Saturday, November 25, 2017

“The Power of Negativity to Undermine Our Faith”

            This week, we conclude our eight-week reflections on “God’s Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Over these past weeks, we have discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.  And, we have focused on visioning a new future for the Church.  I have shared how much I love the community of faith, which I serve, Christ United Methodist Church, Lincoln.  And, I have also shared how thankful I am for Christ UMC. 

In concluding our reflections this weekend on the future of the Church, I want to address a threat which all churches face, when envisioning a bold, new future.  This threat undermines perhaps more ministry programs in churches than any other challenge.  It also disempowers more individual Christian disciples than perhaps any other cause.  I call this threat:  negativity.  But, there are other terms for the problem, as well.  For instance, within psychotherapy, it is frequently labelled, “filtering.”

            In his online article, Dr. John Grohol lists “filtering” as the first of “15 Common Cognitive Disorders.”  He describes filtering as occurring when…

“We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.”[1]

            We practice negativity all of the time in the church.  We take the negative possibilities and magnify them and we magnify their probability, while minimizing positive possibilities and their chances. 

As an illustration, consider this exchange that I heard years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Maryland.  The Chairperson of the Finance Committee was reporting on the recently completed stewardship campaign.  She enthusiastically made her report, concluding:  “Thanks to the commitment of our new members, overall pledges were up 8% over last year.”  As soon as she said this, another member of the committee responded:  “Yeah, but how do we know that these new people will really pay their pledges?”  This is an example of “filtering” or negativity.  There was absolutely no reason to suspect that the new members were not pledging in good faith.  Negativity destroys enthusiasm and excitement and creativity.

Negativity doesn’t just afflict congregations, either.  Negativity also undermines and stymies persons.  As individuals, when we magnify our individual deficiencies and failures, while minimizing our individual strengths and accomplishments, then we have succumbed to negativity. 

When I was in school, I had a friend who needed to pass a language proficiency exam in order to graduate with her degree.  She studied and studied before taking the exam, but she failed it.  So, she had to re-take the exam until she passed it.  My friend began to develop a really negative attitude about this exam, telling herself that she wasn’t smart enough to pass the exam and that she would never be able to graduate.  I, along with many of our classmates, tried to tell her that she could certainly pass this test.  Yet, she continued to focus on the negative.  When she took the exam a second time, she failed; a third time, and she failed; a fourth time, and she failed.  Finally, on about the fifth time, she passed the exam.  Yet, for six months, she became a poster child for the power of negativity to undermine who we are and what we can do.

I believe that negativity is unchristian.  We know from Genesis 1 that each of us has been created in God’s image.  As Christians, we are persons of faith, trusting that we are never alone.  Instead, we trust that God is always with us—in good times and bad.  Through faith, we know that God is watching over us, strengthening and guiding us.  Most importantly, we know that God’s love for us is greater than anything we will ever encounter.  Given this reality, the life of a Christian should always be filled with hope. 

By contrast, negativity empties our lives of hope and prevents us from seeing God’s presence in our lives.  I believe that negativity is unchristian because it involves an insidious agnosticism.  That is, in “filtering,” when we magnify all of the negative details, we block—or filter out—God’s work in our lives.  That is tantamount to questioning or denying God’s existence.  When we magnify the negative, we prevent God from being God in our lives.  We become “Christian agnostics” because we can no longer see God’s presence in our lives and in our churches.

In negativity, we rely only upon ourselves and our own resources; we judge that our resources are not sufficient enough to succeed and so we conclude that our hopes and our visions will never work.  But, that is a form of idolatry, as well as agnosticism.  When we attempt to rely only upon ourselves; when we essentially exclude God from our lives, then we have taken the place of God.  Instead of having God at the center of our lives, we put ourselves in the center, in God’s place.  This is the very definition of idolatry.   

My scripture reading this Sunday comes from Matthew 12:  33-37, which says in part:

Jesus said, ‘Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’

In this teaching, Jesus argues that the tree “is known by is fruit.”  That is, the character of a person is revealed by their words and actions.  Similarly, Jesus says that the faith of a person is revealed by their words and actions.  When an individual person becomes filled with negativity, constantly “filtering” out the positive and magnifying the negative, then they close themselves to the possibilities and presence of God.  This has the effect of blocking God’s presence in our lives and putting ourselves at the center, taking the place of God.

For faithful Christians, who know God’s love, there can be no room in our lives—or in our church—for negativity.  God intends for us to live positively; to be happy and fulfilled; to excel and to flourish.  And, God calls us together into communities of faith where we praise and serve together.  God expects our church to make a real difference in people’s lives.  And, God expects for us to take chances and trust in God’s providence to carry us through.  Negativity undermines all of these dimensions of living faithfully and positively—and happily.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 26th.  Join us as we seek to understand the power of negativity to undermine our faith.  Then, join us in seeking to counteract this power through the faith and hope and positivity of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

       Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] John Grohol, “15 Common Cognitive Disorders,” Psych Central, an online article available at, accessed 6 November 2013.

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