The Poshlost Problem: Rural Communities, Small Churches, Mid-Major Basketball, and the Death of Hope

Poshlost.

No, I didn’t just curse at you in Klingon. Though sometimes, when I see poshlost, I feel like cursing.

Rural communities are painfully aware of their limits. They will never be home to a major league baseball team. They will never be a major tourist destination, or house a major university. They will never get on the news until something really bad happens. They have none of the built-in advantages that big cities enjoy – large populations, tax bases, disposable incomes, school systems, media outlets, political clout. Rural communities are not the sorts of places politicians come to court votes, or where families move to get jobs or go to school. But they are what they are, and for the most part people are fine with that. Poshlost.

College basketball is filled with programs that are painfully aware of their limits. They will never have their own television network or have major cable outlets bidding for their media rights. They will never have top teams angling for the chance to get on their schedules. And since the best players want to play on the best teams against the best competition with the highest levels of exposure, these lesser-known teams have significant difficulty recruiting top players. And since the ability of the players determines the limits on how successful a program can be, smaller programs are limited. They are what they are, and they learn to live with that. Poshlost.

America is filled with small, rural churches that are painfully aware of their limits. They exist in places that don’t see a lot of new people moving in and where the young people who grow up there often have to look elsewhere for jobs. Because they have so few members, they are limited in the services they can offer that might attract new members. And because in rural life religion and family are so closely intertwined, church growth tends to track more with population than church initiatives. They are what they are, and rather than aspire to be different they learn to live within their limits. Poshlost.

But real poshlost is more than just living within one’s own means, accepting and trying to make the best of one’s limited circumstances. Poshlost is much more sinister than that.

You see, what often happens in rural communities, mid-major basketball programs, and small churches, is when they become aware of their limits, they redefine their standards. And instead of trying to reach the limit of their potential and perhaps push that limit a little bit higher, they become poshlost. The standard becomes lower. They reach a state of self-satisfied mediocrity, where the desire is no longer to make the best of their circumstances, but to find satisfaction in the fact that they can be “good enough to get by” indefinitely.

Poshlost is a Russian word that doesn’t translate directly into English, but captures the spirit of a person who has settled for less than the best because pursuit of excellence will require fundamental change. Reaching and expanding the limits would require making larger investments, listening to new voices, and possibly even finding new leaders willing to push the limits rather than protect the status quo.

And to be fair, there are times when the cost of marginal improvement outweighs the benefit gained. AT&T, for instance, has decided that broadband for everybody isn’t cost effective. If you live in a place with fewer than ten potential customers per mile, they can’t recoup their investment in $10 per foot fiber optic cable, so 97% coverage will have to suffice.

But given the choice between risky ambition and contented mediocrity, poshlost resists change and seeks to drive out its catalysts. Leaders who find themselves facing poshlost are either actively pushed away, or more likely endured until he becomes frustrated with the lack of improvement and leaves. Those who would seek to be influential in a poshlost environment find that the willingness of such a community to follow them will be determined by how well the influencer preserves the status quo, and how few demands and expectations the leader places on his poshlost followers.

The catch is, the poshlost mindset – especially when found in churches – is contrary to the Scriptural teaching on the nature of the future.

The fate of the one-talent man in the Parable of the Talents demonstrates that no matter how limited our circumstances might be, our Master expects us to make them better – even if only marginally so. When predicting the end of miraculous manifestations of the Spirit, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that three will remain, and one of those is hope.

This is not to say that life is a never-ending ascension There will be upswings and there will be downturns. Along the way there will be pleasure and there will be suffering. But no matter how bumpy the ride gets, or how much the dips and drops hurt, we must never succumb to the temptation to settle. God’s will for His people is that they “grow in grace and knowledge.”

And growth, by definition, is change for the better.

May we never find ourselves so steadfast in our mediocrity, our poshlost, that growth is stunted and hope is lost.

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