It’s a standard trope: The young seminarian takes his first pastorate. He’s loaded for bear, brimming with theological conviction, eager to love the people. He’s ready to meet the devil on the battlefield. His first year’s sermons are planned. He’s dreaming big, praying hard, and ready to go.
And then he meets it: Torpor. Indifference. Spiritual laziness.
In his vibrant memoir The Pastor, Eugene Peterson reflects on this. In its early days, his church plant drew “A few seasoned saints who kn[e]w how to pray and listen and endure,” but also “a considerable number of people who pretty much just showed up” (128). They were “the lukewarm,” and there were many of them.
In such a situation, facing spiritual lethargy in a congregation, what should a pastor do?
DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM
First, he should think carefully, and not reflexively, about factors that may be contributing to this sorry situation. Here are a few of the biggest.
Culture of Low Expectations
Many 9Marks readers are familiar with what happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American evangelicalism. For various reasons, many churches shifted to a more pragmatic, business-friendly, consumer-attuned model. This model was good at attraction; it was not as good at engagement.
Guess what? If you treat people as consumers, that’s how they will act. If you recruit them as spectators, that’s what they will be. That’s where a good number of American churchgoers are today.
Weak Church Membership
Following closely from the previous point, many folks in the mid-to-late twentieth century did, in point of fact, join churches. The postwar evangelical boom—chronicled in Grant Wacker’s forthcoming biography of Billy Graham and seminal works like Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again (Oxford, 1997)—led to huge increases in church attendance and membership in the 1950s. But the aforementioned church culture meant that many people were not trained to view their congregational allegiance as meaningful or, dare I say it, costly.
In a good number of communities, you joined the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary, the Junior League, and a church. It wasn’t that church participation was an empty ritual; a good number of folks were genuinely converted in this period. But many church members weren’t trained to think of the church as the “true culture,” as Stanley Hauerwas has argued, but rather as a part of the broader culture.
Natural Human Sinfulness
The previous two points are what we could call “legacy problems.” These are realities that have shaped many of the existing churches pastors enter today. But there are also less cultural and more native problems that incline church folk to passivity and laziness.
Our modern evangelical movement, particularly the grace-loving wing (of which I am an enthusiastic part), has a tendency to take a biblical text, perhaps one anchored in God’s mercy but with some sharp edges, and to blend it all together. To make a gospel smoothie of it.
To be sure, we should read all Scripture with theological lenses, and with Christ at the center. But if we’re not in tune with the actual tone and style of the biblical authors (and not a footloose-and-fancy-free pastiche of their material), passages like Titus 1:10-16 can sound harsh to our modern ears:
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
Paul knew the glories of grace firsthand, yet he powerfully indicted the culture of laziness in Crete. He didn’t hold back. He made it clear that there were tendencies in this region toward idleness. He also made it clear that laziness and failure to pursue the Lord wholeheartedly and to engage the mission of God are shameful sins. These behaviors are also dangerous, because idle passivity leaves people susceptible to false teaching, particularly teaching oriented to selfish gain.
Unseen Factors: Discouragement, Pain, Need for Investment
Spiritual idleness is a sin. That’s our starting point for addressing it. Beyond this truth, though, what are some possible problems getting in the way of meaningful church involvement?
- A harsh or overbearing leadership culture might have singed fragile members.
- The unbiblical models of church life mentioned above may have genuinely convinced people they are supposed to be low-energy at church. And if people are low-energy at church, they’re not likely to bring a godly boldness to other areas of life.
- Some folks may have a desire to engage the work of the gospel in the local church, but may have no idea where to start. They need mentoring and discipling. At many churches, if you polled church members on how many had been invested in personally by a church leader at any point in their membership—some for decades—I bet the resulting negative response would stun many of us.
- In a similar way, some people need encouragement. They genuinely (and mistakenly) don’t think they can serve the church.
- Some folks come from traditions that rightly respect church leadership but wrongly obscure the “priesthood of all believers.” They think that only the clergy can serve the Lord.
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
We’ve sketched a few of the major reasons why people in the church are idle and passive. Now let’s look at a few ways that we can address these problems.
Preach the Word
Your first duty as a pastor is to declare the Word of God. God’s Word brought life to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 37); the Scripture is still, all these years later, bringing life to dry bones today, including the weary, the fearful, and the idle. Declare the whole counsel of God. Mediate biblical reality to the people. As you do so, over time, the Spirit of God will convict and awaken the lazy.
With Clarity and Compassion, Indict the Sinful
In regard to the idle, further, you must not shy away from imperatives. The teachings of Christ and Paul will suffice to show that it is entirely possible to preach from a grace-saturated perspective, against the backdrop of a massively powerful God, and yet bore into the particular sins and struggles of our human nature. Your preaching should accomplish these aims: it should show the idle how great and powerful God’s grace is, make clear how dishonoring idleness is in light of the kindness of God, and lead them to repent of their passivity and practically overcome their sin.
Your exhortations should be strong, though self-aware. Consider Paul’s words to the Thessalonians:
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thess. 3:7-10)
Be like Paul: Call sins what they are. Identify idleness. In a spirit of courageous compassion, rebuke it.
Alongside your call for repentance, cast a grand vision of the Christian life and the church’s work. Too many churches labor under either an unarticulated mission or a small one. Not every church will be large in number, but every church is an outpost of the kingdom, a participant in the most dynamic work there is on earth, the preaching of the gospel of Christ. Every congregation goes to war against Satan, the defeated tempter of the sheep. Every believer offers acceptable service to the Lord through the Spirit in service of this great cause (1 Pet. 2:9).
Idle believers first need to repent, and then get gloriously lost in the work of the kingdom.
Lovingly Shepherd the Sheep
In addition, you’ll need to make this practical. Many of us shy away from programmatic membership which reduces everything to a sign-up sheet and a start time, but many church members will need help getting plugged into the church’s ministry. Many will not have the vision (at least initially) to figure out a course of action. This is why elders who actually know the people are so essential. It is not enough to preach against idleness and to trumpet the mission of God. The elders of the church must dig in and help people overcome their sin and struggles. This is a complex matter—really the heart of shepherding—but suffice it to say that the church’s elders must dig in, meet with members, listen to their stories, call out sin in their lives, and map out a plan for overcoming their challenges.
In the course of doing so, you will find numerous people who are walking through a unique season of life that taxes them and leaves them with little time to plug in spiritually. They may come to you feeling lazy, and it may be your call to gently help them see that they’re not lazy, just overtaxed. A doctoral student living the fever dream of the final dissertation phase; the young mother waking four times a night to feed a newborn; the construction worker pulling double shifts for a season to make the mortgage; in these and other seasons, the church can easily extend grace to the burdened. D. A. Carson—no spiritual slouch—has quoted Lloyd-Jones on the need to relieve young mothers of guilt in this area. I fully agree.
Ideally, pastoral shepherding will form long-term strategies by which to transition the overworked out of their hyper-busy state. Busyness is an easy sin for a modern people to excuse. Nonetheless, strong shepherding will distinguish between unusual seasons and spiritual lethargy, and apply gospel grace—and gospel power—to the situation.
It will also discern how to engage those who lack confidence in their ability to serve, and gently lead them to areas of need in the body which they can begin to address.
Live it Out
The people also need you to live out your exhortations. If you light a fire in the pulpit but fail to carry that fire into the week, your people will see that. They won’t know all the doctrine you know, but they will know a worker. You’ve got to show them that the work of the kingdom, the preaching of the gospel and its application to fallen lives, really matters to you, and that it drives your life.
To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language, you need to preach costly grace, and you need to show just how it costs you.
Pray for Change
Prayer must permeate all the work of the church. This is true for your care for the idle: you must pray for them, and ask God to change them and motivate them by the riches of his gospel. Pray when you’re encouraged by what you see; and pray when no encouragement is in sight, and you feel alone and weak like Gideon before the Midianites (Judges 7). There is no substitute for prayer. God answers it, and is often pleased to show his power not through our Unstoppable Plans for Personal Change, but through the mysterious power of his Spirit.
Trust a Great God to Act
In all of this, remember: it is not you, ultimately, who builds the church and awakens the idle. It is Almighty God. He loves your people far more than you do. He is all-powerful. He is working through you as you preach his Word. And he will reward the long-suffering, long-praying pastor who seeks by the power of God to awaken the sheep to the mission of God.
Owen Strachan is Assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College and executive director of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2013) and, with Kevin Vanhoozer, The Pastor as Public Theologian (Brazos Press, 2014).