The church in the West is known for many different, amazing things: its use of technology, its cultural contextualization, its wealth, its innovation, and so on. But it is also known for its failings: pragmatism, focus on charisma over character, and the general apathy of its people, are a few. Like all failings and shortfalls, there is always hope for redemption – especially when we talk about the beloved bride of Christ, the very body that has the promise of full reconciliation and the joy of being on the frontlines of God making all things new.
As we talk about the general apathy the people of God experience towards their churches in the west, we must keep in the forefront of our minds the truth of the Gospel (1 Cor 15:3-4): we are redeemed and made new to live in the gifts of grace we have received in Christ. As you read on, read this as an encouraging and exhorting word rather than one of condemnation.
Though apathy plays out in our lives and within the church for many reasons, I believe there are three major factors that affect our general apathy for the things of God, like: prayer, Bible study, community life, and involvement in our local churches (Sunday service attendance and service within the body).
The first is busyness. Never in the history of humankind have we been seemingly busier and more pressured to get things going faster, better, and stronger. Technology keeps us hyper-connected and always on the hook for what we do, where we spend our time, and how effective we are every minute of every day. Tied into this is the sad side-effect that anything that takes a considerable amount of time without an immediate benefit, like attending church, is looked at with great suspicion. An assumption is made that anything we cannot see the immediate benefits from cannot be good. But that is where the lie is. Being a part of a local church is a slow-moving, heart-changing work in which God walks with us (Col 2:6), transforming us into his image (2 Cor 3:18). Often, we become apathetic towards church because it is not returning the quick results we are accustomed to.
The second factor is comfort. We live busy lives, yes, but often our lives are busy not so we can love the things God loves, or to pour ourselves out in service of Christ (Phil 2:17), but so we can afford or find more comfort in our standard of living. We value personal comfort more than any generation before us. It is what we spend our money on, our time desiring, and for many of us, it is our goal. A bigger house, nicer car, eating out more often, a bigger retirement savings account, whatever it might be, our desire for comfort leads us to apathy towards our churches because we see them as a place where we should be catered to. If our needs are not fully met, if our preferences aren’t fulfilled, if we are made to feel a little less than served perfectly, why attend church? Even more so, why be a part of serving and loving Jesus’ bride? We are not being made comfortable, so what good can come from it anyway? Comfort leads to apathy and when apathetic, we stay in our cozy, locked away houses and miss the great gifts of God waiting for us in our local churches (Acts 2:42-47).
The third factor is comparison. In the hustle-bustle and marketing savvy world we live in, it is the biggest, fastest, catchiest, and best-looking products that get our attention, our time, and our money. This culture has become commonplace in most western churches. There isn’t anything wrong with letting people know what is happening at your church, but when pragmatism of advertising and marketing is the tool that is leveraged within the church and normal, faithful, and kind-of-boring churches are looked down upon, we might have missed something important about the work God does in his people (Eph 4:17-20).
This attitude might not initially feel like apathy, but it is driven by the same reality. We become apathetic towards our churches that have cared for, loved on, and preached faithfully to us over many years because they don’t have a laser show or a fog machine. They don’t have every program so they mustn’t be trying hard enough, or loving Jesus enough to want to reach everyone. Our apathy towards faithfulness is shown when we compare good churches (as the New Testament would measure them) with flashy churches, and are seduced by show rather than substance. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible for a church to have style while being faithful to Scripture, but it’s people abandoning their church without the bells and whistles for one that has them, specifically for the bells and whistles, that’s the issue.
Where do we go from here? What happens now that we’ve examined our own sinful approaches to the bride of Jesus? After being shown we don’t love what God loves? After seeing that we, who are meant to be “not of this world” (John 18:36), are far more a part of it than not?
We go to the truth of the Gospel. We reflect that through Jesus Christ’s victory on the cross (1 Cor 15:57), he takes the lukewarm, the apathetic, those who are deceived by the world and her charms, and makes a new person in the place of the old (2 Cor 5:17). One with new desires. Not a perfect person, but one who, indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God (1 John 4:13), is now able and free to grow in Christlikeness, to love what Jesus loves, to care for what Jesus cares for, and is able to rightly see the love of the local church as the logical outflow of love for God (Eph 5:25).
A Real Hope
Friends, apathy will not have the final say in the life of the Church because the Spirit of God indwells those who are asleep to the heavenly joys and realities of being invested, sold out for, and plugged into the local church. But those of us who are awake to this, might we take heed of the encouragement we find in Hebrews 10:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:23-25
There is a day coming where our faith will be made sight (2 Cor 5:7) and where our hope will take on a physicality we will experience (Rev 21:1-4). As that day draws near, might we rouse those who have fallen into apathy and call them to the real, powerful, sometimes messy life God has for us in the local church.
Quite simply, we will find the cure for apathy in the church in the Faithful One whose promises do not waiver.
I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. – Matthew 16:18