By Jeff Brumley
New Year’s resolutions are huge in the United States, where 45 percent of Americans commit to them annually.
But fewer take them seriously, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, which tracks the trend. It reported that a whopping 8 percent say they achieve their resolutions.
The goals Americans love to blow off each year include losing weight (the most popular), getting organized, staying fit, quitting smoking and spending more time with family.
Are Christians who make spiritually oriented New Year’s resolutions — to read more scripture, pray more or attend worship more frequently — any more successful at sticking to their goals?
Stephanie McLeskey, the college chaplain at North Carolina’s Mars Hill University, had a pretty good laugh when asked that question.
“We are probably about as successful as the rest,” she said.
Seek fulfilment and connection
As a college chaplain, McLesky is continually exposed to students, friends and family members who share their desires for self-improvement — especially around the holidays.
Ministers of spiritual formation have many of those conversations, too.
All of them generally agree that New Year’s resolutions can helpful if realistically made and carefully planned. But they can also be a big waste of time when driven by the wrong motives.
“I’m not sure resolutions really need to be kept,” McLesky said.
While the New Year is clearly an opportunity for reflection and setting goals, there are also other times throughout the year when that’s true.
“The secular and liturgical calendars give us a lot of opportunities to take stock and see what we would like to change or give up,” she said. “It can be a birthday or a Monday, the beginning of a new semester — and Lent gives us that opportunity as well.”
Whenever resolutions are made, they will be more successful if they result from a period of introspection on true passions, callings and where happiness resides, she said.
Less successful goals are those based on comparisons to other people, whether it’s their physical appearance or how they read the Bible.
“The more successful resolutions tend to come out of … discernment, that questioning of ourselves,” she said. “What can I do to feel more fulfilled, enjoy my life and feel more connected to God?”
Inviting God into the process
It’s also a good idea for individuals to link their efforts at spiritual and self improvement with efforts to discern the missional purpose of their congregations, said Steve Booth, associate pastor for Christian formation at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.
Church members there have been invited to channel their personal efforts at spiritual discernment beginning with Lent, which begins in early February. They will receive a devotional guide that will help them seek God’s calling for them as individuals.
Participants will later share their findings with each other in small-group gatherings, and the results of those meetings will be shared with pastors and staff by the fall. The process will inform a visioning process expected to last three to five years.
The purpose of the visioning process for the church is the same as it is for each member, Booth said.
“It’s to be more attentive and open to spiritual practices, which are those things that God is trying to do in and through us.”
“God is already in the world redeeming creation to himself,” he added. “Our work is to connect and open to him through spiritual practices.”
And whether the goal is made at New Year’s, Lent or another occasion, Booth said it is important to avoid efforts that can have negative outcomes.
“If your experience is that resolutions make you feel guiltier, I would say think about it differently,” he said.
And that means inviting God into the process and handing your resolution — or your transformation and growth — over to him.
“Let God lead you.”
‘Let go of the outcomes’
Helping people get it right has been the focus of Michael McCullar’s annual year-end sermons at Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., where he is the formations pastor.
And this time around he also penned an article sharing encouragement and guidelines for those setting New Year’s resolutions — or life goals, as he prefers to call them — in 2016.
“Our people seem to relish that there is a built-in start-over time,” McCullar told BNG.
He urges those considering life goals to make them spiritual goals, even if they are about losing weight or quitting smoking.
Doing so enables people to pray for added strength and to intentionally involve God in the process.
“We pretend to be dualistic when we aren’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the resolution doesn’t have to do with the spiritual side — just make it a point of renewal and give it to God.”
Another guideline is to be realistic with the calendar and patient with progress. In fact, McCullar said, it’s best to get out of the outcomes business altogether when pursuing a life goal.
“Don’t be thinking about the outcomes,” he said. “Just go day-to-day and ask God to be in it and let the outcomes go.”