The confusion of ‘most’ or ‘many’ — even among Baptists

Recently I began reading a book I was sent to review. It is by two people I know well; one of them more than the other. The one I know better is often given to over-statement and over-generalization. I found this to be true in multiple pages within the introduction and the first chapter, which is as far as I got the first evening.

The over-statement and over-generalization are focused around the use of the word “most” to refer to congregations and leaders he and his co-author want to suggest do not hold the best views as to the direction congregations need to take, and the characteristics they need to possess.

The book was in the mail when I returned home from Mars Hill College in North Carolina, my alma mater, from a national alumni board meeting preceding homecoming. [My wife has served on this board for this last four years.]

I majored in history at Mars Hill College and wrote a bunch of interpretive essays on various events in North American and world history. My faculty advisor, David Knisley, was a great professor. He was a deep thinking person. We had a super relationship.

One of the ways he improved my history essay writing–and I hear his voice every time I write–is to never use the word “most” in an essay unless I can document it, prove it, or conduct comprehensive survey research to show that “most” is the right word.

The alternative, he suggested is the use of the word “many.” It is easier to give evidence of, to document, or to reflect the possibility in “many” situations. It is much more difficult to suggest that “most” situations have a certain characteristic.

To use the word “most” seems to imply an absolute approach. This approach would imply something is true, and it can be verified with facts. Further, there are no viewpoints or opinions that would successfully suggest a different way of looking at the situation.

To use the word “many” seems to imply a perspective or viewpoint. This may not be absolutely true, but experience, reading, and research would indicate a certain thing to be true in “many” cases. “Most” would be an over-statement.

North American society demonstrates either/or thinking. Such thinking declares absolute truths. It creates divisions between people. It implies that I am right, but you are wrong. It is the kind of thing that makes for divisive presidential election campaigns.

What is needed much more than either/or thinking, is and/both thinking. It is possible to have and/both thinking and to have non-negotiable core values at the center of your viewpoint. Therefore, do not think that and/both thinking means it lacks values.

A futurist friend of mine, Rick Smyre, claims that many significant ideas about the future come from and/both thinking. He feels that either/or thinking causes people to become entrenched in their position on issues rather than open to new learning, insights, and discoveries.

“Most” is characteristic of either/or thinking. “Many” is characteristic of and/both thinking. We need the dialogue of “many” as opposed to the declarations of “most”.

Now back to the book. The book is trying to build a rationale for why its viewpoint on the subject of the book is correct. Why its viewpoint is the only one that right-thinking people ought to consider. It is also an attempt to over-simplify complex subjects.

It is the position of why I’m right and you are wrong. It does not ask people to come to the table for dialogue. It asks people to admit they are wrong, and accept the viewpoint of the authors of the book.

This seems strange because these authors have been promoters of the concept of postmodern thinking, which focuses the art of dialogue more than the science of non-negotiable declarations. However, if you follow the logic of the authors of this book, then you have no choice but to accept their modern premises and conclusions.

The use of the words “most” or “many” also reveals a person’s cultural perspective and worldview. I do a lot of work with Baptists. In my current role is General Secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance I seek to relate to all Baptist groups around North America.

One of the things that I have noted is that very few Baptists understand the full spectrum of who Baptists are North America. They find themselves often using words like “most” to position themselves in terms of Baptist history, Baptist doctrine, and Baptists ecclesiological practice. Often I have personal agreement with what they are saying. But I know their position is myopic, and the word “most” has no place in their conversation. “Many” would work, but “most” doesn’t work.

Are you a “most” or “many” Baptist?

George Bullard

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About the Author
George is President of The Columbia Partnership at www.TheColumbiaPartnership.org, This is a Christian ministry organization that seeks to transform the North American Church for vital and vibrant ministry. More than a dozen consultants and coaches are related to The Columbia Partnership. It is a strategic partner with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. George is the author of three books: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, and FaithSoaring Churches. George is also General Secretary [executive director] of the North American Baptist Fellowship at www.NABF.info. This is one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance. One final role George holds is that of Senior Editor of the TCP Leadership Series books with Chalice Press at www.ChalicePress.com. More than 30 books have been published in this series during the past seven years.

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