The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


October 21, 2021

Same Kind of Different

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In that same interview mentioned in the blog last week the question was asked, “What is the state of what some of us call Big Philanthropy in America.”

Big is usually relative, isn’t it? Not only that but bigness always faces challenges that are new. For generations in this country there were relatively few big churches. Even now, the average church size is around 100 attending. When we began Leadership Network in 1985 to focus on the growing phenomenon of large churches we could find only about 300 churches with a weekly attendance of 1,000 or more and today there are likely over 3,000 megachurches. While the issues of the average church had been fairly well defined for many years and there were countless resources produced to help them with those, there were not the same resources for the churches that had outgrown the historical model. Their issues were not sermon preparation and financial survival. Rather, they were finding themselves unprepared for managing a large staff, land acquisition, explosive growth and surviving success. They were often misunderstood, envied and scorned by those who had remained average and at times, like clumsy adolescents, unaware of how their growth made them what we used to call “too big for their britches.” They were in new territory. They were led by large personalities with expansive visions fueled by swelling human and financial resources. While they had training for some of the basics – like theology and preaching – they had no peers, models or experienced coaches for their new role. They were often like kites with no tails and rockets with no fins to guide them. In some ways, big philanthropy is the same. They are learning how their skills in making fortunes are not wholly adequate for giving at this new scale. They are bringing a mindset shaped by generations of both business and philanthropy to a venture that is off the map and beyond their headlights. They are often painfully naive, clumsy, ill-informed, narcissistic, overly ambitious and simplistic in their solutions for the problems they intend to solve. We have no shortage of examples for that. In fact, their harshest critics would even say they are predators having built their wealth on the misery of those they are now attempting to aid. In “Winner Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” Anand Giridharadas writes, “Profitable companies built in questionable ways and employing reckless means engage in corporate social responsibility, and some rich people make a splash by “giving back”—regardless of the fact that they may have caused serious societal problems as they built their fortunes…How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm.” But they are also voracious learners, open to risk and failure, visionary, adept at alliances and always testing the boundaries. They are learning – some better than others – how to handle their size.

It was Ray Bakke, an urban sociologist and missiologist, who first pointed out to me the difference between Paul’s image of Christ in Philippians and in Colossians. They are not in conflict but two sides of the same coin. In the same way that the writers of the four Gospels have different accounts, Paul has a Philippian perspective and a Colossian one of Christ. In Philippians, Christ has left all power behind and made himself nothing for entrance into this world. He emptied himself. The qualities we are encouraged to emulate are humility, like-mindedness, and considering the interests of others above our own. Ray even describes what a Philippian strategy for ministry would look like. It would be highly relational, deeply humble, and resolved to working out their faith in a crooked and depraved generation. It would be less triumphant because such relationships do not scale.

In contrast, Paul’s image of Christ in Colossians is “the firstborn of creation and a kind of cosmic glue that holds the entire universe together. He has unmasked principalities and has literally paraded them in the streets. Christ occupies a powerful reigning position physically in heaven, manifesting the “fullness of the Deity…in bodily form.” What, then, would a Colossian ministry look like? They would take this transcendent, powerful Christology and affirm Christ’s lordship over all the city systems and structures. They would take on the culture. Since Christ is more than Lord of the Church they would address every aspect of life – political, economic, social and environmental. Nothing would be outside the scope of their action. No challenge would be overwhelming.

Perhaps it is the same with philanthropy. Some are drawn to “this little light of mine” and others to “the people in darkness have seen a great light.” Some of us are Philippians and some Colossians but we are both learning our way.

You can get the new book “The Edge of the Inside” on Amazon.

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