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What World War Two airplanes can teach today’s church

Back in World War Two, the United States military had a problem: many of their bombers were being downed by the German counter-air defence. Numerous American flight crews were dying. A solution was devised to add more armour to the planes. However, this slowed them down and made maneuvering difficult. So, the military decided to add increased armour to only the wings and fuselage. This made sense because when the bombers returned from intense fighting in Europe, these were the most bullet-riddled areas. To determine how much armour was needed to save lives but not make the aircraft too heavy, the military turned to mathematician Abraham Wald of Columbia University’s Statistical Research Group.

To their astonishment, Wald told them the extra armour should go on the least bullet-ridden area, the engine, because this was actually the bomber’s most vulnerable spot.  Wald realized that when a plane was hit in the engine, it often didn’t survive to fly home and show its bullet holes. The aircraft that took hits yet still made it home had been hit in their least vulnerable areas. Following Wald’s advice, armour protection was increased over the truly vulnerable engine, and countless lives were saved.

Wald had correctly identified that the military was looking at their planes through the lens of survivorship bias, which occurs when only those still existing (or “surviving”) are considered. Survivorship bias can occur in all facets of life or society—and I can’t help but wonder about its presence in the church.

How did we not minister to them, love them well, or walk alongside them before they vanished from our pews?

In my country of Canada, the percentage of those who identify as Christian has fallen by over 23% since 2001. Meanwhile, over the past 25 years, 40 million Americans have left the church, the largest change in American history. 

On Sundays, it’s easy to look around the sanctuary at those still attending, the “survivors,” if you will, and think everything is okay. It’s easier, still, to forget those who’ve vanished. Yet, according to the statistics, we are hemorrhaging brothers and sisters. Most churches abound with opportunities to build the faith of, and minister, to those still in the pews. There are Sunday Schools, Wednesday Bible studies, Gems, Cadets, men and women’s ministries, senior’s clubs and more.  

But what of the many other beloved ones who left? 

How did we not minister to them, love them well, or walk alongside them before they vanished from our pews? What could we have done differently before they left?

It’s a pain my family knows well. For years, I used to drag my two elder kids to church each Sunday morning. They’d come along—angrily. Eventually, they stopped coming altogether. One (temporarily) proclaimed himself a Satanist and now follows an ancient Viking religion, with Odin his god. In the years since they left church—and Jesus—in the dust, I’ve realized what a difficult, painful place church can be when you don’t fit into the mainstream. 

My older kids—who would never describe themselves as mainstream—experienced a church where they had a complete lack of friends and encountered ministries designed for people with interests and abilities utterly different from their own. 

What can we do for those who are truly the most vulnerable?

They languished through sermon upon sermon where they could barely understand a word (due to disabilities). They would have been able to understand the children’s programming but were too old for that.

Over the past few years, I’ve also known several others who have either left or are on the verge of leaving the CRC denomination as a result of the decisions of Synods 2022 and 2023.  Regardless of whether you hold a traditional or affirming belief on human sexuality and same-sex marriage, I think most in the CRC would agree the past two synods have been difficult, even divisive.

Many churches, including my own, have wrestled with members holding vastly different opinions on this issue. Despite numerous conversations and meetings, pain has resulted for many. Some have left. A great number are scarred.  Denomination-wide, I’d hazard that more on the affirming side have left than the traditional, given how the synodal decisions played out.

And I ask: when we who are still present look around, do we “see” those who have left, as well as those wavering on the edge of leaving? Do we consider their scars, their “bullet holes”? Or do we make the same mistake the US military initially made with their bombers, considering only the comfortable survivors, aiming our attention to tending their needs? 

What can we do for those who are truly the most vulnerable? How could we better follow Christ’s example of love to all, not just those with the greatest chance of surviving to return another Sunday?

Photo by Gary Wann on Unsplash

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