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Spatial disorientation is the condition in which an aircraft pilot‘s perception of direction does not agree with reality. It typically results from flying into poor weather conditions with low or no visibility.
Under these conditions, the pilot may be deprived of an external visual horizon, which is critical to maintaining a correct sense of up and down while flying.

When a pilot suffers spatial disorientation, the results are often catastrophic. The pilot often enters into a “graveyard spiral” and flies the plane into the ground.

Many think that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s tragic death in 1999 was probably the result of spatial disorientation.

While spatial disorientation often leads to plane crashes, it can be avoided if the pilot can maintain or regain sight of the horizon or is able and willing to rely upon instruments.

What does spatial disorientation have to do with healthy churches and healthy believers?

Sadly, individual Christians, clergy included, can fall victim to spiritual spatial disorientation when they make decisions in a vacuum without the ability to see the horizon or without accurate feedback.

Every pastor can tell you about a time they have had a conversation with an erring parishioner that went something like this:

Pastor: “You know that what you are doing violates basic biblical guidance and common sense, right?”

Member: “Well, perhaps so, but I actually believe God is OK with this because I am so happy.”

Pastor: “So, you’re willing to destroy your family and your testimony for this?”

Member: “But pastor, you don’t understand, I’ve never felt more alive. I’m sure God is in this.”

Pastor: “Let me tell you about your graveyard spiral…”

What the horizon and accurate instruments do for a pilot, good counsel and biblical truth does for Christians.

Amid the turbulence of life, we sometimes base critical decisions upon what we feel rather than upon what is real. When we lose touch with reality, when we ignore our “instrument readings” and fly our life by feelings, we frequently fly our lives into the ground.

We all need trusted truth-tellers to help keep us honest and rightly oriented to reality. We can never assume we have a corner on the truth and are above the need for constructive critique.

What about churches? Is it possible for an entire congregation to ignore reality and embrace false perceptions and impressions that ultimately lead to spiritual spatial disorientation?

I believe it is.

Therefore, since the way to navigate in adverse weather conditions is to rely upon instruments and accurate feedback, what will it take for congregations to successfully navigate the stormy weather of the 21st century?

Perhaps a 10-point reality check is in order if we are to avoid flying our congregations into the ground:

  1. Does your church ever see itself as an exception to the biblical teaching about balancing love for self with love for others?
  2. Does your church cut corners on truth-telling?
  3. Does your church ever ignore community demographics because they make you uncomfortable?
  4. Has your church ever fired staff members simply due to personal preferences?
  5. Do you ever explain your long history of short ministerial tenures by saying “You can’t find good help anymore”?
  6. Have you ever heard these words said in a church business meeting, “That may be in the Bible, but…”
  7. Have personal agendas ever supplanted spiritual discernment when planning the congregation’s future?
  8. Are you locked into programs or traditions whose relevance and meaning no one can explain?
  9. Do you sometimes feel that your staff lives in constant fear of offending certain families or individuals?
  10.  Does the majority of your financial support come from those older than 65?

If you answer “yes” to more than a couple of those questions, you may need to check your spiritual instruments and quickly find the biblical horizon to make sure your congregation isn’t in a graveyard spiral.

Healthy congregations are constantly monitoring themselves and asking the hard questions that keep them rightly oriented to God’s kingdom agenda. They focus upon organizing themselves to live out the two great commandments and the great commission in their ZIP codes and then in the world.

Using the unique strengths of the congregation’s past, they proactively press those positive traits forward into the future. They are willing to be innovative and think creatively about tomorrow without being held captive by their past.

If you can do these things, then there is every reason to believe that your church’s destiny is not to fly into the ground, but to soar into a dynamic future.

It will require humility and a kingdom agenda and will call for wisdom that is beyond you. It depends upon visionary leaders and will drive you to your knees in prayer.

The effort is worth it because it is the difference between life and death.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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