When Christians compete

In Marketing & Ministry by Allen Thornburgh

On April 4, I’ll be facilitating “Innovation That Works” at CLA’s Outcomes conference with my friends Mark Neigh, Senior Product Developer at Masterworks, and Kyle Barthelson, Vice President of Direct Marketing at Alliance Defending Freedom. Our goals are to make sure you have a great time learning a ton and walk away with an innovation to take back to your organization.

While it’s not solely tied to innovation, Kyle and I have been talking a lot about competition in recent days. So we decided to take the conversation to the Masterworks’ blog. I’ll kick it off here. And Kyle will add to it tomorrow. We hope you’ll join in!

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

1 Corinthians 9:24 is a favorite of many Christians, but none more than Christian endurance athletes. A Christian marathoner reads that verse and thinks now you’re talkin’ my language!

Here’s something else you often hear in Christian circles, usually Christian non-profit circles: There’s no competition in the Kingdom.

Hmmm.

That one’s always struck me oddly. On the one hand, I can appreciate the idea that we don’t want to see ourselves as hoping to succeed at a fellow Christian’s expense. If that’s a bit tribal, it seems like a good type of tribalism.

On the other hand, I’m glad that Christian athletes don’t take such an approach to their work. It would be a rather boring NFL game to have Christian cornerbacks allowing opposing wide receivers to score touchdowns at will.

Is it possible that there can be competition in the Kingdom, and it can be a good thing?

I believe so.

Thinking back to 2011 when I worked at Prison Fellowship, we had a hypothesis as the foundation of one of our innovation projects — that the early stage trend of Obstacle Course Racing (Spartan Race, Tough Mudders, etc) was a strong opportunity for Prison Fellowship to develop and launch a unique peer-to-peer fundraising effort.

As an early test to our hypothesis, we picked a race in Virginia.

Now, while Reebok has since purchased Spartan Race and changed a few things to, well…avoid personal injury lawsuits, its early years were a bit wilder. In particular, its primary signature was the “gladiators,” who waited for racers in front of the finish line, for the purpose of pummeling the exhausted racers with pugil sticks just before they finished.

In fact, Spartan Race put out “greatest hits” videos showing their gladiators, as they sent racers flying with well-aimed strikes. Pretty much, the question wasn’t whether or not the gladiators would deliver a final humiliation before the finish, but rather how epic would it be.

To make a long story short, Prison Fellowship recruited the largest team that Spartan Race had yet seen, got race jerseys made, told the Spartan Race folks that we were going to mow down their gladiators (which they loved), did all sorts of crazy training and showed up to the race in the best shape of our lives.

We raced through a sloppy, nasty and exceptionally difficult course, along with 2,000 of our closest friends, all the while hearing updates over the loudspeakers — “The Prison Fellowship team is at the mud crawl!”…“The Prison Fellowship team is at the spear throw!”…and then, mercifully, “The Prison Fellowship team is coming down the final stretch!”

As promised, just before the gladiators we lined up our team — shoulder to shoulder — and charged.

Our team mowed the gladiators down, as promised. And we — Prison Fellowship — became the story of the race.

While this is a story of innovating something new, I think it also illustrates 3 huge benefits of competing that we can apply in our ministries:

1. Competing helps us perform our best. We want to win, and that drives us to make sacrifices in order to gain ability in our craft. If your organization competes — yes, even against other organizations — it will bring out the best in your individual team members.

2. Competing helps us come together as amazing teams. Winning requires us to come together to want the best for each other, so that we can be our best team. When your ministry’s team members come together to compete, they will become a stronger, more effective team.

3. Humans notice competitors. Who has always made up the pantheon of heroes in cultures worldwide? Competitors! They inspire us, so we notice them. As you lean forward to compete, your organization will be noticed and admired.

Now, do we, as ministries in the Kingdom, want to “beat” each other, so that other ministries “lose”? Of course not. On that muddy day in 2011, there was only one true winner (far be it from this Gen Xer to advocate participation awards!). But also, everyone succeeded. We brought our best selves and captured the imaginations of a lot of people.

That’s what you want as an innovative Kingdom organization.

Competition in the Kingdom is good. And competition just might be the fuel you need to drive new innovation that expands your good work and attracts new partners to support your organization.