Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. – Jesus, Matthew 10:39 (NIV)
I have thought for many years that playing “not to lose” was the game. Then, after being a leader in several very tough situations, I acquired an idea that is less trusted–playing to win. A team must play to win, right? Yes. That is the goal. But as even more time has passed and life lived, I found from Jesus an even more rare thing in ministry leadership these days that is counter-intuitive yet powerful. It’s playing to lose.
A friend of mine led a youth ministry that I was very familiar with. His youth group began to grow, but that success seamed to cause more trouble that you would think. Why? While he was fulfilling his church’s clearly stated goal to expand and reach kids whose families did not attend church, the existing kids and their parents began to complain about the changes. The once popular youth pastor fell out of favor of the base. He was playing to win. Or, so he thought. Surely, the inwardly focused families were playing not to lose. He is no longer a youth pastor in that ministry.
In another setting many years ago, a side conversation about the goals of our church to reach our city were pragmatically defined. We started a church service to not lose some of the more traditional and established Christians who worshipped with us. “We need them for our paychecks.” Well, this was stated as something strategically to make more room in another service. But, we were playing not to lose money in the end. When things became successful, no one really won. We simply kept growing fatter. Not deeper. We did preserve a good amount of money, however.
In another setting some time ago, I planned to expand our worship team by creating open slots for musicians to fill in our team. The drummer–the one an only drummer–stated his vehement opposition to my plans. “I am the church’s drummer, Rich!” Upon further conversation, my younger self showed him the door and he loudly left, along with our best vocalist who happened to be his wife. My job was on the line until the following weeks provided a bounty. There were three incognito drummers sitting in the pews who were actually more talented than the one we lost. In time, we discovered other women who were fantastic vocalists and worship leaders. Not all losses work out so cheerfully, however.
What are you willing to lose? In order to actually play to win you have to lose. We all want to reach our city, but are we willing to be less “churchy” to be contextual to our neighbors and lose some who love to hear insider language? Or, are we willing to lose established members when it comes time to choose between our next generation or slow decline? Are we willing to lose our fans in our inner circle in order to challenge them to be more than fans and actually sacrifice with us for the mission?
Playing to lose is actually the only way to win. You as a leader choose what the loss is. If you lose time, you might lose opportunity. If you lose friends, you might gain converts to the gospel. If you lose your job, you might keep your conscience. Some churches might be best to lose their building if it actually keeps them from their original mission. I loved hearing Rick Warren years ago challenge a few church leaders to “focus on new people” in order to grow our ministries. Yes, he knew that would up uphill for his listeners to implement. After all, it is status quo that is our enemy almost 90% of the time. This loss is the one we must embrace. Right?
The bottom line is this: Playing to lose is the Jesus way of leadership. Jesus asks us to lose, not because we are losers, but because the fight has already been won. People need the story and proposition that the gospel provides while we fight for relevance to our Christian-leader friends on social media. We win the inactive believers over for a paycheck and peace, while our city waits for us to invite them into a life with Jesus. You play to lose in order to win. What are you willing to lose?