Unlike many needs pastors face in ministry, people’s apathy or lack of commitment seems like something outside of a pastor’s control to change. After all, you can’t make people care. Among evangelicals, only 49% read “at least a bit” of the Bible daily, and among Protestant churchgoers, on average, 40% engage with Scripture once a week or less. These statistics point to a disconnect between what the people in our pews profess to value and what their actions reveal they value.
So, what’s a pastor to do? How do we address apathy among God’s people?
The Man in the Mirror
The first step is to practice empathy. We need to look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether we are as passionate as we ought to be. For many of us, the answer will be no. In fact, it may be the apathy we find in the church is a mirror image of the apathy in our own hearts. We have to see that apathy is not only a “they” problem.
For example, as a theology professor, when I stand before 50 students to teach about the resurrection and I’m more concerned about whether my favorite sports team won, any apathy in the room is certainly not a “they” problem.
Some of our people may struggle with apathy in ways we don’t. Theirs may be deeper, more pervasive, or more prolonged. Yet, the experience itself is not unique to them. Recognizing this helps rightly orient us toward our congregations. From this posture, we can try to address the very real problem of apathy.
Numbed by Triviality
There are a number of reasons people feel less than enthusiastic about the things of God. Trying to track down every conceivable cause of apathy is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, we can at least try to identify a few potential reasons for our people’s malaise.
One possible and perhaps obvious reason is “familiarity breeds contempt.” We can become “blah” to the things we hear about week after week, even when those things are the most important things.
But I’m convinced in our information, internet, smartphone age, we’re increasingly prone to becoming numb by overexposure to trivial things. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote, “The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.” We’re constantly being beckoned to care about one nonsensical thing after another. Every celebrity tweet, opinion piece, or viral video is news. Everything is awesome, as the song goes—at least we’re led to feel that way.
In one of my favorite standup routines, a comedienne shares how she often feels sorry for newscasters who have to flit back and forth between stories of tragedy and feel-good pieces: “There were no survivors . . . And next, which candy bar helps you lose weight . . . Still to come, there’s an asteroid heading towards earth . . . But first, where to find the cheesiest pizza in town!”
We, like newscasters, are pulled back and forth between the meaningful and the trivial. But when everything is awesome, what are we really supposed to care about? Everything and nothing. The problem with making everything important is that everything becomes equally important. It becomes harder and harder to feel the magnitude of something that really is a big deal. And so, eventually, we stop caring about everything. We are numbed by triviality.
As Christians, we must cling to the truth that God’s grace covers even those who are numb to the things He cares about. God is more committed to helping us live with zeal than we ourselves are. We need to preach that to ourselves and others.
However, God’s grace is not a license to be lazy toward our indifference. The apostle Paul writes, “[God’s] grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10, CSB). God’s grace to Paul wasn’t a free pass to merely bask in God’s love and do nothing. Instead, Paul says grace motivated and empowered him to work harder. And when it comes to apathy, there’s real work to be done to fight the inertia of indifference.
Triviality numbs us because it makes everything equally meaningless. Many of us have lost a sense of meaning in our lives. We feel like we’re free-floating from one event to another, one responsibility to the next, one task after another. Everything feels scattered, and nothing feels cohesive. Apathy thrives in this environment. So, one way we fight against it is to cultivate meaning in our lives. Let me offer two practices that may help pastors and their people.
1. Get clear on your convictions and values.
What are some things you’re certain about regarding your faith, the world, and the Lord? What are the non-negotiables of your life? What would you like said about you at your funeral? How would you like to be remembered? Make a list of the things you won’t budge on regarding how you want your life to be oriented. Revisit that list periodically. Sometimes a loss of meaning in our lives is just that—a loss. We can reclaim our sense of meaning by reminding ourselves who we are, what we value, and what we want our lives to be characterized by. If you’re unsure about your convictions, take your uncertainty to the Lord in prayer.
2. Practice silence.
Jesus made ita regular practice to get away for times of solitude and prayer (Matthew 14:13, 23; Luke 4:1–2; 5:16; 6:12). These were necessary to help prepare him for difficult times ahead, to grieve, and to pray deeply. Author Cal Newport observes our society suffers from “solitude deprivation.” Yet, we need the space that silence and solitude provide so we can process our thoughts, feelings, values, and mission. We need planned times of extended solitude (maybe 24 hours) where we get away somewhere off the grid. We may also try to inject moments of silence into our everyday lives. Perhaps we choose to not listen to music or a podcast on our 15-minute drive to work. Small choices like these can help free our minds to think about what really matters.