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Background Data for Mission

The Background Data for Mission newsletter helps United Methodist leaders sort through the new and integrate it with the old. It explores the latest in technology, demographic trends, and contemporary approaches to worship, church education, and evangelism.


October 2010, Volume 22, No. 10

Swans in our Future

A few years ago, United Methodist membership in the United States slid under 8 million and was largely greeted with a yawn. Since then, we have had an economic downturn and accelerating attendance losses, and now we find great interest in doing things differently. The great recession took the church by surprise as much as it did the business world. The business world by and large has viewed this episode as an unusually stubborn experience, but still holds that the usual business cycle pattern will take place and recovery is at hand, if not slower than expected. Church folks tend to echo the pundits in their hopes for better financial times around the corner. But what if the good times take a long time to arrive?
At the time of this writing, it is clear that the Fed thinks the recovery is not on pace, as the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) announced that they will utilize more quantitative easing (euphemism for printing money) to the tune of $600 billion over the coming months. This is an extraordinary measure, especially this long after initial extraordinary measures were taken. These measures are greeted with short-term enthusiasm by some, but will exact a long-term tab that could be devastating if a strong recovery is not realized relatively soon.
During the election run-up and before, much blame has been levied on various supposed causes of the economic downturn. The reality is that there is plenty of blame to go around, not the least of which can be attributed to the financial weapons of mass destruction known as derivatives. In particular, a segment of these that bundled together mortgages and turned them into exotic security investment instruments can be cited. When the mortgages went south in the bursting of the real estate bubble, these lost much of their face value (the proverbial toxic assets), to the tune of trillions of dollars. The FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) has allowed the banks to pretend they are worth their face value, however, so the institutions holding them may look viable. This is starting to unravel, however, as the paper trail in foreclosures is hitting litigation, due to the way these mortgages were securitized. This is further resulting in questions about who holds title.
Meanwhile, the same economic and financial pundits who did not see this mess coming are the ones assuring us that in spite of headwinds of various sorts, we are recovering. On the other hand, those lonely prophets who saw the troubles ahead of time and were ignored are not so optimistic. We simply are not done realizing the damage done by the toxic assets, unemployment is not improving (if one counts those who are still unemployed but off the official lists), and housing values are still declining. So what does all this have to do with church? We should be at least allowing for the possibility of ongoing financial challenges in the local church, as well as in the denominational structures. There is room for hope however.
One of the brilliant observers who identified the dangers of the approaching economic crisis was Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. As one who actually understands how derivatives work, since he has been in the business, he can see the mathematical weaknesses they potentially possess. These financial instruments use extremely complicated mathematics to model probabilities of the performance of the underlying financial vehicles they are connected to. These models contain assumptions, as all do, and are based on years of history. The problem occurs when a catastrophic event outside the realm of these statistics takes place, as it did with the unprecedented real estate bubble collapse. Taleb calls such unanticipated, improbable events black swans. If all one has ever seen are white swans, and one has seen them for years, and one has never heard of a black swan, it is easy to assume they don't exist and that they won't be observed. This does not mean they don't exist and won't be observed, as unlikely as it may seem. In 2001, 9/11 was a black swan. In 1987, Long Term Capital Management was a black swan.
The danger we face now is that our economy is very fragile and many folks, churches, and businesses are already stretched. We are all counting on nothing else out of the ordinary to come along. Yet we keep getting surprises such as the failing economies of Greece and Ireland, and Gulf oil spills. If a major blowup in the Middle East takes place, and oil supplies are constricted, our oil-dependent economy will suffer, perhaps severely. Another major terrorist attack on the order of 9/11 would likewise cause enormous damage. While the likelihood of these is small, they, and many other scenarios like them, are not unreasonable. Factoring such possibilities into one's planning is not unreasonable.
And now, here's the good news. Just as there can be improbable negative events or occurrences, which are unanticipated but happen, there can be positive ones as well. This is where the faith dimension of life and church management should be in play. The Bible is full of examples of unlikely, or even impossible, events taking place that radically change lives for the better. Modern examples can be seen as well. A new church start growing to become the highest attended church in the denomination within a decade or so is highly improbable. Church of the Resurrection has done that; though the many other new churches started in the same area did not grow in this way. During the peak of this growth, Senior Pastor Adam Hamilton noted on the church's web page that the reason for the growth was the Holy Spirit. While the pastor and church regularly host seminars and produce books about their story, and the factors they see having contributed to their growth, these still do not account for the magnitude they have realized.
Craig Groeschel, a former UMC pastor, started a new church in 1996, which has become one of the largest churches in the United States. He describes the differences between churches that, in his opinion, have what it takes to be highly successful, and those that don't, in his book, It: How Churches and Leaders Can Get It and Keep It. Again, we have a most improbable result that the leader attributes to something beyond the usual explanations.
The intent here is not to trot out amazing megachurch stories, which most of us cannot relate to, as the improbable circumstance the rest of us can hope to realize. Rather, they serve merely as highly visible examples of God doing the improbable, but not as the only type of such phenomena. Many more familiar ministries can experience new life, vitality, and provision in highly unlikely ways, even in trying times. These cannot be programmed, but seem to increase in likelihood when the practice of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer, and intentional application of the Great Commission and Great Commandment take place. While we can hope for rapidly improving times, we can likewise work to make things better, and prepare for less desirable contingencies, all the while having faith for otherwise improbable blessings.
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John H. Southwick, Editor

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