How do you help spiritually apathetic people?

This post discusses some of the mistakes pastors make when caring for those who display a lack of emotion or concern about spiritual issues and activities. 

But before jumping into the list of mistakes, let’s take a moment to make sure you haven’t mistaken a member’s behavior for apathy when in fact it’s something else.

Check to see whether:

1. This is a life balance issue.
Some people are overwhelmed; maybe they work multiple jobs, or one job that eats into any time they’d have to give to the church. Or perhaps they’re caring for a parent or loved one with a serious illness, and they don’t have any more to give. 

2. The person is depressed.
Just because a person is depressed doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need your shepherding or won’t benefit from your pastoral care. But in addition to following some of the suggestions below, the person may need to consider exercise, improving sleep, changing his eating habits, or even taking medication to get to the point that he feels more motivated to do the things of God. 

3. The person is an “ecclesiological burn victim.”
He may have had a bad experience at another church and now is hesitant to commit at your church. This person may need encouragement and help processing his former experiences before he is ready to get deeply involved at your church.

4. You’re not doing a good job communicating how people can get involved in church.
Some people won’t step onto the dance floor unless they’re invited! Make sure you have a good system in place to communicate the ways people can serve in the church. And make sure to brainstorm and offer diverse ways people can serve.

Now, if you don’t think any of the above issues are the primary cause of a person’s behavior, as his pastor you’ll want to motivate him to move past his apathy and learn to care about spiritual activities. But make sure to avoid the following mistakes.

4 mistakes pastors make when helping the unmotivated 

Mistake #1: We don’t find out what they’re passionate about.
Sometimes people are apathetic about church because they don’t see how their passions connect with God’s plans and purposes. We expect people to display passion and zeal in a few limited ways, during Sunday morning worship, at Bible study—and in their giving. If the only way we measure spiritual zeal is in those areas, we’ll miss out on the guy who’d be excited to teach local kids how to code as part of an outreach ministry. Or the woman who’d be thrilled to volunteer to help with your church graphic design needs. It may take time for people to exhibit more zeal for prayer, worship, and Bible study. Take what you can get and cultivate what needs to grow. Exploring what a person is passionate about may help you to see that the person is so entangled in worldly pleasures that the things of the Lord are of little interest to him. 

Mistake #2: We don’t affirm their apathy.
Paul Maxwell has written a helpful article called 
How God Cares for Those Who Don’t. In it, he discusses apathy as a tendency to take the “that doesn’t matter” stance. However, in this sense, God is apathetic, too. In fact, there are “trivialities” that God tells us He doesn’t care about! So it is OK to be apathetic about some things, as long as they’re the right things. This approach may work especially well with teens who are constantly criticized for being apathetic. Helping them to see that apathy isn’t necessarily wrong may be a way to connect with them. 

Mistake #3: We underestimate their apathy.
Apathetic people desperately need to read the Word of God. But it doesn’t help to give them an assignment to complete on their own, since they often lack the motivation to do it. Don’t underestimate the strength of the apathetic attitude by expecting someone to achieve results on his own. You’ll need to think of other ways to help him get into the Word. This may mean pairing him up with someone else to do homework assignments, or even devoting a portion of your time to meeting with this person to help him work through a homework exercise. Leading him through a process of self-discovery about what the Scriptures say may spark an interest in him for reading the Bible more. 

Community is an antidote for spiritual apathy!

Use community to help people get involved and have others hold them accountable. Others can come alongside them to help. This is a great way to involve people in the church in serving others.

Mistake #4: We nag or joke about their apathy.

“Gary, I missed you at yesterday’s church cleanup. But I know that one of these good, glorious mornings you’ll join us.”

“Gary, we had a special chair set out for you at men’s Bible study. People tried to sit in it and I said noooooo, that’s Gary’s chair. He’ll be here.”

“Gary, if you were half as excited about evangelism as your wife is, we wouldn’t have an empty seat in this place.”

Poor Gary!

Nagging doesn’t work with kids. And it won’t work with Gary, either. Besides, motivation matters. We don’t want people serving because we’ve made them feel guilty. We want them to serve out of a Spirit-empowered love for Christ. And if a person is truly apathetic about his Christian faith, it’s not an issue that should be joked about.