Damaris Zehner: Evangelizing in a Time of Collapse

The Future Is Uncertain. Photo by Geoff Livingston at Flickr

Evangelizing in a Time of Collapse
Damaris Zehner

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.

24 thoughts on “Damaris Zehner: Evangelizing in a Time of Collapse

  1. I don’t think we can really make it happen. We can do what we are called to do, or try our best anyway, but making a success of it is beyond our abilities and competence. Faithfulness and success thrive in alternative realities. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter that there aren’t many of us, or even if we were whittled down to fewer than twelve.


  2. Probably true, but beside the point. When things seem to be collapsing, apocalyptists look to the skies, not to an incarnational theology of the cross.


  3. “It’s up to the rest of us to try to make it happen, but I feel like there aren’t many of us.”

    There never are.


  4. The Rapture IS a theology of glory – it promises the church a “Het Out of Tribulation Free” card.


  5. Very thoughtful post.

    My parents were missionaries in a Muslim nation and one of the stories my mother used to tell was about not being accepted by the women until they learned that she, like many of them, had lost a child. My older sister whom I never knew lived only a week.

    Micah 6:8 is one of the two verses I have on my office wall. It’s been there over 10 years. I try to live by it and fail often, but I try.

    I agree. What the world needs is incarnational witness.

    But it’s certainly not getting that from the American white evangelical wing of the church.

    It’s up to the rest of us to try to make it happen, but I feel like there aren’t many of us..


  6. Thank you, Damaris, for this article. Thank you, CM, for posting it here.

    I read the “news” too much.


  7. The bike keeps wobbling from side to side, and eventually it will fall over and we’ll have to start over again.

    More like —

    “The dog returns to its vomit,
    The sow returns to her mire,
    And the burnt fool’s bandaged finger
    Wobbles right back into the fire.”
    — Rudyard Kipling, “Gods of the Copybook Headings”

    And after running into this for decades, the urge to just Choke the Stupid out of people gets overwhelming.


  8. One thing is certain – “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” won’t cut much ice in an era of collapse and contraction. We’re gonna need a helluva lot less theology of glory and a LOT more theology of the Cross.

    There is more than one type of Pessimism Theology in contrast to “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” Positive Optimism Theology. (With a handle like “Eeyore” — THE top Pessimist of the Forty Acre Wood –you should know that.)

    More likely we’ll get a helluva lot less theology of glory and a HELLUVA lot more RAPTURE COUNTDOWN.

    Because RAPTURE READY/IT’S ALL GONNA BURN is also a theology of Collapse. Just every sign of Collapse is an End Times Prophecy Fulfillment and thus PROOF!


  9. Anonymous , I have always Maslow theory was applicable not only to the work place but too most areas of life. I like the link and of all things it reminds me of Sgt. York and the movie made about him. The majority of the world just get by on a day to day lifestyle were rest, relaxation and pleasure is truly a luxury. In my circle of socielty I am one of the few that really appreciate FDR.

    The old gospel hymns of the slaves reflect their belief in a better world here and certainly more importantly to them in the next world. I’ ll Fly Away,, Sing Low Sweet Chariot and Go Tell it on the Mountain speak volumes . The best way to reach people with the Gospel is to live like a Christian no matter what your status.

    I am a frim believer in you have to be there to understand in many cases. However , you do not have to go far even in this land of milk and honey to find people in need both physically and spiritually The best we can do is the best we can do under the circumstances of our life story.

    As I tell my wonderful wife, when she will listen, I wear the yoke lightly. If I am wrong about what I believe , I am no worse for it and would not change anything. I will always remember and keep my Come to Jesus Moment as it did change my life in this world . I am too old to change now.

    However, I know it is hard to focus and think clearly when you are starving or in our world living pay day to pay day.
    It is all a personal journey based on our lives but in the end as the Rev. Mr. Black sang “You have to walk that lonesome valley no one can walk it for you, you got walk it yourself”. :.

    My thoughts are not only rambling they are scrambling. I told Maslow but I am stuck at a basic need of clear thinking so I remain un for filled..


  10. Hey, Radagast. One of the challenges of growing older is understanding why young people care about what they care about. While basic needs always remain the same, somehow society (God? the devil? advertising? — assuming those last two are different . . .) directs each generation’s attention to particular issues and forgets the pressing causes of the previous era. For example, I have students who are drunk with excitement about science and rationality and feel as if they are the first ever to question religion — whereas my generation was seeking some spiritual truth, although we might have been looking for it in odd places. The bike keeps wobbling from side to side, and eventually it will fall over and we’ll have to start over again.


  11. the old theory of ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’,

    but maybe it’s the simpler way of living that contributes more to self-actualization

    however there is a great difference between ‘living’ and ‘survivingl’ and the latter can be a hard-scrabble existence more hellish than not


  12. Damaris,

    It seems the closer one is to simple living, the more one is focused on the basic needs that affect them at the moment. Extreme examples are Chinese peasants in the rice paddies under a communist government, or your own experience in the poor Muslim villages of Central Asia more focused on survival and the corporal works rather than the global issues.

    I believe the further away you are from focus on basic needs and closer you are to comfort and leisure the more you are focused on the global issues and what, from a particular perspective, should be done to save ourselves from ourselves.

    I live next to former refugees from Bhutan (Nepal descendants) and they surely are not worried about big picture issues.

    My kids, now in their late 20’s down to their teen are concerned about whatever the schools have pushed as the flavor of the day. And as a general consensus, even though some still go to Church, they view the Church/Christianity as intolerable or evil (especially the younger ones who get that influence in school or the news).

    As for me… I tend to live more of a day-to-day way of thinking…. and not get too caught up in those things out of my control when I can help it. It is hard though that these days most of my kids are challenging the ideals I grew up with as wisdom is no longer seen as important….

    My rambling….


  13. love the Carlyle quote!

    The ideas in the quote fit well with how Carlyle himself was remembered in a lengthy critique of his work by G.K. Chesterton, who ended some critical personal observations of Carlyle with these memorable and beautiful words:

    ” He came and spoke a word,
    and the chatter of rationalism stopped,
    and the sums would no longer work out and be ended.

    He was a breath of Nature
    turning in her sleep under the load of civilisation,
    a stir in the very stillness of God
    to tell us He was still there.”


  14. That tag line is really true. The American church today lacks the stature to solve big problems, but it can still behave with decency and honor.

    The Micah 6:8 mandate, simple as it is, is really a monumental goal and a lifetime aspiration for all of us be the truly saintly. The 19th Century moralist Thomas Carlyle, in his overblown flourishing style, provides a preliminary Step Zero for those who aren’t ready to just leap blindly into justice and goodness.

    “What is to be done? allow me to reply: By thee, for the present, almost nothing. Thou there, the thing for thee to do is, if possible, to cease to be a hollow sounding-shell of hearsays,egoisms, purblind dilettantisms; and become, were it on the infinitely small scale, a faithful discerning soul. [D]escend into thy inner man and see if there be any traces of a soul there; till then there can be nothing done! O brother, we must if possible resuscitate some soul and conscience in us, exchange our dilettantisms for sincerities, our dead hearts of stone for living hearts of flesh. Then shall we discern, not one thing, but, in clearer or dimmer sequence, a whole endless host of things that can be done. Do the first of these; do it; the second will already have become clearer, doabler; the second, third and three-thousandth will then have begun to be possible for us.”


  15. The affluent will be too busy holding on to what they have tooth-and-nail to have anything but antipathy toward a theology of the cross; and the poor and disenfranchised will be too busy trying just to survive, as they do now. Times of affliction and collapse do not make people any more ready to hear a theology of the cross than do times of affluence and excess; I think a review of history will support that contention. That doesn’t mean the theology of the cross shouldn’t be the Church’s teaching; it just means the Church should not expect more “success” with in in a time of collapse than one of triumph. You would think the theology of the Cross would automatically, by its very nature and content, make the Church less prone to expect success, but it doesn’t seem to.


  16. I’m not unlike my non-Christian neighbors and acquaintances. I may speak and think about the big things a lot, and more than I should, but the things I worry about are the same practical matters that concern everyone else. Concern about them eats me up inside, and out. The good things, Damaris, that you suggest I should do and say in relation to my neighbors fears of in “a time of collapse”, I need to do and say those things to myself also, and first: Pursue justice and goodness for yourself and your neighbors …. Keep company with Jesus in your sorrows. Know that you are seen and understood. Know that you are not alone.


  17. A beautiful and thought-provoking post,
    and thank you Damaris for these words:

    “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.”


  18. One thing is certain – “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” won’t cut much ice in an era of collapse and contraction. We’re gonna need a helluva lot less theology of glory and a LOT more theology of the Cross.


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