The church is in danger of becoming lost in a post modern desert. There is so much talk about thriving that it has over looked the initial steps of simply surviving. I’ve heard it said in the church so many times “We don’t want to just survive. We want to THRIVE! ” Of course we do, but by skipping the steps of learning to be survivors, we end up simply working on our image and not our core. We create form, but no function. We have beauty, but no heart. I think it comes down to the fact that we equate, “survivor,” with, “beaten up mess,” and isn’t that just a breath away from, “loser? ”Order now
But here’s the thing; survivors have a different perspective of the world. For starters, they have had the opportunity to truly look into their core and see what’s there. They’ve had the chance to learn (often the hard way) and found who they really are and what really makes them tick. They don’t sugar coat how easy it is to become lost, and their vigil is to keep themselves found. But even more they can now see the beauty all around themselves. They understand that they are not in a struggle to overcome the natural systems they find themselves in, but rather are part of that system.
They are not a slave to it, but a participant in it. They have earned the right to see it like none others can. The blinders are off. It is from here that they can start growing. It is here when they can start building the form to go with the function and the heart to go with the growing beauty. Faith tells us the church will survive because our God wills it and His will is supreme. But that doesn’t mean that individual churches will become a center of significance in their communities.
Many times we see churches, ministries and even whole denominations start off strong and lose their way because they allowed themselves to lean on their own initial success and lull themselves into a false security. In many ways the same method of a hiker getting lost in the woods relates to a church getting lost in their society. But that doesn’t have to be a death sentence. So let’s talk a little about it in the next three articles. Let’s talk about that path to becoming a survivor to becoming one that thrives. We’ll divide the next three articles into three parts: Find yourself, Grow yourself, Change yourself
So, what does the company Xerox, being lost in the woods and future church growth have in common? Let’s find out as we learn about Finding Yourself. It’s remarkably easy to get lost, and there are so many ways it can happen. I remember getting ready for my first Triathlon. Granted it was a humble effort as far as they go. Sprint triathlons are the, “baby,” of the genre. Typically a kilometer swim (or less), 20k bike ride, and a 5 k run. Still, it was the longest distance I have ever attempted. Probably the most daunting element of a Tri is the initial swim. It’s what keeps most who refuse to attempt one away.
One in relatively good shape can bully through the bike and the run, but unless you are a functional swimmer, this style of racing is just not practical. And for some, this is what makes the concept terrifying. It is not uncommon to make a local race more accessible and appealing to have the swim portion both shortened and done in a comfortable, controlled environment of a swimming pool. However, as a half decent swimmer, that took the romance out of the experience for me. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it, “right”! Doing it right, for me anyways, meant an open water swim. The problem was in training.
As a naturally cautious person, I was wasn’t up for solo swims out into open water for training purposes. Living in southern Florida at the time, open water meant 2options: Shark-infested oceans or alligator-infested lakes. Neither was anything that seemed too appealing. I didn’t have a training partner nor did I have someone experienced enough to guide me through a practice session. So instead I had to make due with two strategic approaches. First I would make sure I was trained in a pool environment to complete the distance effectively. Second, I would read up on what I was getting into.
My guide was, “Your First Triathlon,” by Joe Friel. One thing that started to unnerve me was how Joe began to talk about what a first time triathlete (and even an experienced one) will go through during their initial approach. He began by saying that in almost every race, there will be a hand full of people that turn back within the first few minutes and then he told us why. It was a June morning that I stood with my bare feet in the sands at the starting point. The beach was crowded with over a thousand people. The sun was showing signs of peaking up above the horizon, but hadn’t quite made the commitment yet.
The American national anthem was already sung, and wave one, the ELITE races, were already in the water swimming for a large inflated buoy way off in the middle of the lake. I had done research on that lake. Apparently it wasn’t, “alligator infested,” but it did have a celebrity local resident; a large ‘gator that the race officials had nicknamed, “the Motivator. ” In my head I knew that it was probably smart enough to avoid any part of the lake that had hundreds of avid athletes crashing and herding into the waves en masse at such an ungodly hour. Still was it brave enough to take a bit out of a straggler?
I, for one, was not excited to find out. The mens wave was coming next. I took my place on the far left of the crowd, knowing what Friel had suggested. It was going to be a chaotic free-for-all following the starters pistol. There would be pushing and kicking and hitting all as the surging mass entered the water and found their pace. The edges were the safest place to minimize that trauma. My adrenaline was high, as I was told it would be. I checked and rechecked my googles, my swim cap and my will. I noticed my heartbeat and breathing near panic. I was nervous. This was all new territory.
I did what I could to settle down. My right brain (neocortex) was reciting to me the lessons of my civilization that I was properly trained and prepared. The distance and the stress was all within my expectation and my preparation. Sure, my Limbic brain was unsure of somethings. The Hippocampus was complaining that this was unfamiliar territory that it didn’t have a map for. My amygdala was starting to pipe in that it really might be a dangerous undertaking ahead and that it was ready to take control if things began to look wonky. But don’t worry about those guys. That’s what under-brain always did.
The forebrain was clearly in control. Just remember your lessons and don’t get lost! Suddenly, the starter pistol cracked through the chilly morning air. Go! My adeline had reached it’s peak and off I went. I ran down the beach and into the water. My first unexpected trial hit. I suddenly remembered that running through slowly deepening water was harder than expected. The pool didn’t train me for this! I didn’t read it in the book! It was taking a lot of energy to move forward, but it was still to shallow to swim. Then, smack, I just ran into the guy in front of me. I wasn’t looking where I was going.
Man, he looked ticked off at that. Man, this is tiring. Ok, the water’s up to my thigh. Maybe I can swim now? So I dove in. Suddenly I found myself trying to swim in only a few feet of swirling, sand-churned water. All I can see is a forest of moving ankles and legs and feet and, bang! Ouch! That foot just kicked me in the face! Why am I swimming when everyone else is still running? I screwed up! So I stood up. Embarrassed and a little panicky, I started running again. Only, it wasn’t really running. It was wading as fast as I could. My adeline wasn’t tapped out yet, but it was starting to make my stomach sick.
I was breathing heavily. I was also embarrassed. My face probably hurt from that kick, but I didn’t have enough presence of mind to feel any pain. I just moved slowly forward as fast as I could. Finally, I noticed more people were starting to swim than to wade and I though it safe dive in once again. But everybody was still too tightly packed together. Some guy behind me even found himself swimming on top of me. No time for well formed strokes. I had to swim fast and get myself some space! So I held my breath and swam frantically for the outskirts. It was working! The racers were starting to spread out.
I had the space I was looking for. Ok, good. The first thing I began to notice is the alkaline taste of the lake water. It wasn’t the chlorine I was use too. The second thing I noticed is the darkness of the water. I was use to the clear pool sight. I was use to the comfort of the shimmering lines below. The third thing I noticed is the uneven temperature of the water. The top of my body was warm enough, but the water around my arms in the downstroke was quite cold. The fourth thing I noticed was that I haven’t taken a breath since I began the frantic, “swim away,” from the crowd.
My chest was bursting! I thrust my head up and gasped frantically. The final thing I noticed was that I was spent. I was already beyond exhausted. I was done. “No your not” the language portion of my left neocortex told me. “Not even close. You know that. You trained to go for hours. It’s just you’re adrenaline dropping. You know that! You read all about it. ” Yet I was more than just tired. I was fatigued. Oh, and one more thing. I couldn’t breathe. My body wanted desperately to gasp for air, but it couldn’t when my head was underwater. I couldn’t stroke and also gasp for air.
I had to stop. I had to catch my breath. So I started treading water, and let my mouth gasp for quick, shallow breaths. I noticed I was shaking. Ok, that’s enough. Time to swim. I took a few strokes, but it went from bad to worse. I would try to breath out underwater but when I turned my head to breath in, it was like I was sucking in null air. Someone had removed all the oxygen out of this useless air! Let’s try it again. I turned my head and WHAM! A wave of water met my turned head. I didn’t get a mouthful of air. I got a mouthful of that weird, alkaline stuff.
My tight chest started to burn again. I had to stop. Tread water again. Rapidly breath. I’m not going to be able to do this, am I? I’m going to drown out here instead! “Not if you turn back” my amygdala told me. What? “Turn back.. I’m afraid I must insist” it continued. “It’s flight time. Your fatigued already. You can’t breathe. You’re drowning. There is no way I’m going to let you swim out into an open lake. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take control now. You know the drill. ” But I’ve trained so hard for this. I prepared myself. “Don’t feel bad” It argued.
Look at all those guys over there. They are turning back too. Didn’t you read in your book that in almost every race, a hand full turn back right at the beginning. Now you’re one of them! Head back now or I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn this into a full fledged panic attack! I’m afraid, my friend, that you are lost. ” Getting lost is easy! The human brain is a magnificent tool that we are still only scratching the surface to understand. As self-proclaimed, “civilized,” people, we tend to spend most of our time convinced that we can live life in the forebrain portions, or the neocortex.
These are the areas responsible on the whole for our cognitive facts and logic. It is our language center and the physical center for human cognation. However, one who becomes lost will rapidly find that this logical cognation is so easily prone to false arrogance and thin and often faulty sense of security. Behind the forebrain is our mid-brain, or limbic system. The hippocampus, while serving functions such as orchestrating the process of short-term to long term memory also is in charge of spatial navigation. It is in charge of creating a mental map, both of physical location and experience.
It’s what assists you on finding your way home at night. It will log information that you feed it and superimpose that information when you have need. However, it’s not without fault. In fact, it has been the chief culprit in aiding ourselves in getting lost. “It’s simple. All you have to do is fail to update your mental map and then persist in following it even when the landscape (or your compass) tries to tell you it’s wrong” -Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival Even worse, when we do find ourselves lost, it will try to insist that we make a bad situation even worse.
It will try to insist that we attempt to bend our faulty mental map into our real (suddenly unknown) environment, leading us to an even deeper state of lost. And suddenly, when we are ready to admit what we should have logically caught before, it’s too late to save ourselves. And that’s when the amygdala takes over. The amygdala is the almond-shaped region deep in our limbic system that is tasked with the job of, among other things, to have us respond to danger. It controls our fight, flight or freeze response. It also triggers our panic.
Panic, at it’s root is when the, “amygdala comes to dominate conscious memory,” (Joseph LeDoux The Emotional Brain) So I was treading water, rapidly breathing in deeply and feeling the panic taking over my mind. In a moment I knew I would experience what LeDoux refers to as, “the hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion. ” I wasn’t lost in the physical sense. I knew where I was, I could see the sanity of shore. I could see the turn towards the danger of the distant inflated buoy. But lost can be a state of thinking as much as a state of being. I had a literal decision to make to, “sink or swim. ” Fortunately I had trained myself for this.
I had read that this was a common scenario. You start with high adeline levels, but rapidly you experience a sort of trauma that leads to a sense of disorientation, feelings of fatigue and eventual panic. This is why there is always a handful that turn back at the beginning of the race. The thing is this, however is that none of it is true. It’s shock. The fatigue I was feeling was a mental one, not a physical one. Don’t be mistaken as that can be just as devastating if allowed to take hold. My emotional brain was trying to save me from perceived danger by doing it’s primary reaction of fight, flight or freeze; in this case flight!
It’s is here that I would benefit from what author Laurence Gonzales refers to as, “secondary emotions,” “To survive, you must develop secondary emotions that function in a strategic balance with reason,” (Laurence Gonzales, “Deep Survival”). In this case, my secondary emotions was what I learned from my reading. Friel’s book has told me how common it was to panic during an initial open-water swim. The secret, he told us, to overcoming this is to remember your training. Specifically remember your breathing training. Focus on that above all other. Get into it. Let it be your mantra. Out stroke, head turning Focus on it.
So I did. I began swimming and I began breathing as trained. I knew I had about 60 seconds before the panic took control. I had that long to get into my forebrain. So I followed what I knew would work. When I hit a errant wave instead of a breath of air, I didn’t stress it. I would catch the next breath. I pictured that air filling my lungs, and giving me what I needed, despite what my head told me. My chest started to relax a little. I started feeling the breath. I focused on my learned secondary emotion, in this case my stroke and breathing pattern. A minute passed. A second minute A third.
I began to realize I was going to be ok. The panic was leaving my body through the ends of my kicking feet. That feeling of fatigue was leaving with it. I not only had enough energy to finish the swim, but I had plenty for the whole race. And then something unexpected happened. That feeling of panic began to be replaced with an opposite feeling of optimism. Even more, it was an spreading feeling of euphoria. I wasn’t just surviving this race, I was loving it out here. There was no place I would rather be that swimming full speed out into the middle of this lake. I was loving it! I wasn’t just surviving. I was thriving!
So what does this all have to do with the modern church? In his book, “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why,” author Laurence Gonzales explores the core of what occurs in both those who manage to get themselves implicitly lost in life-threading situations and environment, but also what common threads can be found in those who have what it takes to survive. His intentional design is to relate not only for those lost in the wilds, but also in life situations, both personal and professional. He points out that the same patterns that cause the individual to get lost in the woods can also lead an organization to get lost in the market place.
He describes the five stages of lost as the following. Stage one: Deny disorientation. This is the urge to resist the reality of your situation. This is why someone might say they are “only a little lost” and feel the best solution is to just press on until their surrounding environment matches their internal map. Stage two: Realization of state leading to urgency. This is where bad becomes worse. Earlier on one could have still retraced steps and returned to familiar surroundings. Now, however, when reality starts to be accepted, that is no longer an option. Panic commences.
Stage three: Exhaustion and spent emotions lead attempts to form a strategic mental map. Following panic, there often comes a seemingly rational moment where you convince yourself that you can think logically and apply your knowledge and rational to the situation. This is mostly faulty. You are lost. Your internal map is wrong. It cannot help you. Stage four: Rapid Deterioration. When your applied strategy fails due to it core fault, it leads to a profound lost of spirit and will. This loss is often the beginning of the end. Stage five: Lose of options and energy leads to resignation of plight.
And this is where the fork in the road truly begins. It is here, Gonzales describes, that the choice is to either give up or to start developing a new map that is based on reality, not perception. For those who choose the later, he tells it is not uncommon for a lost soul to simply sit down and die, despite the provisions they still have in their possession. Their lost state lead to their lost will and then to their lost lives. And yet, the survivor will take the latter option. With their mental map discarded for the faulty item it was, they start learning the new map. They start learning to live IN their present situation.
They learn how to truly be in the NOW! They aren’t living for the conclusion, or dwelling on the fault. They might cling to the “why” of their survival (a spouse, or child, or loved one), but they focus on the larger truth of their surroundings. They are no longer pitting their will and logic AGAINST their situation, but rather learning to live IN their situation and occasionally learning how to THRIVE in their situation. They are beginning to see not only what it takes to survive, but begin to appreciate the beauty (and danger) or their environment. In addition, they are looking inside to see what it is that they have to adapt.