I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about the difference between “wishing” and “hoping.” At first blush, the two seem nearly synonymous: both involve a desire (sometimes a very strong desire) for something one has not yet achieved or acquired. If any immediate difference stands out, it’s likely in the fact that wishing can happen in reverse – “I wish that hadn’t happened that way…” You can’t hope in reverse. Hope is intrinsically always forward focused. But I would argue that wishing and hoping are different in another, less obvious way: namely the degree in which an individual is personally invested in seeing the desired events come to pass.
As a fake-it-till-you-make-it handywoman (this week, I fixed my own dishwasher) I experience this dichotomy frequently. There is a distinct difference between what I mean when I call my mother up and sigh, “I wish I had an (insert tool of the moment here)” and “I hope I can find an (insert same tool here).” In the first case, I am clearly indicating that I do not have said tool and that while it would be helpful, I do not expect to acquire said tool and will be making do with whatever I have on hand. In the second, I’m expressing that I am taking action to acquire the necessary tool – digging through my toolboxes and maintenance drawers, conducting a search online, or even going to a hardware store to make a purchase. I wish for what I am resigned to living without. I hope for what I believe I can acquire.
Viewed from this perspective, wishes are the thoughts of those resigned to the present circumstances as all there is or will be. Hopes are the actions of those who believe these circumstances can be changed. And this brings us to the church.
Sadly, for many Christians (especially those in declining congregations), wishing has become our default. We wish we were making a bigger impact upon our communities. We wish we had more diversity in our pews (or for many mainline congregations, any diversity in our pews). We wish we had more young families, youth, and small children. But we have looked at our budget, our membership numbers, the age of our congregants, and have resigned ourselves to the present moment as all there is or all there ever will be. If asked to create a vision for the congregation’s future, we produce this list of wishes – things we had (or believe we had) in the past, but which we hold no hope of recovering. While members may still embrace the vision, they are no longer willing to invest themselves in reaching it.
This brings us to another key difference between wishing and hoping – wishing can see the desired destination, but hope is the bridge that takes us there. In other words, once hope is gone, there is no way to get there (to that beautiful vision of impactful, diverse, thriving ministry) from where we are. This is why congregations die. This isn’t, of course, to deny that there aren’t other factors which contribute to the decline of congregations. But in the end it is the loss of hope that sounds the death knell.
Congregations that lose hope do so for a reason, not infrequently related to the belief that they have “tried everything and nothing works.” What is usually meant by this is that the strategies that helped churches grow 50 years ago are no longer effective today. Think about it: a lot has changed in our world since 1971! The ways in which “rebellious youth” sought (sometimes successfully) to change the world then are very different from the ways in which today’s “rebellious youth” seek transformation. And so are the ways in which those youth relate to the church. Which means that not only will the old strategies for outreach continue to fail, but so will any strategy that isn’t rooted in an understanding of the world in which the younger generation now lives – not from our perspective, but from theirs. Yes, this means that what Millennials think and believe, their preferred methods for developing relationships, their passions and dreams matter for the future of the church.
Congregations that survive do so because instead of resigning themselves to their circumstances when they recognized that the old strategies were failing (and doing so repeatedly), they dared to invest their time and effort in new ways of approaching the world. This isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s painful and exhausting. But in the end, it’s far less exhausting than using the wrong tool for the job, investing huge amounts of time and effort, and still failing in the end.
So do we have hope? To be honest, I don’t know. But my guess is that you do – that you can look at which projects, plans, and initiatives attract not only your attention but your elbow-grease. You know whether you continue to hold out the hope that leads to life and a future for our congregations or have resigned yourself to the wishful thinking that leads to death. This also means that you matter – that your action or inaction makes a difference in whether our congregations see their vision of ministry become a reality or watch it fade into the past. Success is not a matter of chance, but of choice. Will you choose hope?