Obsession: A Guest Post By Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
“Suppose you had seven credit cards in your purse or wallet and you lost one. ..”
Recently a friend gave me a book by Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries in Atlanta. It was given, I suspect, with the hope that I would understand a bit more about the model used in a number of mega-churches. While the book did not change either my theology or ecclesiology it did provide me with a number of management insights as well as the opportunity to engage with a different form of churchmanship. One illustration in the book, however, got my attention. Stanley called it, “The Parable of the Lost Credit Card”. The premise of the parable is straightforward, but the message of the parable is, I believe, profound.
Simply stated the story is as follows – Most of us carry around several credit cards. What happens when we notice that we have lost one. What do we do when we notice it’s loss? We obsess over how, why or where we lost the card. We look around our home, look under newspapers and magazines. We look in our car. We try and retrace our steps and try to recreate our recent history. When did we last see it? When did we last use it? We try to imagine how we might have lost it. Did I use it running a tab at the bar when I was out with friends the other night? I had an extra drink. Maybe I left it with the bartender. I was in a hurry coming home. Maybe I used it for gas and left it at the pump. We try to imagine where it could be. We look at any mistakes we might have made. We examine our history and our actions. We go back to the places we’ve been trying to find the lost card…
Now, that’s about what we do. What is it that we don’t do? Well, we don’t look in our wallet or purse and congratulate ourselves on the other cards we haven’t lost. We don’t call American Express and tell the person on the other end of the line, “Hey, I just want you to know that I haven’t lost my American Express card!” We don’t go around with a smug self-satisfied expression showing people what we still have. And, by the way, I’ve never encountered a person who lost a credit card, saying, “Well, I’m glad I lost that card. I’ll do much better without it”.
No, we obsess over what we have lost.
As is widely known, mainline denominations are in decline in the United States. In a one year period, 2013-2014, the United Methodist Church lost 116,063 members – the equivalent of losing a 318 member local church every single day of the year. In 2015, the Presbyterian Church lost 95,107 members (5.7 % of its total membership). The Episcopal Church in 2014 lost 49,794 members (2.7 % of its membership) with even a steeper loss in church attendance. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America experienced a loss of 1.07 million members between 2005 and 2014. During the same period, confessional Lutheran denominations, such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod lost 12% of their membership. Even the Southern Baptist Convention lost 204,409 members in 2015, hot on the heels of a loss of 236,467 members in 2014. (This is close to a loss of a half million members over the course of two years.) For those who might seek refuge in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has lost over 3 million members since 2007. For every one Catholic convert, six Catholics leave the Church. No real or reliable figures are available for independent Evangelical churches or franchises such as Calvary Chapel affiliated ministries, but clearly, even if one were to take Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa as an example, there has been a significant loss here as well.
What I find amazing, however, is how churches and denominations are reacting to their losses. If you take a look at their websites, read their press releases or listen to pronouncements from their leadership, you could imagine that everything is wonderful. You are informed of all their activities and of all the wonderful opportunities their church or denomination has on offer. Put simply, they are not obsessed with what they have lost. Instead, contrary to the parable, they retain a smug self-satisfaction concerning what is still “in their wallet”. Perhaps even worse are those who greet the news of declining numbers with comments like, “We’re better off without those evangelicals… fundamentalists… liberals… high church… low church… Calvinists… social activists… feminists… traditionalists… etc.”
Perhaps it is time to obsess over what has been lost.
Whether as a single church or a denomination, we need to do some searching. Quite simply, I think it is up to us to seek out those who have left. It can start at home, in our own souls. It can begin with, “What part have I played in the loss?” This is personal. It might involve looking under stacks of books that somehow became more important than people. We might have to sort through old class notes on pastoral theology that we’ve not revisited for some time. As in the parable, we might need to try and retrace our steps and recreate our recent history. When did we last see the people who are now gone? What were we doing then that attracted them in the first place? What mistakes did we make that might have caused them to leave? Did we notice when they left? Did we care enough to accept them and love them for who they are, men and women made in the image of God, or did we want them to be what we wanted them to be. We might even try to imagine why they have gone, from their point of view – not ours. I wish that every church, every denomination, had a leadership group with but a single mandate – “Obsess over what has been lost”.
We can talk and write about remnant theology. We may theorize about God “purifying the Church”. In the end, however, we do have one singular example. That singular example spoke of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost child…
Let’s learn to obsess over what has been lost.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD