Positive Deviants in the Church

Let’s face it:  Jesus was a positive deviant.  Jesus on Deviant Art

  • When most folks were “eye for an eye” people, he said we should turn the other cheek.
  • When the generous gave their coat, he said we should also give our cloak.
  • He told parables about people like the father who risked his dignity by running to welcome  his prodigal child home and the Samaritan who showed more compassion than two spiritual leaders who should have known better.
  • He invited himself to a loathed tax collector’s house for dinner.

So why aren’t we who seek to follow Jesus positive deviants too?  Maybe some of us are, but most of us lead by conventional ecclesiastical wisdom (i.e. what we learned in seminary.)

I’ve been reading about Positive Deviance in terms of agricultural development and business.  But I wonder how we might incorporate it into spiritual communities.

One example:  An urban pastor’s church serves lunch every Thursday but his staff is concerned that the diners steal all the toilet paper out of the bathroom. So, what are the options?

A) Do not allow guests to use the church bathrooms.

B) Post a church person at the bathroom to be sure no one tries to take the TP.

C) Give each guest a roll of toilet paper as a parting gift after lunch.

Note:  C is the ingenious idea of this pastor.

What deviant behavior is proving to bring positive results to your church or other faith community? Do you have good examples of outliers who find success in their ministry because they do the opposite of conventional wisdom?  I would love to hear about them.

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3 responses to “Positive Deviants in the Church

  1. Dan Anderson-Little

    Great post, Jan! Yes, I have a story. “Ralph” is a developmentally disabled man who only came infrequently to my last church until we started giving him a ride–then it was every week. Ralph was a challenge for many members because he was always unkempt (this is a very “kempt” church) and becausse he frequently asked for money during the Passing of the Peace–turns out he didn’t need the money, he just liked the exchange. Ralph has a big booming voice and you couldn’t miss him as he was always a beat behind everyone else when we recited the Lord’s Prayer. We felt like we had these options:
    A. Ask Ralph to quiet down.
    B. Ignore Ralph
    C. Ask Ralph if he would like to be a regular liturgist so he could lead the Lord’s Prayer.

    By God’s grace we chose C. And it was amazing! It so enriched our worship! And even more by God’s grace, Ralph and the congregation now say the Lord’s Prayer at the same pace–I suspect Ralph has sped up a bit, but I suspect also that the congregation slowed down a bit. A music therapist in the congregation called this process “entrainment” which means syncing up together–not a a bad theological picture of Christian community!

  2. The Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts has lots of resources for folks wanting to imagine how PD could be useful in the church (website is http://www.positivedeviance.org). A colleague and I are starting to employ PD to help churches and regional church bodies discover the positive deviants in their midst. I think of it as a methodology for doing discernment that begins with the assumption that the Spirit will give a community all the gifts (even the positively deviant ones!) it need to accomplish its mission.

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