Over the past few years, I have noticed a growing sense of what I refer to as congregational apathy. The symptoms are be identified as a desire and openness for great things to happen, but no energy, personal commitment, or tolerance for any needed changes, or sense of urgency for the great things to come to fruition. Likely there is also a sense if only a few young families were to magically walk in the door and become instantly involved, all would be well again. This is especially true in declining, aging congregations.
The common definition of apathy is a lack of emotion, feeling, or interest, indifference, lack of involvement or having a non-caring attitude. Often a person is referenced as having apathy, but communities, organizations, and institutions can also have a culture of apathy. According to Athina Benik of AskingLot.com, “An apathetic culture shows minimal concern for either people or performance. A caring culture exhibits high concern for people but minimal concern for performance issues.” Doug Dickerson at dougdickerson.net shares, “In a community, people are held accountable for negative attitudes that would give rise to apathy. A failure in community creates conflict. A failure in leadership creates apathy. Your organizational community is relationship driven. Your organizational culture is leadership driven.”
What does all of this mean? Each congregation is unique. It is set in a unique community, has a unique history, unique congregational gifts, unique mission field needs, etc. Yet, each church is called to the same purpose of being in mission to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and carry out Jesus’ command to make disciple-making disciples. As mainline protestant churches, we have all drunk the same proverbial Kool-Aid and fallen into some of the same institutional holes. We have become far too pastor-centric. When a congregation looks to a pastor to bring the vision and make most all the decisions, the congregation does not have ownership of those decisions or the vision. We have become far too staff-driven. When a congregation hires staff not as equippers for the congregation, but as doers of the ministries, the congregation becomes dependent on staff doing the ministry on behalf of the congregation. We have become dependent on the attraction for growth. When a congregation depends on building new buildings, starting a shiny new program, or investing in the latest technology to “attract” new people rather than learning how to share their faith story and invite people to follow Jesus, congregations became dependent on the (now all but dead) attractional model to bring new people into the life of the church.
It is because of these three main shifts (pastor-centric, staff-driven, attractional-dependent growth), we have been driven away from our core purpose of discipleship. Without discipleship as our primary driver over the past several decades, 70-80% of churches are in decline. It is this overwhelming decline coupled with the side effects of these three shifts that have led to this congregational apathy. Those shifts’ side effects have resulted in congregations becoming more focused on caring for one another leaving community care for others, less involved in congregational life since staff is doing the ministry, and less interested and passionate since the pastor is casting the vision and making the decisions for the entire congregation. These are all indicators of apathy! Add to this the lack of accountability that Dickerson points out and there is no way around an upheaval of apathy.
Where is the hope? Since apathy is often described as the loss of motivation manifesting as a reduction of a goal-directed behavior, congregational apathy can sometimes be reversed with a renewed missional focus. Missional focus starts with congregational visioning, discipling, leadership development, and strategic ministry planning. The key is not waiting until it is too late!