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The rise of 'apatheism' and what it means for Christians and the Gospel

Pastors say apathy is their top challenge amid indifference from 'Gen Z'

Empty church
Empty church in this undated photo. |

Scripture is full of promises for those who follow Christ — both for the present and the future. Yet nearly a quarter way through the 21st century, the Church is facing some of its most dire challenges yet.

Recent poll findings suggest it’s not just unbelievers who are cool towards the Bible and its teachings but also those who already identify as Christians.

A newly released study from the Nashville-based Lifeway Research has found apathy inside the Church was cited as the most common "people dynamic" challenge facing pastors today.

Lifeway's “Greatest Needs Of Pastors” study asked 1,000 Protestant pastors to identify the primary people dynamic challenges they face in their churches. The pastors were surveyed between March 30 and April 22, 2021.

Their overwhelming response? Apathy or lack of commitment.

The survey found that three-quarters of pastors surveyed (75%) listed "People’s apathy or lack of commitment" when asked to identify the "people dynamics" they find challenging in their ministry. That was the only challenge that more than half of pastors identified. 

These appear to be self-identified followers of Jesus Christ apathetic to Christ's Church. 

Coming in a long second, third and fourth place in the survey were responses like "People’s strong opinions about nonessentials" (48%), "Resistance to change in the church" (46%) and "People’s political views" (44%). 

“It can be easy for a church member to check the box and say, 'I'm doing some activities, I'm coming to church' ... and feel like they’re doing enough. And yet, if they are not participating, they’re really missing out on some pretty big parts," Lifeway Research Executive Director Scott McConnell told The Christian Post.

“We see all throughout Scripture that God cares a lot about us caring for our neighbors and actually doing things to show love to our neighbors, and when He called us to follow Him, He called us to do that together in a local body of believers, and He gave that body of believers a specific mission — to share the Gospel with those who have not heard it."

The findings come as Christian apologist and author J. Warner Wallace has argued that apathetic views on spirituality — particularly among millennials and Generation Z — pose a greater threat to Christianity than atheism. 

These are views that aren’t specifically anti-Christian or anti-religion, but rather ambivalent towards Christianity or religion in general.

Meanwhile, a Barna Group survey from 2018 suggests that more people in "Generation Z" — traditionally defined as those born between 1999 and 2015 — identify themselves as agnostic, atheist or not religiously affiliated than any other generation.

Barna found that 35% of Generation Z teens considered themselves atheist, agnostic or not affiliated with any religion compared to 30% of millennials, 30% of Generation X and 26% of Baby Boomers.

Apathy can also bleed into theology, with most Christian parents not having enough biblical literacy to even pass down to their children the most basic tenets of the faith, research suggests. 

A report released in April by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University found that parents of preteens “are in a state of spiritual distress” as American adherence to biblical Christianity fades.

George Barna, director of research at the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian, said a paltry 2% of parents of preteens — children in the worldview development window — have a biblical worldview, largely because “parents … are too distracted or disinterested to acknowledge and address the parenting crisis.”

“Apatheism,” as it’s now known, isn’t exactly new.

Loosely defined, apatheism is the theological stance of answering the "God question" with a shoulder shrug and a teenage-like “Whatever,” as Eric Metaxas and Stan Guthrie put it in a 2018 op-ed

It’s not that an apatheist — a blending of the labels "apathy" and "theist/atheist" — is opposed to God or even the idea of a God. It’s that they do not care whether God exists.

A 2013 University of Tennessee study identified an apatheist as a person who does not believe in nor has any interest in any religious belief or the denial or rejection of such beliefs.

Researchers said those categorized as apatheists “simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religious in any form from their mental space.”

Strictly speaking, apatheism is less theological and more attitudinal in nature. Instead of declaring a “lack of belief” in God, one could theoretically acknowledge the existence of God and still be disinterested, according to GotQuestions.org.

Since apatheism is a judgment or intellectual position on a type of belief and not a belief or disbelief in itself, proponents say it’s irrelevant for an apatheist whether God exists or not. 

Apatheism is also resistant to change in that, not unlike the eternal teachings of the Bible, apatheism is unconcerned whether its tenets are ever disproved in the future. 

Such a stance also correlates with Lifeway’s study, which found that nearly half of all U.S. Protestant pastors said "resistance to change" was a challenging people dynamic they face.

This combination of apathy and resistance to change among Christians can often result in a stagnant fellowship and even a lack of evangelism, said McConnell. 

“If we’re not expressing the benefit of walking with Christ on a daily basis and the hope that that gives us, the security that gives us, the identity that gives us, .... they’re missing out on what a relationship with God actually can entail,” McConnell said. 

“When a congregation is on its heels, they’re a little apathetic, or individuals are, then it's even less likely that that message is coming across at all to those who may not be believers today.”

So does it matter whether God exists? 

Hebrews 2:1 calls on Christians to “be more careful to follow what we were taught” so that “we will not stray away from the truth.”

In the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus warns of a king calling many to the feast, but those who “made light of it, and went their ways” faced the king’s wrath as “sent his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

Jesus condemns the church of Laodicea for its indifference toward Him in Revelation 3:14-16, saying, “'I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 'So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”

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