David Lose: Are You Facing a Problem or a Mystery?


I've been struck recently - recently as in the last 10 years or so! - by how frequently I hear people (and especially people in the church) name the challenges in front of us "problems."

We have a problem in church attendance.

Biblical illiteracy is the problem.

The problem is that people have a poor understanding of stewardship.


I understand this urge. Faced with a challenge - and even more a challenge that has at its heart a threat - we tend to turn to our problem solving skills. That makes sense: we are, I believe, by evolutionary disposition and experience very capable problem-solvers. (Evolution definitely favors the species that can identify, solve, and overcome threatening problems!)

But sometimes the challenge in front of us is not a problem, but a mystery.

Let me explain. A problem, according to this point of view, is a challenge or need that has a recognized context, set limits and variables, and presents itself for solution. Typically, the key task in solving problems is amassing more information and, based on careful analysis of that information, making changes at the level of technique or practice.

But sometimes the context has changed and so the limits and variables involved are unknown. In short, sometimes the rules of the very game we are playing change, and in this situation more information not only doesn't help us but sometimes actually confuses us by inducing us to operate by the rules of the old game and context rather than take seriously the foreign terrain in which we find ourselves. These types of challenges are better termed mysteries.

What's challenging about all of this is that mysteries - at least of the non-who-dunnit-type - can't be solved. Rather, mysteries can only be embraced.  They don't require more information, but rather a curious and open heart, a willingness to suspend past assumptions and judgments in order to be surprised by what manifests itself in this new context and world. Which is just what makes mysteries so vexing - to the degree that we are wed to past practices that succeeded in a different context, a mystery makes us feel either frustrated or incompetent, and all too often a bit of both.

So is church attendance a problem? Or are changing attitudes about church participation and the spiritual life more generally a mystery?

Is biblical illiteracy the problem? Or is living in a world with multiple meaning-making stories a mystery that we haven't faced before (at least not for about 1500 years!)?

Is the problem that we don't understand stewardship? Or is the fact that more and more of us want to give money not because we feel like we ought to, but because the organization we're supporting makes a tangible difference a mystery worthy of our attention?

Depending on how you answer those questions, your response will vary greatly. If you see these things as problems, likely you will think hard about the techniques and practices successfully embraced by the last generation and apply them harder and hopefully better. If you believe, instead, that the context has changed and we are confronted by a mystery, you will want to talk with people, ask lots of questions, see if you can figure out what values and stories are motivating and moving people, and in general try to describe, understand, and embrace this brave new world as fully as possible.

Which is another thing that makes mysteries challenging. The first step can feel like you're not doing that much. Asking questions and trying to understand a context doesn't fit the normal list of things "to do" that can be checked off.

But here's the thing: if the context really has changed, then the practices honed and refined and employed with such success in the previous context won't work, and while you're busy checking off your list of things to do, you're likely also burning yourself out as none of your hard work seems to change your essential situation.

Mysteries, therefore, require not only a curious and open heart, but also a modicum of courage and faith, trusting that if we embrace this context and world - a context and world still beloved and embraced by God - then appropriate ways of being and acting (including lots of things to do  :) ) will eventually suggest themselves.

So the next time you have a problem, ask yourself: Is this a problem to be solved, or a mystery to be engaged and embraced? The way you answer that question - heck, even asking it in the first place - might just make all the difference.

Taken with permission from David's blog, "...In the Meantime"