Pastors face a huge number of leadership challenges at the moment. You may be shepherding people through health concerns, clarifying important doctrinal truths, helping people think biblically about the controversies in the public square, mediating conflicts, and giving care to people dealing with depression and anxiety.
But from what I’m hearing from pastors, another less-often-mentioned challenge is on the rise: motivating the apathetic.
Beware, O Sluggard
Apathy is not a new spiritual problem. Traditionally, sloth is included in the “seven deadly sins.” Proverbs speaks against “the sluggard” (cf. Prov. 6:6–11; 24:30–34). Jesus called the man who hid his talent instead of investing it “wicked and slothful” (Matt. 25:26). Paul warns about idleness (1 Tim. 5:14).
Some ancient religious teachers have called apathy “acedia,” taken from the Latin acedia, which comes from the Greek akèdia, meaning “lack of care.” (See Jean-Charles Nault, OSB, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil of Our Times [Ignatius Press, 2013], 27.) This “noonday demon,” as it has also been called, is essentially a lack of care for one’s spiritual life. It is a shrugging of the shoulders and a choice to do whatever’s easiest, not whatever’s best.
This ‘noonday demon,’ as it has also been called, is essentially a lack of care for one’s spiritual life.
While this is not a new danger, it has become a matter of greater interest to church leaders because of the nature of church life during the pandemic. While it’s not a question for every pastor in every context, many are having to ask, “How can we pastor people who have grown comfortable watching worship services online, have had limited small groups, have not been asked to serve weekly, and have not engaged their neighbors in mission as they did before?”
Pastoring people with a “whatever” mentality is indeed challenging. How do we move the whatever people into passionate worshiping people? Let me suggest four timeless spiritual remedies.
1. Lead by Example
Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do not be slothful in zeal; be fervent in Spirit; serve the Lord” (12:11). But previously in Romans 12, Paul told leaders to “lead with zeal” (Rom. 12:8). Charles Spurgeon used to say, “They come to see me burn.” We need to preach with zeal, and we should also set an example in serving with zeal.
Returning to normal Sunday patterns may mean that leaders will need to take on additional responsibilities for a season. But that’s what leadership in the church is: servant leadership. Leadership is not lordship. It involves passionately following Jesus and inviting others to come along with you.
This point should be extended beyond formal leaders, however. Church members need to see small-group leaders show a passion for Christ’s glory in the church. Children need to see their parents show a passion for Christ’s glory in the church.
Leadership is not lordship.
That kind of zeal changes others. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul mentions how the Macedonian churches set an example of generous giving for the Corinthians, and then in chapter 9 mentions how the Macedonians were initially inspired by the Corinthians eagerness to give: “your zeal has stirred up most of them” (2 Cor. 9:2). Passion in individuals and in churches can have a tremendous effect on the apathetic.
2. Practice Confession and Repentance
People may be apathetic about their apathy because they haven’t been made aware of how serious this problem is. But it’s a serious problem to not be moved by the gospel. It’s a serious problem to not be captivated by the glory of Christ, and to not be compelled to serve in response to Christ’s love.
Apathy needs to be acknowledged and confessed. Believers need to repent of it. Paul told Titus that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (2:14). When zealousness for good works is not present in my life, I need to repent of this attitude and lack of gospel ambition. And I need to make apathy a regular subject of my prayers for others, including in corporate worship.
3. Engage in Biblical Community
One of the purposes of being in biblical community is to “stir up one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). Sometimes we need to stir people up, and sometimes we need to be stirred up. That can only happen when we are together. Attendance and engagement matter. Let’s not allow members of our church to listen to the lie that it is optional or unimportant.
4. Remember the Past, Present, Future Gospel
To be dazzled by grace is the daily need of my soul, and the daily need of the souls of those I serve, too. The gospel helps us shake off the gloom, because it gives us something glorious to consider in the past, present, and future.
First, as we look back to the cross, resurrection, and ascension, we’re reminded of what God has done for us in Christ. Our sins are forgiven, we have right standing with God, we enjoy peace with God, we have assurance of future resurrection and glory. It is as the Christian ponders the judgment he deserves and the salvation he has been given instead that a life of worshipful, willing service is stimulated.
Second, the gospel tells us that now the Spirit of God is actively at work in our lives, in our relationships, in our church, and in our world—and therefore that we should put our gifts to use with passion. When in Romans 12 Paul mentions several diverse spiritual gifts, what we should not miss is how Paul calls us to use our gifts with excellence and passion (vv. 6–8). Believers need to be reminded of their need to be edified by the gifts of others, and the need to edify others with their gifts. Being reminded of the Spirit’s work in my life should inspire me to passionate service.
Finally, regarding the future, Peter tells the church to get busy serving because “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7). Our blessed hope right now is not the return to normal but the return of the King. That hope should inspire loving, passionate service.
Our blessed hope right now is not the return to normal but the return of the King.
As he considers the return of Christ, Peter doesn’t mention anything extreme. Rather, he emphasizes basic Christian living: being self-controlled and sober-minded so that we can engage in effective prayer, earnest love, gracious hospitality, and the exercise of our gifts in God’s strength, for God’s glory (1 Pet. 4:10–11). Eschatology shouldn’t make us fanatical but faithful.
The end is near: pray.
The end is near: love one another earnestly.
The end is near: practice hospitality.
The end is near: serve.
It’s a challenging time to be a pastor, but we have a Savior who loves his church, and promised to build it regardless of all that would come against it. Let us lead on in Jesus’s strength for the good of his people (including the apathetic) and for the glory of his name.