Our Biggest Problem is Apathy...

But Who Cares?

I’ve been meaning to write this article for a while now, but it just never seemed to be the right time to begin it. So many other things had cropped up that demanded immediate attention that there just never seemed to be the time or energy to get into it. I was either distracted with many other things or even when I wanted to sit down and write it, I was too tired to even think clearly enough to start an article on Apathy. Besides, someone else could have written this article, but no one else was willing. So, I knew I’d have to get back to it, it was just a question of when and how. If you have never felt that way or never thought similar words in your head or heard them come out of your mouth, this article is not for you. On the other hand, if you’ve not only heard them from yourself, but from your family, your pastor, your congregation, your coworkers, etcetera, read on.

Apathy is not so much a physical issue, nor is it merely a symptom of boredom, as it is a problem within our spirit. It is a collapse of the will to vigorously press forward under the burdens of contrary forces and constant repetition of tasks until we either no longer care about activities or their outcomes, or we mechanically go through the motions in a state of sleepwalking where we perform the tasks necessary but are not really consciously involved as we ought to be. What can easily be a danger in the workplace has become a subtle poison in the work of the Lord and the life of the local Church.

Consider, if you will, the pastor who has conceded the vigor of the ministry for a state of apathy. He preaches a good textual sermon, but his heart is not in it. He has done all the homework, all the academic preparation, as he has always done before for many years, but his passion for the Word has grown stale and his empathy towards the people has become paternal and more distant than before. Other duties and roles have encroached on his time sufficiently that preaching is no longer the priority or the pleasure it once was, and his own high standards for what he preaches have been surrendered for a pragmatism of lesser expectations. He demands less of himself as do his people.

This lapse in spirit is mirrored in the congregations that suffer the same malaise. There are those for whom attending church is only a duty to be performed. It matters less what songs are sung. It matters somewhat what the Pastor preaches, so long as he doesn’t preach too long or probe too deeply. They have reached a comfort level where attending Sunday morning is enough to ease the conscience but not so much as to disturb the heart. Their fellowship with others tends more towards their social calendar than with any strangers who appear in the services. Their social network is growing more around interests shared outside of the church than those within. Apathy even touches those who have faithfully served in our churches over the years.

I remember when I first began teaching Science in a public school. There was a curriculum to develop, a weekly schedule of what material had to be covered, so that we completed the whole curriculum between September and June. The first year was a real challenge to stay ahead of the students. There was extensive preparation outside of class that was necessary, not only for the classroom but also for the laboratory. The continuous research, the gathering of supplemental materials, the organization of resources was a constant challenge, but you see I had the zeal of a new teacher determined to do the best job possible. The next year was easier. I had carefully filed away all my supplemental notes and handouts; the laboratory procedures were “cookbooked” from the previous year, and it became progressively easier each consecutive year, until I could almost teach it in my sleep. You really don’t want to be working with the power of electricity or explosive chemicals in your sleep. Consider however, whether we approach our service to the Lord with an excitement sustained since we first had the privilege to serve Him or we slumber through uninspiring to those we teach. It is not about the tasks we perform, be they invigorating or tedious and repetitive. Neither is it just the subject content, though we are highly privileged to serve the Lord by teaching His Word. Nor is it that the people whom we serve have become more difficult to lead. Apathy is cultivated over time in a heart that has lost its first love for Christ and forsaken His Lordship over their lives.

Symptoms like these may well be but a mere reflection of the apathy found within our homes and families. Husbands and wives pass each other like ships in the night and likewise parents and children in homes where few family members even eat meals together. The notes that we used to leave on the refrigerator have been replaced by the technology of text messages, instant messages and email; but we still share less time in the same space, with less meaningful conversation, than ever before. Even the occasional sharing of space has been reduced to mutually staring at the TV in rapt silence or each one tuned into his own computer screen in various places throughout the house. It’s not that we’re angry or dislike each other, we just don’t care about one another or pay as much attention as we should.

Some who recognize the symptoms suggest that a solution to apathy and caring less is for us to make changes, particularly in how we do church. The drive towards contemporizing our music, worship and preaching is built upon the notion that apathy is really a synonym for boredom and the answer to boredom is excitement. Such an answer, however, is simplistic at best. First, there is the serious problem of making changes for change’s sake. Right now, the candidates in the race for president of the United States are extolling the vague promise of change, but it is in an empty spirit of “give us anything but what we have now.” Never mind what changes are proposed, nor the reality that they might make our circumstances worse than they seem to be now. The expression “out of the frying pan and into the fire” is hardly new, but it reminds us that different isn’t always better and there can be worse things to avoid at all costs.

This drive for change also begs the question about what successful changes we have experienced in recent years, such as in the contemporizing of our homes and families. The only reason some have come to accept contemporary changes in our churches is that we have already accepted changes towards the worldly in our homes long before. Yet, it would seem for all the technological advances, for all the hours of talk on cell phones and all the social changes we have adopted from a godless society in recent years, there would be some evidence that with more people talking and more exciting activities going on that apathy has been overcome. The evidence, especially that exhibited by our people in our churches, belies such wishful thinking. There seems to be more, not less apathy, especially among our young people, whether in school, church or at home. Interestingly, similar results were found recently by those who pioneered doing church differently.

When Willow Creek Community Church released its self study of the effectiveness of their programs under their philosophy of a changed ministry (their report was published in Reveal: Where Are You? By Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson), they were shocked to learn that while they had a large following of people, few of them had matured into real disciples despite all the millions of dollars spent by them to introduce change. In other words, though many professed Christ as Savior under their many ministries, their methods were no better an antidote to spiritual apathy than traditional methods and ministries. Lest you think that will bring a revival of real Biblical preaching and the abandonment of “seven-eleven” music and religious entertainment, rest assured that they will merely go further to change the changes some more. Apathy, spiritual malaise, is a problem that runs deeper than the packaging of Christianity. The real challenge, therefore, is how to maintain or restore our zeal for the things of the Lord without compromising either our method or message.

Much has been written about overcoming the problems of apathy, and there are several Scripture passages that relate to the problem and its symptoms. For example, we should recognize that attitudes, like a critical spirit, indulging in gossip or slander, becoming a divider of God’s people, are all soundly condemned in God’s Word; but do we realize that these are also some of the ways apathy can rear its ugly head in a local church? The focus of apathetic people is centered upon themselves. Their observations about what other people do, fail to do or might/might not be doing are all about how the words and actions of others affect them. Apathy has no time for the tender heart of a selfless servant. Instead you will find a stony heart that is waiting to be served by others. They will gladly sit in impatient judgment of everyone but themselves. Such people can undermine the work of the Lord in any church because they have moved from being the problem-solvers and solution-finders to becoming part of the problem and expecting everyone else to find the solution. There is this myopic sense of having done so much for so long, presumably without receiving anything back in return, that it is now someone else’s problem. The uncommitted are no longer just the strangers and visitors. They are a growing number of core people who have decided they’ve done enough. Sadly, people like this fail to realize how far they have slipped spiritually. They have lost sight of their Savior and the fact that their own purpose in life must center about Him and not themselves.

The battlefronts to overcome apathy are many, but they are not unknown. We can begin with a culture that is making its people ever more passive. The “cradle-to-grave” promises of government have cultivated this passive mindset now for many years. There is also the cult of laziness that has grown along with the passivity. But these are still symptoms, effects, and not the real causes. Speaking of believers and our churches, apathy takes root where we are unwilling to grow spiritually. Being committed to a ministry, whether by our service, time, talent, resources has become passé despite the clear teaching of Scripture. The real root of this, however, is our regard for the Lord Jesus Christ.

For many years I have enjoyed taking pictures of people and events, recording for posterity moments in time to be remembered for years to come. Of all our human frailties our memories are one of the weakest. While it may be beneficial to forget some of the uglier events in our lives, forgetfulness can also rob us of the foundations for the present and future. To have a sense of direction of where we are going, we must first establish where we are and where we have been. When Donna assembled all our photographs into chronological albums (15 of them), they became a history of our family and other events. Our sons would occasionally bring their dates home and eat, watch some TV or play games, but eventually they would pull out the albums. Turning page after page, album after album, there was a fascination of events forgotten but now refreshed, of times and places that reminded us of special occasions when we did so many special things together. The Scriptures warn us against lukewarmness and press us to encourage one another in our faith and in the work of the Lord. God’s Word honestly notes the problems of physical and mental weariness that significantly contribute to apathy, and laziness is soundly condemned. But more than many of these weaknesses, the lapse of memory, especially about spiritual things, has brought many to a “care less” state of mind.

The Lord left us two ordinances, two pictures if you will, that we were commanded to follow perpetually until His return—Believer’s Baptism and the Lord’s Table. Both of them remind us of who we are, whence we have come and to Whom we belong. The command for Believer’s Baptism is an integral part of our Lord’s Great Commission. In Believer’s Baptism there is the confession of our faith in Christ as personal Savior and there is our public identification with Him in His death, burial and resurrection. Being baptized agrees perfectly with the other Scriptures that state we are no longer our own, having been bought with a price, that call us to glorify the Lord with all that we are and have. The point is, the self-indulgence of apathy cannot honestly coexist with being identified with Christ and living for the glory of God. A “care less” spirit misrepresents our relationship with Christ and undermines the power of the Gospel message we are to take to the world. The Lordship and Example of Christ must be cast aside if we would rather be ministered unto than minister. When complacency infected the church at Jerusalem, it was subjected to persecution so fierce that they were driven out of Jerusalem to carry the Gospel to other people. Was it not because they allowed the comfort of hearing the Apostles preach every Sunday to hinder their own service and Gospel outreach?

Likewise, the Lord instructed us to come to His Table “in remembrance of me.” The Apostle Paul does not hesitate to warn us not to come to the Table without carefulness. Apathy would say it doesn’t matter how we come before the Lord, so long as we make our appearance. Apathy says we can appear before the Lord unprepared spiritually, without dealing with the hindrances of sin, because it is not really that important. Apathy takes a cold, calculating look at the cross and is content to let sin abound. The world might agree but not the Scriptures. That’s why we are careful, lest we observe it too often and breed contempt; and we dare not observe it infrequently, lest we become presumptuous and forget the great price paid for our salvation. Why else does our Savior command us to do this “till he come” but to keep our hearts from growing cold. It is no less than the Risen Savior reviving the hearts of the disciples on the Emmaus road, who thought that all was lost until He rehearsed with them the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption. It is in the remembrance of Who Christ is, what He has done and Whose we are that the heart is rekindled for committed service once more.

Dr. Charles L. Dear