In the early days of the pandemic, a highlight each day at my house was pulling up John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” as dinnertime viewing. My laptop joined us at the table each evening to provide a few bright spots amid the dire headlines. The stories of COVID patients being discharged from the hospital to cheers and applause, Zoom singalongs with the cast of “Hamilton” — in the spring of 2020, these bits of brightness felt like a lifeline to me.
And I’m not alone: a recent study from psychologists in the U.K. dug deeper into the “why” behind the seemingly obvious phenomenon of the positive effects of good news on our well-being.
The implications of that “why” should spark our imaginations for the way we tell stories about our work in the world. Your ministry might be changing lives in all sorts of ways — but the stories you share about your ministry might be doing that, too.
Research has long confirmed the effects of seeing bad news on our minds and our health. On the one hand, it makes us feel worse — but on the other, thanks to evolution, we’re wired to pay attention to anything that might threaten us.
This particular study, though, looked at the effects of seeing good news stories after bad news stories, as a kind of counteractive antidote.
“The group that was shown negative news stories followed by positive ones fared far better than people who were only shown a negative news story,” writes one of the researchers on the study. “They reported less decline in mood — instead feeling uplifted. They also held more positive views of humanity generally.”
The good news that made the biggest difference for this group? Stories of kindness, of human beings showing up for each other.
The researchers tried out other kinds of positive news, seeing “how people exposed to a negative news story followed by an amusing one (such as swearing parrots, award-winning jokes or hapless American tourists) fared.” But when it came to overall uplifting effects on participants’ mood and hope for humanity, parrots and tourists were no match for acts of kindness — stories “such as acts of heroism, people providing free veterinary care for stray animals, or philanthropy towards unemployed and homeless people.”
The research pointed to several reasons why seeing stories of kindness may help counteract the doom and gloom of the 24-hour news cycle — for example, the writer notes, it can “remind us of our connection with others through shared values” and can act as a kind of “emotional reset button, replacing feelings of cynicism with hope, love and optimism.”
In the conclusion to her news piece on this study, the researcher writes, “Perhaps including more kindness-based content in news coverage could prevent ‘mean world syndrome’ — where people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, leading to heightened fear, anxiety and pessimism.”
Of course, the world is incredibly dangerous for many, many people — and positive headlines are no match for the harsh reality some of our neighbors have to face each day. The simple act of reading good news is not, in itself, the way to a better world. I think, though, that the researcher’s article on this particular study intends to critique the way news coverage takes advantage of our threat-detection wiring. The researcher wants to push those working in news media to consider balancing their coverage and including true stories of kindness along with the bad news.
I think, too, that there is a challenge here for all of us who work in Christian institutions, whose job it is to share the good news we’ve been given.
“The Good News Jesus embodied was news. Something to share, to proclaim,” writes Debie Thomas in a piece for The Christian Century provocatively titled “Reclaiming the E word” (the “E,” in this case, being “evangelism”). “We’ve become so adept at articulating who we are not and what we reject. But can we also articulate who we are? What we affirm?” she asks.
Can we share the good news of how we strive to embody the good news?
Of course, we should be thinking about the logistics, the concrete results, the returns on investment, the actual tangible work that we are doing and the difference that we are making. There is something, though, that I don’t want us to lose sight of — the fact that the way we share about our ministries matters, because the effects on the people who see our stories might be greater than we can imagine.
I have the immense privilege and joy of getting to work with various teams here at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and hear about the impact our grantees and partner organizations are having in the church and the world.
Seeing their inspiring stories, acknowledging the hope they give me, stirs up in me a greater urgency and a heightened awareness of the stakes in my communications work. How can I help get the word out about these incredible ministries, not to boost web traffic, but to help change hearts and lives?
The stories we tell about our ministries matter. We never know who might be listening, watching, hoping for the relief of seeing an act of love on a loveless day.
Here’s what I want to know: How do you share the stories of kindness and care that come out of your ministry? Send me a note — I always enjoy more good news.
My encounter with Tim Keller, who died May 19 at 72, began nearly 40 years ago when he was my teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I think my first semester was also Tim’s first — he had just begun to teach practical theology part time.
I had decided to attend Westminster largely because a professor named Harvie Conn was building a program there around ministry in cities. And it turned out that Tim’s encounter with Conn would be pivotal in his decision as well to go to New York City.
Tim was my professor for pastoral ministry and preaching, and he befriended me, wanting to know more about my plans for ministry, which I planned to pursue in Baltimore. In one course, he assigned me the lowest grade I received during my time in seminary. I told him that at graduation — with a smile — but in true Tim fashion, he countered by telling me something encouraging about my studies that also gave me a smile.
After I spent a decade in ministry in my hometown of Baltimore, Tim encouraged me to move to New York City and was deeply formative in what became my current project, City Seminary of New York. As the seminary grew, Tim, with his unique way of seeing what matters most, continued to think with us about our particular calling to the future of faith in the city.
As I’ve reflected on my own memories of Tim and of his journey to God over the three years since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I’ve returned to a seminar on ministry I took with him in 1987. It was a program capstone class of sorts I took with fellow student Jeff White. After Tim founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Jeff would join him as the first pastoral staff person. These were days that began lifelong friendships — and days when a short seminar in seminary required only 600 pages of reading and two papers!
Looking over my class notes today, I can see how what Tim was teaching would guide his ministry approach to Redeemer. This was two years before he moved to New York City to begin Redeemer with his wife, Kathy, and their sons. I can also see how God was in this part of Tim’s story, giving him time and space to prepare for ministry.
In this seminar, Tim talked about how to build up a church’s life, the role of small groups, the importance of identifying a philosophy of ministry, the need to focus on a church’s unique purpose in its context, the dynamics of the Holy Spirit in grace, renewal and change, and, of course, the place of preaching.
But it was a particular point I remembered him making about pastoral ministry, about the questions we need to ask and answer, that I wanted to search out in my notes.
I think a key factor in Tim and Redeemer’s story was his faithful commitment to pastoral ministry. He pursued the fullest potential of the gifts God had given him and seeking to build bridges of grace, conversation and friendship for people to encounter Christ.
Tim had a great zeal for proclaiming the gospel, a gift for inviting people to see Christ in fresh ways.
I can’t recall the details, but some years ago I heard Tim recount how many hours each week he put into preparing his sermons for Redeemer, of which he often delivered four per Sunday; it was days, not hours. And it was not just the effort he put in before and during preaching but a continuous process of wrestling with the biblical text, his theological convictions and context as he saw it, and the small reworkings he made as he went about sharing the fruit of that labor each Sunday.
And then there were the one-to-one meetings over coffee Tim began early on with people in New York, listening to their stories and questions about the gospel, praying with them, caring for them as he engaged his new pastoral context. It was a practice he continued over the years.
When I found my old notes, I read the series of “invitational questions for ministry involvement” with which he closed the seminar.
Is there a particular need? Are there people to work with you? What are you willing to invest? And do you have the physical and emotional resources?
These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself before starting out in a new ministry, he explained.
It was not long after Tim retired from Redeemer that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But as he shared this news with those around him and wrote about it in places like The Atlantic, he did so in a way that revealed how his faith, prayer life and trust in Christ were deepening. How he was dwelling more deeply in the presence of God’s love as he faced death.
We each have strengths and weaknesses across the course of our lives. Tim’s witness these past years took place in a season marked not by physical strength and vitality but by his brokenness and tears.
It seems that this was Tim’s concluding seminar on ministry. And it came not in the form of a traditional lecture, book or sermon but in a new series of invitational questions.
How do I do ministry not just with my strengths but with trust in God to lead through my weaknesses and vulnerabilities? How do we recognize we are built for something more, something else, for God? How do I live daily life with a hope that does not deny suffering and injustice but challenges it by looking and living toward God’s new creation and the life to come?
Until the end, Tim kept living the pastoral calling and questions God had given him. And he learned what the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr has observed: that when we fall down, we may be falling upward.
Thanks be to God for Tim Keller, who lived the gospel with beauty, joy and grace, pointing in hope to the crucified and risen Christ.
Most of us have probably heard that self-care is important for our mental health. And it’s true! Self-care is a critical part of our plan for working toward mental wellness.
Mental health has become an everyday, mainstream topic of conversation in recent years. And that’s a good thing. There are now many resources at our disposal to help us think about how to be as healthy and whole as possible.
But the challenge of this conversation becoming mainstream is that certain critically important pieces of our mental wellness can become so diluted as to be almost unrecognizable.
One area in which the wellness industry often misses the mark is self-care. Most of the imagery we see related to self-care essentially equates to pampering, luxury and disconnection: indulgent spa days, expensive trips with friends to Cabo, binge watching TV.
While these things may feel good — and we all deserve to feel good — self-care is much bigger and broader than simply self-soothing or enjoyment, especially for Christians.
Self-care is a multifaceted act of stewardship, which attends to multiple life demands. Self-care entails building a system of practices to support our living the rich and satisfying life that Jesus talks about in John 10:10. It is an evolving process, in conversation with the Holy Spirit, that honors the whole person.
Self-care is, first, recognizing that we are God’s creation, made in God’s image, and thus good and valuable and deserving of care. This means we have a responsibility to get curious about what we need to thrive, recognizing that that is different for each of us and that it changes over time as we grow and evolve.
We live in a world that does not often encourage us to care for ourselves in the ways that count. Our capitalist society can leave us feeling overworked, underpaid, sleep-deprived and going through the motions.
In the light of this reality, self-care might mean saying no to a paid opportunity in order to rest or spend time with your family. Self-care might mean prioritizing your exercise and sleep to support your overall physical health, even if you’re more interested in doing other things. Self-care might mean going to your therapy appointments, even when they are hard and uncomfortable.
Self-care might mean committing to a devotional practice, even when the timing feels inconvenient, because you know you feel and live better when you are spiritually grounded. Self-care might mean committing to a routine that helps you feel more balanced, even when your preference is to be totally spontaneous. Self-care might mean saying no when it’s easier and less scary to say yes.
To be invested in self-care is to wonder, “Is this action or routine getting me closer to where I want to be or further away from it?” Real self-care considers the bigger picture and has the end goal in mind.
The reason that self-soothing is so much more popular than actual self-care is that it addresses an immediate issue. Simply put, manicures and binge watching and emotional eating usually help us feel better in the moment. But it’s important to remember that they are temporary Band-Aids. While self-care can include some of these things, it prioritizes long-term healing.
Self-soothing does not do enough to care for ourselves in holistic ways. Emotions can be powerful motivators, and it’s our natural human tendency to avoid bad feelings and prioritize good ones.
As a mental health professional, I am a firm believer that our emotions are a key part of our experience in the world. It’s important that we attend to them, but we must not be ruled by them. Emotions can be intense, fleeting and ever-changing. They are not the whole story, so they can’t be all the information we use to navigate the world. They are a piece of the larger puzzle.
Other parts of that puzzle include our relationships with others, our physical health and wellness, our spiritual wholeness, our work and vocational responsibilities, and our communal commitments. A self-care plan (key word: plan!) considers the whole of who we are and attends to those internal and external demands.
I’m aware that by now self-care might sound a bit bigger than you bargained for. This is why the encouragement is to invite the Holy Spirit into the process. In Romans, Paul reminds us: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26 NIV).
The truth of the matter is that sometimes our lives get so complicated that it is hard to figure out what we need to do to care for ourselves. But what we do know is that God is invested in the totality of us — mind, body and spirit.
God equips all manner of professionals to help us identify healthy practices, and God sends the Holy Spirit to help us discern which ones we are called to. Take a moment and look at the big picture of your life, with its twists, turns and intricacies. What are the key issues you’re feeling called to attend to right now, and what commitments can you make in that regard? As you discern and then implement, remember that the Spirit is present to help you along the way.
There’s more to the story about religion in America than what polls and surveys indicate — especially among young people.
Consider two recent statements made by one of America’s most prolific religious demographers, Daniel Cox. On the one hand, in a report examining Gen Z’s religious attendance and affiliation trends, he wrote: “In terms of identity, Generation Z is the least religious generation yet.”
On the other hand, in a co-written report about faith after the pandemic, this: “Increasingly, religious affiliation may tell us less about the full range of religious and spiritual experiences Americans have and the extent of their theological commitments.”
Our research findings confirm this tension: Gen Z expresses religiosity and spirituality, but in ways that defy traditional polling measures.
In this new reality, faith leaders can accept existing data as evidence of declining demand for religion among young people and just keep trying to get them back in the church building.
But we firmly believe that the decline narrative is not the full story. We think the better option for faith leaders is to transform their approach to young people in a way that recognizes how they actually are engaging with faith and spiritual practices.
At Springtide Research Institute, we are discovering that in reality, a majority of America’s “least religious generation” identifies as religious (68%) or spiritual (77%) — a fact that changed little even as their already low religious attendance dropped off further during the pandemic.
Gen Z expresses religiosity and spirituality, but in ways that defy traditional polling measures.
So what’s going on with young people?
For decades, sociologists and demographers have looked to two primary indicators of religiosity in individuals or society: affirmed beliefs (e.g., “Do you believe in God with no doubts?”) and frequency of attendance at religious services.
A recent article based on these indicators, for example, doubles down on the thesis that the U.S. is undergoing a process of secularization.
But it’s important to look more closely. This same article notes: “Of course, compared to most other wealthy countries, the U.S. is quite religious. Fifty-five percent of Americans, for example, say they pray daily, compared to an average of 22% of Europeans.”
This includes 47% of Gen Zers who pray at least weekly, according to Springtide’s 2022 annual State of Religion & Young People report.
With Gen Z, traditional indicators of affiliation and attendance no longer explain what’s happening. Cox and his co-authors call this the “decoupling of identity and experience.”
There are far too many voices pronouncing God “dead” (or at least dying) for Gen Z without the full range of evidence needed to back up such a claim.
Before dismissing these practices as New Age frivolities, consider that young Latter-day Saints and Muslims — groups that traditionally hold more conservative/orthodox religious beliefs — were among the most likely to engage with tarot or other forms of divination on a regular basis (38% and 35%, respectively).
Gen Zers engage in these practices even as they tag along with mainstream religious traditions. We also know that young people who engage in practices like these reap some of the benefits that accompany traditional religious behaviors and expressions.
For example, while 17% of all young people say they are flourishing in their faith, this number increases for young people who engage spiritually with crystals and herbs weekly or daily.
Similarly, while 24% of all young people say they’re flourishing in their mental and emotional health, this number increases for young people who engage with crystals or herbs weekly.
We’re not arguing that Christian churches should replace liturgy with crystals. But a deeper understanding of young adults’ faith and practices can help churches connect with them.
Some faith communities have picked up on Gen Z’s unconventional spiritual quest, dumping traditional programs in favor of eclectic, peer-driven activities that promote what Gen Z says it lacks most: a sense of belonging.
One example is Table Bread, a ministry of The Table United Methodist Church in Sacramento, California. The church discovered that the baking and breaking of bread created community for young people that helped alleviate their isolation and loneliness. As they form authentic relationships around baking bread, the participants have rich and honest conversations centered on Wesleyan concepts and questions.
The project eventually evolved into a youth-led social enterprise that is forming an intergenerational community through farming and bread making. Yet a young person’s participation in these initiatives might not register under traditional survey measures of religious identity and attendance.
And take a look at what happened in February 2023 at Asbury University, where a garden-variety chapel service ignited a two-week, continuous revival, drawing nearly 50,000 students and visitors from around the country. It also sparked similar events on other campuses.
Daniel Darling, a bestselling Christian author and pastor, wrote in response to the Asbury revival:
“I’m bullish on Gen Z. God is doing something. I’ve seen it on our own campus. I’ve seen it on campuses where I’ve preached. We need wisdom and discernment, but I don’t want to be the cranky old guy who obsesses over trend lines, nitpicks away and misses a movement of the Spirit.”
To be sure, the revival has its skeptics. However, whether one is a doubter or a believer in the Asbury revival, the event at least suggests that maybe the experts don’t have the full story on where young Americans are headed with religion. In fact, one could argue that we simply cannot know for sure right now.
Returning to the findings of researcher Daniel Cox: “What most distinguishes Generation Z from previous generations is not that Gen Zers are more likely to leave their childhood religion, but rather that many of them lacked a religious upbringing.”
Cox notes that 15% of Gen Zers report being raised in nonreligious households, more than twice the rate of Gen Xers (6%) and five times the rate of baby boomers (3%).
Many of them say they don’t know how to connect to communities of faith. Almost 40% of young people in Springtide’s 2021 annual State of Religion & Young People report agreed with the statement, “I would not even think to go to a faith community because it is not something I’ve ever gone to before.”
More than half said, “I’m not sure how to get connected to a new faith community.”
The decline of institutional trust, the increase in demographic diversity and the rise of social media, among other factors, mean that young people are operating in a different social environment than the one that gave rise to the successful program-driven models of youth engagement over the past 50 years.
What can faith leaders do in place of programs? They can invest in building trust through authentic relationships with young people rather than relying on institutional authority to do the lifting. They can promote belonging to the same degree as believing. They can address the issues that young people care about, like racial and ethnic identity and mental health. They can bake and break bread.
At Springtide, we know that there are more examples of innovative approaches to engaging young people, because young people tell us about them all the time.
With a new grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., we are excited to spend the next three years identifying the who and the what behind those approaches and why they are so successful with young people, with the goal of developing frameworks that can be adapted and applied in faith communities everywhere.
We are excited to tell a new story — perhaps even the true story — about the spiritual potential of young Americans. Among the epitaphs written about young people and the church, we hope to announce new births — and to normalize a posture of hope and anticipation for the exciting places young people will take religion in the years to come.