How the church gets happiness right and wrong

May 18th, 2015

What makes for happiness? The Beatitudes capture Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching on happiness or blessedness. Blessed or happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the meek, the peacemakers and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

Did that make people happy then? Maybe so. Especially given the time and place he taught in. Today? Doubtful. We live in a very different world with greater wealth, dazzling choice and growing personal power. Who really wants to settle for the pure, modest, self-sacrificing ways Yeshua counsels?

As it turns out, there’s a growing body of research that shines light on what makes postmodern people happy. Surprisingly, or maybe not, much of it lines up with the teachings of Jesus. But surprisingly, or maybe not, the church doesn’t always get it right.

I want to share three ways the church gets happiness right, two ways it gets it wrong, and one critical change your church can make to increase the happiness quotient on the planet.

How the church gets it right

Put others first. According to recent research, what makes for meaning, and therefore happiness, isn’t so much about pursuing your own passion — at least if it is self-focused — as much as helping others make meaning in their lives. To the extent that our ministries focus on bettering the lives of our fellow human beings and the planet we share, this is an area the church gets happiness right. It lines up with Jesus’ teaching on self-sacrifice now for greater good later. And it lines up with what makes for healthy congregations. No, we don’t want to encourage people to be doormats, but we do want to encourage the pursuit of the healthy self-sacrifice that leads to meaningful lives.

Be generous. Giving to others significantly increases happiness. “Simply thinking about contributing to a charity of choice activates a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, the brain’s reward center, which is associated with feelings of joy,” according to "Happiness: 6 Myths and Truths." To the extent that your congregation excels at being a charity of choice, this is another way the church gets happiness right. Generosity towards God and others is an underlying assumption of the Beatitudes.

Give of yourself. In addition to giving money, which is very important, being face to face with the people you are giving to radically increases happiness. If you need a shot of endorphins, go beyond writing a check to interpersonal interactions that make a difference in the lives of others. Face-to-face interactions multiply the neurobiology of joy. These feelings not only bathe a person in well-being, they support a church in living out its mission and deliver on the kind of joy Jesus taught about.

How the church gets it wrong

Playing it safe. Security has long been associated with happiness. But paradoxically, the ways individuals in churches prefer to play it safe — for instance caring more about “us” than about “them” or not embracing risky ministry lest people leave — actually endangers congregational security. Playing it safe may keep some people happy in the short run, but in the long run these churches die out. And they die hard. Not happy.

Lack of compassion. Inclusivity is the name of the game in the Beatitudes: You can be poor, hurting, wounded, persecuted, meek, on the outs — and you are still in. That’s the gospel according to Jesus.

But the gospel according to many churches is not that broad-reaching. Or if it is, they’re not going public with it. By going public with it, I don’t mean saying “everyone is welcome.” That’s so easy as to be meaningless.

I mean actively identifying your congregation with the poor, the persecuted and those on the outs of society. In our day and age that likely means closely identifying with people living below the poverty line, the working poor, the hungry, the undocumented, brown and black-skinned immigrants, the imprisoned, and/or gays and lesbians — among others. It also means standing up for the well-being of Planet Earth itself.

This of course is not easy — for all kinds of reasons —n ot least of which is overcoming congregational laryngitis and embracing risk. On the other hand, it lines up beautifully with the Beatitudes Jesus gave voice to.

What your congregation can do

Want to increase the happiness quotient on the planet? And to do it in a way that increases giving, hands on involvement in serving people, and followers of Jesus?

Then here’s the one critical change your church will need to make: Lead with a vision. Craft a vision that focuses on reaching out to others, helping others and working with them side by side. Share this vision frequently, passionately, and follow through on it. Giving goes up when people are giving to a project that helps people, that puts a face on the church’s place in the world and that makes a real difference. Your vision can be the deciding factor.

One church I served finished paying off the mortgage early, in part by adding a second collection, called Pennies from Heaven. Once the mortgage was completed and the papers burned in a rite of celebration, we decided to keep the Pennies from Heaven offering going. According to the church treasurer, congregational giving actually increased. Turns out specific people and needs in the community and around the world were even more compelling that paying off the mortgage. It didn’t hurt that the kids took up that collection. All that loose change helped many a family in our community, sent Bibles to forbidden countries where believers were persecuted, funded two work trips to a Katrina-devastated area of Mississippi, and other projects too numerous to recall.

It all started with a bold new vision: “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things with the love of Jesus Christ.”

This vision not only provided needed momentum for giving, it powered remarkable spiritual growth that touched practically every area of the church. Bible studies grew in number and size. We started a prison ministry at the men’s medium security state penitentiary. Several men from the community, who still can’t believe they had the courage to participate, led a Bible study there. Another two dozen people from the church and community trooped out for sing-along Christmas caroling there. Additionally, we experimented with new ways to connect with the poorer families in our community — some of which worked and some of which didn’t. We also started a second service, bought new hymnals, learned to sing new songs — even those in Spanish — opened up to new worship styles, and eventually shared space with a Spanish-speaking congregation. All of this prompted new designated financial gifts and growth in the regular budget.

How to explain all this? In a word, the church got happy. The congregation was making a difference it could see, feel, touch and taste.

Want to increase your happiness quotient, spiritual growth, and the effectiveness of the church ? A powerful, bold and life-giving vision is key.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at

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