Understanding Why People Haven’t Come Back to In-Person Services, Don’t Get More Involved in the Church, and Avoid Many Other Good Things . . . and What We Can Do About It
By Michael C. Mack
Here I was again, straddling the top tube of my mountain bike on the edge of the rock drop, looking down at the gently sloped hill. The dirt was well-packed and mostly smooth—good for a safe landing after getting some air.
My friends and my son urged me on. “C’mon. You’ve got this.”
Why was this rock drop so intimidating to me? I wasn’t sure. I had cleared it years earlier without mishap. My buddies hit it regularly. Earlier that day I followed a 6-year-old who landed it easily. It was getting increasingly embarrassing every time I rode around it.
But for three years, that’s what I did. I’d pedal toward the large, flat rock at the top of the downhill, spot my takeoff point, and . . . roll down the path to the right of the rock. Dozens of times I did this, each time thinking, I’ve got it this time, only to veer around it again.
That rock drop had gotten into my head. The real obstacle wasn’t the rock itself, but my thinking about it. I had fallen into a trap of my own autopilot; over three years I had literally trained my brain and body to take the easier path, and every time I took that path, I reinforced the pattern. I had developed subconscious muscle grooves more worn than the trails at the bike park.
Our brains are wonderfully made by our Creator. Pastor and clinical psychologist Wes Beavis told me our brains are able to automate many everyday tasks, reducing future effort. Plus, our brains tend to choose comfort (pleasure) over discomfort (pain). (See Dr. Beavis’s article in this issue.)
The problem is that “many of our negative thoughts operate in an automatic fashion” too, according to Jeffrey S. Nevid in a Psychology Today blog.
People often get trapped in a negative repeating pattern of thought or action initially caused by the brain’s proclivity to protect us from pain. Some of these patterns may have begun years ago, even in childhood. These patterns become self-destructive when they keep us from moving forward in a full and meaningful life.
Getting trapped in unhealthy patterns plays out in many ways in people’s lives, many which go beyond the scope of this article. I do often wonder, however, why so many folks avoid getting involved in small groups, serving on teams at church, going on mission trips, and other worthwhile spiritual activities . . . while these same people work 70-plus hours a week or come home from their job each day and veg out on the couch all night watching the same old TV programs they’ve seen 20 times before.
Part of the problem, I think, involves the safe, predictable patterns they’ve fallen into over the years. When we encourage people to get involved in ministry, we often fight against these deeply ingrained habitual traps.
I’ve asked myself why I keep riding around my rock drop. Here are my five reasons (excuses):
• It’s safe. I’m much less likely to fall and get hurt by riding around it (which is why that path is so well-worn!).
• It’s sane. Maybe it’s a bit crazy for a 60-year-old to be doing mountain bike drops, jumps, wall rides, and such.
• It’s easy. Why take the difficult path when the easy one will do?
• It’s familiar. I know what to expect because I’ve been down that path many times.
• It demands little commitment.
I can easily justify those excuses, but I know that life—the abundant life—was never meant to be safe or easy. Jesus calls his followers to something costly and risky. We were designed by our Creator to live in a wild adventure with him, often going into the unfamiliar and unknown. We are called, like Abraham, to go on a journey with God, even if we don’t know where we’re going. We’re compelled, like Paul, to go places God has called us to, though we don’t know what will happen to us there.
A life worth living is one with obstacles—whether mere rock drops or huge mountains—which God empowers us to overcome.
Currently, many church leaders are trying to figure out why so many people are still staying home and continuing to watch online services when they could attend in person. Why can’t they make the jump?
There may be a number of reasons, with “muscle memory” likely one of them. Without realizing it, after many months of doing the same thing week after week, people are now in a habitual loop.
For some folks virtual still seems safer and saner than in-person. It’s definitely easier than getting up, getting dressed, driving to the church building, finding a parking spot, and wearing a mask. Over the last year, it’s also become very familiar. And here’s the big one: It requires nearly no commitment to stay home.
Watching a screen demands little of us. And when little is demanded of us, when our commitment to Christ is weakened, the church is compromised. Our devotion “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” occurs in the environment of a community in which “all the believers [are] together” (Acts 2:42, 44, my emphasis).
For people to get out of the loop, they need to retrain their habits . . . and they may need help doing so.
I’ve discovered four simple—though not necessarily easy—steps that have helped me break out of my habitual loop of going around the rock drop (and other negative life patterns I’ve developed).
1. Be aware. The first step in solving a problem is to be aware of it. Most of us have a variety of blind spots (which our friends and family members often see quite clearly!). For many life issues, we’ve been so emotionally engaged in the obstacles and living on autopilot for so long that they have become normal for us. We naturally revert to old (and often unhealthy) ways of dealing with obstacles.
“Sometimes we need to ‘check ourselves before we wreck ourselves,’” says Mark Parrish, who leads a Louisville counseling service. To gain full vision of the problem, he says, you need “the courage to reach out to others around you for feedback.” This is so vital for our emotional health, he says, because “seeds of doubt can grow into full jungles with emotional watering cans.”
It took me three years of riding around the rock drop to realize I made the problem worse each time I did so. I became fully aware of my issue when watching a YouTube video of another mountain biker who had a similar problem overcoming an obstacle. When he described how he, too, kept riding around a big jump, I identified with him. When I saw him overcome it, I knew I could too. Testimonies have great power for good!
2. Decide. You must choose to want to make the jump. You have to commit to the goal. Making a commitment obligates you to carry it out. There’s no turning back, for better or worse.
This is a decision of the will that’s influenced by both your mind and heart (emotions). You are transformed, says Paul, “by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2, New Living Translation). This takes surrender of the easier path. For Jesus, this meant, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
3. Prepare. It’s unwise to make any jump without preparation. Before attempting the rock drop, I watched several videos about the right technique and then practiced on smaller drops first. I made sure my tires and suspension were properly inflated, brakes were working, and everything was tightened properly.
Part of preparing yourself is retraining your mental muscles. The first two steps, awareness and deciding to make the jump, are great places to start, but there’s more to it. Your negative muscle memory has come about through training, though you may not have realized it. Actions and reactions become automatic and unconscious, like when you can drive home from work without even thinking about it. You have to retrain your brain by purposely driving a different route, for instance.
I retrained my muscle memory by stopping before the approach to the drop and picturing myself sending it, riding up to it a different way, and then looking out past the drop rather than at the rock itself. All that helped.
How can you help people return to in-person church services? A simple checklist on the church’s website may help them prepare. List your safety plans, including mask use, social distancing, how you’re handling giving and Communion, and involvement of kids, for instance.
You might encourage people to try new routines. If they have rarely left the house for months, perhaps they could take part in backyard get-togethers with people in their neighborhood (with safety precautions in place, of course). Invite people to outdoor events on church grounds or set up short front-yard visits at homes.
Perhaps in your online services, you could pan the camera to worshippers in the crowd so people at home can see the joy of being together. Or include brief testimonies of people who are glad to be back in-person.
Another piece of advice: Whether it involves mountain biking, ministry, or just about anything else, be sure to do it all in community. Tell your friends you want to make the jump. Take them along with you on the ride! They’ll encourage you, spur you on, build you up, and instruct you. “Your crew is a big part of the experience,” said one mountain-biking YouTuber. Be sure your crew consists of the right people, though—encouraging, empowering people, and, in the case of ministry, godly, kingdom-focused allies.
4. Execute. As I approached the jump, I started feeling a bit panicky, but I had prepared for that, too. I knew that feeling was normal, and I decided beforehand it wouldn’t stop me from making the jump. I had learned not to misinterpret excitement for fear. I was actually feeling nervous energy, and I used that to propel me forward. I was sticking to the goal. Veering right was out of the question. With each pedal stroke I pictured my body position as I went off the rock, pushing my handlebars out in front of me as my wheels left the ground, and returning to a neutral position as I prepared to land.
I made the jump. The first attempt was a bit clumsy; I landed a bit too front-wheel heavy because I didn’t have enough speed, but everything was fine. My son and friends let out a whoop, and so did I. I had broken out of my habitual loop and finally felt free. The next time I hit the drop with a bit more speed and it was smoother. Now I’m ready for bigger jumps!
And so will our people who are stuck in their own habitual traps. Getting back to in-person services may be just the first new obstacle they clear on the exciting, joyful path of following Christ.
Michael C. Mack serves as editor of Christian Standard. Find him on Strava at www.strava.com/athletes/mikemack.