The Red Flag Pastors Just Raised and What To Do About It

Pastors have just raised a major red flag.

According to Barna Research and Church Pulse Weekly’s latest study, pastors have completely changed their mind about how the pandemic has altered the spiritual lives of those in their church.  Pastors have come to realize that the pandemic won’t propel spiritual growth nearly as much as they thought it would in the midst of this disruptive year, especially in the context of bible study. In the first week of the pandemic, 50% of pastors thought it would cause their people’s faith journey to increase and only 1% thought it would decrease.

Now pastors are only slightly more likely to think that the pandemic will increase their spiritually rather than diminish their people’s spiritual appetites. This is a huge shift in just four months.

It is important to note this research comes from not a single pastor’s opinions but this data is collected from hundreds of pastors.  There is no one that cares for and gauges the spiritual condition of people’s lives like pastors.

This blog will discuss why this sentiment has shifted and give a practical solution for how pastors can help.

Why has this sentiment shifted?

Intended or not, when major change and disruption comes into our world, it always forces new habits on those affected.  And everyone has been affected.  Churches were forced to shut their doors and move much of their worship services and discipleship efforts digitally.  Businesses and organizations were nearly all dealing with how to lead a now virtual team.  Families and individuals were dealing with calendars that were entirely wiped out, work moving from an office into their home, and kids attending school virtually for the first time in their life.

Duke University published a study and found that 40% of what feels like well-thought out decisions that we make aren’t actually decisions, but habits in our lives, including habits related to bible study. We are on autopilot for about half of what we do in this world.

When rhythms change all around us, we are forced to adapt, and we replace old habits with new habits.  The reason we implement habits is because they serve a purpose in our lives.  They also help us free up space in our brain that helps us when we actually have a decision to make.

One new habit that has arisen is that 1/3 of regular practicing churchgoers before coronavirus are no longer choosing to attend the weekend service, online, or in person.  When one rhythm, or habit, slips, it leads into others.  This is the idea of keystone habits, a term that Charles Duhigg brought to light, in his book The Power of Habit.

Keystone habits are habits that unintentionally carry over into other areas of our lives

Keystone habits are like dominoes.  One keystone habit has the ability to shape, or bring in, other new habits into our lives.  Keystone habits, amazingly, are no harder to form than any other habit, but they have the ability to provide so many more benefits.

A few physical examples of positive keystone habits are the following:

  • Exercise: Research shows that people who exercise have increased patience, less stress, and are more productive at work. It is also correlated with better eating and better sleep.  And crazily enough, has also been linked to spending less on credit cards.
  • Making your bed every morning: It may feel like a waste of time, but making your bed is correlated with increased productivity. Bed makers are more likely to like their jobs, own a home, exercise regularly, and feel well rested.  They also have stronger skills with sticking to a budget.
  • Flossing your teeth: Teeth flossers become associated with successful, capable, confident, and disciplined people. Did you know many lifestyle coaches that start with new clients introduce this as the first habit to their client?   The reason they do this is because hardly anyone enjoys flossing their teeth. Essentially when you practice this habit early in the morning, what are you subconsciously telling to yourself?  “I am disciplined person.  I will choose what is right over what is easy.”

While these physical habits would be wise for us to put in our lives, there are no habits that carry over into other areas of our lives more than spiritual habits, including bible study. If everything in our lives flows from our spirit, we need to be very careful what spiritual habits we are performing, or not performing.

Listen to how Eugene Peterson summarizes Paul’s word to Timothy in 1 Peter 4:7-8: Exercise daily in God – no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.

Paul is reminding Timothy that physical training is good, but spiritual training and habits are the most important.  Spiritual habits have the ability to affect life today and forever.

This accelerated trend of not choosing church is just bringing to light what has been a pathetic last few decades for Western Christianity as a whole.  Christianity has been in decline in all aspects.  At best, we have been a shadow representation of Jesus to our world.  At worst, we’ve become known for words that are opposite of the one we claim to follow.

What I find fascinating looking at the state of what has come, is that it really is hard to find a Christian who doesn’t have good intentions.  Most genuinely want to grow in their relationship with God and be a greater representation of Him.

So what gives?

When great intentions aren’t matched with precise aim it always leads to unintended places.

What Can We Do?

As pastors it’s easy to jump to try to help people make right decisions and good choices.  But, if about half of what we do, aren’t decisions, but habits, it may be even more important to start with habit formation.  With good habits, especially good spiritual keystone habits, we can automatically put people in the places and situations where they will make the right decisions and good choices.

The greatest place to find spiritual keystone habits at work is in Jesus.  Jesus was the only one in perfect relationship with God, so if we want to grow in our relationship with God, we should aim to be just like Jesus.  If we want to alter the spiritual condition of those we are entrusted to care for, we must give people the clear targets that we see in the life of Jesus.

Jesus even tells us this.

Matthew 11:29:  Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

Jesus is inviting us into a way of life where He leads and we follow Him.  The more we sit at his feet and learn from Him, the more we become like Him.  The more His habits become our habits.  And the more these habits will begin to feel like unforced rhythms of grace in our lives.

Now here’s the thing about new habits.  They are not always easy to form.  It usually requires some sacrifice mixed with soreness to get started.  But the hope is that over time, that these habits that we may have to force at first, will eventually turn into the unforced rhythms of grace.  These rhythms are just what we do.  So even when the world changes and everything is disrupted it won’t affect who I am on the inside.

The past two years I’ve spent much time researching, writing, and organizing the five keystone habits I saw in the life of Jesus most often, including those related to bible study.

These five habits that Jesus practiced help us grow in our relationship with God.

Commit to Community

Study Scripture

Prioritize Prayer

Seek Solitude

Choose Church

While each habit may mean relatively little on its own, over time, these small spiritual keystone habits will make a major difference.

While we are noticing spiritual decline in the lives of our people, let’s not sit back, play defense, and let status quo continue.  Instead, being compelled by God’s grace, let’s play offense, and introduce and challenge people to practice the 5 spiritual keystone habits of Jesus.

The team at Red Letter Challenge has just finished work on this incredible project called Being Challenge and Being Challenge Kids.

In these powerful 40-day workbooks that you can take yourself, your family, your small group, or your entire church through, you will be introduced and challenged to practice the 5 keystone habits of Jesus.  These 5 habits of Jesus will help you be in a greater relationship with God and will carry over into every other area of your life.

If you are worried or concerned about the spiritual condition of yourself, try it out.

If you are a pastor and worried about your church, consider a 40-day turnkey church challenge this Fall or to kick off the New Year.

Our team is happy to help.  We want to see your church become greater followers of Jesus, and it all starts by BEING like Jesus. 

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