Shepherding in the Age of Self
A church member listens to an energizing podcast on a popular cultural issue. Stirred by what they hear, they Google some terms to read a couple of articles on the topic. Over the weekend, they go to YouTube where they watch a fascinating interview with a so-called subject-matter expert. A few days later, they form a firm opinion on a complex and volatile issue.
On Sunday, they listen to their trusted pastor’s sermon with a new filter, sifting his message for keywords and values. Troubled by something they hear, they text a few friends who have been listening to the same podcast. Later that week, the group gets together to discuss how they can help the church to course correct.
Virtually overnight, a freshly minted opinion has become the primary lens through which church members evaluate “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). No serious biblical study; no listening for authorial or homiletical intent. Where there was humility under the Word, now there is judgment over the Word. Where there was trust, now there is distrust. How did we get here?
THE AGE OF SELF
British documentarian Adam Curtis comments on our age:
In the age of the individual, it is wonderful to be free, to not be told by old, upper classes—the patricians—what to do, but on its downside, you are on your own. That’s fine when things go well, but when things go badly, you’re weak and uncertain. We were going to be in this fantastic world, where we would be at the center of everything, and we would be in charge of our own lives, but it brings uncertainties with it.
The age of self is appealing because it caters to individual expression. It is marked by mantras like “be free,” “follow your heart,” and “you do you.” The individual’s core feeling is supreme. What matters most is not what others say but how I feel. Expressive individualism views institutions such as governments, corporations, and churches with knee-jerk suspicion. Ironically, that same suspicion is not turned onto the self. Instead, the individual is placed at the center of everything, free to form opinions without the burden of tradition.
In this cloud of suspicion, a pastiche authority emerges, cobbled together from various sources: friends, podcasts, online articles, YouTube, and social media. This new authority often competes with Scripture, leading Christians to distrust the faithful, loving authority of local church leaders. In its most aggressive form, this lack of trust in church leaders leads to harsh criticism and bitter division.
However, when the pastiche authority fails, people can also become weak and uncertain. My friend John struggled with same-sex attraction. After I discipled him for a couple years, he decided that if he could trust Jesus with his soul, he could trust him with his sexuality. He was baptized and became very active in our church. He brought non-Christian friends on Sundays, made dessert for his small group, and hosted people in his home.
But eventually John moved away, stopped participating in a local church, and cobbled together a new authority that approved of gay marriage. Then one day, he walked into the living room to see his partner hanging from the ceiling by an electrical cord. John moved back to our city, weakened in his outlook on life and uncertain about the future. His new authority couldn’t make sense of suicide, so he turned back to the church.
PASTORING THROUGH THE PASTICHE
How should church leaders respond to those embroiled in the age of self? Whether we are pastoring someone empowered or weakened by individualism, we can apply the same three principles: 1) Listen to their story, 2) Challenge their story, and 3) Retell their story around Jesus.
Listen to Their Story
While inhaling expressive individualism, people grapple with very important issues such as racial justice, sexual ethics, and gender identity. Listen to their struggle. Ask questions like: What got you started down this path? What influences have been most formative for you? Why is this issue so important to you? Look for things you can affirm, redeem, or confront. For instance, when presented with questions about racial injustice, our elders affirmed church members’ concerns but sought to redeem some of their thinking by offering a Race & Gospel class.
Alternatively, you may discern a counseling opportunity. A person who has brought suffering onto themselves through a permissive ethic needs to be comforted with the hope of the gospel. Although John’s disobedience led him into sin, Jesus always welcomes repentant sinners. I asked him how he was coping with his loss, and if he was able to find meaning in his suffering. The self proved inadequate for these questions, but our Savior did not.
Challenge Their Story
Those who have deconstructed their faith will have done so with genuine doubts, and people who leave the church often depart with heartfelt concerns. We can sympathize with hurt, confusion, despair, and loneliness, even if it is self-wrought. Jesus looked out upon the multitudes not only as unclean sinners, but also as those harassed and helpless, in need of a shepherd (Matt. 9:36).
However, empathy with a person’s story mustn’t be misconstrued as approval of sin or unbelief. We may need to confront someone hurt by a church by asking them to reconcile with their former leaders. While exploring the genuine doubts of a skeptic, we must also be alert to the convenience of independence. I’ve met with my friend Ryan many times over the years, but each time I answer his skeptical question, he puts forward another. Eventually, I challenged him by saying, “Kierkegaard said that for a doctrine to be truly known it must be lived. Ryan, you need to lean into Christianity by attending church, if you really want to see if it’s true.”
Retell Their Story
As you listen to people’s stories, ask the Holy Spirit for discernment. He cuts through deceit and “guides us into all the truth” (John 16:13). Make a mental note of things that are repeated or untrue. Then ask the person if you can circle back to that topic or belief. It’s important to affirm what is true before challenging what is untrue. This builds a bridge instead of burning it. For instance, “Yes, gender is something that Jesus cares deeply about. He elevated women in a time when they were marginalized by society,” or “It’s obvious you’ve been hurt; I’m so sorry about that. The church can be a messy place.”
When you challenge an untruth, consider asking a question. For instance, “Do you think it’s possible that politics has become more important to you than communion with Christ?” “When you said the leadership didn’t care, did you have a conversation with each of the leaders?” “I agree the church can be very messy, but if it’s not too messy for Jesus, it shouldn’t be too messy for you.” Try to lead them to an aspect of Christ’s character or ministry that corresponds with the lies they are believing. For instance, “I know you feel like everyone let you down, but have you considered that Christ, not the church, is your faithful Advocate?”
Listen to their story, challenge their story, and retell their story around Jesus. This may happen in one conversation or over the course of several conversations.
Finally, seek out someone to shepherd you as you shepherd others in the age of self. Pastoring people who are critical of your church, preaching, and the gospel is heart-wrenching work. If we’re not careful, we’ll settle for ministering to others apart from Jesus ministering to us.
You’ll need time away from ministry to rest in Christ. So, start doing things now that prepare you for then. Ask others to pray for you so that you don’t fall into despair or callousness toward the flock. Schedule meetings with life-giving church members who will encourage you. Most of all, remember that the flock is ultimately the responsibility of the Chief Shepherd. He loves them more than you or I ever could, and we can trust him with the outcome of their faith.