What are some of the most significant challenges to evangelism in a secular society? We might point to the usual suspects: atheism, agnosticism, pluralism, relativism, and so on. All of those are beliefs about God, but what about attitudes toward him? Doesn’t apathy present a serious obstacle to witnessing the gospel?
Sharing the Gospel in the Midst of Apathy
Just a few months ago, Lifeway Research found that 75% of pastors polled believe apathy and lack of commitment are among the top issues to address in the church. If apathy is a problem in the church pews, how much more might it be in the city streets?
We live in an increasingly secularizing society, one in which belief in God is contested and diverse, and the status of our lives is comfortable and distracted. In this context, God doesn’t seem needed. You can get a sense of this indifference by asking your neighbor God questions: Do you believe in God? What do you think God is like? Why don’t you believe in God?
Defining the Problem
If you ask an atheist these questions, she’s ready to respond and engage in conversation, which opens the opportunity to share the gospel. But what if she replied with a shrug of the shoulders? “Meh, religion just really isn’t my thing.” It’s okay if you believe, but she doesn’t care.
This apathy toward theism (belief in God)—what we might call apatheism—is when a person believes that God is unimportant and feels that way as well. It’s both cognitive indifference (i.e., they think or believe God isn’t necessary) and emotional apathy toward God (i.e., they feel nothing about him). And in our secularizing society, apatheism presents Christians with a growing challenge to the Great Commission.
Rethinking Our Approach
Just a generation ago, church leaders encouraged believers to prepare themselves for answering rational objections to the gospel. Hasn’t science disproven the Bible? What about the lonely, island-bound man who is never visited by missionaries? Why would a loving God punish someone eternally for sin?
The primary method of evangelism was to “[present] your prospect with enough information to make a decision,” according to a popular 1970s evangelism book. This strategy was helpful because our society was generally aware of the gospel and because people were broadly interested in God questions. In part, proclaiming the gospel was to present the Christian faith as reasonable.
But this is no longer the case. As time moves on, people have become less familiar with Christianity and less interested in God. So, how might we approach apatheism?
Sharing a Compelling Gospel
Rather than putting all our effort into presenting Christian belief as reasonable, we ought to be eager to show people that our faith is desirable. We ought to showcase the gospel’s beauty, meaning, and redemptive power in contrast to the fallen world around us. In doing so, our witness to the gospel addresses the questions people are asking: Who am I? What brings me meaning and purpose? Do I have value? What do I want?
This last question was one Jesus asked on several occasions: what do you want? (Matthew 20:21, 32). Wanting gets at both thinking and feeling because want comes from deep within us, born from our affections and formed by our beliefs.
We all want something, and that thing is the same for each of us: happiness. Augustine pointed this out long ago when he asked, “Is not the happy life that which all desire, which indeed no one fails to desire?” Of course, it is. Who truly desires a life of misery?
There are many options for seeking the happy life in a world like ours. For some people, it’s power and material wealth. So they search for happiness in fame and fortune; being an influencer among their peers is how they imagine the good life. Others, though, are far less concerned with gaining status than with accumulating authentic experiences that enhance their unique identities. But no matter what people want, it’s inevitably found in the same place—themself, other people, and things. In other words, people look for happiness in the created order.
But Scripture reminds us that creation is fallen, so to find ultimate happiness in the world is to latch onto something that is not powerful or permanent enough to last through life’s most challenging seasons. Sure, things in this world bring us joy for a moment, but what happens when the moment passes?
Sharing about True Joy
This is where our faith steps forward with a radical promise. It’s not the objects themselves that bring joy; instead, it is through them that we experience a foretaste of Joy, the God who loves the world and paid everything to redeem it. Our lives are meant to be rehearsals for living with Joy forever. From the happiness of your wedding day to hearing your child laugh for the first time to embracing old friends: we are happy in those moments, and rightly so. But such momentary happiness is meant to remind us of a greater joy still to come.
To be apathetic toward God is to be indifferent to our ultimate source of joy. Augustine points out this contradiction in the human pursuit of happiness: “[It] is not certain that everyone wants to be happy,” he concluded, “since not everyone wants to rejoice in [God], which is the only happy life.”
So while generations before us evangelized in a culture unsure about God, we now must evangelize in a culture uninterested in him. Share the faith as a life-giving happiness through holiness in the Lord Jesus Christ, the only true means of making our joy complete.