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.