By Joy Allmond
Ben Sasse, a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, says loneliness, lack of community, and hostility toward ideological outsiders are some of America’s—and the Church’s—biggest problems.
And he adds that two of America’s addictions—politics and media—aren’t helping matters.
“In public life, we almost have no sense of we,” Sasse said during a recent Trinity Forum lecture. “And that is strange. You [once] had local communities, and a distant community—which served a distant and lesser purpose. Distant community was not something on which we imposed all sorts of grand meaning.”
But currently, he says, Americans have traded personal connection for virtual identity. And it’s made us all the lonelier.
“Right now, because of the digital revolution and the hollowing out of local community and the evaporation of place (rootedness), in a lot of ways, we’re projecting things onto a distant national identity, but aren’t sure what we share.”
Sasse says that’s largely due to the way Americans consume media.
“The vast majority of the political addiction in our country that comes from websites and cable news channels is consumed by people watching alone,” he said.
“Over time, people who consume more of this tend to have few connections. We’re using politics to fill in for deeper, more meaningful kinds of community.”
This sense of community, Sasse explains, won’t come fast or come easily.
“And it’s certainly not going to come from politics,” he says. “It’s only going to come when lots of people develop new habits. We have more material abundance than any place and we’re feeling more and more spiritually impoverished and less communally connected.
Along with the collapse of the nuclear family, he says friendships are “in an absolute devastating atrophy.”
Sasse says in 1990 the average American had 3.2 friends. Today, he says, that average has dropped to 1.8.
“But there’s no data that shows you’re happier if you go from 200 to 500 social media friends,” he quips.
So what can the church offer to a rootless society?
“The things the church has to offer are the things most offensive on the surface level to the outside cultures,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Moore, who shared the platform with Sasse during the Trinity Forum presentation, says there are several ways the Church can help restore connection back into American society—bridging the gap between those inside and those outside.
1. Holding to the exclusivity of truth
“If you talk to secular America about their objections to the Church, that [exclusivity of truth] will be one of them,” Moore says. “It’s a view that, ‘The Church thinks its right and we’re wrong.’”
“We’re living in a time in which—as Marilyn Robison puts it—a society is moving to dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to the tribe.”
Moore explains the people around us don’t have to agree with what we believe. Rather, he says, the main objection the world has to the evangelical church is not that it seems dogmatic in belief, but the perception that Christians don’t actually believe what they say they believe.
“Look at the devastation from revelations from the Catholic church,” he pointed out. “Look at the devastation of the cartoonish and buffoonish behavior that often takes place in evangelicalism.
“Does the church have the ability to speak to the moral imagination, in a way that says, you don’t have to agree with us, but you can be confident that when we are speaking, it isn’t in service to some other agenda—political, social, market-based—but actually because we are, as Jesus puts it, bearing witness to the truth.”
2. Embracing evangelism
Many outside the Church, Moore says, are offended by Christians because evangelicals think non-Christian need to change—to be converted.
“A Cato Institute study shows evangelical Christians who go to church more often have more positive views of Muslim neighbors, refugees and immigrants, and other ethnicities,” he says.
“But it’s not just true in terms of churchgoing. Churches that are the most actively evangelistic are also the ones most connected with neighbors, and most love their neighbors,” he continues.
“If you find a congregation that is working with Muslim refugees, sharing the gospel, those will be the Christians who say, ‘You will not scream at our neighbors. We believe they’re created in the image of God, we believe they are loved by God, and we will stand with them.”
3. Understanding who the real demons are
Moore cites that when C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters from the vantage point of a demon, Lewis received criticism.
“Much of the advice given in these letters seems to me not only erroneous, but positively diabolical,” wrote one critic to Lewis.
Lewis’ reaction? “It’s all intended to be diabolical.”
Having an understanding of demons, Moore says, ought to lead the church not to demonize—and ostracize—people with different ideologies.
“A group of people who actually believe that there is a devil are less likely to make devils out of other people—their neighbors.”
4. Avoiding busyness
“One can usually tell the difference between a church that is booming and a church that is old and ‘past its prime’ on the basis on whether or not there’s a church graveyard,” says Moore.
“They don’t build graveyards at megachurches. Seeker-friendly congregations usually do not think about church graveyards; they think about coffee kiosks. We don’t want to be associated with death and inactivity; we want to be associated with philosophy—with activity.”
Referencing signs that once read, ‘The church alive is worth the drive,” Moore alluded that the default for many evangelicals is to choose a church solely based on its perceived activity.
“Congregations justify their own existence by the bustle of busyness within those congregations,” he says.
“It seems to me we are living in a time when there is exhaustion from being active—a time when quietness, a kind of liturgy, a kind of disconnection from the whirl and velocity of the outside world is necessary.”
What is our mission?
Moore says it’s also necessary for American Christians to look at the outside world and recognize we’re in danger of getting off mission.
“Behind that ‘we’ Ben referenced earlier, there has to be a more preeminent ‘we’ … a group of people who is more than the nation itself,” says Moore. “Then we can bridge the gap between who we are and who they are. And that requires remembering who we are in the first place.”
And once the Church reclaims its identity and mission, Moore says, is when She can speak into what ails our society.
“Only then can we say to rootless, exhausted, tired, lonely, Americans in the words of Jesus, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,’” he says.
“Only then can we learn to sing to ourselves, ‘Jesus loves them, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
Joy is the editorial chief of staff at Christianity Today and former managing editor of Lifeway Research.