You are currently viewing Why Discipleship Must Target Apathy

Why Discipleship Must Target Apathy

Considering its title, the book The Great Dechurching maintains a surprisingly optimistic tone. The hopefulness of the authors, Jim Davis and Michael Graham, stems from the fact that, of the 40 million people who’ve left church over the last 25 years, a majority (51 percent) think they’ll one day return.

Those 51 percent are the “casual” dechurchers—those who left because of extenuating life circumstances. (Of those who belonged to evangelical churches, 22 percent left because they moved to a new community, 16 percent because attending church was “inconvenient,” and 15 percent because the pandemic “got [them] out of the habit.” So altogether, 53 percent of once-committed evangelical attendees stopped going for mundane reasons.)

While the casually dechurched may signal hope for a renewed evangelical future, they also cast an indictment on her past.

In his 1973 book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, the lifelong liberal mainliner Dean Kelley argued that conservative churches outgrow liberal ones because they offer “large-scale” meanings for people. Large-scale meanings guide your life and strengthen you in the face of death. Conservative churches proclaimed cosmic truths that enabled people to face suffering with confidence and hope.

But many mainline churches, embarrassed by Christianity’s supernaturalism, took core doctrines that provide consolation (such as the resurrection) and replaced them with generic moralism and exhortations to justice. According to Kelley, this was a fateful shift—for one could now pursue a “moral life” outside the church doors. With little to distinguish the church’s message from the surrounding culture, people yawned and eventually left.

Religious communities are resilient, Kelley discovered, to the degree they empower congregants to live guided by a “cosmic purpose” that isn’t exportable outside the community.

With little to distinguish the church’s message from the surrounding culture, people yawned and eventually left.

Combine Kelley’s insights with The Great Dechurching, and one must wonder whether American evangelical churches are supplying the large-scale meanings people can’t find anywhere else. The casually dechurched aren’t rejecting Jesus because they desire an alternative truth to guide their lives; in that sense, they’re not rejecting him at all. They’re just apathetic.

Spiritual Sickness of Our Age: Apathy

In Overcoming Apathy, Uche Anizor argues modern people are “captivated by things we don’t really care about and are lukewarm to things that, in our hearts of hearts, mean the most to us.” Apathy doesn’t necessarily manifest as all-day moping around. Anizor quotes the monastic John Cassian, saying apathy can be a “restlessness that entices us to pursue everything but our most important duties.”

To illustrate our culture’s affinity for apathy, Anizor directs our attention to the television show Seinfeld. Although he was a fan of the ’90s sitcom, he suggests it normalized “indifference toward big, meaningful things (such as marriage, family, religion, social concern, even the Holocaust) and a fixation on life’s daily minutia (such as getting a good parking spot, the annoyance of ‘close talkers,’ and maintaining one’s high score in Frogger).” He goes on, “We are citizens of a Seinfeldian society, where only inconsequential things matter.”

In a Seinfeldian society, attention is consumed by entertainment instead of substance. Increasingly unable to prioritize the meaningful over the mundane, we soon cannot discern the difference. Borrowing Kelley’s language, apathetic cultures form citizens who aren’t animated by any large-scale meanings. Travel soccer, golf, and Frogger become our preoccupations, while the Lord Almighty becomes our sideshow.

So as spiritual apathy invades the church, church leaders must ask whether our discipleship practices are inoculating people from the surrounding toxins of meaninglessness. That millions have stopped attending altogether suggests we have room to grow.

Cure: Worship

So what can we do? The answer isn’t merely more instruction. According to Davis and Graham’s research, dechurched evangelicals possess a much better understanding of orthodoxy than their Catholic or mainline dechurched counterparts. Dechurched evangelicals’ beliefs are almost identical to evangelicals who still attend church. This suggests doctrine isn’t the main thing dechurched evangelicals lack. The main problem is indifference.

In other words, apathy emerges less from lack of knowledge than from lack of conviction about what you know to be true.

In Preaching, Tim Keller references a young girl he counseled in his early pastorate in rural Virginia. She was spiritually depressed, and he tried to encourage her by reminding her of all Christ had done for her—how he’d forgiven her, bought her with his blood, and confirmed her status as a child of God. “Yes,” she replied, “I know Jesus loves me, he saved me, and he’s going to take me to heaven—but what good is it when no boy at school will even look at you?”

Apathy emerges less from lack of knowledge than from lack of conviction about what you know to be true.

Keller described her spiritual plight: “The attention (or lack of it) of a cute boy at school was far more consoling, energizing, and foundational for her joy and self-worth than the love of Christ.”

What that girl was missing was a sense-appreciation for how the gospel makes her beautiful in God’s sight. Like all of us, she must connect the doctrines of her faith to the longings of her heart. And this connection occurs through worship. In worship—Sunday morning church, midweek small group, everyday devotions—we ponder the truth of our beliefs and drill them down into our hearts. While reclaiming the casually dechurched requires opening the “front door” to the disaffected in our midst, shoring up the “back door” requires focusing our lives on the Holy One in our midst.

We shouldn’t lower the bar—like the mainline church did in the 20th century—to make Christianity more palatable. Rather, reversing the dechurching trend will require doubling down on counterformative practices that reinvigorate hearts deadened by our culture of apathy. The gospel must increase and become more demanding, even as it becomes more satisfying. Only large-scale meanings will do.

As our King soberly said, whoever’s unwilling to sacrifice “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be [his] disciple” (Luke 14:26, NIV).


Leave a Reply