That's a Lion!Question: All other things being equal and athletic ability unknown, if I gave you a list of 60 Canadian 18-year-old boys and their basic bios (birthday, hometown, siblings, income level, academic achievement, etc.) and told you to pick out for me the 20 who were most likely to be hockey stars, what biographical trait would most help you select the hockey wheat from the chaff?

Answer: Put them all in order by birth month, Jan – December, and choose the first 20 in line.  Seriously.  Why?  The age cut-off for youth hockey in Canada is January 1, and hockey leagues start around age 6.  Thus, the kids that get selected for the best teams are the older kids (because 1 year makes more of a difference when it makes up 17% of your life than at age 18, when it makes up 6%).  The older kids get put on the best teams.  The best teams have a lot more practices, more games, and better competition.  The next year, the kids who got more practice, games and competition will make the better squads.  And they will have a lot more practices, more games, and better competition.  And on.  And on.

Last week I finished Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers (an excellent, thought-provoking read I highly recommend), which explores “positive deviance” – what unseen factors make some people successful and other people not – like birth month and hockey; or birth year and computer programming; or practice time (you need 10,000 hours of practice and application to become an accomplished master at ANYTHING – from violin to programming to biblical scholarship); or cultural norms.

With the hockey example, Gladwell refers to this as “the Matthew Effect” – taken from Matt 25:29 -

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.

This is observed, from a social science aspect, where those who have some advantage – often based upon forces apart from their own personal merits (like birth month, nationality, etc.) – are able to multiply that advantage into success.  Conversely, those with very little in the way of such advantages – even if they have interest in a certain venture – have no multiplying factors (like more practice, more games, better competition) and do not succeed.

[Note: This is just from Chapter One of Outliers (did I mention that you should go buy it now?)]

The Digital Divide

Right after finishing Outliers, I was sent this article from Sojourners by a newsgroup I belong to.  It is about TechMission, a Christian non-profit group that works to teach computer skills, and bring digital skills and abilities to disadvanteged Christians in minority and poorer areas of America.  What they have found online is similar to what we observe in real geographies – a segregation of Christians between “haves” and “have nots”.

As the recent book Divided by Faith points out, the segregation of the church results in a separation between rich and poor communities, which in turn perpetuates injustice. For example, a church member in a very re­sourced church who is looking for a job may get 10 referrals from friends in the church, whereas someone in a church where half of the attendees are unemployed might not get any referrals.

You can see a similar segregation reflected in profiles of Christians on online social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace; most people will have friends with backgrounds similar to their own. If everyone links to people they know, the result is that a disproportionate number of resourced individuals and ministries will link to each other, while ministries serving under-resourced communities are stuck in a virtual ghetto. The rich link to the rich, while the poor link to the poor.

TechMission started to see these effects when we launched our Web site to match Christians with volunteer opportunities. Within a few months, our organization had secured partnerships with the Christian Community Development Association, the Salvation Army, World Vision, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, and most other major national Christian organizations serving under-resourced communities—not surprising, since we had strong relationships with people in those organizations.

Then we did a similar push for partnerships with Christian organizations with ties into wealthier communities and suburban churches—the same amount of effort, but with almost zero results.

Even within the church, it appears that “the Matthew Effect” is in force – and that’s not a good thing.  The author of the article suggests that one way of combating this is through simple linking – to missions and ministries like and other similar sites, or become a Facebook Fan of TechMission and similar ministries.

Beyond that, look for opportunities both to train, to mentor and to utilize Christians from backgrounds outside of suburbia – to get them valuable experience and practice in their crafts.  Volunteer for organizations like The Legacy, teaching art and music skills to Native American Jr/Sr High School kids, and help them find vocations and careers outside of the reservation system (If you’re interested in the Legacy and are free for a week in early June next year, join my family and some other folks in SW Colorado working with the Souther Ute Tribe!  I’d love to meet more of the folks I converse with here – or who just lurk here.)

The Matthew Effect is powerful, but it can be overcome through Christian brotherly love…

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 at 4:55 pm and is filed under Church and Society, Linked Articles, Original Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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2 Comments(+Add)

1   Phil Miller
December 17th, 2008 at 5:14 pm

I really liked Blink, and Outliers is on my Christmas list. Have you ever read Freakonomics? It sounds like Outliers is looking at very similar things.

It is interesting how much you take for granted when you are around a certain socio-economic group for a long time. My wife and I attended the “big church” in our town for a long time. That church really had a lot of resources for a congregation in the area, and I think that for the most part, the members took them for granted.

Since the summer, we’ve been attending a much smaller church where the membership is mostly minority. It’s definitely been eye-opening to us in many respects. For many of the college students in this church, even getting to go to school is a huge deal, so the attitude towards education is so different than many of the kids we worked with before.

I’m not saying that people need to feel guilty for who they are or anything, but I just think it’s very easier to get in a social bubble without really even recognizing it.

2   Julie
December 17th, 2008 at 8:35 pm

I’ve read his other books, and I contemplated buying this book not once but three times…alas, hardcovers are too expensive and take up too much precious bookshelf space.

I’ll have to wait for it as a paperback…with the extra updated material included!