The Barbell Strategy and the Church in the New Covid World
In the financial world, there is a concept known as the barbell strategy. The strategy consists of putting 90% of your money in low-risk investments—something like mutual funds or maybe investing in silver. Then you take the other 10% of your money and invest in something very risky—something like cryptocurrency. What you don’t want to do is put most of your money in moderately risky things because moderately risky will not yield good results. You will be too exposed to downswings in the economy, and you will not be exposed enough to potential upswings.
This concept actually plays out across many domains—including in the church. Here are a few examples.
The idea of fasting is to not eat any food at all for an extended period of time. I have learned a lot about fasting over the past year and have experienced some positive benefits including weight loss. The biggest learning for me has been this: If you want to be healthy and lose weight, then you either fast or feast. In other words, eat till you are full or don’t eat at all. The worst thing you can do (which oddly enough is what most people do) is to just graze all day long. As in, eat when you wake up, grab a mid-morning snack, have lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, dinner, and a snack before bed. That won’t work. That is living in the middle of the barbell. You will not see results there.
The longest commandment in the Ten Commandments is the 4th which is the commandment for the Sabbath. God instructs his people that on one day a week they should do no work. Perhaps the reason it is such a wordy commandment is that the Lord knows our hearts will try to figure out any way around it. We will try to figure out how to work on our day off—to check our email while sitting by the pool, to get up early on vacation to check in with the office a little bit, etc. This approach to rest is middle-of-the-barbell stuff. The concept should be either you work (“For 6 days you shall labor”) or you rest (“and on the 7th day you shall rest”). Work or rest. Don’t just kind of work or kind of rest. It makes you a bad employee and it makes you feel not rested.
In keeping with the barbell strategy, here is my best exercise tip. Workout hard in the time that you have. Do the 25-minute workout that has you dripping with sweat by the end of it. Push yourself to get that extra rep. Go big or go home. Or rather, go big and then go home. The worst thing you can do when you exercise is to just kind of do it—to lightly jog on the treadmill while reading a magazine. That is middle-of-the-barbell stuff and you will not get results there. Work hard. Push yourself. Test your limits. Then go home.
So…What does this have to do with church?
I’m seeing a lot of discussion in the church world about what church should look like in the post-Covid world. And a lot of energy is being spent trying to figure out what is next and how churches should pivot to reach the lost and more effectively make disciples. I’m all for these discussions. But it seems like a lot of chatter is also going on simply about how to get people back to church in order to fire up the same programs we had before. How we can get back to business as usual. Should we be digital? Physical? Phygital?
Yet, if the point of these discussions is to figure out how we can get back to church as usual, this all seems wrongheaded to me. I think the truth about the Western church prior to Covid is that we actually were doing a pretty poor job of making disciples of Jesus. Covid (and race riots and insurrections and Christian nationalism and CRT and all the things…) just brought that reality to the surface. We were not deeply rooted in our faith. We were attempting to make things grow in shallow soil. So, the sun rose and we were scorched because we had no root and we withered away.
To put this another way, church in the West has been a middle-of-the-barbell experience and we’ve gotten middle of the barbell results. Why spend so much energy on trying to draw people back to a mediocre experience?
I believe the way forward is to embrace the barbell strategy—to structure our churches for the edges and not the lukewarm middle. What would that mean practically? A couple ideas come to mind, and they have to do with clarifying what the edges of our barbell need to be.
1) We have to be serious about discipleship.
In my church, we are seeing more traction with same-gender spiritual formation groups of less than 5 people than we are with larger mixed-gender, typical small groups. I think small groups the way they are done in most churches are just more middle-of-the-barbell stuff. They often require mediocre commitment and bring mediocre results. We’ve done this for decades. It’s time to move out to the edge. It’s time to get our groups together to study the Bible verse-by-verse. To challenge each other to grow. To set goals and be held accountable for reaching them.
As we disciple people, a core emphasis we need to rediscover is spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are absolutely what is needed in our hectic world. Teaching people to slow down, pray, get quiet, get alone, give generously. Yes, we have preached on those things. But preaching is not enough. Preaching is too often just watching someone else live out their faith and telling everyone about it hopefully in an inspirational way. We need to engage it ourselves. We need to practice the faith and to check in with others on it. To memorize Scripture and recite it to others.
2) We have to be serious about evangelism.
The landscape has dramatically shifted in the West. I think history will point to either 2007 (invention of the iPhone) or 2012 (the year over 50% of the population had a smartphone) as the turning point. In the church, we need to wake up to this reality. I’m not talking about the reality that people are online and therefore we need to put the gospel online. I’m not even talking about more live-streaming of a worship service. Most churches were aware of that need and if they weren’t, lockdowns made them aware. I’m talking about understanding and engaging a worldview shift that has happened.
I think the default evangelism model for our modern world—say in the 1950s and 60s (which bled over into the seeker churches of the 80s and 90s)—began with a premise that people had a God-shaped hole in their hearts and the church was there to help fill that hole. You could make the appeal to people and challenge them to live a better, more moral life and they would mostly agree with you. They would have a sense that there is a God-given standard in the world and that they were not living up to it.
Those days are over.
It’s not that people just do not understand what the church is offering. It’s that what they think the church is offering is vastly inferior, immoral, and oppressive.
And this shift has happened quickly. When I was a teen, if I had said I was not going to have sex until I was married, my peers might have said, “That’s good that you are doing that. I could never do it. But I respect that you are trying.” That is no longer the reaction you will get. The reaction you get now is that your moral standards, especially with regard to sexuality, are wrong and oppressive. Instead of a place of high morals and values and beliefs, the church has begun to be seen as a place grounded in bad morals and values and oppressive beliefs. This shift has happened very quickly, and we need to wake up.
We will have to get more out on the edge. You can’t just kind of do evangelism. You can’t even resort to offering typical apologetics (e.g., why does God allow so much suffering in the world?) In my experience, people aren’t naturally asking those questions. Why not? God is just not on their radar. We have to back way up and start building new bridges to faith for people. We have to come up with new ways to articulate how Jesus addresses their pains and how Jesus brings about real gains.
All of this shifting in our culture over the last few years actually has me optimistic.
I already had the nagging sense that what we were doing in the church was mediocre. It wasn’t producing great results, but as long as the graphs were up and to the right (attendance, buildings, and cash), we could convince ourselves otherwise. Covid has made us ask tough questions and confront ugly realities. If we are going to get healthy we have to be honest about why we are sick.
The church has a great advantage in that it is not anchored to the here and now. The church is not a product of whatever is hot in our cultural moment. Therefore, it has something to offer to critique our cultural moment. My sense is that more people will be open to hearing that critique if we offer it in some new, more winsome ways.
One thing is for sure: we can’t go back to the middle of the barbell. We saw what kind of results that produced. But if we lean into discipleship and evangelism, I think we can become the church Jesus had in mind.
If we lean into discipleship and evangelism, I think we can become the church Jesus had in mind.