Making the Time to Be Scared of More Interesting Things

Make sure to read the other articles in this series on church organization: Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church OrganizationKilling the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making,  Crack Addiction and Church Transformation,  On Neediness, Dating, and Congregational Transformation, and Death of a Salesman . . . Please?

The Chihuahua Brain Revisited

I was listening to Merlin Mann the other day (someone you should really check out if you haven’t yet). He mentioned that his big goal in life right now centers on “making the time to be scared of more interesting things.” I love that.

What does that mean?

We humans–having only recently (at least by the standards of evolutionary time) reached a period where we don’t constantly have to be on the lookout for saber-toothed tigers–still carry around in the oldest parts of our brains a vestigial, reactive fear mechanism. I’ve written about this before, calling it “the chihuahua brain.” Basically, we have highly sensitive threat sensing detectors that are tripped much more frequently than the true danger in our environment warrants. Fight or flight is a helpful response in the face of rampaging mastodons, but not so much when confronting a job interview or a contentious committee meeting.

When this fear manifests itself, it’s like a little siren in our systems that ceaselessly directs attention to the possible fall-out from facing the threat, leaving decision-making in a simple binary format–fight or flight.[1] When we’re afraid, creativity takes a vacation. Your imagination, when your body tells you it’s in danger, extends only to a preoccupation with what you taste like to something larger than you are.

But most of us don’t live in mortal danger. Consequently, our reaction to perceived threats is almost always disproportionate to the actual peril we face to our lives. Having someone annoyed with you (no matter the extensive level of aggravation) is not the same as having someone poised to kill you–yet your limbic system responds much the same way in both instances.

But often our fear is even less immediately threatening to us than another person’s actual annoyance. Much of the time, we spend our lives afraid at the prospect of annoying someone else.

I hope you see the widening separation. Being afraid of annoying someone is at least two removes from being afraid of death or bodily harm. But, the amygdala is a blunt instrument, incapable of the fine granularity necessary for nuanced problem solving–it pumps the bellows of fear indiscriminately.

So, whether you’re about to get hit by a truck or whether you’ve just realized that you are supposed to be at an important meeting, the process your brain goes through to warn you of danger is virtually the same.

Since we have these threat detectors so indiscriminately tuned, it pays us to work to try to reprogram them.[2] But, the process of reprogramming is not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to suggest, following Merlin Mann, that if fear is an inevitable part of our lives, we would do well to find more interesting things to be scared of … in particular, in the church.

Like what, for instance?

Pounding Nails for Jesus

  • Why not be scared of the fact that there are innumerable kinds of great, creative, meaningful, reign-of-God kind of work out there needing to be done, rather than expending inordinate amounts of energy worrying about whether your church organizational model has a good enough flow chart, or about whether to “jazz” up the worship service?

Should we have committees or teams? Should we use hymn books or a projector?

Make a decision and do something. These are tools. They don’t do any work by themselves. If you spend all your time hand-wringing about the tools, you’re not doing ministry. A cheap lousy hammer will pound more nails than an expensive slick hammer that only gets discussed in meetings.


The point?


Talking about hammering isn’t hammering unless it results in actual nails being pounded.


  • Why not be scared of the reality that there are all kinds of opportunities to offer your church as a gift to your community that are being missed, instead of being afraid that if you do let strangers become a part of your church’s life somebody’s going to leave the gym lights on, or cook stinky cabbage in the kitchen and forget to clean it up, or skateboard in the parking lot?

Give your building away. No, I’m not necessarily talking about selling the place and giving the money to the poor (though I can think of plenty of theologically compelling arguments why you might want to do that–like this for instance). I’m talking about seeing your building as a gift that you can share with the community, not as an heirloom to be covered in plastic and stored in mothballs. Church buildings are hammers–if they’re not being used to pound nails, they’re just decorations in a lovely toolshed.


The point?


If your church building is a tool, and if you spend more time polishing and oiling the stuff in your toolbox than actually making things–it is altogether appropriate to wonder whether you are a carpenter or merely a tool collector.


  • Why not be scared of the fact that there are loads of people who don’t want to have anything to do with the church anymore because they’ve been turned off or hurt through the church’s ham-fistedness (or, in many cases worse, the church’s silence) on issues like openness to and affirmation of LGBTQ people, rather than being afraid that if you accept and celebrate gay people, somebody’s going to leave your church and walk down the street to the other church that has a praise team and catchy bumper-stickers?

Love the people Jesus loves. Of course, someone might object here that Jesus loved everyone, but that he had definite ethical standards he expected people to live up to.


My response: Exactly! But it is instructive to remember that Jesus loved those who’d been God’s gatekeepers in the religious arena by repeatedly calling them hypocrites and whitewashed sepulchers (in the case of the Chief Priest, the Elders, and the Pharisees) and chuckle-heads and point-missers (in the case of his own disciples)–while, on the other hand, loving those who’d been dismissed or forgotten by the the religious folks (i.e., the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, tax-collectors, and lepers) with tenderness and compassion. The church needs to figure out how to love the latter without becoming the former. Then, like Jesus, we can worry about doing our jobs as a vocation given us by God, rather than worrying about how many people like us.

Ministry is the work. Loving people is the nail-pounding the church needs to use all its fancy tools to do.


The point?


If you make decisions about justice based more on who you’re going to lose to the church up the road than on who you’re going to make room for, you need to seriously ask yourself whether it’s ministry or maintenance you care most about; which is to say, are you more concerned about pounding nails or forming a carpenter support group?


If you’re going to be scared, why not make time to be scared of more interesting things?

  1. “Playing possum” is another possibility, I suppose. Even so, the range of options is necessarily limited, because the sheer processing power it takes to run all the cognitive options takes both too much time and too many of the body’s resources (blood, oxygen, etc.). By the time you’ve run down the check-list of possibilities, you’re already on the way to being lunch.  ↩
  2. Talk therapy, etc.  ↩
This entry was posted in Christianity, ministry and tagged , , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

6 thoughts on “Making the Time to Be Scared of More Interesting Things

  1. Pingback: Making the Time to Be Scared of More Interesting Things | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. The sin is in placing more value on the fear (discretion, timing, sufficient funds, big enough congregation, new education wing, social/political consequences) of making a choice or making only a few manageable/safe choices than on the fear of not doing enough.

  3. Pingback: Driving the Words Across the Page: The True Work of Ministry | [D]mergent

  4. Pingback: Tingling Masses of Availability: Changing Congregational Expectations | [D]mergent

  5. Pingback: Why the Church Should Be More Like Apple and Less Like Microsoft | [D]mergent

  6. Pingback: The Church Won’t Die (But Our Unhealthy Attachment to Institutions Must) | [D]mergent

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