I played baseball in college. The first half of my freshman year went fairly well. At least I didn’t embarrass myself too much.
The second half, though, was a nightmare. I got into a terrible slump that I couldn’t get out of. I changed my batting grip. I changed my batting stance. I changed my batting gloves. Nothing worked.
After some weeks, I’d completely lost patience with myself. I was pressing … hard.
One of my coaches, who hadn’t said much to me throughout my struggles, finally took me aside and said, “It looks like you’re trying to hit two home runs in one at-bat. You’re thinking too much. Let your body do what it knows how to do. You’ve practiced and practiced. Now let your body do the work.”
And I said, “Yeah, but what if that doesn’t work? What if I don’t ever get another hit?”
Coach said, “You can’t control what happens to the ball after you do what you’ve trained to do. Muscle memory. You can only control the swing you’ve practiced. And if you’ve done it correctly—and you have, because I’ve made sure of that—it’ll eventually work itself out. You’ve got to quit thinking so much. What? Do you think you're Ty Cobb? Give yourself a break.”
I over-think just about everything, and I’m not good at giving myself a break.
Writing is the same way. You do something you really like, and some other folks seem to like it too. Then, the next thing you do (which you also like) barely raises a yawn. Then, you produce several yawners in a row, and you start to think that maybe you’ve managed a couple of flukes, but now everybody has wised up and can see what a fraud you are. And you’re convinced that they’ll never read anything you’ve written again. (I’ve been assured by other writers that this is a thing—that it’s not just me.)
The temptation when you hit a dry patch in writing is to try to think, think, think of something new and important to say—something that will drive page views or book sales (or whatever measuring stick for success you happen to be employing).
You start pressing, start trying to hit two home runs in every at-bat. So, you write stuff like “Fourteen Reasons the Church Needs to Be More Like Lady Gaga.”
But writing also has its own version of muscle memory. Writers write because they can’t not write, which means that they write for the love of the act writing and not for the results writing produces.
Because you can’t control what happens after you push “submit,” after you send your work out into the ether. You trust that your writing muscles will remember what to do, and do it. And you trust that what comes from that will be a good representation of all the time and energy you’ve sunk into throwing words up on a screen. What people do or don’t do with it, you can’t control.
Struggling congregations often look like slumping hitters who can’t catch a break or writers who believe their best words have already found their way onto the paper. They press. They catastrophize. You can smell the fear of failure, the neediness for approval all over them.
Congregations in decline start thinking how they might change their luck (“because, you know, we’ve got to do something or we’re going to die”). Rather than trust themselves, they start thinking about gimmicks that will break the slump.
“I heard about a church out in Kansas that did this thing on Tuesday nights with a calliope, a tattoo artist, and bears on unicycles. Maybe we should check into that.”
But, assuming you’ve thought and prayed about the ministries you engage, and that you have something to offer, what you need to focus on is remaining faithful to your best lights.
When it comes to congregations, what do I mean by “remaining faithful to your best lights?”
Here’s what I mean: congregations should spend time discerning where God is leading, and then head in that direction. If the community is convinced that it’s the right way to go, then go and quit worrying that somebody else knows a shortcut that you don’t know.
You have to get over the mistaken notion that you can engineer the results you want. Muscle memory. You do what you do the best you know how to do it, and then you let God take responsibility for the results.
Does that mean if something’s obviously not working you shouldn’t change?
Let me take a different tack for a moment. Don’t confuse tactics with strategy. Strategy is a direction. Tactics are a path. If you’re headed east, several paths may take you there. If you find that one path doesn’t work, don’t feel guilty about stopping and heading down another one. But you need to remain convinced that east is where you need to go.
That’s a lot of metaphors for one post. The point is, congregations need to look to God for the kind of work they need to be doing. Then, they need to do that work as often and as well as possible. Finally, they need to let God worry about results.
Give yourself a break.