Ever read George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four? There is that scene where the main character, Winston Smith, is being brainwashed into thinking that 2+2=5 as a matter of submitting to Big Brother.
We do not live in this Orwellian world full of tyranny and brainwashing (thanks be to God), but we have adopted the premise. For a long time now, perhaps even a generation we have believed that 2+2 indeed = 5. Our congregations, judicatories and even national church structures operate on a 5 budget, have 5 mission plans, and 5 strategies for turning our decline around, and yet we are surprised year after year, why we always end up with a missing 1. Why is there a missing 1? Because 2+2=4. 2+2 always = 4. It never equals 5. Yet we believe it to be true. We chase the missing 1 in a variety of capacities – maybe if our people just gave more money, or maybe if we just got more people in our pews, or maybe if we ran the perfect new program all our troubles would go away and we could find the missing 1. But alas…2+2=4.
I remember as a new pastor ten years ago the wisdom in the room at a pastors meeting that for congregations to be healthy and growing there should be about one hundred people in worship on average on Sunday morning. The language changed about five years ago to say – to stay viable there needs to be at least fifty people in worship on average. Now people are saying, if you still have thirty-five people – your church can probably still stay open. I have no real way of fact checking these numbers, but just as benchmarks – do you see the change in tone? In a decade we shifted the conversation from health and vitality to mere survival (and your chances aren’t good – given the odds). Why such despair? My guess – we have been chasing the missing 1 for so long – and without success, that we are in the process of giving up. We aren’t giving up on the idea – we still believe 2+2=5, but we are giving up on our ability to find the missing 1.
There is only really one solution to this problem.
STOP! GO GET YOUR ERASER.
2+2=4. No more. No less.
Every congregation that I’ve seen (even the ones in serious trouble) have many opportunities for mission, a core group of leaders, and enough assets to put them to good use. The problem is we chase the wrong things. We try to recapture a glorious past (that may have never actually existed), we try to save our precious cathedrals (even the ones that look like starter units), and we have an image of church that looks like an era that is long gone.
Guess what? It is.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was almost thirty years ago (even the fictitious one). We live in the twenty-first century, on the brink of a new way of living, interacting, and understanding human life through amazing technological innovations, medical breakthroughs, and economic interconnectedness. There are new challenges and many people left-behind in this rapidly and constantly changing world, which gives the church new opportunities for outreach, service, evangelism, worship, and whole new understanding of mission than simply filling our pews as we seek the missing 1 trying to achieve untenable goals in an every changing age.
Instead, look around. Take inventory of the gifts and assets around you. Get to know the people eager to serve and make some difference in this world God has given us. Gaze into the shadows most people overlook. See the needs. Observe a new future. You might not be able to everything, but all of us can do something, and the equations work. Give thanks. Get out there. Notice the change in you, your neighbors, and your ministry. 2+2=4. Thanks be to God!
1 more thing…
Did you think I was going to say the missing 1 was God? Nope. Guess again. There is no missing 1. (2+2=4, remember?) God has been there all along…Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Trust that promise! May we take better notice of the risen Christ in our midst (as we keeping working on our math skills).