What's Tony Thinking

A Timely Reminder of the Obvious


A departure from reports of our travels . . . Dr. Johnson (quoted in my first post from Skye) once commented, “Never be afraid to remind people of the obvious; it is what they have most forgot.”

Frank Bruni did that in an excellent column recently, one with wider implications, including church vitality. Surveying the now concluded spring and summer primaries, Bruni reminded readers of the obvious: candidates count.

All primary season strategists and pundits were quick to offer interpretations about what the Democratic party message ought to be come fall and beyond. Connor Lamb wins in Pennsylvania and the moral of the story is stick to the center. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wins in New York and the message is leftward-ho.

Bruni’s point is simple, one might say obvious (though apparently it is not). Moreover, it is true. Strong, appealing, well-organized, hard-working candidates are themselves more important than ideology. Here’s Bruni:

“Intent on some ideological takeaway, we miss the human moral. This year’s victorious candidates, like so many winners before them, aren’t prevailing simply or even mainly because of the labels they’re wearing or the precise points on the political spectrum to which they can be affixed.”

He continues,

“They’re powered by their personalities, their organizations or both. They communicate effectively. They have backgrounds that make sense to voters or temperaments that feel right to them. And they’ve devised ways to reach voters that their rivals haven’t.

“The lesson of 2018 isn’t novel. But it’s overlooked because it doesn’t come wrapped in fancy analytics, it can’t be integrated into sweeping pronouncements about the arc of America, and it transcends our beloved binaries of progressive versus moderate and blue versus red.”

Of course the real driver of the fevered analysis is the looming 2020 election and the question of how to beat Trump. But as Bruni comments in conclusion the real 2020 take-away for the Democrats ought to be, find a candidate with a compelling personality and capacity to connect with voters.

Here’s that concluding paragraph from Bruni. “In races that aren’t foregone conclusions by dint of the moment or the place, the superior candidate often wins. Obvious, I know. But it’s amazing how frequently we forget that, and Democratic voters can’t afford to when picking the person to square off against Trump in 2020.”

As noted above, there are some parallel lessons in church life and vitality. Namely, ideology — conservative or liberal — is less important than doing what you do well, being passionate about it, and leadership that is gifted and connects with people.

After Dean Kelly published Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, many concluded that you couldn’t be a liberal church and grow. Lots of liberal churches and leaders sniffed self-righteously as they denounced the conservative church growth as pandering or telling people what they want to hear.

But such churches grew in many cases not simply because they were conservative, but because they did their version of church well, with flair, and with leaders who believed in what they were doing.

Particularly in my traveling speaker/ consultant days, I argued that liberal or conservative, evangelical or progressive was less important than doing what you do with excellence. I had seen too many thriving liberal and progressive churches (even pastored some) to cop to the easy but false, “you have to be conservative, feed people easy answers, to grow.”

So Bruni alerts the Democrats, as do many new candidates who have emerged this summer and fall, to the forgotten obvious. The quality of the candidate counts. Too often parties nominate those for President, and other offices as well, who have been around long enough to seem the obvious, and perhaps entitled, choice. But Democrats, and the nation, can’t afford that in 2020.

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