Our Spiritual Humiliation

Michael Metzger

This past July David Brooks wrote that Covid-19 is “the national humiliation we need.” Those of us who love the church are asking whether it’s our spiritual humiliation as well.

I’ve thought long and hard on what I’m about to say. Brooks’ July 4 column, The National Humiliation We Need, planted the seed. He said the US has been humiliated by stumbling so badly in Covid-19. Our fixation on the awfulness of Trump the past four years distracted us from larger societal problems.

We’re familiar with them. Isolation. Depression. Suicide. The list is long. But why are these things happening? Brooks lists the usual suspects – individualism, atomism, selfishness – but thinks they’re downstream. The core problem is what Irving Kristol described in 1970, a sense of spiritual meaninglessness creeping into our individual lives. Kristol was right.

But what most pastors miss is this is happening in their church. For years they’ve read about religious “nones.” Almost 80 percent have a church background. They’ve left the church because they find it spiritually meaningless. It seems that most pastors have ignored this.

They’ve ignored how this depopulating of the church has been accelerating over the last two decades. Close to 50 percent of millennials now report being nones. It is estimated that 80 percent of gen-z are nones. Yet most church and ministry leaders have ignored this.

They’ve ignored why nones find the church meaningless. For me, it started in 1987. I was a church planter. I was attending a conference where the speaker, a well-known pastor, came off as arrogant. And his staff knew it. I remember one of them saying, “Yeah, _____ is prideful but our church would collapse without him.” So they accepted it. I found this humiliating.

So do nones. They read of yet another pastor resigning over sex allegations. Or evangelists exaggerating academic credentials. Or evangelical divorce rates equal to the general population. Or 50 percent of evangelical men (20 percent of women) being addicted to pornography. Or 37 percent of pastors reporting porn addiction. Or youth being slightly more promiscuous if part of a youth group (rather than not being in one at all).

All of this undergirds why an increasing number of folks say they feel closer to God by not going to church. Which brings us to Covid-19. The pandemic has given many of them an opportunity to do what they’ve privately longed to do for years. Leave.

I was recently talking to another friend about this. He’s a pastor, part of the largest network of mega-churches in the US. On a recent zoom call, pastors reported that, on average, they expect only one-third of parishioners – 33 percent – to return after the pandemic is over. The highest percentage in any church was 41 percent. These pastors are scared.

They’re scared because giving levels are holding for the moment, but when the 33 percent return, they’ll look around at their cavernous auditoriums – one-third full – and wonder where everyone went. Some will leave. Donations will drop as these churches are depopulated.

If you’re thinking No way, consider that God does humiliate his people from time to time. For 500 years the Judeans had been idolatrous. They ignored prophets who warned them that God was going to “depopulate the land and devastate it” (Isa.6:11; 24:1). That’s humiliating.

For at least 200 years, America Christianity has been idolatrous, the result of our “comfortable cohabitation” with the Enlightenment.[1] This yielded a faith tradition that rode the coattails of American isolation, patriotism, individualism, consumerism, and anti-intellectualism.[2] But now it seems that God is depopulating our churches. They’re being emptied out. It’s humiliating.

Dallas Willard saw this coming. In 1995 he told a group of us pastors that American Christianity is a “lost cause.” God was going to humiliate us. It’s happening. Covid-19 is accelerating it. What would have taken ten years has happened in 10 months. It’s our spiritual humiliation.

The hope is that we become humble. A humbled people recognize the way forward is returning, what the prophet Joel wrote. Return to God and he will not make a mockery of you. For Americans, we’d be wise to return to pre-Enlightenment faith traditions. It can be done.

We can help. We generally don’t toot our horn here at Clapham Institute, but if you (or your church) wants to return to the faith that changed the world, we’re ready to help. In fact, it’s what we’re planning on doing for the rest of our lives. Please contact us.

 

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995), 33.

[2] Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford University Press, 1976)

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4 thoughts on “Our Spiritual Humiliation”

  1. Mark, I seriously doubt there will be a great response. It grieves me to say so but I am coming to believe that the church has unknowingly been impacted by one of the 7 cardinal sins known as acedia. It is a word that was not in my working vocabulary until recently. It is often lumped with sloth but it is distinctly different.
    Acedia has more to do with being lazy about love than with being lazy about work. It implies a failure of effort, a failure linked to a lack of love, a lack of caring. It is a powerful and serious vice that threatens our fundamental commitment to our identity and vocation as Christians since it attacks the fundamental dedication of our life to God. It signals inner discontent and resistance to our spiritual calling. It not only threatens to undermine a person’s identity as someone devoted to developing a lifelong relationship with God, but it also erodes the commitment to the religious community (church) formed by that identity. It can be expressed as both laziness and as restless busyness. It is an aversion to the divine good in us. It does not recognize that staying committed to any love relationship takes daily nurturing, daily effort, and daily practices to build it up. It does not recognize that the process of sanctification takes a lifetime of cooperation on our part to live into our new identity as Christ-followers. It prompts us to turn our backs on the joy we should have over being united with God and committed to him in love. Although acedia can seem akin to depression, it is not a matter of brain chemistry or psychological systems; it is a habit of the heart. A habit that resists a love that calls for an identity change and a corresponding commitment to daily transformation. It typically manifests itself in two apparently opposite ways: despairing resignation (apathy and couch-potato behavior) or desperate escapism (avoidance through restlessness and busyness).
    Antonyms for Acedia: courageous endurance, long-suffering, and perseverance that resists the temptation to find the easy way out.
    We have to admit that most versions of seeker-driven or friendly churches have not introduced a Christianity such as this to their congregations. In fact, we have “packaged” church to make very few commitments other than our wallets. If we truly see our earthly marriages as a metaphor for the church’s marriage to Christ, we experientially know that the relationship takes work and the investment of our entire beings to endure and prosper.
    I will join you in praying for this kind of renewal.

  2. A church preoccupied with social issues and rituals is destined to be “spiritually humiliated” and as pointed out probably is in need of that humiliation or fade into irrelevance. Fellowship in person is considered reckless and we are discovering where people place their faith.
    Pastors afraid of proximity with their congregation will have a difficult time holding on to that congregation as the prince of the air rules the hearts with fear.
    In my practice I see patients every day who are under a tremendous strain. The choice all too often is between being a parent/teacher and going to work. Where is the church? I guess waiting for the storm to pass?
    A great opportunity to sow faith and stand against fear was lost.
    Instead we have Christian leaders condemning pastors defying executive orders banning church services, accusing them of “sacrificing the vulnerable and elderly”.
    Thank God this virus is relatively benign in the healthy population. One shudders to think what would have been the response if SARS CoV-2 had behaved more like the Spanish Flu…

  3. Mike, let me throw this out there – I don’t have a dog in the fight – I’m not trying to defend or offend you or pastors of churches that YOU say aren’t doing things right. Robert Putnam has for years now been saying that the happiest people aren’t just church members – but that they have friends in church. He thinks he’s proved that 1.) If you’re a member of a body of worship 2.) and you have friends 3.) that you support your claim to be happy (yes happy – not “joyful” or “fulfilled” or other holy moly words) because 4.) You give lots more of your time AND your money 5.) to church AND civic causes 6.) than those not in church and those in church – but you’re in church but don’t have any friends there. Have you caught the key factor? Happy Americans have friends and give to others. I don’t know if you think that’s idolatrous or not or the 1801 version of American Christianity that you’re setting out to prove, but my bet, my money isn’t on Tim Smick’s courageous endurance, long-suffering, and perseverance that resists the temptation to find the easy way out. It’s on having and being a good friend.

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