Recency Bias and Future Planning – Pastor Thoughts

Human beings have this habit of thinking that the things that just happened will keep happening forever. The official name for it is called recency bias.  (Forgive me if I have talked about this before.) 

Your favourite sports team wins the first game of the season and you feel like they will go 82-0 the rest of the season. 

Gas, housing prices, inflation etc… goes up and we think they will go up forever. 

Peace breaks out in substantial parts of western world, and we think it will endure forever. 

Then the sports team loses, the stock market crashes, prices change and fall, war breaks out and our recency bias is disproven – often causing consternation.

We know the best strategy is to buy low and sell high, yet we keep selling low and buying high. 

And so too it is the case in the church. For close to 50 years churches followed a steady trajectory of growth. The population boom of the 1950s and 60s turned into a frenzy of church planting and building, into growing staffs and budgets through to the early 2000s. But then things start to level out, some congregations even started to shrink a little. 

And it seemed impossible. After seemingly endless growing, of adding more and more staff members, calling additional pastors, renovating church spaces to hold more people and allow for more programs, adding worship services to accommodate growing crowds, churches who were planning for more of the same were not prepared for something to contradict their recency bias. 

If you went back in time to 1962 to a church and told the folks then that within their lifetime churches would age and shrink and begin to seriously struggle, they would have laughed at you!

But here is the thing. If you took a 1962 person back to a church in 1912 and described the church of 1962 to that 1912 person, they would laugh too! In 1912, you would likely find a hastily constructed barn serving as a church on the corner of a farmer’s field. There might be a pastor who was riding a wagon or train around the countryside preaching at several congregations a Sunday, being paid in eggs, milk and chickens. Churches would be struggling to keep up, putting out herculean efforts just to gather together for worship. That person from 1912 would recognize the church of 2022 more than the church of 1962. 

Christianity and local congregations have been enduring boom and busy cycles for hundreds of years, and what we are living in now has been more of the norm for most of history. The golden ages of the middle 20th century was the blip. 

Now, if someone from 2052, maybe even 2032, had shown up in our pews in 2019 and told us that the church of the future will be lively and vibrant and growing in surprising ways, we would have laughed at them too. 

But today in 2022 with the world in as uncertain and topsy-turvey as it has ever been in most of our life times, maybe a vibrant future church doesn’t seem entirely out of the question. If the Ukraine way keeps escalating and further threatening our own safety, if (when) another variant of COVID-19 emerges causing widespread illness, hospitalization and death, if our economic troubles create even deeper hardship, if climate change continues to streek our infrastructure… it is easy to imagine people turning to religion for hope and support.

Change is upon us, and what has just happened to us is extremely unlikely to continue on forever. In fact, knowing what we know about the cycle of history, a vibrant and growing church in 2032 is more likely than a church that fades completely into nothingness. It is hubris for us to think we are going to be the last generation of the faithful. But our recency bias is often so strong that we cannot believe it – more of the same decline “feels” like our future. 

However, the church of the next 10 to 30 years will be a church dramatically changed from even what we know now. As different as my grandfather spending Sundays riding the train across the country side in 1948 to 1951 to preach at small rural congregations to growing multi-pastor, multi-staff program corporate churches of the late ’60s to early 2000s. 

This week we will hear the story of the Prodigal Son which (spoiler alert) is not so much a warning against dissolute living, but a story about undoing expectations. The younger son expects condemnation and the older expects vindication. Neither gets what they expect. Instead God provides something else entirely. 

I don’t know what the church of the next 10 to 30 years will look like (I have lots of ideas!) but I do know that it will not be what we expect. Instead, at the guiding of the Spirit, we will be transformed for this new and changing world again. God has always been changing and making us ready for the world we find ourselves in, even when we have no idea what that will look like. 

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