The Brutal Facts

Admiral James Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam in 1965 and was the highest ranking officer in what was known as the Hanoi Hilton. He was released in 1973.

Later, when asked how he made it through those years of captivity:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

In his book “Good to Great”, author Jim Collins would refer to the comments and mindset of Stockdale as “The Stockdale Paradox.” In it’s most condensed form, the Stockdale Paradox is, “Confront the brutal facts of your reality, without ever giving up hope that you will prevail in the end.”

Yesterday, our conversation and discussion at Group Headquarters was all about the brutal reality(-ies) of the church in 21st century America:

  1. The American Church is in decline, and youth ministry is in a funk
    1. while there are 1200-1500 new church plants per year, over 4,000 churches close their doors per year.
    2. those who’ve remained in church have a higher average age than the general population
    3. while 95% of Americans “believe in God”, real weekly attendance figures is close to 17%
  2. According to the National Study of Youth & Religion, just 1 in 10 American young people have:
    1. a faith in Jesus that is central to their lives
    2. know the basics of their faith
    3. see Jesus as making an impact on their daily life
    4. make a connection between church and their daily life

In partial response, the church has turned to the youth ministry world and operated under a number of premises (reasons) that may or may not be true:

  1. Premise–Youth ministry has devolved into fun & games.
    1. While the reality is that fun & games serve to build relationships and build an atmosphere designed to take kids deeper, but…deeper into what? We’ve not necessarily defined what that means.
  2. Premise–Youth ministry has silo-ed (removed) kids from parents.
    1. What about parents who also share in the surface-level beliefs of their kids? After all, the kids learned their beliefs from someone and somewhere. Is connecting kids shallow in faith with equally-shallow parents REALLY the answer?
  3. Premise–Youth ministry is over-professionalized.
    1. Ministries that use both paid- and unpaid- people succeed and struggle.
  4. Premise–Youth are busier than before.
  5. Premise–Youth have more access to information than ever before, rendering what the church does as antiquated.
  6. Premise–Youth ministry is a hold-over from the 70’s & 80’s.

To keep the Stockdale metaphor going…the church in America spent most of the time in the 1800’s and 1900’s flying along, enjoying a position of power and authority. Then, in the 70’s, we were shot down. We’ve ejected and floated down to earth. Perhaps we’ve eluded capture. Maybe, we’re sitting in our prison cell. But, make no mistake: our culture has shifted.

This is the truth we confront. How will we meet it? Optimism? Pessimism?

The tension is the Stockdale Paradox: “Confront the brutal facts of your reality, without ever giving up hope that you will prevail in the end.”



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