I’ve spent much of my Christian life in churches which have been shrinking for decades, and that’s colored my understanding of what it means to be a part of the Church. What I’ve discovered, however, is that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s helped train me to help encourage positive change.
There is a trap which comes to being part of a congregation which has experienced prolonged decline, and it’s trap I first discovered while studying cultural anthropology at Eastern University. When people groups shrink to a certain size, women tend to stop having children. Something happens psychologically which accelerates a decline already in progress. Christians would say the issue is as much spiritual as psychological, but the point is the entirety of our being does indeed affect our physical existence.
What happens? Well, I think it’s that people develop negative focal point. They identify the problems facing their existence, and then keep their eyes fixated on those negatives. Friends of mine who once tried their hand at hang-gliding were told, “Where you look, you will go.” Several nose dives told them this principle was absolutely true. I think it’s the same thing for just about anything. Where we look, we will go. Identifying issues is an important part of positive transformation, but when there is no goal beyond those negatives people tend to run into them over and over and over again. When it comes to people groups, the act of running into these negatives is experienced most painfully in the dwindling birth-rate. In Churches its encountered by lower attendance, lack of cohesion, and bitterness toward a world which has moved on without the congregation. The more we focus on the negatives, the more we go to them.
In congregations, and really any human social structure, this negative focus will be exposed most prominently whenever conversations attempt to focus on a positive goal. Here’s some statement which might expose a sick group focus:
- “No one makes time for church any more.”
- “How do we convince the people who aren’t coming to come back?”
- “People used to respect Sunday, now they are all playing soccer!”
- “The parents don’t care any more.”
- “The first thing people used to do when they moved into a neighborhood is look for a church, not any more.”
The negative focus of these statements is pronounced, and each subtly subverts any desire to focus on something positive. Should a congregation want to focus on evangelism, these statements would suck the wind out of them. If a church would like to explore alternative methods of youth discipleship, these statements would all steal energy. Should a church want to celebrate the gifts it has, these would each successfully remind any church of what they are not.
Where we look, we will go.
The only way to counter this is to make certain, at all times, we have a positive goal. Ultimately, for churches, this Goal is Christ himself – but there are also other goals along that path for which we can strive. The same way a hiker might have an ultimate goal, but know they are progressing towards it via mile-markers or landmarks. These near goals give us encouragement when we attain them – and energize us for the next step of the journey.
So, whenever we brainstorm for a congregational journey let’s try to consciously avoid steering the conversation towards, “They didn’t,” “We can’t,” and “It used to be.” These are the vampires which exist in our collective consciousness, sucking the life out of all we do. Instead, let’s steer the conversations toward “We can,” “Christ is,” and “We have gifts to share.” These are thoughts which open us up to the possibilities of the Holy Spirit unleashing God’s power through us.
Never underestimate a the power of focusing on a positive goal. Where we look, there we will go.