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What Neurology Can Teach us About Vital Congregations - and Better Lives

May 7, 2017

Why is my church dying?

 

The question was asked with such longing. It came at the end of an hour of conversation, as I sat across from the woman in her mid-sixties, staring down into her Starbucks cup. She was a member of her church council, desperately looking for an answer - a reason why her beloved church, once a place of such life and vitality, now seemed to be spiraling downward.

 

 It was a common story.

 

They never really changed what they were doing, so why wasn’t it working anymore?

 

They still ran the same programs as when the halls were flooded with Sunday School Students. They still worshiped the same way as when the sanctuary was packed each week, and no one ever missed a Sunday. They still had the same Spaghetti Dinners and Bible Studies and special events. Even 10 years ago things still weren't that bad. Not like they used to be, but no one really noticed - or they had pretended not to.

 

No one could figure out why the people stopped coming.

 

I didn't know what to tell her. I had already walked through the ways our culture had fundamentally shifted in the past several decades. Talked through how people's patterns, habits, and meaning-making activities had changed. Discussed the crucial, long-term process of deep visioning.

 

But our conversation was right back where it started. Like she had heard me, but not really.

 

But what should we do?

 

She was right.

 

I had nothing.

 

I couldn't tell her how to fix her problem. I couldn't give her what she was looking for.

 

I wish I had known then what I know now.

 

Recently, my curiosity led me down a path of exploration that should have been more obvious from the beginning. On the recommendation of a friend, I had read an interesting book about the powerful ways technology is shifting our entire culture, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. While reading this book I came across a fascinating discovery in neuroscience that has re-framed the whole way I understand how we - and our churches - operate.

 

For most of history, until around 1970, scientists believed that the brain's structure was essentially fixed, particularly after a person reached adulthood.

 

And then they discovered they were completely wrong.

 

As early as 1890, William James was arguing in his Principles of Psychology that the brain was not rigid, but plastic - or malleable - throughout life. As it turns out, he was right. Incredibly, his 19th century description of how the brain works is still one of the most accurate and poetic in modern science:

 

"Water, in flowing, hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before. Just so, the impressions of outer objects fashion for themselves in the nervous system more and more appropriate paths, and these vital phenomena recur under similar excitements from without, when they have been interrupted a certain time."

 

In more simple language, what we do - our habits - reinforce themselves and deepen these patterns, so much so that our brain automatically repeats the same patterns once they have been established unless significant effort is made to change our behavior.

 

Have you ever found yourself pulling into your driveway without remembering most of the drive there? Exactly. Habits.

 

The truth is that most of the time, we don't really decide a whole lot about how we live, act, and spend our time. Most of it is habit.

 

The Good News: We have discovered that human beings are universally, almost miraculously, endowed with a natural ability to change and adapt to new, unexpected, and changing circumstances.

 

The Bad News: Change is hard. Actually, much harder than we thought.

 

And it all comes down to habit.

 

An old dog really can learn new tricks. But even a young dog will have trouble changing once a habit has been established. We have more - and less - control over our lives, thoughts, and decisions than we ever knew. From the over-eater, to the compulsive gambler, to the marathon runner, to the alcoholic - our habits are our destiny.

 

Unless we change them.

 

The implications of this for how we live our lives, how we shape our relationships, and how we achieve our goals are amazing. But what is at least as fascinating is that researchers have found that this exact same plasticity is true of organizations.

 

After all, organizations are just groups of people - people sharing at least certain habits with one another. And here's the secret. Once you can identify your habits, recognize that they exist and that some are healthy and some are unhealthy, the sky's the limit for how you can change your life, your company - your church.

 

But it takes work. And not everyone will choose to do that work.

 

Denial is always an option. But it’s never a healthy one.

 

In a world that has shifted under our feet...in a culture where we are experiencing massive shifts in how people interact with institutions, answer questions of truth and meaning, and prioritize their lives - we in the church have our work cut out for us.

 

The ship we've built is made to sail the seas of the last 500 years. And now we're going whitewater rafting. We need new models. We need new plans. We need a kayak. Or an inflatable raft.

 

 

But before any of that...WE NEED NEW HABITS.

 

This is where the journey begins. Not by looking outward, or by solving the enormous cultural shifts taking place around us. Not by finding out what that church up the street is doing, or by buying a new instrument for the sanctuary. The answer can’t be found in a new program, curriculum, or fundraiser.

 

It starts by looking inward.

 

And looking honestly at ourselves is always hard.

 

Because a vital organization, like a vital person, is not shaped by one time successes. Nor are they shaped by their aspirational hopes and dreams (We really want to be a church full of young children and families, that serves the poor and that people flock to every Sunday! We really do!)

 

In the end, it is simpler - and much harder - than that.

 

Healthy people have healthy habits. Not laudable goals, or an admirable pedigree. And healthy churches – like all organizations – are churches with healthy habits. This starts by honestly looking inward, asking the hard questions about ourselves, and wrestling with the very real spiritual questions that people outside the church are already asking. Until we can explore our habits - our ministry models and church calendars, our worship services and unspoken assumptions - we are caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a battle of diminishing returns.

 

Our churches - like all organizations, like all people - are ultimately not rational, logical, or directed by a neat, tidy strategic plans that charts the path to success. This is the lesson that the more savvy folks in the business world are already learning. Vibrant organizations are formed by vibrant, dynamic habits.

 

Your congregation really can thrive! Even in a drastically changing world, we have been blessed by God with all the tools we need for a vibrant, hopeful future – in the very structure of our beautifully created brains! But the bad news is, this is going to be work. It’s going to be hard. Every bit as hard as it is for an alcoholic to stop drinking or an over-eater to switch to vegetables.

 

To learn new habits, we must first unlearn our unhealthy habits – our default behaviors that once upon a time were dynamic, life-giving things – until the world shifted under our feet.

 

I finally had an answer to that grieving woman, the one I hadn't been able to help at Starbucks.

 

Our actions create our habits, and our habits shape our destiny. Change really is possible.

 

All we have to do is start.

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