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Sometimes the story feels like a rerun. It’s a story that seems to play out time and again: a church that is rapidly declining has a pastor or a denomination who sees the need for change, but he or she soon runs into the equivalent of a brick wall as they try to implement it. I’ve had friends from seminary and leaders from churches I’ve coached tell me stories of the lovely people in their congregation who see the writing on the wall but just can’t bring themselves to imagine doing anything different than has been done the last 50 years.
Maybe you resonate with them, wondering if you have wasted years of your life in board or elder meetings, having spent countless hours and sleepless nights worrying if you and your church have another five years left. You wonder why this is so hard. Is fear just that powerful? Are they just too set in their ways? Is the Enemy at work?
While there can be truth in each of those things, there is really another stronger factor at work when a church on the brink of closure continues to resist making any change that could help it survive. And understanding and knowing how to respond to this factor may be the difference between life and death for a congregation—and your leadership.
To understand this principle, let’s imagine for a minute you are at the checkout of your favorite supermarket. Your cashier begins to scan your items, and he asks “did you bring your own bags?” You remember hearing that the grocery store is on a kick to become more environmentally friendly by encouraging customers to bring their own bags—but sadly, yours are sitting at home. “No, I forgot,” you respond. As he pulls out the paper and plastic, he tells you, “Okay, no problem. But remember the next time you bring them, you will receive 50 cents off for each bag.” You nod and make the mental note.
Now, imagine a similar scenario, same grocery store, same initial question, and same forgetful you. Now imagine the cashier saying to you, “Okay, no problem. But remember that each paper or plastic bag you use each time will cost you 50 cents.”
Now, the next time you are about to go grocery shopping, which of the cashier’s responses will more likely influence you to bring your own bags—knowing each bag will reduce your bill by 50 cents or knowing paper or plastic will cost you 50 cents more per bag?
Statistics show that the idea of forking over more money rather than saving money is the stronger motivating force. It’s called loss aversion. And it’s a powerful thing.
Of course, Jesus spoke about loss:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29).
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35).
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
The Greek word apollumi, which we translate as “lose” in these passages, indicates more than the kind of loss that happens when you misplace your glasses. It’s intense and emotional—a perishing, ruining, deathly kind of loss. This kind of loss is much easier to comprehend when it’s talked about in abstract or when you someone else experiencing it. But when you, yourself, are facing it, it’s another story. Even if Christ himself says it, something deep within you recoils at the thought.
Here’s the thing: For Jesus, loss is knowingly difficult, yet necessary in the Kingdom.
For Jesus, loss is knowingly difficult, but necessary in the Kingdom.
Loss aversion shapes more than congregational behavior. This concept is popularly summarized by the phrase “losses loom larger than gains.” It’s the same psychological force at work that keeps your mom from donating that box of old sweaters she’s had in the attic for years. It’s the mysterious power that makes your two-year-old freak out when another kid takes a toy they’re not even playing with. It’s possibly the reason Tiger Woods makes more par putts than birdie putts, and it can be behind the fact that businesses older than ten years have a tendency toward retaining the status quo in decision making.
Economists Kahneman and Tversky first published about this topic in 1984 after conducting a series of experiments that demonstrated how people feel worse about the pain that comes with loss than they do about the pleasure that comes with an equal gain. In general, people tend to fear a loss twice as much as they are likely to welcome an equivalent gain. This means that the anticipated devastating loss that comes with changing worship style or spending time and money on outreach instead of social events can be enough to override the pleasant thought of children running through the halls once more or even impacting lives and eternities. Further research has indicated that this irrational thought process occurs because regions of the brain that process value and reward are silenced more when we evaluate a potential loss than they are activated when we assess a similar-sized gain. Brain reactions that are stronger with loss can even be used to predict people’s behavior—whether it’s becoming emotional over donating the sweaters or starting a shouting match about moving the organ.
A few years ago, I met with a church who was praying about allowing a new church to be planted in their building. At the meeting, as the church plant talked excitedly of events and classes and new life, two congregation members kept bringing up their struggle with having food and drink in their sacred space. It was clear that loss of control over the building in the form of rules was a hurdle that would be very difficult to overcome, no matter how many would attend worship in the building. To those on the outside, it may have seemed irrational that coffee and cake in the sanctuary would cause this congregation to lose out on such an opportunity. But when you’re the one facing the loss, you understand its power.
3 Things You Can Do When Your Church Fears Loss
However, while loss aversion is a force to be reckoned with, it is also power to be harnessed. The good news is that when you’re working with a congregation that is hesitant to do anything different, though they may be staring into the eyes of the angel of death known as church closure, loss aversion can be transformed to propel towards expanding the Kingdom.
1. Acknowledge it.
One of the worst things you can do with a dying congregation is to make up a win-win situation. That only results in broken promises and disappointment. Loss is real and has a 100% chance of occurring when a congregation makes a change. There is no way to hold on and let go at the same time. Name the specific losses you will face—whether they are concrete like pew cushions or conceptual like control.
2. Frame it.
Kahneman and Tversky explain that we decide differently depending on whether a choice is framed as a gain or as a loss. When a choice is framed as a loss, we tend to be more risk-seeking in our preferences. However, when the same choice is framed as a gain, we tend to become risk averse. It’s actually the opposite of what we would think—cajoling and bargaining might actually defeat our purpose. When we look at the gospels, Jesus is recorded to be very upfront about the cost—and loss—of discipleship when he spoke with people who were wanting to follow him. It probably confused lots of them, but it was probably also oddly attractive.
3. Wait for it.
For some congregations, change will only be possible when the pain of the possibility of their church closing is so great that it becomes the driving force behind willingness to change. Unfortunately, by the time many churches reach this threshold, resources, people, and pastors have been exhausted and may not have the ability to implement the needed change. The key is persistence without force. Jesus never forced anyone to follow; even with the disciples who wound up leaving all they had, his method was invitation. Sometimes people need time for them to frame the loss themselves, or even talk to those who have been in a similar situation before they can step out themselves.
Loss aversion may quake beneath the surface of our decision-making, but the fear of death doesn’t have to prevent new life from springing forth. In a time of head-spinning change in both the Church and the world, it’s our Kingdom calling to believe and remain obedient in the practice of resurrection, even when it means facing loss.
After all—we know the One who’s already won.
It’s our Kingdom calling to believe and remain obedient in the practice of resurrection, even when it means facing loss. After all—we know the One who’s already won.