Positivity won’t save Christianity. But embracing reality will.

“How are you?”

“I’m doing so great, sister! Blessed. God is good, all the time!”

You can almost visualize the big, toothy grin and radiant disposition accompanying this response. And, if you’re like me, it’s enough to make you cringe.

I have a sort of gag reflex to artificial Christian positivity. Whether it comes in the form of happy-clappy worship leaders rousing the congregation to sing rollicking praise tunes, or pastors with pasted-on smiles and peppy radio-host intonation delivering inspirational quips, or congregants doing everything they can to follow suit by oozing everything-is-amazing and God-is-the-best all over you during the mingle time—this stuff repels me, sends me running in the opposite direction. While perhaps this kind of syrupy positivity was the hallmark of a once-effective Christian movement called the seeker-sensitive movement, it leaves me and others like me seeking something else entirely.

Something real.

Don’t get me wrong. Joy is real. Happiness is real. Gratitude and thankfulness and praise are very, very real. But they are real when they are rooted in the fullness of reality—which includes the very real darkness and trauma and pain and lament that life often brings. Sadness is real, and so is anger. Guilt is real, and so is shame. Wilderness seasons of feeling lost and listless and unable to find a sense of belonging or identity are very, very real. What is joy if not part of the same lived reality that produces pain? It is most likely a fabrication, a shallow show, a sugary experience full of empty calories that don’t deeply satisfy.

It’s no secret that the Christian faith has been in decline in the West for sometime. In North America, the decline has hit hard in recent years, resulting in drastic shifting and changing in Christian institutions and movements. But what if this reality—which is admittedly painful, a kind of suffering for those experiencing a loss of cultural identity and influence—is not a problem to be solved? What if the answer isn’t to find superficial ways to reverse the decline, to woo in the “seekers” and recoup the numbers? Such an approach is bound to produce artificial results, much like the Christian positivity above. And it won’t, ultimately, satisfy those who are truly seeking.

What if the answer is, instead, to lean into the painful reality as a necessary suffering, and embrace the opportunity it presents?

In my new book, I talk about how everything changes when we begin to believe the light is winning. But I don’t mean we should turn a blind eye to brokenness or ignore pain and suffering or work up artificial positivity. I mean we should face reality in all of its darkness, accepting the change it brings. And we should do this with a deep-rooted hope in resurrection and flourishing to come.

If Christianity is going to flourish in the West in the decades to come, it will be because we have stopped trying to put on a show and have finally embraced the real. It will be because we have allowed something to die that needed to die: the notion that the Christian life is all about victory, happiness, and success, with the perpetual show of positivity that entails.

But if we worship Jesus and follow him into all the realities and seasons of life, no matter how dark, then perhaps we will finally grab hold of the light. Perhaps we will have something solid, substantial, and satisfying to invite the seeking world to take part in. Perhaps we will taste, see, and experience something beyond the transition and decline: an authentic, flourishing faith, where the light is winning.

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About the author

Zach Hoag is an author, preacher, and creator from New England. Planting a church in one of the least churched cities in the U.S. (Burlington, Vermont), and pursuing ministry beyond that in a variety of spaces, Zach has learned a few things about the power of a deeply rooted life in Christ. Zach has found belonging in the Vermont countryside where he lives with his wife, Kalen, and their three girls. Find him writing at zhoag.com