Getting away from pendulum thinking

Our culture is dominated by pendulum thinking.

We have a tendency to think in extremes. There’s something in our cultural make-up which makes it difficult to think about minor corrections as we default to massive swings.

It’s “either or” thinking… and it drives me mad.

It’s been going on for a while. In fact, it is engrained in Western thinking.

An Example

Nearly a decade ago, I worked at an Evangelical Free Church in Northern California. Part of the job offer was that I would pursue ordination within the denomination. As I began the steps in that process I was assigned to read a series of books about the denominations history. I was shocked to discover that deeply engrained in the history of the denomination was a protest mentality from the fringes of the protestant reformation. The very word “free” in the denominations name was a protest against Scandinavian Lutheranism. They were free from Lutheranism! The Lutherans had a hierarchical structure, churches were interdependent and structured into synods. In response, the E-Free world had a lack of hierarchy. The Evangelical Free Church of America won’t even call themselves a denomination. They are a group of  autonomous bodies tied together by historical culture and common beliefs. (Er, that’s what a denomination is, isn’t it?) Lutherans had ornate churches so E-Free churches tried to make their buildings stark white and plain in protest. Lutheran churches had a problem with pastoral abuses so E-Free pastors have virtually no power in their congregations. On and on... so much of what made the Evangelical Free Church distinct was actually pendulum swings from their past life in Scandinavia. I’d set those books down and think, “Only by God’s grace could such a rebellious attitude reach lost people.

More Examples

  • A church replaces a highly relational pastor with one who prefers books to people.
  • A company used to sell gas guzzlers, but now they just sell hybrids.
  • A country goes from electing a very conservative president to a very liberal one.
  • A person retires, having lived in Cleveland their whole life, and moves to Costa Rica, sight unseen, for retirement.
  • A family hates pets their whole life and on a whim they buy 3 dogs.

Pendulum thinking is interesting, isn’t it? It assumes that the only way to change is to go from one extreme to another! We don’t live in a culture of nuanced differentiation– we live in one filled with extremes.

In all likelihood the change you are looking for, the growth in your organization, the new product that will balance your budget, the educational principle that will revolutionize your classroom, and even the happiness you seek is not going to be found in the extremes.

One pendulum swing just leads to another.

What you are probably looking for is just a little bit to the left or the right.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

4 comments

  1. It is kind of like the “grass is greener” mindset. All you want to do is hop the fence and run away from your pasture cause their’s is greener. Swinging from A to B is what we want because A no longer seems to be as green as B.
    Thanks

  2. One of the interesting things that I’ve observed about pendulum shifts is that often times there is no forethought into the implications of those shifts. I was taking a course called “Revivals and Revivalism in American History” a few months ago as a part of my Master’s program. Many of the initial phases of the First Great Awakening were simply a reaction, a swing in the opposite direct to what was happening in the church-at-large during that time. Surely if those early men had known that they were creating, over time, the myth of a “personal relationship with Jesus”, and all that entails, they wouldn’t have done it…or would they?

    I believe that this is commonly called “The Law of Unintended Consequences.”

    Great post.

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