Evangelizing in a Time of Collapse
The Church’s task is to make the Good News attractive and comprehensible to our audience, and that activity changes with time and place. Because what people believe about the world around them will affect how they hear the Gospel, there are two challenges to all of us who spread God’s Word: What do people believe about the world today, and how does that belief affect how we present the Good News? I don’t have an authoritative answer to either question. I am not a church leader but a teacher at a community college. However, my students are emphatically among the people who need to know God, so I am a stakeholder in this activity, and perhaps also I can provide some insight into what young people are thinking.
To address the first question, I think people – Americans, Westerners – believe we are living in a time of collapse. News, books, politics, and entertainment are either warning about the form that collapse will take or arguing against the claims of collapse. We hear about climate change, which, if the worst-case scenarios are true, might mean the collapse of our species, not just our civilization. The Doomsday Clock, which tracks the threat of nuclear war, just ticked closer to midnight. Our government seems to be stuck in a rut of disunity and obstruction – no surprise, because our society seems to be stuck there, too. Income disparity between rich and poor keeps rising. The march of technology against the worker, begun with the Industrial Revolution, has become a gallop. The population has more than doubled in my lifetime. Peak oil theorists warn us that the world based on fossil fuels is coming to an end – and will we be able to feed the population and maintain a healthy economy when we run out of oil?
It’s not important if any of the predictions are accurate when it comes to considering our means of evangelization. What’s important is whether people believe them.
Most people, it’s true, don’t seem overtly to care about the big questions of the future. They are thinking about shopping, vacations, kids, work, etc. They are like the people in the days of Noah, according to Matthew 24:38, eating and drinking and marrying. But there are signs that indicate some deep-seated worries. Look at the news, blogs, interviews, etc., and notice how many times you hear optimists say about the future, “They’ll think of something!” and pessimists say, “Who cares? I’ll be dead by then.” Neither of these is the response of confident people. The fact that the threat of nuclear war is greeted with shrugs and comedy suggests a deep cynicism as well – whether it is cynicism about war and annihilation or cynicism about the media and leadership that bring us that information isn’t entirely clear. Even the popularity of apocalyptic storylines in books, television shows, and movies hints at a concern with the future.
So how does the Church evangelize people who are reluctant to think about the future, who are living lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau would have it, refusing to imagine a drastically different life to come? Do we deal with the big questions of civilizations and species, death and eternity and judgment? Or do we talk about the daily issues facing everyone?
The big issues are hugely important, and they are also probably the ones that we, with our Christian faith, have thought a lot about. But many of our listeners don’t share our worldview or our confidence in God. Talking about the big issues can make them feel powerless, which can lead to despair or hedonism – or both.
When I asked my community college students how they think the world will end, they didn’t talk about the winking out of the universe or what happens after death; they talked about people having to get to work differently because gas will run out. Talk devolved from discussion of life, the universe, and everything to political, economic, and personal issues. Societal collapse, in their eyes, is the end of the world, and there’s nothing they can do about it but to binge-watch The Walking Dead. They don’t want to talk about the big questions.
So we have to start with the small questions. What if I can’t pay my student loans? Should I marry my child’s father? How do I deal with my horrible boss? Why can’t people be polite these days? These are what people really want answers to, and these are what we have to start with – being careful that we don’t just end up dealing with the earthly troubles and neglecting the Gospel – or that we listen impatiently to the troubles and then hit people with Scripture. I don’t have a perfect answer for these little questions, just two suggestions.
One suggestion is sharing Micah 6:8 in words and in behavior – not just inside the church but everywhere we go. “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice and love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Everyone can hear the beauty of this message and enjoy the fruits of such a life. Those three things are simple – though infinitely difficult – and lead people gently to the thorny topics of sin and judgment. People who aren’t sure about God still see how lovely justice, goodness, and humility are – especially if we pray daily that they might occasionally see those things in us.
The second suggestion is something I tried when I was working as a missionary in poor villages in the mountains of Central Asia. The people I dealt with there were as different as they could be from modern Americans, but they too, for their own reasons, were less concerned with the big questions than with day-to-day survival. I couldn’t fix all their economic or political problems; I couldn’t feed their children or provide them with decent medical care, though I did what I could. So one day I sat down for tea with a group of women and asked them, “What are the difficulties and sorrows in your life right now?” They talked about illness, family stress, financial need, cold, hunger, and persecution from their neighbors. The day before, I had anticipated everything I thought I might hear, and after all the women had spoken, I turned to the Scriptures and showed each of them how Jesus had suffered the exact same thing. (It was a leap of faith – what if they came up with something I hadn’t prepared for? But it worked out.) I didn’t solve their problems for them, but they saw that they were not alone. God himself endured what they endured. To these women that was a comforting thought. They knew their life wouldn’t get fixed. They only wanted to know that God saw them and understood them. I hope it also helped that I saw and understood them, too.
These are the things that we – leaders and laity – can do and say to modern Americans who worry that the future is dark and that life is cruel, that Christians are hateful and God is a killjoy. We can humbly pursue justice and goodness for ourselves and our neighbors. We can tell them this: Keep company with Jesus in your sorrows. Know that you are seen and understood. Know that you are not alone.
The big questions can come later.