By Chris Gambill
It turns out that whether you view your filled-to-half-capacity glass as half-full or half-empty is much more than just a rhetorical question. It says a lot about how you tend to interpret situations and may indicate a tendency toward pessimism or optimism. A tendency toward optimism can have a significant, positive impact on your health, resilience, success at work, and in other areas of life. I believe it can also significantly impact your faith community. As another year concludes, how do you see the “glass” of your faith community? When you think about your congregation’s future, do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty?
Most established, traditional congregations–no matter what denomination–are experiencing significant challenges. Attendance is typically dropping and giving is declining. Most congregations are increasingly older with fewer young adults and children sitting in the pews. By most of the ways we measure success or effectiveness, most congregations would say they have in some measures (if not several), declined. Congregation members often hold widely varying interpretations of this situation and the prospects for the future. If they tend toward the pessimistic, they may only be able to see what they have lost. They look at the congregation and see the empty seats on Sunday morning. They look at the budget and see how much giving has declined. They look at the gray heads in the congregation and feel sadness that the pews are not full of younger adults and children. For them, the congregational “glass” looks half-empty.
But there is another way to interpret the same situation. I sometimes ask congregations tending toward the glass half-empty interpretation, to try and pretend they are just getting started. I ask, “If someone were to give you a great location for a church, a building with little or no debt, in a neighborhood that is growing, and a core group of people who genuinely love God and each other, could you grow a church with those resources?” From this point of view, the congregational “glass” is half-full, not half-empty. And, with some faith, hope, and love, it can quite possibly be a thriving congregation again. But, probably not if no one believes it can happen. The congregation desperately needs people who believe in what can be, not just in what they see at the moment.
The case for being positive, optimistic and hopeful about the future of a congregation can be made not just from a scientific point of view, but a theological one as well. As I am writing this, it is the Christian season of Advent. It’s a time of expectation, anticipation and waiting. Advent itself is not a time of joy–it’s a time to anticipate and prepare to experience the joy of Christmas and the coming of the Christ child. My friend, Dr. Mary Foskett, Kahle Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University, recently taught a series on Advent at our church. She reminded us that Jesus was born into a world that probably felt dark and hopeless to most ordinary people. The Jewish people were under the dominance of a foreign government and most people struggled to obtain the basic necessities of life. God’s promises to them seemed unfulfilled and probably unobtainable. Yet, into this glass-half-empty world came a baby and suddenly, the world and the future changed forever.
If any group of people in the world ought to have reasons for hope–reasons to be optimistic and to believe in what can be–it ought to be God’s people. The biblical story and our own lived experience of faith has surely taught us that there is reason to believe God can do a new thing–even with (especially with!) a congregation.
How you view your congregation’s “glass”–half-full or half-empty matters–a lot. If the dominant story is one of loss and decline and there is little real hope for the future, then that’s likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If instead, a congregation is dominated by the belief that there can be a future where the congregation thrives, then that can happen. Congregation members have to believe that God can do a new thing among them and that they actually practice the faith, hope and love that is the foundation of any healthy congregation. If their congregational “glass” is half-full, then there is the strong possibility (no guarantees in the life of faith!) that the congregation can continue to be a transformative presence for their community. The power of faith, optimism and hope is made manifest in the glass half-full.
Learn more about optimism:
Forgeard, M. J. C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Seeing the glass half full: A review of the causes and consequences of optimism. Pratiques Psychologiques, 18(2), 107–120. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.prps.2012.02.002
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Reprint edition). New York: Vintage.
Smith, E. E. (2013, March 1). The Benefits of Optimism Are Real. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/the-benefits-of-optimism-are-real/273306/
The Benefits of Optimism. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/post/the_benefits_of_optimism
The Mind and Body Benefits of Optimism. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201208/the-mind-and-body-benefits-optimism-0