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. Dan ..
    BANG ON indeed (thanks for the twist on “spot on” Dan Springstead)……..

    FEAR does, unfortunately motivate — motivate in terms of paralyze.

    I must admit I am somewhat concerneed with numbers — our current vs. past year attendance and giving statistics, all the “metrics” used for the Annual Reports, etc.,

    I never associated this concern with FEAR — thanks for the association………though I am not sure I totally agree with you.

    I must also add commentary on what I directed at our poor sister Mary with her bad attitude:

    IF we take the comments, wisdom, food-for-thought, &tc., of people like Dan Dick — who I hold in high esteem, and, as I’ve said in the past “If I Believed In ReIncarnation Dan Dick would certainly be the REINCARNATION of the OT Prophet JEREMIAH” –in a negative way, and use phrasing like “bad mouthing” to describe what these people do — we are — IMHO — totally missing the point of these tomes. Further, comments like this betray one’s total lack of understanding of things Wesleyan.

    The RENEWAL MOVEMENT that Methodism began as is what I believe all of these “Dan Dick” type persons are striving to motivate us to return to. This includes “divorcing” ourselves from the “tag” that we Methodists are “Mainline” — we are NOT — NOTHING in the Wesleyan Doctrine, Canons, or Understanding qualifies us as Mainline — we are DIFFERENT — and we should Thank God for this Difference and expolit it to the end we are the hands, face, voice, and — yes — presence of Our Lord Christ to all as we walk our short Earthly Journey.

    When we turn our backs on this Tradition, Experience, Reason, and don’t study/examine and exemplify Scripture, we de-value all those who have gone before us, and put the prospect of bringing The Kingdom Of God to fruition on EARTH at risk.

    May God Have Mercy On Us ALL

  2. I suspect most church leaders think that speaking of the decline acts as a “wake-up” call to underscore the need for change, and perceive themselves as offering a positive alternative. Unfortunately, the negativity seems to be filtering down to the people in the pews, while the positive messages get lost. Whatever the intentions of the leaders, the message that I (and many others) end up hearing is the message that “We’ve got to save the church,” which is an essentially negative message. The positive messages, even when present, do not seem to come from a unified and compelling vision of ministry, so are easily lost.

  3. Why is it that our so-called leaders don’t see the basic wisdom in what you are talking about? Is it that they are so scared of losing their jobs that they can’t tell the truth anymore? They are so invested in the structure of the church that they don’t even care what God wants anymore. I can’t blame young people for not wanting to have anything to do with us. We are embarrassing and you name the problem precisely: we are governed by our fears, not by our faith.

    • Most leaders in our church don’t see any basic wisdom in what I am saying. Whether the motivation is fear or not, I can’t say, but the focus on institutional preservation and survival is deep, primal, and resides in the “lizard brain” rather than the neo-cortex — it is reflexive and reactive and not fully conscious. Facing the truth is scary and requires a significant investment in critical thinking and often painful decision-making — two things we seem to avoid like the plague. Your assessment of what young people think of us is spot on — and it extends to older people as well. No one is much interested in an organization that doesn’t know who or what it is, what its purpose might be, and what difference it is making in the world. Running away from problems will not take us where God wants us to go. Escaping a negative is never enough; we need a Promised Land to move toward (not just an Egypt from which to flee…)

  4. As always your posts are bang on (as some would say).

    Give me a church that has people who know what their job is as a follower of Jesus Christ, regardless of how many there are, and they’ll convert the world. Our issue isn’t so much doom and gloom (though there are things that look bad) but one of gridlock. We cannot seem to break out of the morass we’ve been in the last 30-40 or so years when we saw our impact on society (dare I say culture?) decrease to a point of being none existent.

    Jesus started with 12, had but 11 once he resurrected, and look what they did. We would do well to benefit from that example.


  5. If “The End Times” is when we do the final work to bring about the New Kingdom, haven’t we been living in The End Times since the first Pentecost? If the relationship between our Now and God’s Eternity is nil, Now being inconsequential (literally, not having sequence) to God and Eternity being incomprehensible to us, couldn’t the Rapture be ever-present? Might that be all transition from temporal life to eternal?

  6. We don’t waste too much time talking numbers — numbers are the tools of the fear-mongers.

    Man, where were you when my high school trig teacher said I had to take his tests? I would have loved to have used this line on him.

    English majors, unite!

  7. I am sick of people like you bad mouthing not only the church but your country. Our leaders have never used fear to threaten or coerce us. We are not like the rest of the world. And to compare our church leaders to Harold Camping is unfair. Camping wasn’t trying to scare anybody and neither are our bishops. Fair and clear warnings are not made to scare people, but to prepare them. I am glad we have good leaders who do pay attention to threats so that we can continue to grow and be strong.

    • Mary — WHERE ON EARTH (or Heaven) does all your anger come from ?
      I guess you didn’t take my earlier suggestion to revisit our WESLEYAN BASICS that include “agreeing to disagree”……..and Fr. John’s dictum: “Though We Do Not All THINK alike, may we LOVE alike ?”

      The Reality is we are stuck in a 1950-s mindset, continue to do the things we’ve done in the past that didn’t work then — and aren’t working now to REVITALIZE our denomination and make it strong and effective — strong and effective as the Face of Our Lord Christ on Earth.

      In more common language — “take a pill girl” == seriously!!

      • Todd, I think there are a lot of Marys out there — people who are fearful that we’re losing our church and they want to trust the leaders we’ve got because they are all we have. They want the church they remember from earlier times — whether the memories are all that accurate or not, they remember the church to be safer, more comfortable, more positive, and happier. We weren’t beset by money problems, people who were different, so much political gamesmanship, and missions meant sending missionaries to a foreign land to do mission work for us. Mary hears our leaders talking about becoming the church we were fifty years ago and finds great comfort in it, I imagine. Mary is exactly the audience our current leaders are speaking to.

    • Mary- I’m hard pressed to find in this writing where he is bad mouthing the church or our country. In terms of the church, he questions the tactics of church leaders who call for resurrection. That in my mind is a legitimate observation of someone who is wrongly calling the church “dead.” Comparing some of our church leaders to Harold Camping is fair. Camping was absolutely trying to instill fear in people so that they would repent (his warnings might have been clear but there is no way that they were fair, given his feeble attempt at numerology and his weak interpretation of the scriptures). This is an age old evangelism tactic which takes many forms. While some of our church leaders are not pointing to the rapture, they are speaking from a doom and gloom perspective, largely motivated by budgets and money.

      In terms of our country, he doesn’t say a word about our nations leaders instilling fear. Fear in the wake of 9-11 was largely generated by ourselves (fueled by the ever vigilant media). I’m not so sure that you gave this blog a careful read.

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