our trying to design something and hope that the community wants it, this allows us to find out what the community wants and needs and design something for that specific need.  Additionally, whatever the needs is and whatever the response is, we don’t do it alone.  We invite people from the community in to work alongside of us, because after a while, many will not just be people in the community, but a part of the church. 

How do we invite them?  After the data is tallied we go back to the doors that we knocked on and share the information with them.  “I spoke with you six weeks ago.  I just wanted to share with you what the rest of the community said.  You indicated an interest in helping to meet the needs of local veterans and we are going to develop some programs to do that.  I’d like to invite you to work with us on that if you are willing to.”

Please don’t freak out - - you are not going to be required to knock on anyone’s door.  I am hoping that some of you will be excited about this and willing to do some door knocking, but if not that is okay.  I am totally up for starting now and I will knock on as many doors as I can.   

And please don’t say, “that won’t work”.  That’s the kiss of death, my friends.  Look up Ezekiel 37 and see what happened in the valley of the dry bones.  God asked if the bones in the valley would live and the human answer was not “no way”.  The human answer was “only you know, O Lord”.  So don’t give up before we’ve let the wind blow.

The Mission Ministry will be meeting later this month and doing some planning.  If you are at all interested - - even if you don’t want to knock on doors but would be willing to pray or help tally information, or identify the doors we should knock on first, please come to that meeting.  This church has a long history of ministry in this community.  God is not done with congregational ministry.  God, by the power of the Holy Spirit is calling us into new things.

Over four weeks, we’ve been looking at and praying into and over and through Ephesians.  Powerful stuff.  I hope you will dwell on it and in it even more.  Ephesians calls us again and again to know who we are, to live lives that are distinctly different from the rest of the world as followers of Jesus Christ, and to live lives worthy of our calling.  And you know what, sometimes that is downright intimidating.  And Ephesians, quite frankly, here in Chapter 6 tells us we should be intimidated.  There are forces at work in the world that are not friendly!  And so, we get tempted to think we need fancy equipment, or lots of money, or whatever it may be if we are going to do the work and will of God.  But the truth is that God will give us everything we need.  And it is not always - - if ever - - what we would expect.  God gives us armor, protective gear that will help us as we go out into the world and it looks like this:  fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes put on your feet whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the world of God.  Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.”  That’s it.

Go out and be the church.  Go out and proclaim the Good News.  Go out and minister to the world.  God’s not done with the church.  God’s not done with congregational ministry.  God is just calling us out of trying to be mainstream and into being faithful.  God is calling congregations - - this congregation - - to be a bright spot, a positive deviant, in a needy world.  There’s a lot of power - - Spirit power - - in that.

Back in Vietnam, Sternin and those mothers found the secret to nutrition for children in a poor, needy land.  The mothers who had nourished children were feeding their kids rice, like all of the mothers were.  But in addition to that, they were mixing in small shrimp and crab that were in the rice paddies, they were mixing in sweet potato greens which were considered by many to be a low-class food, and the parents were more aggressive in feeding their kids - - they didn’t just feed the children when they were hungry, they fed them at least twice a day even if they had to put the food into the child’s mouth.  So when kids were less hungry due to an illness, or the heat, or some other variable, they were still getting nutrition anyway.  It was a bright spot, a positive deviant, that could be replicated.

Sternin didn’t present the “solution” as his.  He didn’t make himself the proclaimer of this news.  Instead, the mothers taught other mothers.  Sternin was just the energy and the connector - - the community of moms had all of the information that they needed and the will to share the information with one another.  They just needed someone who was willing and able to help them connect together.

Powerful ministry does that.  It connects us inside with one another.  It connects the church with the world.  And maybe most ironically of all, somehow we grow - - somehow WE GROW as a result of reaching out to and ministering to our community and our world.  That’s line four of our mission statement, isn’t it.  Growing through serving our community.

I hope you will be fired up to door knock, but if not, there are many other roles that will need to be filled, and more than anything, we will need lots of prayer.  Let’s reach out.  Let’s make sure that people have the worship and learning opportunities that they need to be disciples.  Let’s minister to our community and in doing so, God will fill us in ways we can’t even yet imagine.

I’ll close with words from Philip Brooks.  “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people.  Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks.  Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.  Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”

So be it.

All glory be to you O Lord.  Amen.



[1] Switch.  Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

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