The Curse of the Bell Curve

I have come to resent the bell curve. No, that’s not strong enough. I’ve come to loathe the bell curve.

The bell curve itself is unworthy of my wrath. It’s merely a chart, a tool to handle information and present it in a way that makes some sense out of a subject as complex as the human being. Psychologists love bell curves; come to think of it, that may have something to do with my opinion of the thing.

Almost any way you examine the human species, most of us fall in the middle, and less of us are exceptional either in the positive or the negative. The vast majority of us are of average intelligence. There are a few exceptionally brilliant ones and a few that are were paying attention to something else when God passed out reasoning ability. That’s what the bell curve measures: how many of us are average and how few of us are exceptional, whether ahead of the curve or behind it. The vast bulk of our species is somehow in the realm called “average” and then there are the leftovers that don’t fit into that group.

The Bell Curve Theory says that all points on the chart – both the masses in the middle, and the tiny quantities at the fringes – are legitimate: it’s not “wrong” to be on the cutting edge, or the trailing edge, any more than it’s wrong to be in the vast middle ground.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met a truly “average” person, and so I question whether the bell curve is all that accurate at describing our species, but that’s not my primary problem with the thing. Nor is my antipathy based on its reduction of a complex and beautiful species down to a handful of simple statistics. Rather, my frustration with it is much deeper. Let me illustrate.

I am the proud father of three spectacular teenaged examples of what’s good and right with the human species. My children are all wonderful, but they are as different from each other as I can imagine. I used to think this was merely the wonder of my own offspring, but my sister has five children, and they are equally diverse; I’m coming to the conclusion that kids are human beings – not an opinion I’ve held my whole life, I’m afraid – and they are as unique as the human species is.

Of necessity, I am also the father of three examples of the product of my community’s educational system. And this leads me to the heart of why I despise the bell curve. In our community, the school system is designed for the “average” student, their programs and teaching styles designed to fit the bulk of kids that fit in that vast middle ground o the bell curve. Since my kids are not “average”, they’ve had to adapt themselves to the school’s methods in order to benefit from its lessons. One daughter learns best, for example, when she can talk through the process one-on-one, and when she can work with her hands; another daughter took the toughest classes the school had and still wasn’t sufficiently challenged. The school makes room for neither.

As a teacher, I understand the benefit of kids adapting to the methods of the teachers. As a father, I resent the requirement that they must change or else be excluded. But the school system has become an education factory, and of necessity must adopt factory methods, and these require addressing the bulk of the bell curve.

The same problem has infiltrated the Church, and this is where the bell curve really irks me. The overwhelming majority of churches – local congregations, large and small – are built for the bell curve: the majority of churches cater to the majority of Christians, those who are “average.” And just like the school system, if I hope to gain something from my association with the church, I need to learn to adapt myself and my needs to the “average” ministry that is being provided by my church. That is never stated, but it’s true nevertheless: I must learn to conform to the way they offer church if I want to receive from their offerings. I must meet when they meet, I must learn from the lessons they teach in the way that they teach them, I must benefit from the spiritual gifts they manifest, and I must find someone to trust among their limited circle of people. It’s almost as if the church were becoming a factory, too.

This strikes me as a question of integrity. I can conform, and fit into the “average” mold, but that sacrifices the man God made me to be for the sake of conformity, or I can maintain my integrity, but sacrifice my ability to relate to my church and the resources God has there for me.

It seems to me that part of the reason is that churches have fallen into something of a pragmatic mindset: “How can we reach the largest number of people with limited resources?” (If, however, the church contains the presence of the infinite God, then perhaps there’s room to question the “limited resources” issue, but that’s another conversation, isn’t it?) It is awfully appealing to look at an established budget of time and money, and look at that bell curve, and realize, “I can start this program which will be meaningful to 5% of the population, or that program, which will be meaningful to 60% of the population, but I can’t do both. Where do I want to spend my budget?”

Jesus has been quoted as saying “A bruised reed [I] will not break, And smoking flax [I] will not quench.” He promises to take each of us as we are and rescue us, equip us, and unleash us into an unsuspecting world. The key phrase here is “as we are.” Even if we don’t fit “average” we belong in the Church.

I could go on about how much of the Church is embracing the values of the business world in making spiritual decisions, but that won’t solve anything. More to the point, how shall I respond myself? What can I do to fight the curse of the bell curve? How do I maintain my own integrity and still be part of a congregation that doesn’t mean to, but nevertheless does require conformity to function? Beyond that, what can I do to address the needs of the people at the fringes of the bell curve, the ones who are functionally overlooked by the local church? What can I do? Oh, wait. The Infinite God lives in me too.

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