Local church launches a 50-day testament to the power of positive thought
Almost 14 years ago, just two years after becoming a pastor at Twin Lakes Church (TLC) in Aptos, René Schlaepfer became overwhelmed by anxiety. He couldn’t sleep, was constantly worrying, and, having never heard of anxiety attacks, was freaked by the abrupt racing of his heart.
A series of panic attacks eventually landed him in the hospital, where, unbeknownst to him, the doctor had recently started attending TLC and recognized Schlaepfer as the pastor.
“He came in and said ‘there is nothing wrong with you physically, but you’re having anxiety attacks,’” remembers Schlaepfer. “I immediately started feeling guilty. Here I am a pastor talking about peace and joy and love, and I’m having an anxiety attack.”
The doctor didn’t let on that he knew who his patient was until he gave him two prescriptions: one medicinal and one spiritual. “You need to practice what you preach,” he told the surprised pastor. He recommended that Schlaepfer write positive messages and scripture verses down on 3-by-5 index cards, stick a rubber band around them and keep the stack in his pocket so he could flip through them whenever he had a free moment. Schlaepfer took the suggestion to heart, habitually reading through the cards several times a day and even sleeping with them under his pillow at night.
“Just a few weeks of doing that really changed me,” he says. “It turned me from being an anxiety-ridden pastor, a worrier, into feeling more hopeful about life.”
In the years since, Schlaepfer has watched the global morale reach all-time lows, including the emotional debacle that followed the recent economic crisis. On top of that, he felt that Christians, already surrounded by a cynical world full of depressing headlines, were more negative than ever. Remembering that worn-through stack of index cards, Schlaepfer felt it was about time his 3,400-person congregation got a dose of hope, too.
The stack of scribbled pick-me-ups became the foundation of Schlaepfer’s 2009 fall sermon series, which then became a hope-based curriculum for home groups, which then became a loose-leaf book, and so on, until the “The Hope Experience: 50 Days of Hope” experiment was born. “The Hope Experience” is a full-blown multi-media project: a self-published manual with the pizzazz of a coffee table book—complete with a Library of Congress number and availability on amazon.com—an accompanying DVD, website (hopeexperience.com), and all the social media stops, including a blog, iTunes podcasts, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. The 50 days will wrap up with the church’s annual food drive, but this year they are pledging to raise half a million meals—more than ever before.
The congregation’s 50-day hope immersion began Oct. 4, and thanks to Internet ubiquity, groups as far as London and Venice have joined in. “Viral may be a strong word, but it’s starting to spread,” says Schlaepfer.
Positive-thinking exercises aren’t anything new: Masaru Emoto, a Japanese author and doctor of alternative medicine, became a household name among the new-agey with his scientific research on the impact loving thoughts have on the crystal structure of water. Another famous study on the power of positive thought is the 1993 experiment in Washington D.C. in which 4,000 people practiced Transcendental Meditation hoping it would prevent violent crime in the area. Homicides, rapes and assaults dropped by 48 percent during that time. Santa Cruz efforts in positivism include the Possibility Advocate Society, an organization whose mission it is to combat pessimism by encouraging bold, positive actions and fun group activities.
But Schlaepfer wasn’t aware of these similar-minded efforts when he became determined to launch an experiment in hope at his church. He simply saw the stress levels rising and felt compelled to help.
“A sense of hope in our personal and national future is being drained away,” he writes in the introduction of the Hope Experience book. “Every year, 23 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders—largely expressed in fear about their present and future—and that number is swelling. Even Christians are feeling hopeless: 62 percent of evangelical Christians now say they are worried about the future.”
A few days before TLC embarked on its 50 Days, I hopped down to Aptos to meet the Hope-Bringer himself. Stepping into the church office, I was struck by how quiet it was. A friendly woman at the front desk asked me to wait a moment while the staff wrapped up their morning prayer, and a quick “Amen!” later, I heard the office erupt into a choir of chatter, questions, laughter and ringing phones. “This room was like a library when I started here, but now it’s more like a newsroom,” said Schlaepfer, who had appeared just a moment later and swept me into a tour of the picture-perfect, almost movie-like church campus. The office was brimming with smiling faces and youthful, surfer-dude staff eager to welcome me to the church. We peeked in the main auditorium and checked in with the Food Pantry Ministry, a group of ladies assembling free bags of groceries for the poor. If any group could launch a full-fledged attack on frowns and fretting, this is it.
After settling into chairs in his bright and airy office, Schlaepfer explains that he was largely motivated by the declining reputation of Christians. “I was hearing a lot of angry Christians and political Christianity and so on,” he says. “That [attitude] seems to be taking over the public perception of Christianity and Christians’ own emotions seem to be getting really angry and pessimistic and negative.”
Schlaepfer believes that Christians should be “agents of hope,” not the critics or alarmists he believes they are seen as. Although the Hope Experience program is bibliocentric, he is wishful that people of all walks of life will benefit from the experiment. “Of course I hope that people will eventually come to a point of faith in Christ, but this could be helpful wherever they are on their journey,” he says. “Santa Cruz is a really unique place—there is a secular culture that is open to spirituality, and that makes it a place that is uniquely influential when it comes to these kinds of movements.”
While it’s hard to predict what the results of the experiment will be, Schlaepfer is certain of one thing: That it has reach. “Everything is contagious—your lifestyle is contagious, your attitude it contagious,” he says. “Everybody is spreading something, the question is what are you spreading?
“Panic, paranoia, negativity … they are increasing,” he adds. “I feel like the project is a corrective to that. I hope that it will help people the same way that the stack of 3-by-5 cards helped me.”
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