International studies on religious trends indicate that there is an inverse relationship between prosperity/stability and religious commitments. The more prosperous/stable a country is, the less religious citizens of that country tend to be.
On some levels, this is not surprising and might even be what we would naturally tend to suspect: when people are content with this life they don’t feel much need to think about the next. I’m confident this is a large part of the explanation for such findings. However, I would like to suggest to Christians in general and to church leaders in particular, that there may be an additional factor that is worth considering: people might sometimes avoid church when things are going well for them because they don’t want to be brought down by our negativity.
Christians have a long history of negativity – focusing on what is wrong with the world and with human beings – and when people are feeling good about life, they don’t really want to be brought down by such pessimism. In support of this assertion is the fact that even in economic booms, certain kinds of churches tend to continue to grow. For instance, Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, known for its relentless positivity, has continued to grow larger even as most evangelical churches have declined. I’m not holding Osteen up as a model for ministry, you understand…I’m just saying that he seems to provide some evidence that people will continue to go to church in prosperous/stable times so long as the church itself is positive.
Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we cease to call sin, sin…or that we turn a blind eye to the fact that economic prosperity is no substitute for genuine righteousness or spiritual health. Anyone who has ever heard me teach or read my books knows that I’m no Pollyanna…and I’m certainly not someone who thinks that the church’s job is just to make people feel good about themselves. However, I do think that Christians in general need to wrestle with the question of whether or not we are creating obstacles for people coming to Christ by advancing an unbiblical pessimism that repels them. Jesus said we are to be “born again”, but much of the world seems to think that we are “born against”: we are against media, against global warming, against big government, against homosexuals, against change, etc. Again, I’m not saying that we should do an about-face and be “for” such things, especially if they are unbiblical or false. I’m only saying that being known primarily for what we are against may not be the best way to help people see who Jesus is.
In a recent staff discussion about this subject, the Shepherd Project team came up with several ideas for cultivating what we’re calling redemptive optimism, an optimism that points people to Jesus by giving them a glimpse of a God who is greater than their circumstances, regardless of how good or bad those particular circumstances might happen to be.
1. Relentlessly remind people that God is bigger and better
Our circumstances can get in the way of us seeing God. This is true whether our circumstances are positive or negative. In the same way that difficult times can take our eyes off God, positive circumstances can cause us to stop looking for Him. It is critical that we constantly remind people that God has great plans for them. When things are difficult, we need to remind people that God is with them and will redeem their circumstances in ways that they can’t imagine at the moment. When things are going well, we need to remind people that as good as things might seem right now, God’s purposes for them are so much greater as to make their present circumstances pale in comparison. Of course, it must also be said that it is vital that we help people understand that what God has for them is truly, eternally good and not just good in the fleeting, temporary sense that we can be so easily satiated by. What God has planned for us isn’t a bigger house or a better car or a higher-paying job. What God has in store for us is an eternal life of meaning and significance beyond our wildest dreams.
2. Publically remind people what God has done in your midst
It is one thing to have an intellectual grasp on Rom 8:28 (and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose)…it is quite another to live in actual expectation of God moving that way in our present circumstances. Moving from a head to heart knowledge of this truth requires that we force ourselves to remember what God has already done in the past, so that we know what to look for in the future. The simple act of publically praising God for His past faithfulness and specifically proclaiming how we have seen Him redeem past circumstances is a crucial part of this development process. Certainly this practice was central to the life of ancient Israel and to the worship of the early Christian church, but for a variety of reasons it seems to have become a much-neglected part of modern worship.
3. Regularly emphasize the sovereignty of God
If God is really in control, then nothing happens apart from His purposes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that He causes all circumstances, but it does mean that no circumstance is a surprise to God and no circumstance need ever be an obstacle to His will being realized. Obviously this statement raises all sorts of theological questions, but for now, simply understand this: reminding people that God is in control is just as important when things are going well as when they are going poorly. If nothing else, a regular emphasis on God’s sovereignty sets the stage for trusting in God when things get difficult. But a regular emphasis on God’s sovereignty also teaches people to see beyond the horizon of their circumstances even when those circumstances are pleasant enough to run the risk of turning our hearts away from the One who is in charge of those circumstances.
4. Model seeing potential redemption
This one’s a little tricky. When we try too hard to guess how God is going to redeem a set of difficult circumstances we can make the mistake of being insensitive to someone’s suffering. It’s important that we don’t do that. It’s also important that we don’t allow our guesses about the trajectory of God’s redemption to blind us to something unexpected that He does instead. But having said this, there is great power in helping each other see some potential ways that God might be expected to work redemptively in a set of circumstances.
5. Make thanksgiving for specific things a regular part of your prayers (private or public)
It’s so common that talking about it is almost cliché, but it remains a significant weakness in most people’s prayers: we focus on what we need/want God to do and forget to thank Him for what He has already done. When was the last time you heard someone in church pray “God, thank you for doing X, Y & Z!”? I’ve been in a lot of different churches over the years and I can say from considerable experience that most public prayers involve thanks only in terms of “thank you for dying for us” and “thank you for loving us.” Those are great things to thank God for, of course, but we also need to thank God for specific answers to prayer we’ve recently seen. We need to thank God for healing so-and-so and for providing x-and-such, etc. This should be our practice daily as individuals and weekly as churches. Doing so is not only the right response of worship to the God who has heard and answered our earlier prayers…but it also cultivates a sense of redemptive optimism in those who hear us giving thanks.
If people avoid church during economic prosperity in part because they’re feeling pretty good about things and don’t want to be brought down, it is crucial that we regain a biblical, redemptive optimism that causes all of us to look beyond our circumstances to the God who is bigger, better and greater in every way than the circumstances we face. In other words, it is crucial that we point people to Jesus in a way that instills hope: hope that our negative circumstances are not the end of the story for those of us who trust in Jesus; hope that our positive circumstances are not the best we can ever expect.
 Graham Lawton, “Losing Our Religion” in New Scientist (May 3, 2013), 33-34.
 Passover and the Lord’s Supper are two great examples of this practice in Israel and the Church respectively.