Agility wins over fragility.

Agility wins over fragility.

Then David took his shepherd’s staff, selected five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in the pocket of his shepherd’s pack, and with his sling in his hand approached Goliath (1Sam. 17:40 The Message.) 

Malcolm Gladwell’s books, like The Tipping Point and Outliers, and his articles published by The New Yorker, are instructive and often inspiring. His gift of dispelling common assumptions is perfectly epitomized in his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I recommend it as a must-read for anyone called to the intersection of church and community. (The book is available on Amazon, and is a quick iTunes Store iBooks download, a great suggestion for those gift cards you received a few weeks ago!)

Valley of Elah (Photo credit: Accordance Bible Software, PhotoGuide.)

Valley of Elah (Photo credit: Accordance Bible Software, PhotoGuide.)

Gladwell tells the story of ancient Israel facing an imposing foe in the Valley of Elah. From our youth, we know the story through and through. Or do we? A familiar take-away of the 1 Samuel 17 text is that God showed awesome power precisely because of diminutive David’s surprising defeat of the colossal Goliath. The victory for Israel was so unexpected, so unpredictable, how else could we  understand the outcome except for God’s special intervention?

In studying the historical context of that battle, Gladwell suggests an alternate understanding: there was nothing surprising in David’s victory.

 “What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There’s an important lesson for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always as formidable as they may at first appear." (Excerpt From: Malcolm Gladwell. “David and Goliath.” iBooks).

What tables were turned on Goliath? Simply this. The only way Goliath could win any battle would be to face his opponent within reach of his mighty arms. But David did not wage hand-to-hand combat with Goliath. Instead, David was a slinger of stones. David was artillery to Goliath’s infantry. David waged an air campaign that Goliath had no way of defending against. Goliath could hardly see. To Gladwell’s point, no one should have been surprised by David’s victory. Slingers always beat infantry. The power of God was not proven by the slinger’s stone hitting its mark. The power of God was manifest in David enjoining the fight with courage. David may have appeared fragile to the giant, but his agility ensured his victory.

Fragility to Agility We understand fragility. Those delicate glass holiday gifts were shipped in boxes marked Fragile for a reason. The question is whether such labeling does any good. Last month in South Orange, a UPS worker was seen throwing boxes off a truck and onto the muddy pavement.

Mishandled packages, many marked Fragile. (Photo credit: www.  )

Mishandled packages, many marked Fragile. (Photo credit:

When referring to human beings, we expect a higher standard of care. A newborn child is fragile for obvious reasons, while many seniors with osteoporosis have fragile bones. Fragility affects the young and old alike, at all stages of life. It is described as lacking physical, emotional, or spiritual strength that threatens vitality or viability. But David was anything but fragile. (Gladwell actually suggests that it was Goliath who was fragile, not David.) Instead, David was agile.

To be agile is to move with a skillful nimbleness corresponding to the needs of the moment. Agility is not about reflex or speed, it is about precision. Agility is controlled power. It is the capacity to position and reposition ourselves (and our assets) as demanded by our context; an often changing context.

Examples of agility abound. My cat, Neon, is agile. The best technology companies employ agile software development. The NFL’s Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2nd will likely be the team that delivers the most agility on the field. According to the Taiji Quan Classics, energy training practices prescribe that, “In any action the entire body should be light and agile and all of its parts connected like pearls on a thread” [1].

Fragile Goliath didn’t have a chance. He could hardly move without the aid of an attendant. Agile David strategically re-defined the battle, positioned a safe distance outside Goliath’s reach, because that’s where a slinger has to be to deliver deadly stones to their target.

”So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him… When the Philistines saw that their great champion was dead, they scattered, running for their lives" (1 Samuel 17:51 The Message).

Like individuals, congregations can place themselves along a continuum from fragility to agility. A fragile congregation is not deficient nor defenseless, but is at risk when facing giant challenges. These challenges can be external or internal to the church. Addressing fragility requires support. Presbyterianism is connectional ministry. Newark Presbytery is in the connections business. We connect. We nurture connections. We grieve when connections are broken. We celebrate when connections are renewed and new connections are made. With the right resources, any congregation can become less fragile and grow to be more agile.

Bible study, worship, and an openness to spiritual and strategic insight can promote your church's agility. Conversations with presbytery teams and community partners can renew spiritual energy as a congregation embraces their unique purpose in God’s emerging future.

Each congregation can leverage their agility by choosing its challenges very carefully. A more agile congregation does not try to do everything, nor become too comfortable or confident in doing easier things. Priorities of an agile congregation are relevant to the current, not the former, context. The pastor and the session are responsible for the agile deployment of spiritual, financial, and organizational assets. Being agile is hard work. But pivoting toward agility builds satisfying and energizing ministry with impact.

David was not Goliath’s victim, though Goliath thought he was. If David fought Goliath on Goliath’s terms, in hand-to-hand combat, perhaps dragging the king’s armor and shield around as he was at first told to do, David would have have been the victim and died. Instead, David’s foe was met by David on David’s terms. This distinction is important. David got the job done using his skills and capacities (precision and distance as a slinger) and God brought success. ”Our challenge is to be nimble, flexible, and agile, moving with the Spirit of God, always grounded in the Word of God“ [2].

In this new year of new beginnings, every congregation and pastor in Newark Presbytery will have access to resources they need to mitigate their fragility and accentuate their agility. We can learn to pivot in our ministry from fragility to agility. (A special initiative will be announced soon!)

Can I count on you to explore resources with me that promote agility? I want to listen to your stories and imagine with you how 2014 could be a year of new beginnings. Wherever you may be along the Fragility-Agility continuum, you have deep connections to God just as David did. The challenges you face may feel gigantic, but God is bigger.

”The whole earth will know that there’s an extraordinary God in Israel" (1 Samuel 17:46b) and this same God is in our midst. Happy new year to you, and true peace and hope to the communities you serve in the name of Jesus Christ.

Be agile.



    1.    Living Religions, Sixth Edition, by Mary Pat Fisher. Published by Prentice-Hall. Copyright © 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc.  ↩

    2.    Raising Up Leaders for the Mission of God: A Report of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Joint Committee on Leadership Needs) February 2, 2010.  ↩