Falling into the Gambler’s Fallacy in Church Ministry
I fell for it every year. When I was growing up in my small hometown, the biggest week or the year was when the regional fair came to town. Our Rotary park would fill with rides, blinking lights, and the midway. Everyone in the county would make their way around that midway at least once over the course of the week. Scattered down the inevitably muddy walkway was a string of games. You could toss a ring on a Coke bottle and win a stuffed animal, or you could land a ping pong ball in fish bowl and win a gold fish.
And then there were the quarter machines. Those machines were the devil to me. The machines had a shelf full of quarters, on the verge of falling off, with an arm behind them that seemingly pushed them to the edge. All you had to do was drop one more quarter on the shelf and it should knock them all off. At least, that is how you felt it would work. After the first quarter settled in and merely readjusted the quarters, you felt certain the next one would push the whole stack.
Quarters turned into dollars before you knew it, and the big payout never came. By this time, however, you had sunk so much money into the machine that you felt obligated to continue. You had invested, and you had to get your money out. Surely, one more would tip the scales!
That false notion is called the gambler’s fallacy.
The gambler’s fallacy is the mistaken idea that chances of a certain thing happening mature the more often it is tried. However, probabilities of that nature do not stack. If there is a 50 percent chance of something happening the first time you do it, then there is still a 50 percent chance of something happening the second time you do it. Your chances did not get better the second time simply because you tried it the first time. In other words, something that did not work the first time is not more likely to work the next time because of the odds.
I promise there is a point to this apparent rabbit trail. Fact is, churches often fall into the gambler’s fallacy when it comes to their ministry methods.
We have a given mission with a flexible means.
We have a given mission. The church does not pick its mission, it is handed to us from the pages of Scripture. Ours is a disciple-making mission done by bearing witness to the gospel with our words and actions. That part is non-negotiable and every local church has the same mission in that regard.
However, our means of accomplishing that mission will certainly vary. Every church should be about proclaiming the gospel, but the exact means may change. Every church should bear witness with word and deed, but the ways in which they do it will look different. And every church should be in the business of making new disciples, but that process is going to look different from church to church.
This is the difference between mission and means (or methods). In a very important sense, we all have the same mission. That mission, however, is to be accomplished in a variety of diverse settings, and that must affect the methods. Methods should be the result of taking an unchanging mission into an ever-changing context.
The gambler’s fallacy can impact ministry methods.
Enter the gambler’s fallacy, this silly idea that continuing to do something longer will increase the chances that it will work.
Of course, I do not want you to misunderstand my point. The longer we go about an effective or appropriate method, the better we will get at it. Simply put, the longer someone practices the guitar the better they should be able to play. However, the key to this is realizing when a method is appropriate. For instance, if I decided to learn to play the guitar by simply watching YouTube videos of someone else playing the guitar and never actually picked one up, we would all say that was a faulty method. Fact is, no matter how many times I attempted the method, it would not result in me being able to play. I would have to, at some point, actually pick up a guitar.
The gambler’s fallacy kicks in for ministry methods when we assume that simply applying a faulty method more will somehow make it less faulty. Time, and usually money, are invested so the buy-in produces an emotional commitment to the method. The probability of its success is proven to be low, or even totally random, and yet the instinct is to continue assuming it has to work at some point. After all, we have pulled the lever so many times we are certain the odds will finally catch up to us.
And lest we assume this is only a trap for established churches, church plants can be some of the biggest offenders of this fallacy. Often, a new church drops into an area already assuming they know which methods to use best. A pre-commitment to ministry methods without actually getting to know your context will cause all kinds of missteps, and church plants are often the ones wanting to prove they know how to do it better. This can result in trying the same things over and over expecting the odds to eventually kick in.
Learn to avoid the gambler’s fallacy: love the mission more than the means.
If you want to avoid the gambler’s fallacy, then you must love the mission more than you love the means. Remember, the church has a given mission with flexible means. Effective ministry comes when we love the mission and will not abandon the mission because we have fallen in love with a particular means that proves itself ineffective.
Too often, churches come up with a strategy (it may even be effective for a season), and they begin to confuse the method with the mission. They place the identity of the church in the method they are using and not the mission they were given. A church becomes known for a particular ministry to the community (a food bank, a particular student program, a fall festival, etc) and loses its concern for the actual making of disciples.
Fact is, contexts change and transition around us. When a context changes, the methods necessary to accomplish the mission may do so as well. But if a church has their identity tied to that particular method, then they will soon sacrifice the mission for it. As the neighborhood changes, that program may no longer be appropriate. The church stops making any new disciples, but they think the solution is to double down. Keeping the program is more important than making new disciples. The payout is surely just around the corner.
Love the mission more than the means, and then take a hard look at your context, your methods, and your results. First, how well do you understand your context? The effectiveness of your method is directly tied to the context of your church. Do you know the people outside of your congregation well enough to even assess the appropriateness of a particular method? Second, what exactly is your church doing to accomplish its given mission? Can you be specific enough to write it down? If not, then you may only have ideas instead of methods. Vague platitudes about reaching a city or transforming lives mean little if you cannot point to real things your congregation is doing to accomplish those means. Finally, ask the hard question about results. Has your church made any new disciples in the last year? I am not talking about attracting other Christians from a different church. Do not be results-driven, but for our own accountability, we should always question if our methods are helping us accomplish the mission.