I bet you have one in your life — the sometimes annoying contrarian. There’s probably a contrarian sibling, friend, or church member among your relationships. These men and women“poke the bear” — asking us uncomfortable questions, challenging our assumptions, or proposing new solutions. Contrarians think and say things in ways that are “contrary” to the current norm. We’ve all experienced the impact of a contrarian. In fact, some of us may be contrarians (I raise my hand to this!).
Let’s be honest. Contrarians are a maligned species in our ministries and churches. People who see commonly held beliefs as opportunities for inappropriate questions, who deliberately create tension, or challenge us to do things differently are not always welcomed. We call them “malcontents,” they’re not “team players,” or they have a “critical spirit.”
Contrarians, though, fill the pages of the Bible. The classic contrarian is John the Baptist. His dress ran counter to the established norm (Matthew 3:4), his acerbic challenges to religious and civil authorities made him an outcast (Matthew 3:7), and he questioned the religious status quo (Matthew 3:9-10). All contrarians aren’t prophets but some wear the prophetic mantle and aren’t afraid to announce when the “king has no clothes.”
I’m speaking from experience because contrarians seem to find their way to my ministry table. I’m not sure why they’re drawn to me. Maybe I lack a certain leadership gravitas so people feel free to challenge my direction or assumptions. Whatever the reason, contrarians help me examine my assumptions and to see things from a different point of view. The downside of a contrarian is that sometimes their ministry reveals my insecurities and inadequacies. This is hard to take but I’ve become a better leader because of a contrarian’s presence.
Now, I’m a bit of a contrarian myself. Maybe that’s why I attract other contrarians. I’ve never suffered the persecution of a prophet but I’ve been rebuked, shuffled to the side, or misrepresented because I questioned the status quo or proposed new alternatives to the current norms. In living as a contrarian, and embracing the contribution of other contrarians, I’ve discovered some simple principles that will turn the work of a contrarian to a sanctified one.
First, the sanctified contrarian remembers that timing is everything. Consider the French term fait accompli meaning “an accomplished fact.” Contrarians need to pause and discern whether a decision is still in process or whether it’s an accomplished fact. There’s nothing more irritating than people debating an agreed upon conclusion. If I’ve discerned that a decision is still in process then I can raise my questions. But if its been decided, I need to accept it and move on.
Second, sanctified contrarians seek to contribute not condemn. It’s easy to toss hand grenades of objections to someone’s ideas or position. I’ve learned to ask questions rather than issue judgments or pronouncements. A well-placed question engages people in the process rather than condemning or needlessly challenging a leader. Sanctified contrarians choose to contribute not condemn.
Sanctified contrarians learn to do it with a smile. We can say the hardest things if our body language is open and engaging, such as when we smile. When I sit there with my arms folded and a disdainful frown on my face, people won’t welcome my contribution. It all starts with a smile.
Fourth, sanctified contrarians need to be intentional. People need a contrarian’s ministry. Too often, groups engage in “group think” unquestionably adopting one way of thinking. This can happen out of deference to the leader or an enthusiastic buy-in to a current fad. At strategic times a contrarian needs to step forward and ask “Have you considered this point of view?”, “I would challenge the assumption behind _____________”, or “What’s happened when we have pursued this course of action in the past?” Contrarians are influential when they’re intentional.
Finally, we must welcome and affirm the sanctified contrarian into our midst. Once I got past my defensiveness and insecurity, I’ve found contrarians to be one of God’s channels to make me a better leader. Contrarians help me to look at issues in new ways thus broadening my perspective and giving life and ministry a fresh spark.
So, the next time a contrarian surfaces in a discussion, don’t think that he or she is a crank but welcome them as a John the Baptist. If you’re the contrarian in the room, challenge the status quo in a sanctified manner so we can “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up building” (Romans 14:19). If you’re not a natural contrarian, decide to be one. We make things better when we question assumptions, challenge the status quo, or propose alternative solutions — when done in sanctified ways.