I’m reading 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape The Future of Everything by Mauro F. Guillen and it finally makes sense – why congregations make decisions that keep them stuck.
Let’s say that your congregation is deciding whether or not to turn a house they own into a shelter for abused women and children. The non-profit managing local domestic abuse assistance is doing most of the work. They are making the necessary house improvements at no cost to the church. They are training the staff. They are coordinating with the local police and court system. They’ve been looking for suitable housing for a shelter for years and this particular house – owned by the church – is perfect. The mission outreach of the congregation could make a positive impact in the community in an area with great need.
The elders vote against it. Several of them asked questions like:
- What if we want to sell that house for income?
- What if someone in the church wants to rent it?
- What if the Boy Scout Troop could use that house one day?
This is called “loss aversion bias.” We make bad decisions, Guillen writes, because “people have a tendency to prefer avoiding losses rather than locking in equivalent gains.” We are more afraid of loss than we are excited about possible growth.
This is why a congregation decides not to change the purpose of their unused Christian Education wing. This is why a congregation decides not to start a new ministry with immigrant children. This is why a congregation turns down the opportunity to partner with the other houses of worship in town to build affordable housing together. What if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t actually do it? What if we regret it?
This is why we fear the possibility of a family “leaving the church” even if it means that new families would join.
Economist Theresa Wiig from the University of Belgen in Norway has found that “losses loom larger than gains” in the hearts and minds of those with the power to make impactful choices. This feels especially true for churches.
Our longtime church people have memories of a different time when nobody talked about domestic violence much less did something about it. Fifty years ago, we didn’t address racism or drug abuse or mental illness or poverty or substandard education – unless we sent checks and studied about it but kept our distance.
Today the most effective congregations in terms of bringing on The Reign of God (something Jesus talked about quite often) are hands-on, entrepreneurial, relational, risk-taking churches. The churches – of any size – who are addressing the sorrows and hurts of their community are thriving. Younger generations are generally meeting-averse but they will take a Saturday to serve their neighbors. There are people in our congregations who can indeed see the benefits of hosting an important mission project in their church building or becoming known for a signature calling. And the benefits are not merely selfish (so that “new members will come.”) The benefits are that love of neighbor is pleasing to God. It’s why we are the Church.
Our bias to loss aversion has become neutralized a bit during this pandemic because we’ve had no choice but to adapt. We could shut down, or we could adapt. Most of us have adapted.
And when it’s over and there’s a vaccine, we can’t go back to fearing losses more than anticipating wins. God is always doing a new thing. We get to participate in these new things and that’s part of the miracle.