CAN A MINORITY MINDSET HELP THE CHURCH IN AMERICA? - by Mark Pfeifer

Jesus saw the world from a minority perspective.

Although living as a male Jew in His native Israel, the people of Galilee had long been marginalized by their fellow- countrymen and by the Romans. The Romans had more than once marched into Galilee to put down rebellion, burning the countryside, razing villages and enslaving the population. The elite urban Jews of Israel considered the Galileans a nation unto themselves with their own customs, culture and dialect. The Mishnah confirms this attitude referring to their northern brothers as “another kind” of Jewish people. Even their accent was strange to the rest of the Jewish population; so much so, that Peter was identified by his Galilean dialect the night Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26:73). Known mostly for their abject poverty and violent political behavior, people often questioned, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)?” 

Growing up in the small town of Nazareth, with little more than 100 residents, Jesus would have experienced firsthand the poverty and marginalization that gave His family and fellow-Galileans minority status. He also would have felt the heavy backlash from Roman authorities against the people of Galilee because of the multiple uprisings led by numerous political and religious zealots who emerged from the improvised landscape. Among them was Judas the Galilean whose failed overthrow would have been witnessed by Jesus as a boy and whose grandfather, Hezekiah, was also killed by the Romans some 20 years before after an unsuccessful overthrow of imperial rule. The Roman historian, Josephus, concluded that the Galileans were “inured to war from their infancy.” 

As a young man following in his father’s footsteps, Jesus the carpenter probably found gainful employment in rebuilding of city of Sepphoris after the Romans destroyed it. This jewel of Galilee was a beautiful contrast to the impoverished villages that dotted the landscape around it. After it was destroyed 10 years earlier in retaliation to Judas’ uprising, this great metropolitan city, filled with wealthy Jews loyal to Rome, was being rebuilt with all the glory and splendor that reflected the opulence and power of Rome. Even the Galilean tetrarch Herod Antipas resided there within the gilded walls of his palatial estate. 

Seeing the contrast between the homes of the wealthy citizens built in Sepphoris and the crude, small huts of the homes in Nazareth must have reminded Jesus everyday of the insurmountable gulf that existed between the rich and poor. Bearing witness of His nation’s own subjugation to Roman authority, the majestic homes, botanical gardens and public works of Sipphoris testified of the futility of trying to overthrow Rome by force like so many Galilean zealots had tried in the past. During these formative years, the thoughts of a new type of community of faith must have crystalized in Jesus’ mind. Something new would have to be created in order to establish the Kingdom of God on earth – something different than what had been unsuccessfully tried by the zealots of Galilee and the politically-minded religious leaders in Jerusalem. 

Better than most, Jesus would have had the opportunity to see that all of Israel was but a small and relatively insignificant dot on the map compared to the massive Roman Empire. Living in the extreme north of His nation exposed Him to a realistic perspective on the geopolitical dynamics of the Empire. Trade routes created an intersection of cultures from Persia, the Mediterranean, Africa and Europe in His own backyard. Better than His more conservative religious counterparts living in the religious bubble of Jerusalem, Jesus saw things from a larger, more pragmatic perspective. 

Jesus knew that their present course of unconcealed rebellion against the Empire would be unsustainable. Just as easily as Rome had broken the backs of rebellions led by zealous Galileans in the past, they could easily quell any such violent uprising again. A new strategy had to be formed in order to preserve devotion to God in a hostile environment. Its message had to call for complete dedication while at the same time, remaining adaptable enough to be accepted by the many cultures and people groups that comprised the Roman Empire. 

Rome’s willingness to accept many diverse cultures and absorb them into the Empire was the key to expanding Jesus’ strategy. The Kingdom of God had to be realized without violence in a political environment attuned to insurrection. It had to grow organically within the boundaries of an empire that was diverse and widespread. The old strategies of implementing God’s Kingdom by brute force and violence would never work. This new form of the Kingdom needed to be nonthreatening, organic, innocent, inclusive, transient, decentralized and nonthreatening to an empire wary of insurgence. 

Politically, Jesus knew that to overthrow the empire by force was impossible. Prophetically, He could see the day coming when His nation in its present condition would be totally destroyed by the Romans. He knew that in order to survive, Judaism would have to become less political and nationalistic and more spiritually based. It would also have to become palatable for people of other cultures. With Israel ceasing to exist as a nation and their political and religious center (Jerusalem) destroyed, a new wineskin would be needed in order to contain a new understanding of the Kingdom of God in its spiritual sense. 

Jesus knew that in order to fulfill God’s purposes for His people among the nations of the earth, pressure would have to be exerted from a covert position within the Empire. There was a no way that an overt strategy of force and violence would succeed under the watchful eye of the Romans. Forceful advance of His Kingdom was out of the question. This was a lesson learned from experience by watching the repeated defeat of multiple Galilean zealots. His followers would have to be absorbed into the greater fabric of the Roman Empire as a minority group, while surreptitiously working for another King and Kingdom. They would have to be both harmless and cunning as they created a counter culture – as opposed to the strategy of fanaticism and nationalism practiced by Judaism in Israel. 

Speaking of His Kingdom, Jesus used analogies of seeds planted in the earth, blooms budding on trees, nets being drawn from the oceans, pearls being hidden and crops maturing to harvest. All of these parables had a common theme. They had small and hidden beginnings but would grow and produce fruit over time. So Jesus sent out His followers into the harvest fields to plant the seeds of His message in the hearts, homes and villages around them. When He sent them out He said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). ” 

Only a minority mindset can fully comprehend this statement! 

THE CHANGING POLITICAL LANDSCAPE OF WESTERN NATIONS... 

In most parts of North America, South America, Africa and Europe, Christians have been in the majority for centuries – if not by census at least by influence. For all or most of our lives we have enforced our will en mass as we passed laws that reflect Biblical principles. We went to bed most nights never worrying about whether or not our nation would remain “Christian.” While we imposed our will through legislative majorities at the voting box, other groups who opposed our views used minority strategies to gain influence. Today, things are changing. The fruit of their efforts, while being a minority for decades, has molded public opinion in their favor. 

Christianity by political and legislative power is becoming less and less effective. A new strategy is needed. As a political power, we are seeing our influence slip in many nations of the world. Many Christianized nations are now seeing traditional Christian values wane in the popular culture. This new strategy must reflect the Biblical position of Christ and the First Century Apostles – one that many church leaders had to emply all their lives in other nations of the world – but is new for many leaders in Western Nations. Perhaps we must start thinking like a minority again. Perhaps there are new dimensions to the teachings and sayings of Jesus. While not understood from a majority mindset, they can be more fully comprehended and implemented from a minority position. Perhaps there are ways in which thinking like a minority gives us an advantage. Understanding how to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves may be necessary again. 

FOUR WAYS IN WHICH MINORITY INFLUENCE IS ACHIEVED DIFFERENTLY THAN MAJORITY INFLUENCE... 

1. Majority influence is exercised by conformity while minority influence is achieved through innovation.

In his book Saving America, Roger D. Blackwell, Ph. D. talks about business leaders whom he calls “garage entrepreneurs.” These are people who start their business ventures with little or no capital, working out of their garages. According to Blackwell, these people have an advantage over better-funded business startups because they have to be creative in order to survive. In fact, Blackwell explains, many startup businesses fail not because they are under-funded, but because they are over-funded. This reliance on excess capital restricts the need to be creative. 

Innovation is necessary to stay ahead of the competition. Since garage entrepreneurs have little or no money, they have to become innovation experts. They take this innovative nature with them as their businesses grow. Creativity continues to give them a competitive edge. Among many examples, Blackwell mentions Amazon, Apple, Disney, Google, Harley Davidson, Hewlett-Packard, Lotus Car Company, Maglite Flashlights and Mattel Toys as garage entrepreneurs. 

Minorities have to be innovative to survive. This creativity is what gives them an advantage over majorities. No doubt the First Century apostles had to be creative in order to survive the ongoing threat of the Jews of the diaspora and the Roman authorities. One thinks of Paul’s message at Mars Hill, time spent in the courts of the proconsul Gallio in Corinth, his interaction with Felix, Festus and Agrippa after his arrest in Jerusalem, his many letters revealing out-of-the-box thinking for a former rabbi and his interaction with Publius on the island of Malta as examples of innovation messaging from a minority mindset.

One of the unfortunate side effects of being squarely in the majority is losing innovation. Churches can become lethargic and irrelevant when they rely on past success as a majority. They can become deceived in thinking that they will forever retain their present influence without effort. While other religions, philosophies and unbiblical worldviews have created influence through innovation, the church in many places in the world has continued to use outdated tactics in a post-modern world. Thinking like a minority will help recreate some of the creative instincts so prevalently practiced in the early church by apostolic leaders.

2. Majority influence is exercised by strength while minority influence is achieved by strategy

Several elders in our church are African-American. One of them, Mike Leonard, has taught me a lot about a minority mindset. Growing up in the government housing projects of Akron, Ohio, he says that strategy over strength was necessary to gain any amount of influence in the community. As a minority, he, his family and neighbors understood that they had to be wiser and more strategic than the majority in order to bring about change. While the majority group could impose their will by sheer political and legal force, the minority group had to be clever and calculated; dare I say, “wise as serpents and harmless as doves?”

From the early days of slavery, the minority position of Africans in America has endeared them to the old stories of Br’er Rabbit. These morality tales, brought with them in many forms from West African, were congealed into the endearing stories of the trickster rabbit that depended upon his superior wit to outfox the fox - who was superior in strength. In this metaphor, the African slaves saw themselves using their wit to outsmart their masters who were in the majority and in power.

Thinking like a minority means that many church leaders and congregations today will have to strategize more than ever to be effective. This goes beyond just moving from one event to another, hoping to bring change through public performances. As a minority, most overt strategies are off the table. There simply are not enough resources to make it happen. Rather, minorities depend upon covert strategies that are built on small but consistent achievements over time. These strategies must be painstakingly, purposefully and patiently implemented. Minorities seldom find success in quick, overwhelming achievement. Rather, it is consistent pressure over time that turns public opinion.

Serge Moscovici, a French Social Physiologist, argued that minority influence is effective as long as there is consistency over time and agreement among the members of the minority In the first study of its kind on minority influence conducted 1969, he established that a minority was able to change the opinions of the majority and exert considerable influence if the minority had a consistent, unified and appealing message over time.

These three basic conclusions were reached:

1. Minorities must know their positions well

2. Minorities must have a single voice

3. Minorities must be consistent on message

Many of the most effective strategies in the future of the church in the West will be realized by the generation of children being born today. Quick and easy victories are indulgences enjoyed by the majority but not the minority.

3. Majority influence is exercised by intimidation while minority influence is achieved by being appealing

The message that Jesus gave to His apostles to spread throughout the world is the most attractive message known to man. It’s depth and beauty is unfathomable. In the First Century, this message spread among the social elites as well as the slave class. It was common to everyone because it was so appealing. To the social elites, it provided something that their unbridled indulgences could not. It gave them something that the transcendent gods of the Greco/Roman pantheon could not provide. At the same time, this message of salvation, freedom and brotherhood appealed to the slave class because it gave them hope in an otherwise hopeless existence.

In their 1994 work, Minority Influence, Wood, Lundgren, Ouellette, Busceme, and Blackstone describe the procedure of minorities creating influence on the majority by purposefully creating a message that is both innovative and appealing.

“By presenting information that the majority does not know or expect, this new or unexpected information catches the attention of the majority to carefully consider and examine the minority's view. After consideration, when the majority finds more validity and merit in the minority's view, the majority group has a higher chance of accepting part or all of the minority opinion.”

The church today can no longer win public opinion and control the conversation by intimidation. No longer can we assure our message is heard through the voting box. No longer can we depend upon legislation to invoke Christian values upon the public. No longer can we assume that Christian morals and values will be reinforced in our educational systems and public squares. No longer can we act like a majority and superimpose the Christian message over the nation’s flag. We must learn to think like a minority and return to the message that is appealing to the masses in order to win pubic opinion. 

4. Majority influence is exercised by rigidity while minority influence is achieved by adaptability 

When one is a minority, making allies is essential. Minorities know they cannot do it alone. Expediency trumps individuality. When a group of people’s very existence is on the line, small areas of disagreement are overlooked for the benefit of preserving the group. The luxury of idealism is replaced with pragmatism. Minorities seldom have the luxury of being ideologues. The minority mindset allows the group to morph and change in order to adapt to various situations in order to preserve their existence. While majorities create their own The minority mindset allows the reality and shape the culture through numbers, minorities are left to adapt to that situation.

Thinking like a minority came naturally for the Jews. They became a people while in Egyptian bondage. There, they adapted, multiplied and were blessed. When they were taken into exile in Babylon, they adapted and prospered. Many stayed even after they were free to leave. During the First Century, Jews like Priscilla and Aquilla were dispersed throughout the empire, adapting to the many cultures that existed within the city-states of Rome. Throughout modern history, the Jewish people have adapted to various cultures and societies while maintaining their unique religious and sociological distinctive.

Minorities are destroyed by two means: Elimination and/or Amalgamation. The first happens when the majority violently purges the minority from society. The second happens when members of the minority lose their cultural identity and join the majority. Either way, the minority group ceases to exist. Therein lies the challenge for the church. Jesus said it this way, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).” The ability for a minority group to survive is in direct proportion to their ability to adapt to popular culture without losing their cultural distinction. This is the present challenge facing many church leaders addressing the situation of dwindling political influence in many nations.

In conclusion, consider these four descriptions of a minority mindset taken from the four points above: We must be Innovative, Strategic, Appealing and Adaptable. Therein lies the perspective that can truly understand what Jesus meant when He told his disciples,

 Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”