Are the People in your Church Chairs Happy?

An Agitating Question – Investigating Hope

Are the people in your church chairs happy? When the question first popped into my head I was startled by it. It is not what is typically asked about church members. It seems almost nihilistic. But, happiness in this context does not mean a pursuit of pleasure. Maximizing pleasure over pain is not the key to happiness. Clearly the pursuit of pleasure as a source of fulfillment is deemed futility by the author of Ecclesiastes. The pursuit of is that pleasure is not what drives our deepest needs. This insight is confirmed by social psychologist William McDougall who asserts that people can be happy while in pain and unhappy while experiencing pleasure.

Happy people who have hope and are more optimistic in their perspective than unhappy people. Happy people possess a realistic grasp of their situation whether positive or negative. As a result they tend to make better decisions than those who do not have hope or are unhappy. People who possess hope work proactively to alter the way things are done to improve processes and the work/ministry environment so that others feel recognized, challenged to do their best work and discover a sense of deeper purpose or meaning. People who possess hope never remained victims even when they endure significant loss or pain. Happy people possess a resilience that gets up and goes forward again. (Romans 4:18; 1 Timothy 6:17; 1 Peter 1:3; Psalm 119:114)

Over the years I concluded that (1) the presence of hope and happiness predicts a framework that shapes personal values and motives toward new outcomes and possibilities. (2) Hope engenders inquiries about reality that expose and subvert dysfunctional tendencies that suppress or reject new possibilities. (3) Hope synthesizes the attributes and transactional characteristics of the church and other organizational entities in a way that accelerates the development of people as individuals and as leaders.

Hope Shapes Personal Values

Hope serves as both a trait and a mindset. In the words of Jessica Pryce-Jones it serves as “…a kicker to action and it is clearly associated with higher job performance and happiness. In fact some psychologists call it a ‘Velcro’ concept as it seems to enable you to stick to your commitments regardless of your other attributes.” Hope reshapes personal values by exposing people to the promise of God and alternative outcomes to the future. Hope is the “Velcro” needed to stick to emerging values regardless of the challenge.

As a pastoral leader I wanted to shape the moral reasoning and ethical decision making of my congregation. People and organizations are deeply influenced by men and women who are happy. People filled with hope act as visionaries and change agents. These individuals are not more charismatic than others instead they personify a mindset through which they interpret the realities around them. They see opportunities others miss. They see people others did not see. They see a preferred future as possible when others see only drudgery or failure. By helping my congregation be happy in life and at work they become more influential in their faith and begin to discover ways in which hope can impact their situation.

Hope Subverts Dysfunctional Tendencies

Happiness allows individuals to leverage their experiences regardless of whether they are positive or negative to achieve their full potential.  The theory behind the idea of happiness is rooted in positive psychology. Positive psychology is built on four ideas: you are responsible for your own level of happiness; you have more room to maneuver than you think; you always have a choice and self-awareness is the first step toward happiness.

In my experience unhappy people believe the opposite of these ideas. Worse they became wet blankets to vision or change – they are doomsayers. When the ideas on which positive psychology is founded are reframed as opposites they explain some of the dysfunctional behavior observed in unhappy people sitting in our church chairs. Consider the four ideas turned to their opposite:

• Others are responsible for your level of happiness. This sets up expectations that are never met in part because they are never expressed as desire but only used as assertions of offense. People who are disillusioned with church often need to be challenged to step up to being personally responsible for their mindset and decisions.

• You are stuck in your current situation. People who feel stuck are often fearful and angry. I encountered this in my first congregation when I talked about reaching our community and the members responded that all prior attempts to evangelize had failed and would fail because we had a bad location and bad reputation. It was a de facto mindset of defeat that refused to consider the reality that patterns of behavior can change.

• You never have a choice. Those who feel they have no choice simply give up and never act. They tend to be defeatist voices that cannot see any alternative but the present.

• Lack of self awareness. People who lack self awareness lack the capacity to evaluate their behavior to internal standards and values. As a result they often possess little awareness of how their behavior impacts others. These people are the hypocrites who do not see the contradiction between what they claim and how they live.

Hope expressed in happiness subverts the dysfunctions described above. I thought about these four ideas in light of how I could help the members of my congregation move from being a victim and unhappy to being happy and filled with hope. Consider each of the four ideas of positive psychology in light of a biblical summons to hope.

• You are responsible for your own level of happiness. The scripture seems to make clear that we can act in a way that alters happiness. Romans 12:12 contains an interesting summons, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” It is possible (unless one is clinically depressed) to choose a joyful or happy mindset over one that is distraught or victimized.

• You have more room to maneuver than you think. The classic example of this to me is the encounter Elisha had with the Aramean army. When Elisha’s servant saw the army he panicked. Elisha’s response was, “Don’t be afraid…those with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16).

• You always have a choice. Choice is central to a life of faith. Proverbs 3:31; 1 Peter 4:3.

• Self-awareness is the first step. Paul’s advice to Timothy starts with a clear summons to self-awareness (a new sense of self) he reminded Timothy, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

Hope Accelerates the Development of Leaders

Unleashing hope and happiness in the mindsets of a congregation helps develop leaders. When people understand that they can make a difference they influence their work/life situations and inspire others to act. This is part of what makes a leader. This influence is defined by Pryce-Jones and her research team in the connection between productivity and happiness. The data collected by Pryce-Jones’ team clustered around five different themes. These themes or factors include items typically found in human capital studies (employee engagement or job satisfaction). However the research indicated that such things as employee engagement relates to 10 percent fewer items than happiness does.  The bottom line is that people who are happy at work are 108% more engaged than their unhappy colleagues, love their job 79% more and achieve their goals 30% more often. Happy people reduce the costs of turnover, sick days, work slowdowns and absenteeism by as much as 50%.

The five factors that define happiness in the Pryce-Jones study are:

• Contribution: the effort an employee makes and their perception of this effort.

• Conviction: the motivation employees have whatever their circumstance.

• Culture: how well employees feel they fit at work.

• Commitment: the extent to which employees are engaged with their work.

• Confidence: the sense of belief employees have in themselves and their job.

I find it interesting that these factors also describe the early church and dynamic congregations today. People who are happy at church are more engaged, achieve measurable ministry objects, are consistently present and see more opportunity than those who are not happy. As a result of engaging Christ the people in our congregation became happier i.e., they gained a stronger sense of contribution, they lived with great conviction, they became aware of the power of culture and ways to influence culture, they became more engaged and more engaging and they grew in confidence. In short as they grew in Christ they became influencers and leaders in the congregation and in their work place.

So What?

Are people sitting in your church chairs happy? Do they achieve their goals more often? Do they take measurably fewer sick days or engage in measurable fewer work slowdowns? Do these things matter? Yes, they indicate the degree to which people understand the hope that is theirs in Christ. What more relevant message is there than that of being reconciled to God and thereby tapping into a deep sense of meaning and hope? If people are unhappy perhaps it is time to gently challenge their assumptions about what it means to be a Christ follower and member of Christ’s body. It is possible to measure these five factors as both a diagnostic and a prescriptive exercise. If your curiosity is piqued give me a call at 909-993-0616 and let’s talk about how or write me at