Why Is the Christian Subculture Still So ‘Mindless’?


A Facebook friend raised this tough question:

We now have a veritable Apologetics Industrial Complex. A nerd like William Lane Craig (no insult intended–I am a certified nerd myself) can be a kind of superstar. We have more quality seminaries churning out more Evangelical DMins and PhDs than ever before. Yet the mindlessness of the American conservative Christian subculture as a whole has never been more pronounced than it is now. What are we doing wrong?

Great question! Urgent question, too. I can offer part of the answer, I believe. Obviously there’s more than I can cover here. It’s got a lot to do with the mindless culture in which our subculture participates. Christians are no worse off in this than the world around us. That’s no excuse, of course; we’re still worse off than we ought to be.

Some of it is also quite seriously spiritual, the behind-the-scenes battle for which the armor of God in Ephesians 6 is most appropriate.

Not all of it fits in any of my categories below, just because life isn’t that tidy. But there’s something here that I know is helpful, anyway.

It’s a Motivation Problem, Not an Apologetics Problem

Here’s the crux of what I want to say. We’re missing the motivational aspect of the matter. It isn’t about having answers (which we’re good at), it’s about motivating Christians to change. We apologists don’t study that so much, do we?

Based on one standard motivation theory, the change my friend won’t happen as long as people are either (A) too comfortable as they are, (B) they’re unconvinced they have the ability to change, or (C) they don’t believe change will bring about results worth the effort.

Let me spell that out with some examples

A. ”I feel no need to change; I’m comfortable as I am.”

This first motivational barrier is mostly about unawareness. It feeds off of either not knowing, or else compartmentalizing away, facts like:

  1. Biblical discipleship is vital.
  2. Discipleship necessarily includes discipleship of the mind.
  3. The world is growing more divided, even crazy.
  4. This growing division and craziness affects people they care about.
  5. These things always have an intellectual/idea/mind component to them, not just (for example) lust, greed, or power components.
  6. Evangelism involves issues of the mind even apart from recent changes in culture.
  7. And so does the cultural mandate, going back to the Creation account.

If a person is sufficiently gripped by even one of the mind-related facts here, they’re off to a promising start, and that may indeed be all that’s necessary to get the person started.

But getting started isn’t enough. Without the other two motivational categories in place, a person could easily get caught in a “stuck” sort of caring: They know it matters, but they never get off the dime to do something with it.

B. “I really can’t change.”

This attitude may play out in statements like,

  1. “This kind of thing takes intellectuals, and I’m not one of them.”
  2. “I’d be interested in trying to learn, but I have no idea where to start.”
  3. “I’d pursue this if I weren’t so involved in so many other crucial things: work, family, health, humanitarian ministry, … “

And so on. All it takes is one of those beliefs to torpedo any real motivation to become more involved in true discipleship of the mind.

C. “Any change I made wouldn’t do enough good to be worth the effort.”

Typical statements here would include various forms of fatalism and fideism, such as,

  1. “People are just going to believe what they want to believe and do what they want to do, so why bother learning how to persuade anyone of anything?”
  2. “Intellectual life never changed anyone. It’s the heart that counts.”
  3. “God’s word says it, I believe it, that settles it, so what’s everyone else’s problem?”
  4. “Everything’s too complex. No matter how much I learned, it could never be enough to do any good.”
  5. “No one’s going to listen to me anyway.”

Again, just one of those attitudes is sufficient to stop to be a show-stopper.

The Pastoral Side

I’ve been speaking on an individual level here so far. We could also view it on a pastoral/leadership level, where you could add in other issues like,

  1. “The apologetics-oriented people in my church annoy me with their lack of people skills.”
  2. “The apologetics-oriented people here threaten me with how much more they know than I do.”
  3. “The apologetics-oriented people here think their hobby-horse is all that counts; they don’t understand the full range of ministry at all.

Solutions: Working on Awareness

The problem really isn’t in apologetics; not anymore, as the questioner points out. We have plenty of good answers. Apologists can help solve it by making material available, accessible, and even attractive. But even at their 3-A best, when people are too comfortable to “need” change, or when they feel incapable of changing in ways that will make a real difference, they won’t change.

So we need to work on awareness, first of all. God will take care of a lot of that. The pastor’s son who announces he’s an atheist, the gay-pride parade on your town’s main street, the science teacher who tells your daughter evolution can do it all without God — these aren’t so much in our control.

We can do more simply by asking good questions. “What do you think of what’s going on here?” “What do you think the Bible would say about that?” “What do you think is driving people’s decisions to do these strange things?” “Do you understand your own beliefs well enough to explain why you’d do differently?” And so on.

Note carefully: These aren’t answers. They’re God-ordained situations, which we can deal with by asking questions. You don’t needle people into change-inducing discomfort by giving them answers. You do it by bothering them with questions. Read the gospels and see how Jesus set that example.

Solutions: Working With People’s Expectations for Fruitful Change

Parts B and C are where apologists can help more, by providing the resources, drawing the necessary connections between issues and answers, and so on. We’re good at this. Too often, as a result, we’ve skipped A and jumped here first. But we do need to be there with the right kind of help for people who are ready to move forward.

And we’ve got to study people. We need to understand what’s stopping them: potentially any of the attitudes listed under B and C above, or other attitudes like them. If they’re being held back by feelings of intellectual intimidation it will do no good to try to cure them of fideism.

The one best answer — if you can pull it off! — is to get people working on these things and learning together. They’ll solve each other’s motivational issues, even as they study the apologetics, if we’ll only help them focus on the motivational matters along with the rest of the lesson.

Solutions: Working With Pastors

With pastors, I see two general kinds of answers. The first is relational. We need to be relationally connected with other leaders, so they can discern our hearts. They can learn to trust us in the approach we bring, or we can learn to change, to become more worthy of their trust.

The second is less hopeful. Some pastors aren’t open to change through any effort we bring, no matter how biblical we might be. Their churches won’t be open to this ministry because they aren’t. The motivational keys I’ve listed here are best used with peers, students, and the like. Their effect on leaders over us in any church will typically be much more limited. I’d say do your best for a while, and if change doesn’t come, decide to live contentedly with things as they are in your church, or else move on somewhere else. Either one of those is better than staying discontentedly.

The Silver Bullet Answer: Evangelism

Finally, there’s one silver-bullet answer that’s almost guaranteed to solve all of the above: Do evangelism. With training support.

That’s such a huge answer, containing so much of the above yet so much more, I can’t flesh it out here. I can say this, though. Even for all of my natural interest in apologetics, nothing — Nothing! — has so driven me to God and to my studies for answers I could use, like hearing someone say something like this: “You know, I don’t think Jesus probably existed at all.” You can think about those issues, you can read about them, you can even have your full list of extra-biblical references along with all the rest. But when it’s a live person raising a live personal question, it becomes a live question to you.

So do evangelism, not alone but in pairs and groups. Let yourself and others face the questions just that personally. Then watch and see whether they care about answers!

No, it’s not exactly a silver bullet. It may not get you all the way to the cultural mandate, for example, and it might not overcome unbiblical fideism in every case. But it’s the closest thing I know.

It calls to mind the conversation I had with a very well-mentored and well-connected pastor who was surprised when I told him some pastors aren’t very open to apologetics. “Really?!” he replied, incredulously. I thought, You mean he doesn’t know? Maybe he’s not as bright as I thought he was. Then he went on, “They must not be doing any evangelism!” And when he said that I corrected myself. That’s brilliant. He nailed it.

Image Credit(s): Unsplash/sydney Rae.

6 Responses

  1. Clark Coleman says:

    A solution that is similar to doing evangelism: Do some follow-up work with adults who grew up in your congregation. Find out how many of them no longer go to any church. Let them take an anonymous survey that allows them to distinguish between concerns about one congregation and its people, vs. concerns about whether Christianity is true, vs. concerns about Christianity being too “judgmental” and so on. Anyone doing this follow-up might be surprised at how many respond “I don’t go to church because I am not sure the teachings are true.”

  2. Kim Beazley says:

    Tom, I think that Francis Schaeffer nailed it when he foresaw back in the 1970’s that the primary pursuit of those in the future (which has now arrived in absolute fulfillment of his foresight):-

    “Gradually, that which had become the basic thought form of modern people became the almost totally accepted viewpoint, an almost monolithic consensus. And as it came to the majority of people through art, music, drama, theology, and the mass media, values died. As the more Christian-dominated consensus weakened, the majority of people adopted two impoverished values: personal peace and affluence.

    “Personal peace means just to be let alone, not to be troubled by the troubles of other people, whether across the world or across the city – to live one’s life with minimal possibilities of being personally disturbed. Personal peace means wanting to have my personal life pattern undisturbed in my lifetime, regardless of what the result will be in the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Affluence means an overwhelming and increasing prosperity – a life made up of things, things, and more things – a success judged by an ever higher level of material abundance.”

    -from “How Should We Then Live” (1976).

    In a rather strange way, there was another social commentator of those times, Paul Simon, who I think nailed the same attitude in his song “American Tune”:-

    Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
    It’s all right, it’s all right
    You can’t be forever blessed
    Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
    And I’m trying to get some rest
    That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

    The fact that the character in the song sees that all’s not right, but feels the need to rest, because “tomorrow’s going to be another working day”, sums it up perfectly for me, & it parallels with your assessment, “…when people are too comfortable to “need” change, or when they feel incapable of changing in ways that will make a real difference, they won’t change”.

    But it’s also true that this is the state of our culture generally, so most non-Christians out there are unable to explain any of the reasons for their unbelief, & therefore the greatest need is for Christians to develop an understanding of what’s really behind statements such as, “But Science has disproved God/the Bible/religion”, so that those statements can be challenged with a questioning response, “Oh, really? Who told you that/where did you read or hear that/why do you say that?” After a lifetime in sales I know that in any conversation you must be the person asking questions to determine the direction of the conversation. Just making a counter-statement will go nowhere, even if it’s demonstrably true. The bottom line, though, is that most people’s reasons for not believing are no reason at all.

    Exposing the underlying prejudice, however, will not turn them to God, but at least it will clear the smokescreen responses so that true dialogue may be had.

  3. Travis says:

    Look at “Christian cinema” and how it has been ghetto-ized and turned into something synonymous with being sub par. What we need are Christian artists and writers who are unafraid of espousing their worldview and making great work while doing it. An excellent example is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. We need it to be so that someone wanting to read the best new literature is consuming the Christian worldview implicitly. That will do much more good than “explicitly” Christian movies which try to be too heavy handed and sacrifice good artistry as a result.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Good thoughts, all, and thanks for adding them here.

    Travis, I would echo that and add this. I think much of the problem with Christian film and literature is that we’re impatient with ambiguity, and we’ve built that impatience into our culture through our one most characteristic performance medium: the Sunday morning sermon. Every sermon has to leave every loose end tied up, no questions unanswered for people to struggle with afterward.

    That’s such a huge part of our culture, I’ll wager someone reading this will say I’m bordering on liberalism or heresy by suggesting it’s not the right way to preach. Before anyone says that, though, they should read Jesus’ sermons, and note how often he left things open-ended.

    He had reasons for that, of course, and I’ve written my own thoughts on that elsewhere. My point for now is just that part of our intellectual problem is that we think it’s wrong to have intellectual problems.

  5. Francois says:

    Firstly, I would like to endorse what Clark Coleman said above: Pastors and Evangelists will learn a lot by speaking to those who have left the church. My experience is that much energy is spent on bringing new converts into the fold, but there is little interest in those who leave. The simplistic reasoning of the church seems to be “they were exposed to the Gospel and chose to reject God” – so why bother with them? In reality, many people I know who left the church did so because they found the teachings simplistic and clearly out of step with reality – and this is also true for a number of Christians I know who still reluctantly attend church out of a sense of duty. The Barna Group has produced some good research on the topic.

    Kim’s point about asking questions is also very valid. I once saw a statement “Isn’t it interesting how those who are most interested in trying to convert you to their beliefs are the least interested in your beliefs?” Or something similar.

    I once walked into a Christian book store and asked for the apologetics section. After seeing the dear-in-the-headlights look of the sales person, and explaining what I was looking for, it turned out that there was not a single book on the topic amongst the thousands of books in the store. But that should not be surprising: I have attended around 600 or 700 church sermons in my life in a variety of (mostly Baptist) churches across three different countries, and have not once heard the word apologetics, or even heard that there is evidence to back up the Bible’s claims. I accidentally discovered apologetics in our university library’s theology section when I was looking for a book on the Dead See Scrolls (I was studying Engineering at the time).

    A medical doctor spoke at a men’s breakfast that I attended a while ago. One participant asked him whether he was ever asked about how he reconciled the Bible’s creation story with science. His response was that it was not necessary to get into those debates; just tell people about Jesus and salvation. I politely pointed out that Christianity has a credibility problem that is party due to the perception that it is contradicted by science. We need to address those questions. No-one responded to my point; they just declared the meeting over.

    My conclusion is that very few Christians know about the existence of apologetics and they don’t see the need for it anyway. I suspect that the primary reason for this is because they don’t see the need for, or even distrust, the concept of faith based on evidence. True faith is “believing without seeing”; a “leap of faith”. Faith comes from reading the Bible and being convinced by the Holy Spirit; not from intellectual arguments.

    I also suspect that many Christians are secretly scared that, once they accept the concept of faith based on evidence, the evidence would lead them away from their faith – which is not uncommon.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    Trenchant comments, thanks. Regarding your last point, Dallas Willard said it in The Divine Conspiracy:

    The powerful though vague and unsubstantiated presumption is that something has been found out that renders a spiritual understanding of reality in the manner of Jesus simply foolish to those who are “in the know.”

    So he would have agreed with you that that’s gong on commonly in the church. Much of the point of his book was to show that’s not the case, of course; that the faith hasn’t been so “found out.” See also https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2008/08/has-the-faith-been-found-out/

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