This is a post I wrote for North Point Ministries’ “Starting Point” leader blog. Starting Point is a ministry for new Christians, or these seeking answers about faith, and I’m co-leading my first group starting in late January. There are a few “inside baseball” references, so please pardon those.
Starting Point and “The Art of War”
Yes, I dare to bring Eastern philosophy into my first post on the Starting Point leader group blog. So edgy and dangerous am I…
If you do not know, Sun-Tzu is the name of the author (or, according to some historians, a name for a collection of authors) of the ancient Chinese guide to strategy known today as The Art of War. No doubt you are least familiar with the title, if not the concepts, so I won’t give any lengthy explanation save to say that it is considered perhaps the greatest work of strategic assessment, specifically as it relates to military conflict.
As Christ-followers, we believe in the idea of spiritual warfare, a battle against Satan for the hearts and souls of our fellow man and woman. So as leaders in a ministry that caters specifically to those at or near the cusp of Faith, we should see ourselves as front line troops, and even the Generals that Sun Tzu refers to throughout.
At the very beginning of the work, Master Sun describes the five essential initial estimations that one must make prior to committing forces to battle. I see in these assessments some direct relation that we as leaders can make of our participants, especially in the early meetings, in order to stand the greatest chance of “victory” or “success” during the eight weeks our group meets.
The Five Assessments:
1. The Tao (pronounced “dow”) – Don’t worry, C.S. Lewis made this term safe for Christianity in The Abolition of Man, and defines it so:
“[The] way in which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”
“[Recognition] of an objective value or response to an objective order.
Think about how fundamental that is: if someone in your group does or does not recognize an eternal, universal moral order – explicitly Christian or not – you’ve learned something very important. The degree to which they do or do not believe in that order, the Tao, let alone try to live their life within it, necessarily changes how you may try to reach them during Starting Point.
2. Heaven – Finally, a term we’re comfortable with! By “heaven,” Sun Tzu means “the constraints of the seasons.” Remember that the rainy season or the dry season, summer or winter, were, in pre-modern warfare, important elements to consider. Just ask Napoleon.
As leaders, we must attempt to recognize the “Seasons of Life” (to borrow Charles Swindoll’s phrase) that our group members are in. Someone who is going through a divorce, or a recent job loss, or the death of a loved one, just to name a few such difficult events, is in a different “season” from someone who has none of those things to fight against, mentally and emotionally.
3. Earth – Translated and defined as “the terrain,” think of this topographically in terms of mountains or bodies of water that an ancient army had to cross. If you march 10,000 even well-trained men across a desert and a mountain range, they’re going to be tired when they arrive at the enemy’s city gates.
Similarly, we as leaders must assess the “terrain” of our group members: for example, their character and experiences. You could argue some similarity to “Heaven” here, and I’ll concede my argument is not air-tight, but in general I think the terrain to be more immutable features of the individual’s “landscape” that could be further accentuated by the particular season they are in. But the point is, there are elements beyond just the changing seasons to be aware of and contend with.
4. The General – This one hits home. Or it should anyway, because it’s you. And me. And our fellow leaders. Sun Tzu says that “The general encompasses wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage, and strictness.”
You could make your own list of the virtues that a good Starting Point leader should have, but that’s not a bad one to begin with. Do you possess any of them? How about your Apprentices and Co-Leaders? Look for ways to act within your strengths as a General, and to let your fellow leaders in the group act on theirs, as they likely shore up your weaknesses.
5. Military Organization and Discipline – I beg your mental indulgence, as this one is kind of stretch to stay within my framework. The author calls this the “organization of material resources.”
A responsibility that we as leaders have is to run a well-organized group. Even a group that “gels” well together during each session could be detracted from by poor administration behind the scenes. That can ruin the collective experience or that of an individual. As someone who tends to think “big picture” and focuses getting the larger ideas right, I can tend to overlook details. So I’m especially cognizant of this one. (Huh, maybe this one was not as much of a stretch as I thought?)
“There are no generals who have not heard of these five. Those who understand them will be victorious, those who do not understand them will not be victorious,” says Sun Tzu. As a general in Starting Point, perhaps you had not “heard of these five” until now. But now you have have.
I asked Teesha McCrae, Starting Point Coordinator at Buckhead Church, how she defines “success” for a Starting Point group. What she wrote should serve as our basis for determining “victory.”
If you assume faith is on a continuum, with atheism or agnosticism all the way to the left and the mature Christ follower at the right, with the point of conversion in the middle, then “success” is defined as any movement to the right.
I like it. Maybe you’ve heard that from her before. And while this primer in the Art of War and its strategic assessments do not guarantee “success” or “victory,” even in the terms she suggests, I think it’s a starting point (yeah, I went there) for us as leaders that, when added to prayer, could see us through this 8-week battle in the midst of our Spiritual War.