Is the world getting worse?

December 18th, 2018

As long as I can remember, church leaders have described the world and its peoples as “broken and hurting.” This along with other stock phrases such as “the poor and marginalized,” and “the least, the last and the lost” regularly pop up in prayers, Bible studies and sermons.

Like news media that depend on bad or shocking news to get people’s attention, it’s almost as if churches depend on things looking bleak and bad in the world in order to motivate compassion or to claim relevance.

Before you protest that of course, we’re supposed to pay attention to people’s pain and suffering, please hear me out. While it’s important for churches to surface and address gaps in justice, equity and compassion, our unchanging lexicon hints that the world is a bad place that’s only getting worse. But what if that’s not true? What if—on the whole—the world is actually thriving and progressing? 

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is a thorough, comprehensive and compelling exploration of the effects of progress on the human condition and the earth we inhabit. It’s 453 extravagant and detailed pages about how life on earth is undeniably better, brighter, fairer and more just than ever before in human history. Pinker’s central finding is that humans live in a world in which all boats haven risen on a long tide of progress. Even taking into account the Trump effect, we have made progress in every area of human striving including length and quality of life, health, health care, sustenance, wealth, closing the gap on inequality, safeguarding the environment, peace, safety, democratization of the world, equal rights, literacy, education, access to knowledge. Even happiness.

Philanthropist Bill Gates has discovered much the same scenario. He asserts in his 2014 letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.” Gates goes on to say, “You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated,” but in fact the opposite is true. Persistent myths abound that the world is getting worse. (Pinker ascribes this tendency to believe the worst to the availability heuristic. If it’s in the news, it must be happening everywhere.) These myths harm organizations that effectively problem-solve poverty, violence, injustice, war and hunger.

These myths also harm the church. After all, the church’s primary product, if you will, is good news. Its what churches offer the world. If the world is getting worse, not better, this implies that churches have no impact. Worse, that the God we promote is ineffective. That the main prayer we pray each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” never gets answered. Most depressing of all, if these myths are to be believed, the Lord’s Prayer can’t get answered.

Heaven knows there are still problems to be solved, evils to be dismantled and atrocities to be halted. Yet, we must not bury the positive transformations that are taking place in outdated language.

How would church services be different if we found new, more accurate language to describe the world and its peoples? What if instead of “the least, the last and the lost,” humans are described as resourceful problem-solvers who partner with God to co-create new realities? What if instead of a “broken and hurting world” we highlight human resiliency? What if instead of “poor and marginalized” we referred to folks who are experiencing injustice as courageous and persistent? How might that change our view of things?

The former language casts the world as a victim and the church its rescuer. According to the principles of emotional triangles, this simply perpetuates victimization. The latter language empowers us to dream up new possibilities.

I say it’s time to lift up all that is going well and right in the world, along with what is not. All the ways God answers prayer as well as the prayers still to be answered. All the ways churches partner with God to make a difference in the world as well as the partnerships we must still take up. To do that, we must develop a new lexicon and begin new conversations.

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