Losers Focus on… Losing

Negative energy is seductive and strangely appealing.  In The United Methodist Church we have established a history of focusing on our decline and failures.  For the short-sighted and faithless, how many members we have lost is more important than how many members we have.  For the fatalist and facile, what we don’t give is more important what we do give.  For the fear-filled and flummoxed, apocalypse is more appealing than ascension.  What we CAN be is less important than what WE USED TO be.  Their remedy is to preach fire and brimstone — to harp on the statistics that prove our imminent demise.  They believe focusing on the crisis will be motivational.  Regardless of overwhelming proof that this is ineffective, and actually increases the harm, they continue to shriek that the sky is falling.  They frame their cries as “being realistic” and “naming what is,” ignoring the fact that they are adopting a defeatist stance.  Losers focus on losing; winners on winning.  It isn’t rocket science.

The Hebrew people lived in captivity in Egypt for a long time, and there is very little evidence to suggest that they enjoyed being slaves.  Yet, the pain of slavery was never enough of a motivation to get them out of Egypt.  No matter how dire the situation, it was preferable to live in captivity than to venture forth into the unknown… that is, until there was a Promised Land to move to.  A positive to achieve is always more powerful than a problem to alleviate, especially when what you can do about the problem won’t actually solve it.  We have lots of people in the church whining about how bad things are, but we have so few leaders pointing to a Promised Land.  That’s the problem with much of our current conjecture about the future of The United Methodist Church — there is no Promised Land ( and no, the dopey, maudlin 2092 video doesn’t count!).  Too much of our attention is on escaping the wrath to come, not co-authoring paradise.  It is much more exciting to frame our current crisis as danger rather than opportunity.  So our language is defeatist — all couched in terms of the terrible things that will happen to us if we don’t heed the signs of the times.  The Bible actually addresses such a mindset: repent.

Sin literally means to “miss the mark.”  Guess what?  We are missing the mark, big time.  Repentance means to turn back to the target.  For us, that might mean relational evangelism and hands-on missional service.  Ah, when the early Methodist movement took to the fields and coal mines and pubs and public squares, we didn’t spend so much money on buildings.  When we relied on the faithfulness of active and engaged laity, our credentialing processes weren’t such a mess.  When accountable discipleship differentiated us from everyone else, we didn’t have to invest such huge sums in marketing — our brand already existed!  And nary a consultant could squeeze a dollar away from life-giving mission.  Too bad we couldn’t create a future more like that, but we are too corporate, too consumeristic.  Don’t misunderstand — I don’t think we can or should “go back,” but learn from the principles of many different ages and cultures — while we need some organization and structure, we only need that which enables us to do God’s work effectively and faithfully.  All the rest misses the mark — is sin.  Repentance puts us back where God wants us rather than where WE think God should want us.

I’ve been reading a history of successful coaches in college sports, and a fascinating pattern emerges: the most effective and winningest leaders don’t waste time looking at the game film where their teams and players screwed up and underperformed — instead they study the films where the players excelled and performed at the peak of their ability.  They don’t want to compensate weaknesses; they want to fully maximize the greatest potential.  Losers focus on losing, winners on winning.  Duh.  As long as we in the church continue to fixate on our poor performance, our losses, our failures, and every missed opportunity, we will be a church in decline.  But if we can learn to focus on what we do well, where we succeed, what we are improving at, and where we make a difference, we might just generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to transform the world.  We can be overwhelmed by pending “death tsunamis” and membership losses and pending financial ruin, or we can have faith, trust God, commit ourselves to reaching the Promised Land, and — in the words of the Deuteronomist, “Choose life so that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God and holding fast to God — create the future God is calling us to have.

8 replies

  1. At a recent basketball game, I watched in horror as my team was desperately trying Not to Lose the game. In trying to not lose, their lead continued to dwindle…until one player decided to play to win. A determined drive to the basket added 2 more points and changed the teams attitude. The result: instead of holding onto a slim lead, they won in style. And the phrase kept repeating in my mind, thinking all the while of the UMC: “there is a big difference in playing to win vs playing not to lose.”

  2. :”Cruciform existence” can easily be perverted into an acceptance of defeat and a comfort with failure. Our success may not be dollars and cents as it is in the world, but it is transformed lives, families, and communities. What else is “success” in the spiritual life but good old Wesleyan sanctification? We’re supposed to be shooting for that, not wallowing in our sin and waxing poetically about our inability to do right. Likewise, churches need something to aim for beyond a nostalgic resignation with the way things are. Wesley was motivated by a vision to spread Scriptural holiness and revive the form and power of the earliest Church; it was Anglican leadership that had decided they had reached enough people, they were “established”, and and not much else needed to happen. Wesley was much more driven by a vision of what could be – with copious amounts of grace – than he was comfortable with theologically justified sloth.

  3. A couple of comments:

    – If a congregation has become blind to the fact that it’s slowly (or rapidly) fading away, then you may need to shock it into reality with some cold, hard facts (not enough people to support the current building and/or activities, etc.). The difference is what comes next: close down and abandon the area (and the people who may be left or who relied on the services/activities/missions of the fading congregation) or figure out how to change and grow.
    – While the idea of “house churches” can be appealing, small groups can usually only do small things. There are times when having a large building with a large congregation is very useful. John Wesley explicitly advocated a two track approach to Christian community: small groups (classes, societies, etc.) for daily discipleship and accountability, and larger parishes and congregations for corporate worship and for the times when a larger group or location was required. We 21st Century Methodists have just lost the balance of the two.

  4. The “appreciative inquiry” approach to visioning that the winning sports coach example seems to promote is precisely the sort of thing that secular business world consultants are introducing into church thinking. The difference between us and winning college sports coaches is that we celebrate cruciform existence rather than worldly “success.” So I don’t think it’s so much about focusing on the positives as it is rejoicing (though not wallowing) in our trials.

    I appreciate the larger point that anxiety only breeds more anxiety and creates a downward spiral. But self-congratulation is just anxiety in a different form. I’m not sure what the solution to all this is, but we have new members in our church who think that church is awesome and have no idea that the Methodist church is dying. And it really isn’t dying as long as the Spirit is inspiring people in the local church into deeper discipleship. I think we have to let the people who want to be disciples set the standard for our ministries rather than shaping church according to the sensibilities of the people who’d rather be playing golf anyway. As Rick Warren says, “People are going to leave your church. You get to choose why.”

  5. As always, well said. We need to hear this. We need to be more about our future than our current or past failures. If we will proceed by prayer and faith, it will be a bright future. Charles F. Kettering was famous for reminding us that driving into the future will not occur with a preoccupation on the past. He described it as driving a car while looking out the back window.

    I do think we need a real honest appraisal of where we are, and what our actual (non-sugar coated) situation is, then we need to get on with adaptive change. No need to wallow in the mire. let’s focus on what we can be.

    For dieters, it is said that a picture of our overweight self on the fridge is actually a demotivator. Conversely, a picture of how we looked at our best is what gets us highly motivated to get back in shape. A picture of a perfect Hollywood body is just as demotivating as a picture of our own failure. We need to have a realistic picture of the good results that come with our hard work of change. Creating and presenting such a picture is the role of pastoral and judicatory leadership.

  6. I once read that famed UCLA basketball coach, on the first day of practice, of a new season, conducted a lesson on how to put on socks. He knew from long years of experience that a wrinkled sock would cause the player to be uncomfortable and get blisters and not play at his best. I think the UMC may need to figure out how to put the socks of our ministries on correctly. We don’t need more blisters hindering us in our repentance.

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