Apathy vs. Disengagement
Recently I was part of a discussion with a pastor who sent an email to his membership asking where they wanted to grow spiritually. Two days later there were no responses. He felt discouraged and wanted to "pray the apathy" right out of his church. I sympathize with his disappointment and want to see his church grow healthier in every way possible, but I also wonder if there is more happening than just apathy. I wonder if the bigger issue is disengagement. It sounds like they're the same thing, but there is a subtle difference.
Apathy is indifference towards, or a lack of interest or concern for something. Spiritual apathy, then, is an indifference towards, or a lack of interest or concern, in spiritual items. If someone is spiritually apathetic, then faithfully attending weekend services at a church isn't likely to be a priority. Yet, our churches are full of people who faithfully come every week. Apathy towards spirituality is a very real thing (evidenced by the rising number of people in the "none" column when asked to identify a religion.) Logically, it may seem that just telling people about the freedom and joy that are found in Jesus and convincing them to come to church would be the antidote to apathy, but it's not quite that simple.
Jesus taught in John 14:6, ”I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and no man comes to the father except by me." We also read in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. Romans 2:4 tells us that we are led to repentance by God's loving kindness. On our own, we are spiritually dead and can't begin to understand spiritual concepts until we are drawn to them by Christ. Spiritual apathy isn't something a church can overcome on its own, because it requires God pursuing us and drawing us to Him. It requires a supernatural movement of God to cure apathy.
Disengagement, on the other hand, is (perhaps) more sinister. It's a state of knowing or believing something is important, yet consciously choosing not to embrace it in your life. Disengagement in our churches can have many root causes, including not knowing there is something more to engage with, a lack of experience, or worse, evaluating a service, activity, or ministry and deciding there isn't a benefit to deeper engagement. That last cause, I believe, is the problem we're seeing in our churches, because we see a parallel trend in society: people are disengaging from processes that don't improve their lives. We see this in the rise of services like Shipt for having your groceries delivered to your house and also GrubHub, DoorDash, Uber, Lyft, Hulu, Netflix and other services devoted to providing you with the convenience of not having to engage in a process that doesn't add value to your life. This process is even starting to show up in more areas of life, with companies like Honda and Husqvarna releasing automated lawn mowers that cut your grass with little to no intervention on your part. Sure, we want the end results of groceries in the pantry and a nice looking lawn, but if participating in the actual process of achieving those ends doesn't seem to add value to our lives, why keeping doing it?
Unlike grocery shopping or lawn mowing, though, we can’t outsource our spiritual lives. The process of engaging spiritually is the only way to achieve the goal of growing closer to God and in community with other believers. The fact that people keep coming to your weekend services indicates they see value in spirituality, but it's all the other programs designed to help them grow that they don't see as valuable enough yet to engage with.
So, what do we do about this? Knowing that the problem is disengagement, not apathy, how do we create a culture in our churches where people will find what we have to offer valuable enough to choose to engage?
1) Acknowledge Reality – For better or worse (probably worse) we are busier than ever in our modern connected era. That means you're likely only going to get 2-3 hours a week from most people. Would you rather have them sitting in a classroom consuming information, or in someone's living room taking steps towards becoming a deeper disciple of Jesus? You have to choose, because most people won't give you enough time for both. Acknowledging that fact helps shape the decisions you make on what types of programming you offer for people to engage with your church.
2) Offer Less, Not More – When we offer a myriad of opportunities, programs, activities and ministries, it becomes more difficult for people to discern which would be the most valuable to them, and most people would rather make no decision than a wrong decision. Instead of having dozens of ministries (Sunday School, AWANA, Men's, Women's, Seniors, Singles, etc.), simplify your church down to a weekend service (with offerings for children and students, of course) and a weekly home-based small group. This makes it easy for people to know what to do, and you can still offer small groups for just men, or women, or groups for singles, or groups based on social activities, geography or current spiritual needs (financial knowledge, healing from divorce, etc.)
3) Use your programs to improve people's lives, not just give them information. Work stress, lack of family activities, relationship deficits, and overcrowded schedules are all problems you can help them overcome. Here are some examples:
a. Work with veterans groups, schools, or community resource organizations to identify opportunities for families to serve together. Whether it’s volunteering in a soup kitchen or doing lawn care for a veteran who isn't capable of doing it on their own, turn a Saturday morning into a serve-fest that has opportunities for everyone in the family.
b. Instead of a regular Sunday morning service, transform your fellowship hall into an assembly line for meals for 3rd world countries. Give a super quick devotional on the value in serving others and then get to it right on the spot!
c. Give your Small Groups seed money (maybe $100 each) and ideas on how to throw a block party that engages their neighbors. Not only are you helping build relationships, you're also creating opportunities to serve.
4) Don't add to already overcrowded schedules. If we're honest, it's our key volunteers who will probably be our small group leaders or coordinate activities. By reducing the need for volunteers throughout the week, we create space in their lives to participate in what's most important – discipling others.
What are other ways your church can use simplification as a means of increasing engagement?