The Folly of Fear

Man, I will never forget where I was May 21 when the world ended… oh, wait, that never happened.  Most of the people I know and talk to didn’t give Harold Camping’s latest rapture prediction any credence, but I was amazed at how much airplay and interest is actually got.  I mean, who would take such a spurious and irrational forecast (look up Camping’s “science” behind his prophecy) seriously?  Apparently, hundreds, if not thousands of people — and even more were moved to wonder.  In a local coffee shop I overheard a woman ask, “So, do you think the world will end this week?”  Here companion laughed and said, “Not likely!”  She paused for a moment, then timidly asked, “Yes, but do think it COULD happen?”  It is amazing what a niggling sense of doubt and dread can be cultivated by just one prediction of doom and destruction.

But the underlying issue from this non-event is the power of fear — and its fundamental folly.  Fear is not a motivator, merely a manipulator.  Fear rarely generates a thoughtful, positive, rational response.  People who are afraid are not functioning at the top of their game.  Think post-9/11 and how deeply manipulated people were.  Bombs, Anthrax, terrorists, etc. were around every corner.  Remember the weapons of mass destruction?  In the midst of all the fear-mongering and misinformation who could think straight?  Fear is a toxic influence, bringing out the worst in people, not the best.  For Christians, fear is the antithesis of faith.  After centuries of fire-and-brimstone, turn-or-burn, “God will not just punish you if you sin, but will allow you to be tortured and tormented eternally” thinking, you could imagine we would have learned something by now.  Unfortunately, what we have learned is how to do it better.

Fear-mongering takes many forms, but in its current subtle incarnation it looks and sounds like “if we don’t so something soon, we’ll DIE!”  Our Methodist tradition bought into this early in the 20th century and continues it to this day.  In 1924 and 1932, Methodist bishops predicted that we wouldn’t have a church in 40 years if things didn’t change.  They did change — for the better — not because we were motivated by the doom-and-gloom message to improve our evangelism and invitation, but because we merged with the Methodist Church South so that both might survive.  This forestalled further predictions of imminent demise for a decade, but during World War II we had church leaders once more give the 40-year warning.  We took care of that crisis — not by reaching out to friends and neighbors, but by engaging in “bedroom evangelism” — when we couldn’t convert Christians we decided to grow our own.  The Baby Boom set us on the upward path again — for a very short time.  Since the 1960s, there has been a parade of predictors — generally always using the “if we don’t do something now, we won’t exist in 40 years” fear factor as their baseline.  Adam Hamilton is the most recent 40 year fatality forecaster, launching the 21st century with the same negative spirit as the 20th.

And it isn’t merely negative.  We love hyperbole.  Actuarial tables have shown for the past fifty years that the baby boom will cause a substantial rise in mortality sometime in the first third of the 21st century.  It makes sense.  A huge generation is born; it will have to die sometime.  Simple fact of life.  Good to know.  Good to prepare for.  But why deal with it calmly and rationally when we can manipulate it and pump up the fear and anxiety!  Let’s not talk about the generational rise in mortality.  Let’s call it a “Death Tsunami” and try to really scare people into different behaviors.  Death — people are already afraid of their own mortality.  Tsunami — let’s exploit the rising fear and devastation of global tragedy to make people really feel bad.  Who thinks this is a good idea?

When I did the Seeker Study for the denomination, dozens of people explained that they had no interest in The United Methodist Church because they perceived it was failing.  This perception was born from within — they didn’t know the Methodist church was in trouble until they began attending it.  Then they heard it was in decline.  Then they heard it was in financial crisis.  There they heard it was “graying.”  They found out that young people weren’t interested.  They realized they were hitching their wagon to a dying beast, so they decided to look elsewhere.  This is where our fear-mongering doom-and-gloom strategy is leading us.  End of the world — well, end of The United Methodist world as we know it … IF WE DON’T DO SOMETHING NOW!!!

I breathe rarefied air.  The people I spend most of my time talking to don’t see any reason for panic.  We have problems, sure, but we also have a variety of solutions.  We don’t waste too much time talking numbers — numbers are the tools of the fear-mongers.  Who we have lost are not our focus.  We remain are where we put our energy.  How do we build, create, develop and grow with what we have?  Wasting all our energy talking about what we don’t have, what we can’t do, what we are losing, and how to get more is motivated by fear, not faith.  There are too many “leaders” in our church who have given up on God.  The United Methodist Church belongs to God, not us.  If God is done with us, that’s one thing, but there are hundreds of thousands of United Methodists that are not willing to concede this point.  I hear some leaders calling for “resurrection,” implying that our church is already dead and lifeless.  I completely disagree.  We may be ailing, and we definitely are not the young pup we once were.  We are a church in its twilight years, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lot of life and vitality in our bones.  We are still the “incarnation” of the living Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit still burns within.  If I have to choose between fear and faith, I’ll pick faith.  “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived,” (Strictly Ballroom) and God wants us to have life and live it abundantly.

18 replies

  1. I forgot to check the receive comments via email box. This should be a good one so here goes the “x” heh heh

  2. The frog that gets boiled slowly as the water heats isn’t afraid either so it does nothing.

    The Wisconsin Annual Conference has declined by 17% in attendance from 1998-2008 which is in the bottom third of conferences in the USA. The 20% drop in attendance is sixth worst across the USA. The state population rose by 6% during the past ten years. How much worse does it have to get???

    Wisconsin has been paying 100% of its general church apportionments but it is obviously harder to support the burden with fewer people. Supposedly, seven percent of the population identifies itself as Methodist even though only 1.5% of the population are members.

    The water is getting very hot!

    • And see how deeply motivated we have been by all the bad news? Escaping pain isn’t really the point for most people; moving toward something positive is — and people haven’t seen anything worth committing to or connecting with. Is it really any wonder when our witness to the world is “we’re in decline, decay and barreling toward death” that people aren’t attracted to us? Yep, let’s keep focusing on our losses and see how long it takes to live into our self-fulfilling prophecy…

      • Dan, I’m not talking about stuff like GCRR putting out a news release right before Easter last year talking about how The UMC is racist in its hiring and firing when the difference between European and non-European reductions is one percent and non-Europeans are a third of the general agency workforce but are only a tenth of the laity. Which isn’t something to denigrate, but the agency of which your bishop is president decided to do just that.

        We cannot continue to operate as we have been operating. I mention the situation in Wisconsin not to create unreasoning fear but instead to suggest that Pollyanna isn’t going to work either.

  3. I don’t think Dan’s suggesting that we should be Pollyannas who pretend everything is fine. The problem is that when we stress the negatives, however good our motives, it does create fear. When we’re afraid, we tend to choose one of three responses: look for somebody to blame (fight), become paralyzed, or flee. None of those is helpful to the UMC.

    As I read Dan’s recent articles, he’s suggesting that we respond to our problems by developing and promoting a unified vision of positive ministry that will make people excited about being United Methodist. That’s not ignoring or denying the problems of the church, it’s responding in a way that has at least some hope of working.

    • Positive ministry would be good!

      Just feeling better about the current reality without doing anything different isn’t.

      The impression I get from a lot of Dan’s posts is that he believes in addition by subtracion. If the people who aren’t committed leave, then the ones who are left will do much more. Maybe Dan doesn’t intend to send that message, but it comes across that way.

      Either the general church and annual conference structure works to help create more vital churches or we need to prune away the parts of the structure that don’t add to that goal.

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