Dealing with Apathy in the Church
Leading Action in Apathy
The “glory” days… The church used to be the social center of life. It was where people met their best friends. It was where business networking occurred. Church gatherings around activities, sports, and fellowship filled calendars. Women’s groups began as a way to do hands-on mission outreach. Every Sunday, the pews were filled with men, women, and children, and the offering plates were full as well. It was easy to talk about your church and what was happening there. There was activity and the data looked good. Oh… And people were taught about God through Bible studies, Sunday school, and sermons. They knew the activities expected from a good “Christian” and tried to live them out in the rest of their lives.
Don’t fool yourselves into thinking there wasn’t apathy about personal faith because there was. People knew how to go through the motions then as they do now. The activities and relationships are what drew people to church. Of course there was a remnant of people who knew God on a personal level—the church couldn’t have survived this past 2,000 years without that faithful remnant!
Fast forward 50 years. The church is no longer the social center of life for many families. Best friends are met in sports clubs and dance classes—and for the parents, on the benches and sidelines while supporting our children. There is a myriad of choices available for business networking, not to mention the ease of using the web and social media to enhance our business influence. In many cases, both spouses are employed outside the home, cutting down on the amount of time we have at church for fellowship groups and doing mission outreach in a hands-on fashion. Our calendars are still full— now the activity just isn’t always at the church.
People are still being taught about God through Bible studies, an occasional Sunday school class—although many times it is a midweek program instead—and there are still sermons, but not just on Sunday mornings. Sermons come to us through TV, radio, podcasts, websites, and blogs. In some ways, the ability to learn about God is more accessible than ever before. Worship can occur in a variety of places and formats. The faithful remnant remains, as does apathy—but today apathy seems more apparent.
God and I have a constant conversation about apathy in the church. I scream out in frustration about how I am simply hitting my head against the wall because people are afraid to talk about their faith, even to their children. They don’t know enough about God, they say, to feel comfortable talking with their families, loved ones, or even their friends. The church (the building and the people) should be a safe place to talk about and learn about God, but that is not always the case.
The church provides opportunities, but, as they say, “nobody” shows up. Events are often not well attended. Worship is often not well attended. Expectations about how we should behave as a Christian are still there, but only a few people could tell you where to find a story in the Bible—and some folks couldn’t tell you if a story they heard was from the Bible or not. Let’s face it… in the church, there’s a lot of biblical illiteracy. The apathy part that frustrates me so much is that many people don’t want to do anything about it. They talk about making improvements and taking action to change the situation, but nothing happens. After all, it is much easier to stick our heads in the proverbial sand and live our lives in our comfort zones. It is usually about this time that I realize God has been dealing with apathy a lot longer than I have. If God can still love people and believe in the church despite the apathy, then I can, too.
The church isn’t dying. The remnant survives. The church simply doesn’t look the same as it has in the past.
What are a couple of things that have remained a constant in the lives of people? Apathy and the desire to be in relationship with others. We can count on both of those like we can count on new lives and death. The real questions we must ask ourselves are (1) how are we equipping people and putting a damper on apathy and (2) how are we developing relationships? If we want apathy to become a shadow of its current self, we must begin by removing it from our own lives. You can’t lead others until you lead yourself.
Model the expected actions/behavior.
Be clear about expectations and hold each other accountable. Be confident in what you believe and live it.
Always be willing to learn and adjust your beliefs when necessary. Your values are different from your beliefs. As a fundamental part of your core, your values won’t change. I would never ask someone to give up or change his or her values.
Never assume the people know what they believe about God. Help them figure out what they believe—and no, we can’t tell them what to believe. We must coach and encourage and equip. Provide the appropriate resources and teach as though their salvation depends on it. (Oh wait… it does!)
Create a safe environment for people to talk about what they believe. It can’t be about right answers or wrong answers. It’s about the journey of discovery. For something to take a lasting hold in our lives, we must claim it as our own.
Most importantly, create an environment where relationships can be developed.
When we think about what God wants from his creation at the most basic level, it is about relationships. God wants us to be in relationship with Him/Her. God wants us to be in relationship with each other. Period.
We can get hung up on the theology and interpretation of religion—wars, feuds, and arguments begin over differences in beliefs. It’s in the knowing each other at a deeper level that allows a face and a personality to become a real, living person—or a real, living God. Our relationships must become more important than our personal agendas.
We build relationships best when we intentionally focus on building them and allowing ourselves, and others, to be vulnerable—without judgment—so that all people feel heard, feel significant. We live in a time where the average person is afraid or unwilling to put forth the effort to stand up for what they believe, so that those with extreme passion or voice are often the only voices heard. It’s much easier to walk away from conflicts and become members elsewhere, or to just stop showing up at “church” altogether, than to be uncomfortable.
Dealing with apathy in the church… The answer is simple and straightforward. Eliminate apathy from your own life and begin intentionally developing your relationships with God and other people. Simple; not easy. From my experience, it is a lifelong process.
The journey is easier when you have someone asking you the tough questions and holding you accountable to yourself. That’s what Leadership Harbor is all about. Learning and growing in the safety of the Harbor, and then setting sail in that big, beautiful world! Contact us to talk about creating an action plan for yourself and/or your church.