“We have to see life for what it really is, to name the brutal facts but also to keep our hearts.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Carey Nieuwhof talks about the big storylines at play in church leadership today, the importance of a quality intellectual life as well as a spiritual one, and how we can build a future-proof resilience into ourselves and others.
It seems harder than ever for an average person to trust the integrity of an institution. What can be done about the crisis of credibility?
We can process this on the individual level and at the institutional level. You’re right about it though. I don’t have recent data, but I would think that we must be at an all-time low or close to it in our trust in institutions. That’s part of postmodernism and deconstructionism, and the end result of a mid-20th-century philosophical movement that tried very hard to see through things until there was nothing left to see. We’re at that point where we realize that the emperors we trusted growing up kind of have no clothes—or they’re at least poorly dressed. We’re seeing that there are some serious systemic issues that we must address in education, governance, institutions and denominations.
We can start with empathy and, where needed, apology. To say “I’m sorry,” and maybe we can repent. Maybe we get on our knees and ask God and other people for forgiveness. Then, to that I would add that our perspective can easily get skewed. I have a list of pastors I pray for by name every week, on a rotation of different issues. I was reading through it a little while back after yet another scandal, yet another leader that I had admired who had fallen. And to be honest with you, I’ve had so many that there’s no shock anymore, not really. But as I looked at the people I was praying for, I realized they’re all still in ministry. Some of the names you would know, some of them you wouldn’t. They’re all just people living out their calling, and I believe they’re doing it faithfully. So if you look at the whole story, I think most people can point to a Christian in their lives who actually is following Jesus and living a life of humble, generous integrity. That simple faithfulness makes a difference in the world. And I think from there we can start rebuilding trust.
As well, the nature of networks is changing. As institutional trust declines, the rise of connectivity has allowed legacy media to be replaced by nearly anyone with a message and a microphone. Somebody like myself can work from my basement and have over 20 million downloads on a podcast. Like that’s insane. When I was in radio, it took hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars and a big transmitter to reach thousands of people. Now, you can do it off the package you bought when Apple had its last launch. Like you already own the technology to have a big platform. And so, what’s happening—and Mark Sayers has spoken a lot about this—is that we’re moving into a complex network world. The boomers had legacy networks, like Fox News or CNN, or this or that seminary. Gen Z is creating different networks on different platforms. That’s what you see in the church-planting movement as organizations that are kind of start-ups are taking over a lot of what denominations used to do in terms of church planting.
I think you’ve got lots of factors impacting this issue. But the thing that gives me hope is that there are so many millions of faithful, humble Jesus followers, some of whom are known and a vast majority who are not. We can all too easily get ourselves feeling like Elijah before Mt. Carmel—I’m the only one left. Well, actually, no. You’re not.
“This is an opportunity for us to recognize that ours is a very unhealthy culture and decide to do our best to reflect the heart of Jesus.”
This is also a chance for the next generation to get it right. Yeah, this is a chance for younger millennials. This is chance for Gen Z and Gen Alpha to get it right. The coming years will be a chance for the remaining churches to change and define their values. I see younger leaders as being passionate about creating a healthy culture. So I think this is an opportunity for us to recognize that ours is a very unhealthy culture and decide to do our best to reflect the heart of Jesus and eliminate the toxins in ourselves and others and try to create thriving, healthy, humble organizations. We want to be a part of something like that, but it’s so rare in this culture and this era. What gets me about all the falling out that we’re seeing among some of the top leaders today is that so many people who claim to be spiritually healthy are actually toxic. The good news about the next generation of leaders is that their tolerance level for emotional and relational toxicity is very low.
We all have “toxins” inside of us. It’s not like any of us missed the fall, right? But part of our journey to spiritual wholeness is to do the work of years, to get rid of the emotional, relational and other toxins in our life. That’s part of the journey of discipleship. It’s the “long obedience in the same direction,” that Eugene Peterson so brilliantly reappropriated from Nietzsche, in talking about discipleship in an “instant society.”
What are we doing? We are slowly being purified. We are being made in the image of Christ. I think we had a moment in our culture through the past generation when perhaps maturity wasn’t defined by emotional or relational health. We see the fallout from that. And we see now, better than before, the importance of letting the gospel permeate the whole of life.
I love that idea of “detox” for mind, heart and soul as a response to these larger cultural forces and with the goal of building in resilience. Do you have any practical steps for leaders to take to do that?
One of my favorite books is Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary. In 1974, as Nouwen was in the process of being a rising academic and was being courted by the world, he went away to upstate New York to live in a Trappist monastery for six months. The book is simply his journal. So he’s talking about going to the river and finding stones to build the chapel and having to get along with the monks and getting frustrated, that there were too many raisins in the bread, bad day, and all that. But in those six months, he was learning so much about himself. So much about God, about humility, about ego. You can see him wrestling from day to day. You can actually see the Henri Nouwen that we appreciate and love form in those pages. I would highly recommend it as a place to get the heart.
As for the soul? I’m very interested in what John Mark Comer, Rich Villodas and others like them are doing in terms of spiritual formation and encouraging contemporary connection with spiritual discipline. I was really impacted as a teenager and my early 20s by the rhythms of the Jesuits. I can’t say I’m a faithful practitioner, but those rhythms matter. Now in my mid-to-late 50s, they are even more attractive to me.
“Read deeply. I promise you the people you’re preaching to are.”
Then, added to those resources on formation, focus on the mind. Find the best theology you can in your tradition, and go deep. Not just the social books, like the intellectual stuff. Read deeply. I promise you the people you’re preaching to are. During my very brief time practicing law, I was in court almost every day for a year, but lost only two cases. Winning was fairly simple: Understand what your opponent is going to say, understand what the judge needs, and present that.
A lot of us are sharing what we believe, sincerely. We’re sharing what we’re taught. But we might not be speaking to the 25-year-old in the back row, who’s been reading the New Atheists and looking at you thinking, Yeah, you don’t really add up. Such resources will help us all go through the processes of deconstruction and reconstruction in a more solid, orthodox way than it was beforehand. Doubting isn’t always bad. Exposing yourself to other viewpoints isn’t always bad. Doing so can help you understand and appreciate who Jesus was on a whole new level and how Christianity really is an answer that echoes the ache of the soul in a way that nothing humanity ever invented does. Any doubts I’ve had have moved me deeper into my faith, not further away from it. We don’t have to be afraid.
What will we need to move forward from this moment faithfully?
Well, my brain keeps going back to what Jim Collins called The Stockdale Paradox: We need to have faith we will conquer adversity in the end while at the same time confronting the brutal facts of the present. The question to ask is, Am I really honest about the moment? Yep. Things are bad. People are not returning to church like we had hoped. We have people deconverting. Something like only 1 in 10 people who were raised in the church stay in the church. That’s all true. But neither is it the whole story.
I am not losing hope. This is the church of Jesus Christ. I’m called to this. Often we set up a dichotomy where we are ruled by either optimism or pessimism. But neither is the whole story. It’s not hopeless. We are not at the center of our faith.
“Exposing yourself to other viewpoints isn’t always bad. Doing so can help you understand and appreciate who Jesus was on a whole new level.”
Sometimes I think about what I would have thought had I been among Jesus’ followers the week of his passion. What would I have thought when he was arrested? Convicted? When he’s being nailed to the cross? OK, it’s over. I guess we were wrong.
We can easily look at the culture and say, I guess this was all wrong. But who knows what is coming next? So I would say keep hope. This is the crucible here. This is the crux. We have to see life for what it really is, to name the brutal facts but also to keep our hearts. That’s the challenge for the road ahead. Because God is still doing something. God is moving in the next generation.