How do you help spiritually apathetic people?
This post discusses some of the mistakes pastors make when caring for those who display a lack of emotion or concern about spiritual issues and activities.
But before jumping into the list of mistakes, let’s take a moment to make sure you haven’t mistaken a member’s behavior for apathy when in fact it’s something else. Check to see whether:
- This is a life balance issue: Some people are overwhelmed; maybe they work multiple jobs, or one job that eats into any time they’d have to give to the church. Or perhaps they’re caring for a parent or loved one with a serious illness, and they don’t have any more to give.
- The person is depressed: Just because a person is depressed doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need your shepherding or won’t benefit from your pastoral care. But in addition to following some of the suggestions below, the person may need to consider exercise, improving sleep, changing his eating habits, or even taking medication to get to the point that he feels more motivated to do the things of God.
- The person is an “ecclesiological burn victim”: He may have had a bad experience at another church and now is hesitant to commit at your church. This person may need encouragement and help processing his former experiences before he is ready to get deeply involved at your church.
- You’re doing a good job communicating how people can get involved in church: Some people won’t step onto the dance floor unless they’re invited! Make sure you have a good system in place to communicate the ways people can serve in the church. And make sure to brainstorm and offer diverse ways people can serve.
Now, if you don’t think any of the above issues are the primary cause of a person’s behavior, as his pastor you’ll want to motivate him to move past his apathy and learn to care about spiritual activities. But make sure to avoid the following mistakes.
4 mistakes pastors make when helping the unmotivated
Mistake #1: We don’t find out what they’re passionate about. Sometimes people are apathetic about church because they don’t see how their passions connect with God’s plans and purposes. We expect people to display passion and zeal in a few limited ways, during Sunday morning worship, at Bible study—and in their giving. If the only way we measure spiritual zeal is in those areas, we’ll miss out on the guy who’d be excited to teach local kids how to code as part of an outreach ministry. Or the woman who’d be thrilled to volunteer to help with your church graphic design needs. It may take time for people to exhibit more zeal for prayer, worship, and Bible study. Take what you can get and cultivate what needs to grow. Exploring what a person is passionate about may help you to see that the person is so entangled in worldly pleasures that the things of the Lord are of little interest to him.
Mistake #2: We don’t affirm their apathy. Paul Maxwell has written a helpful article called How God Cares for Those Who Don’t. In it, he discusses apathy as a tendency to take the “that doesn’t matter” stance. However, in this sense, God is apathetic, too. In fact, there are “trivialities” that God tells us He doesn’t care about! So it is OK to be apathetic about some things, as long as they’re the right things. This approach may work especially well with teens who are constantly criticized for being apathetic. Helping them to see that apathy isn’t necessarily wrong may be a way to connect with them.
Mistake #3: We underestimate their apathy. Apathetic people desperately need to read the Word of God. But it doesn’t help to give them an assignment to complete on their own, since they often lack the motivation to do it. Don’t underestimate the strength of the apathetic attitude by expecting someone to achieve results on his own. You’ll need to think of other ways to help him get into the Word. This may mean pairing him up with someone else to do homework assignments, or even devoting a portion of your time to meeting with this person to help him work through a homework exercise. Leading him through a process of self-discovery about what the Scriptures say may spark an interest in him for reading the Bible more.
Community is an antidote for spiritual apathy!
Use community to help people get involved and have others hold them accountable. Others can come alongside them to help. This is a great way to involve people in the church in serving others.
Mistake #4: We nag or joke about their apathy.
“Gary, I missed you at yesterday’s church cleanup. But I know that one of these good, glorious mornings you’ll join us.”
“Gary, we had a special chair set out for you at men’s Bible study. People tried to sit in it and I said noooooo, that’s Gary’s chair. He’ll be here.”
“Gary, if you were half as excited about evangelism as your wife is, we wouldn’t have an empty seat in this place.”
Nagging doesn’t work with kids. And it won’t work with Gary, either. Besides, motivation matters. We don’t want people serving because we’ve made them feel guilty. We want them to serve out of a Spirit-empowered love for Christ. And if a person is truly apathetic about his Christian faith, it’s not an issue that should be joked about.
Why spiritual apathy is a serious issue
First, God commands us to be zealous. This means that we are to be eager to serve the Lord and energetic in the way we go about serving Him. So people need to understand that when it comes to the things of the Lord, one can’t explain away their lack of passion by claiming, “I’m just a laid-back person.” Granted, we need to be careful about having in our minds an acceptable level of zeal. Like any other trait, its expression grows and matures over time.
A second reason apathy is a serious issue is that Paul reminds us believers that God not only gives us the power to do what is right, He also gives us the desire to carry out His agenda. Paul told believers at the church in Philippi to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12–13, emphasis added). This means that the person who is apathetic and claims to be a Christian has to explain why God has uniquely chosen not to produce in him the desire to do what God wants.
And even if someone argues that he doesn’t feel like it’s authentic to do what God asks without feeling motivated to do it, we want to help him understand that ultimately what should motivate obedience isn’t feelings but the fact that Christians have been united to Christ.
That leads us to the third reason apathy is a serious issue: since we have been united to Christ, we share in, or participate in, all aspects of His life, death, and resurrection. Apathy on the part of the Christian toward the things of God denies and resists the implications of this union. The idea of union with Christ undergirds Paul’s argument in Romans 6 as to why Christians can no longer live in sin. And that has application for apathetic Christians. Since we are united to Christ in His resurrection, like Christ, Christians live a new life—and for us that means a life characterized by new priorities—namely, being instruments of righteousness. As such, we offer ourselves to God to be at His disposal to serve His purposes (Rom. 6:13). This is why Christ saved us—so that we would be eager to do good (Titus 2:14).
This is why you may need to consider warning the apathetic person that he may not be a Christian. Apathy is disobedience. God’s Word tells us that He gives us a desire to do His will, and that since we are united to Christ, we must put off old patterns of sinful behavior and offer ourselves to God for His purposes. So a person can’t simultaneously embrace apathy and affirm what God says in His Word about the way believers respond to His instruction. God has done too much in the life of the believer to produce zeal. Zeal may not look the same in each person. But at some level, spiritual passion should be visible in a person’s life.
As mentioned earlier, apathetic people may benefit greatly from Bible study partners or joining a Bible study group. And one topic that may help them put off apathy is a study of the idea of union with Christ. The next time you consider how to help spiritually apathetic people, remember the list of common mistakes above and strive to help them understand the implications of their salvation for their attitude toward the things of God.