Two Options for the New Year: Optimism or Hope

The following is by Doug Hankins. Doug is the Teaching Pastor at LifePoint Church, an American church historian, and an author of Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words. Doug holds a PhD From Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He blogs at

One of the most important tasks for any leader during a new season of ministry is to ensure that you start off on the right tone. As my band director used to remind us in high school, it doesn’t matter how well you play the musical piece if you don’t get the first note right. Anyone familiar with the Beatles’ song A Hard Day’s Night recalls that it begins with a sustained Fadd9, a distinctive chord that has become the representative sound of their musical catalog. Likewise, a good leader’s tone setting direction often becomes the representative quality that marks a season of ministry.

I recently preached a tone-setting sermon to the church community where I serve as pastor with the goal of setting them up to be Christ-centered in 2015. As I survey 2015 I see two pressing options for consideration for any ministry leader engaged in substantial church ministry, whether of the local, academic, or parachurch persuasion.

Option 1: Optimism, Positive Thinking, or New Thought Philosophy

John Baldoni, a leadership contributor to Forbes, recently published a blog post entitled “Uncork Your New Year Right. ‘Accentuate The Positive.’” Mr. Baldoni asks how leaders may motivate themselves in 2015 and answers by borrowing from the 1945 sermonic tune by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers called Accentuate the Positive:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

Mr. Baldoni stands from within a popular camp of optimistic thought that has been a prominent movement in American thought and spirituality since the mid–nineteenth century. The New Thought, or Positive Thinking, or Optimism movement is a pseudo-religious/health/self-help/spiritualistic movement emerged out of the teachings of P.P. Quimby and one of his famous disciples, Mary Baker Eddy, who who took Quimby’s ideas and baptized them in cultural Christianity to form the Christian Science movement.

While you may not be familiar with Quimby or Eddy’s writings, your congregation is likely familiar with some of the applications of this movement. One of the prominent examples of this kind of approach occurs during an exchange between the characters Peter and Frank McCallister in the Christmas classic Home Alone (1990). Peter is attempting to encourage his curmudgeon brother Frank as the family hurriedly rushes out of their Winnetka, Illinois manse en route to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for a family trip to Paris. This exchange ensues:

Frank: There’s no way on earth we are going to make this plane. It leaves in 45 minutes.

Peter: Think positive Frank.

Frank: You be positive, I’ll be realistic.

From this exchange we begin to identify the basic working definition of optimistic thought: human mentality can change human reality.  If a person thinks positively about a particular aspect of life (business success, health, personal goals) then some transcendent force will press down on the natural world and bend providence in the favor of the person who thinks.  Similarly, if a person thinks negatively, the results can mean disease, failure, and death. That is why Peter is challenging Frank to think positive. Perhaps Uncle Frank is right to be skeptical. Or perhaps positive thinking will alter the reality of the circumstances – that the McCalisters have exactly 45 minutes to travel 16.7 miles, through several residential neighborhoods and interstates clogged with Chicago traffic, in order to check in, to maneuver through security, and to make their flight.

This certainly is the kind of advice Mr. Baldoni of Forbes recommends to leaders for 2015. He writes, “Self-motivation is particularly vital for leaders. It is they who must embody the direction the hopes and dreams of others.” So, are Peter McCallister and Mr. Baldoni correct? Is this type of optimism or positive thinking ultimately unhelpful for human beings and for organizational cultures who want to flourish? Furthermore, what should Christians make of this optimistic approach? Should the reaction of the Christian church be to become negative people who only think critically and harshly about things? Or is there another option for consideration?

Option 2: Hope For 2015

The chief problem with the optimism/positive thinking movement is not that it preaches positivity or optimism.  Positivity can be a helpful tool in one’s discipleship arsenal and is a critical tool for organizational leadership. After all, no one likes serving under a negative leader and James’s epistle says much about the damage a critical tongue can have on the church community. But positivity and optimism make for helpful tools, not overarching theologies. Theologically speaking, the fundamental problem with the positive thinking movement is that it is a Trojan horse.  Hidden deep within its philosophical core is the dangerous idealism of self-reliance.  Optimism is that it relies on self.  Positive thinking will set a self-reliant tone for your ministry and encourage your church community to live according to Ephesians 2:8-9. It is a gospel of works and it fails to account for the reality of human frailty and the tendency for humans to mess up.

So what then? Is there a way forward for leadership in 2015? I think so. Consider the alternative term to unbridled and unchecked optimism, one that sets a more Biblically-rooted tone for your ministry season.  That term is hope.

To be sure, the terms “hope” and “optimism” became synonymous during President Obama’s 2008 political campaign and this move has certainly muddied the American lexicon as of late.  But stripping away a clever campaign strategy, let me try offer a Biblical definition of the hope in contrast to optimism.

Optimism is a perspective. Hope is a person.

In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul begins is epistle with this self-introduction, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.” For Christians the good news of Jesus Christ is that he is our hope and our hope is sovereign over 2015. In fact, because he currently sits at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) he is able to exist outside of time . . . meaning that Jesus is sovereign over the past, present, and future . . . meaning that He is sovereign over 2015 and beyond.  Not only with time, Jesus is also the one who is sovereign over positivity and negativity, optimism and pessimism.  So rather than relying on the tools, I am persuaded that Christian leaders should consider setting a tone of hope in Jesus Christ in 2015.

Three Practical Takeaways

In consideration of the second option, I want to address the question as to how setting a hope-filled tone for your ministry might work itself out practically. I see three practical applications of Biblical hope for Christian leaders.

1. In preaching and teaching, consider beginning 2015 with a hope-sized vision.

Preachers, Sunday school teachers, and small group leaders with control over content may want to continue a study of a particular book from the previous year. This is certainly helpful for continuity sake. But keep in mind that your audience has likely hit the mental reset button with the turning of the calendar page. Although they may have enjoyed the study from 2014, 2015 may stir in them an fresh expectation of a renewed vision for the coming season. It may be helpful to spend week 1 of the preaching/teaching calendar quickly wrapping up the previous content so that week 2 (when everyone truly returns in attendance) can be dedicated to the fresh vision. I am not advocating a lengthy study or sermon campaign. A few weeks of tone-setting sermons, Bible study, or lessons may do the trick of appropriately setting the collective expectations of your church community.

2. Take the first week to prayer-dream together as a staff, leadership team, or teaching team.

Remember, leaders set the tone. Mr. Baldoni is correct in his understanding of organizational theory. “Leaders embody the direction the hopes and dreams of others.” If your leaders have a hope-drenched attitude, then it stands to reason that your church community will begin to adopt the same attitude. Also keep in mind that your church community is still slow to move during the first week of January as people are recovering from the holiday rest. It is an opportune time. I recommend an exercise of prayer-dreaming together. This is a combination of dreaming about what could happen over the course of this season of ministry as well as praying about it and committing these dreams to God. I have a giant white-board wall in my office and I plan on brainstorming dreams and desires with my staff team about all that Jesus may want to do in our community in 2015. Then I plan on taking a picture of the board, emailing it to my team, and then praying over these dreams one by one and crossing them off the wall as we pray for them.

3. Work some hope-filled songs into the worship set, liturgical order, or small group opening time.

Singing is a great opportunity to express Biblical truths back to God through engaging melody. As such, I recommend these titles: My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less (1834) or the modern version by Charlie Hall entitled The Solid Rock (2004), Be Thou My Vision (published 1912), My Hope Is In You (1997) by Third Day, Hope To Carry On (1999) by Rich Mullins.

 This post originally appeared at LifeWay’s Church Leaders blog.