Self-fulfilling prophecies can be deadly.
If you haven’t heard the term before, A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief or expectation that an individual holds about a future event that manifests because the individual holds it. It’s scary, but sometimes we create our own reality. Our minds are remarkably powerful tools, and like any tool it can be used for harm or for good. But we still get to choose how we use it. Over the course of our lives, our minds get bent and twisted, molded and remade over and over. Outside forces teach us false truths about who we are and what we are capable of. We have notions planted in our heads that tell us we can achieve only so much, rise only so far, do only so little. Sometimes, we’ve lost the battle before it even starts. Self-fulfilling prophecies. Eventually, we start to believe in these limitations so we stop trying. Or we don’t even start. And our self-fulfilling prophecy comes true. We look around and we take a perverse sense of pride in being right without realizing that our own preconceptions helped to bring about this reality in the first place.
Our church will die in ten years.
I’ve heard that three times since I’ve been here in just one year. “Our church will die in ten years.” Well, not if I can help it and I know many of you share that same passion I have for growing God’s church. But it’s that kind of negative thinking that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if you really believe that the church is dying you start going into “turtle mode.” “Turtle mode” is when we hunker down, withdraw into our shell, and do our best to survive as long as we can. Like a turtle. When there is a perceived threat, a turtle will withdraw into its shell and wait it out until the danger has passed. But when churches go into “turtle mode” there usually is no coming out. They stop reaching out. They stop inviting. They let the building go. They save as much money as they possibly can so the church will be around to bury them. Literally. I had someone say that to me once about another church. I just want it to be around long enough that they can bury me. I once served a church that had barely any money in its operating fund, but they had over $300,000 in the cemetery fund. They paid a caretaker to mow and weed the grounds out of the interest they earned on that money. The church was on the verge of financial collapse, but someone would be there to take care of the graveyard even if the church itself was dead. “Our church will die in ten years.”
Here’s the thing about self-fulfilling prophecies – they work the other way, too.
We can believe in something so completely it seems we almost will it to happen. Jesus once told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)” Often, the key ingredient we need is faith. Which doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to have doubts. One of my favorite stories in the Bible is about Jesus and the dad who brings his son to him for healing (Mark 9:17-23). The father says to Jesus, “…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” And Jesus responds, “If you can? …Everything is possible for one who believes.” And the dad responds by saying, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” For as many stories there are of people who had the strongest faith, there are stories about people who had doubts, too. People like Gideon who told the angel he was just the weakest member of his clan and his clan was the weakest among all the clans and how could God want to use him? Or someone like Abraham who pointed out to God that nobody as old as he was ever had a child so how could he? Yet these same people had faith, maybe even when there was no real reason to have any.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-12)
They were longing for a better country.
Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob were longing for a brighter future, a future God had promised to them. They didn’t know for sure what this would look like, but they trusted in the vision that God had presented to them and held true to their faith in God. And even though they never lived long enough to see it all come to fruition, they trusted that their efforts would lead them toward a brighter future. The Scripture says to us, “they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” The things God promised to the people of Israel and by extension to all of us was not something they could tangibly touch or experience, but they honored God with their efforts even though they didn’t know how it would all work out and that pleased God. Even if they DOUBTED, they still carried on. And by their efforts, they didn’t achieve their dreams, but they unknowingly were part of something bigger and more amazing in the end. We can’t always see where God is leading us, but we need to have faith that it is toward a brighter future.
God is future-oriented.
If you look in the Old Testament or the New, you’ll find evidence of it through the writings of so many different people. God promised Abraham his people would spread throughout the Earth. Abraham surely thought God meant then and now. He couldn’t imagine the scope of what God truly meant or how that would come to be true. Today there are over 2 BILLION Christians in the world, probably far more than in Abraham’s wildest dreams. God promised Moses, he would lead his people to the promised land and even though Moses didn’t live to see it, that promise came true. It would be Joshua who would lead God’s people to that place. These are just a couple of examples of how God’s vision is so much better than ours. Our vision is often limited, but God is future-oriented.
We need to be future-oriented, too.
We need to approach life with a goal and a vision and live into that reality. You need to be the change you want to be. What do I mean by that? There’s an old saying that you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. And there’s some real truth to that. Not just because you make an impression on the people you’re hoping to impress, but it gives us a sense of self-confidence by doing so. When you feel confident, you radiate that confidence, and it’s that confidence more than anything that people are inspired by. There was an interesting study done at Northwestern University where they had three groups of people do a task where they had to spot the differences between two pictures. One group was told they were wearing lab coats, one group was told they were wearing painter’s smocks, and one group was simply shown a lab coat. All three groups saw or wore the same exact coats, but as you probably already guessed the group wearing “lab coats” did significantly better. The research concluded that wearing certain clothes could improve your performance. The clothes really do “make the man.”
We can also “dress” our attitudes.
Has anyone ever told you to “turn that frown upside down?” Did you want to hit them at that moment? Me, too. But maybe, they were doing us a favor. Scientific studies have shown that putting on a smile actually makes us happier, whether we were happy to begin with or not. The physical manifestations of a smile have effects beyond the muscles in our mouth. They also release chemicals into the body that reduce stress, depression, and aggression. And various studies have shown that smiling can lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and may even lead to a longer life.
These principles can be applied to our community as well.
Whether it’s your workplace, your family, or our church. If we behave like a thriving, successful church we might start feeling like a thriving, successful church. And if we start feeling like a thriving, successful church, we might very well BE a thriving, successful church. We need to ACT as if every Sunday we are going to have visitors come in through those doors. I want us to develop the mindset of successful church growth. A church with a mindset of growth prints extra bulletins because they don’t question IF they’re going to have 1st time guests, but HOW MANY. A church with a mindset of growth sits closer to the front because they know 1st time visitors will feel more comfortable sitting in the back. Churches with a mindset of growth are always aware of how someone new might feel, how intimidating that might be, and does whatever it can to make them feel comfortable, welcome, and at ease. We live into the reality of what we hope to see. I don’t want us to fake it ‘til we make it. I want us to FAITH it ‘til we make it. I want us to live in faith into the reality we hope to see in our church and to be open to where God is leading us. Just remember, our vision for success may be different than God’s vision for success. Let us provide our best effort and allow for the Holy Spirit to do with it what God needs it to be.
When John Wesley was struggling with his faith, this was the attitude he adopted.
As he was on board that old creaking boat in the midst of a storm, he saw this group of Moravians singing on deck. In the middle of a storm! He had been going through a difficult time in his own faith so he asked them for their secret. How could they be so happy in the midst of this disaster? They told him to have faith. When he asked what to do if he didn’t have faith, the Moravians told him to keep soldiering on until the faith he preached was felt in his heart once again. He wasn’t being told to fake it. He was being told to have faith IN it. John knew that God was out there, but he was having a hard time feeling his presence and the Moravians inspired him to have faith that it would one day come back. And it did. My hope for our church is that whether we are 50 or 500, we will always be future-oriented; that we will live with the expectation that God is doing something great in us right now. And that we simply need to be prepared for whatever that is. We can’t afford to live lives of meekness and timidity. We need to live lives of boldness and audacity, because we serve a God we know can do the impossible. Let us live into the vision of the church God wants us to be. Let us take a step out in faith and BE the church we want to create – a place that welcomes those and loves those who do not yet know the love of God.
 From the BibleGateway blog: https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2012/08/three-bible-heroes-who-doubted/
 This section was inspired by Thom Rainer’s book Autopsy of A Deceased Church, Chapter 3.