The last year has exacerbated feelings of apathy toward the things of God. What should you do about it? That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode of the Sermonary podcast.
Kyle Beshears is one of the teaching pastors at Mars Hill Church. His book, Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care, will be released in March of 2021.
Josh: The title of the book is Apatheism. Can you tell me a little bit more about what made you decide to write it and what Apatheism is?
Kyle: Well, the word “Apatheism” is a bit intuitive, right? You have the words “apathy” and “theism,” which are smashed together. The basic idea is, when it comes to questions about God’s character and his nature, Apatheism is the position where people believe those questions are irrelevant.
The inspiration for writing the book really came from my experiences overseas. I lived in Cambridge for a number of years, and when I was attempting to have evangelistic conversations with people, I would get a very cool reception. I mistakenly assumed that was because people were hostile to the message that I was trying to bring up. But over the years I came to realize that they weren’t necessarily hostile to the gospel, they were just apathetic to it, and I thought, “Wow, that’s a unique challenge.” So many of our evangelism and apologetics models have generally assumed that people are interested in talking about God and religion. There’s a quote from John Calvin where he says that “Nobody would want to be seen as totally indifferent to their religion.” So the question becomes, what caused that kind of apathy toward God? And how ought we to engage apatheism when we encounter it?
Josh: Okay, so when I’m having a conversation with someone, how do I identify apatheism?
Kyle: In the book, I define apatheism as when someone both “believes and feels that God is not relevant to them.” It’s not merely a philosophical leaning, it’s an emotional posture toward God. So the most obvious way to identify an apatheist is to ask them questions about God and see what they answer. If they say, “Oh, I don’t really know if He exists, what do you think?” then you’re either talking to an atheist or an agnostic. And if you’re asking those questions of an apatheist, their eyes are going to glaze over like you’re talking about your favorite episode of Antiques Roadshow when you start talking about why God exists. They’re just not going to be interested in that conversation. A truly apatheistic person will find that conversation to be a waste of time. They’ll be polite about it, but it really isn’t their thing, and they’ll probably ask you to talk about something else.
Josh: Do you see apatheism in the church? And if so, what does it look like?
Kyle: Yeah, I do. And people ask me if I think apatheism is a growing problem in culture. The answer is yes, but it’s frustrating because I can’t prove it. But when you think about the research that pew and Barna do, they’re asking about beliefs in God, not about how we feel about those beliefs. So we’re not ever going to see apatheists in polling data unless polls change in the future.
Anyway, there can be apatheists in secularism, for sure, but there can also be apatheists in the pew. And there’s a close cousin to apatheism, which is something I think we’re probably all familiar with as pastors, which is called a “practical atheist.” A practical atheist is someone who believes in God but doesn’t really concern themselves with what that existence means. So you have two kinds of apathy in the pews, that pastors ought to be aware of.
Josh: What does the practical side of those conversations look like, for regular believers?
Kyle: Yeah, it’s a challenge. I think the knee-jerk reaction is that “This is a job for apologetics!” We think that if we can demonstrate that God exists, people will care. But that’s a mistaken assumption because arguments for the existence of God will fall on deaf ears if you’re talking to someone who thinks His existence doesn’t matter. So we need to spark their interest.
One of the things we can do to broadcast the gospel in word and deed is by highlighting our joy. How often do we talk about the gospel, and present the gospel, as if it’s a set of rational, propositional facts? Was it Brendan Manning who said, “We become unconvicted and unpersuasive travel agents handing out brochures to places we have never visited?” I think he’s right onto something there.
So how do you even start these conversations? One mistake would be to start the conversation with God and end with them. That’s the classical model, but when you’re dealing with apathy, we need to start with them and work toward God. The conversations can’t start with something that they’re uninterested in. They have to start with something they are interested in themselves.
One of the things I like to do in these types of conversations is that I ask about their joy bringers: What brings you joy? Inevitably, it falls into one of three categories: it’s either other people, activities, or things. The problem with all of those things is that they’re part of the created order. So they’re fallen, they’re limited, and they’re temporary. And I ask, what happens if your joy bringers stop bringing you happiness, meaning, and purpose? It’s not something people like to think about, but it’s an important question to ask. After that, we can get to God, because they’re interested and invested.
When you’re having these conversations, it’s also important to remember that they’re saved by the power of the Word of God and through the Spirit. So take a load off. Don’t think you have to jolt them into affection for God, right then and there. Plant seeds. Tell them about the joy of your salvation.
Josh: That’s such a key to communication- leading with the problem and then presenting a solution.
Kyle: Yeah, the key that makes this work is doubt. The philosopher Kierkegaard actually believed that doubt was a more powerful form of thought because doubt has interest attached to it. Until people start doubting their joy-bringers, they won’t have an interest in the One Who can bring them eternal joy.
Josh: I’m imagining that 2020 has only increased apathy for people. So how can the church be praying about this and summoning the courage to have these kinds of conversations?
Kyle: I think it’s interesting that in times of crises, God suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. I mean, if you think of 9/11 or even the beginning of COVID, you see a lot of people turning to God and appealing to Him for help. Even though we were live streaming at our church, we saw an increase in people-watching. When our security of existence is shaken, we fear- and we don’t know what to do. So there’s this primal instinct for us to look up, because everything around us is not giving us the answers and the security that we’d hoped it would. But, as time has gone by, and as isolation has set in, we’ve become more secure again in these horizontal sources of security.
Josh: It’s a different kind of comfort zone.
Kyle: Exactly. And apathy will remain as long as we feel comfortable and secure in our surroundings. And so the job of the pastor and church staff and elders is to lift chins upwards. To point people back to the moment where they realized that things were not under their control, and ask them why they looked up instead of over. When COVID broke our healthcare system and economy, that was a scary place to be, but God can do a lot of work in that moment. And so I think, just reminding people of what that looks like- that we don’t know what tomorrow holds or is going to bring, and the next pandemic could be worse than this one! And we’re not even out of this one! Who knows what 2021 is going to bring? So that disorientation that challenged our feelings of safety and security in our surroundings is something that I think we need to press into. Because the Author of Life Himself is the only one who gives us the true security of existence. And it’s not necessarily safe, but to know the One who holds our hands is the One who holds the world as well.
Josh: Thanks Kyle! I agree, this last year has disconnected so many people from the things they thought brought them joy, and that means we have a huge opportunity to share the gospel with them.
You can preorder Apatheism here.