The vital (too) few

The church can do better than the 80/20 rule

Dec 5, 2016 by

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The 80/20 rule predicts that, in many events, 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. It’s called the “law of the vital few.” Human behavior confirms this principle when 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.

The rule applies to the church, too, including the offering plate. A congregation might meet its budget easily if every household gave its share. But that’s not likely to happen. Unless your church is exceptional, you have to depend on the vital few.

We don’t expect everyone to give the same number of dollars. Much is required of those to whom much has been given (Luke 12:48). But if only 20 percent tithe, the vital few are too scarce. God honors generosity, regardless of means. The poor widow’s two coins were worth more than all the others (Luke 21:1-4).

Perhaps a lot of small Mennonite congregations exceed the 80/20 rule’s predictions. It’s a necessity. The church can’t survive unless a high percentage of people go all in. Twenty percent is not nearly enough.

The vital few know you can hear a good sermon without paying for it, but in fact the church isn’t free. The laws of the marketplace apply.

Each of us is in charge of which businesses succeed or fail based on where we spend our money. If you want a bookstore in your town, you have to buy your books there. If you want a college in your denomination, you need to give to the annual fund and encourage young people to attend.

And — yes, you might have seen this coming — if you value a church periodical, you have to support it.

There’s a saying that information wants to be free. In one sense, that means people want information to be liberated or widely known. In another, it means a lot of people think information doesn’t cost anything. Free content online promotes the misconception that trustworthy news somehow just exists and always will.

The vital few know this isn’t true. Just as you can’t take your local bookstore for granted (if you still have one), you can’t assume your local newspaper or church periodical will go on forever. Survival is not assured. The latest casualties are two Canadian publications: Presbyterian Record, which announced it will cease publication this month, and Western Catholic Reporter, which folded in September.

The last few weeks of the year are the prime fundraising and gift-giving season for church ministries. This is the time to take nothing for granted. Let’s support the Christmas giving projects of Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Economic Development Associates. Let’s strengthen ministries like SEMILLA, the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary; and Instituto Bíblico Anabautista, the Mennonite Church USA education program for Spanish speakers. Let’s help Meserete Kristos College in Ethiopia complete a dormitory for women. Let’s sustain our periodicals.

If we expect more of ourselves, we’ll break the 80/20 rule and turn the vital few into the generous many.


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