Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor, and welcome to Can This Work in a Small Church. My guest is David Zahl. He's the author of “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics and Romance became our New Religion and What to Do About It.” Yeah, it's a mouthful, but it's worth it. This is a really, really good book. In this episode, David and I have a wide ranging conversation about how the religious landscape has changed in our culture, but not in the ways you may have thought. According to David, we haven't become less religious and we haven't even shifted from being religious to being spiritual, but the objects of our worship and the rituals and rules around that worship have changed from vertical to horizontal.
So if you are a church leader, this episode will help you get a handle on some of the confusing shifts in attitude and behavior that may be frustrating you as you attempt to lead a congregation. And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question, Can This Work In a Small Church.
Well, David, it is great to have you with us on the podcast today. I sure appreciate your time.
David Zahl: Thank you so much for having me, Karl. This is a pleasure.
Karl Vaters: Thank you. A friend of mine who is an avid Amazon book reviewer - I think he's like in the top 100 or something, he's a little nutso about it - he read your book and was so highly praiseworthy of it. And he's the kind of guy who's really honest in his reviews, so when he really goes nutso for a book, it's like he really means it. The book of course being “Seculosity: How…” and then one of the longest subtitles ever: “How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics and Romance Became our New Religion and What to Do About It.” So I'm glad you add that last little segment, otherwise it just kinda feels hopeless.
David Zahl: Yeah.
Karl Vaters: As I understand the premise of it - and I've read it and I've got it tabbed like crazy, but I also want to be sure that I'm not misunderstanding the premise because I've had people misunderstand the premise of my book before too. As I understand the premise of the book, while we've become less traditionally religious and less traditionally churchgoing, we haven't become less interested or less religiously needy. The focus of our religious attention has gone elsewhere. Am I on the right track there? And if so, where has our attention gone?
David Zahl: You're a hundred percent on the right track. At least that's what the book says, and I think it's been only born out increasingly since the book came out. But yes, there's this idea that we have sort of become less religious, but I think we've become more religious about more things. And so it depends highly on what you mean by religious. The way that I describe it in the book is not only that which you lean on for purpose or meaning or values or transcendence even, but what you lean on for enoughness, the sense that I'm okay.
There's a slight tension in the book between what you worship versus what you… the feelings that you receive from the things you worship, meaning the feelings of justification or of just acknowledgement or love. So yeah, I think that that's pretty clear, is that if you drive to church on a Sunday morning, at least where I am, you will usually pass not only brunch places that are jammed, but you'll pass sort of fitness boutiques that are jammed. What's going on there? When you go, you find a highly ritualized experience, whether that be soul cycle, whether that be like the cutting edge brunch place. And you find lots of talk about purity of sourcing and purity of exercise, and there's all sorts of promises being made to people. I think it's tangible, I think that there's reasons why we are attracted to these, what I call replacement religions. But the experience in my view of being a person in 2022 is not just to occasionally be in an actual church, but to be in a sort of a proxy church constantly. Like we're seldom not in church. And by that I mean we're seldom the bad kind of church that is just hammering us with demands. And what I say, it maintains a lot of these seculosities or kind of replacement religions, maintain all of the demand and ritual of the old kind of religion, but none of the mercy or forgiveness or pardon or hope.
Karl Vaters: One of the things I love, and you've mentioned it several times in the last few minutes and the way you do in the book, there's been a tendency in the last generation or so to move towards well, we're not religious, but we're spiritual. And you just… I don't even know. I'm trying to remember if you even address that dichotomy in the book at all. I don't think you do. You just simply call it out for what it is. No, we are still religious. It's not just simply a fuzzy spirituality. The hallmarks of religion, the commitment to it, the ritualization of it and so on has not dissipated, it has not disappeared. It has simply shifted its focus. But it's about religion and not just about spirituality.
David Zahl: Absolutely. I find religion to be like just basically a more rigorous and specific form of spirituality, that kind of makes demands on you. And the seculosity, which… And again, the way I use the word seculosity, which is a made up word, is as just anything…
Karl Vaters: As are all words, by the way, so you just get to make up one of your own.
David Zahl: Thank you. Thank you. I’ll tell that to my editor. The seculosity is simply all of the spiritual energy and commitment devotion that is directed at earthly rather than heavenly targets for the sake of enoughness or a kind of pardon. That's what I mean when I say that. And I do think that if you drill down into what it's like, the world of modern parenting, for example, is just chock full of…It's rigorous. It's rigorous to the point of impossible. But once you get to the point of impossibility, there's no sort of Jesus standing there, What is impossible with man is possible with God. No. Instead, you just have, Just try harder, or here's another book to try. Or, Oh, your child hasn't turned out to be perfect, well that is all your fault. And it correlates to an atmosphere of despair that I think is out there when there's no release valve or no reconciliation mechanism for imperfect people. In Christianity, we have a God to whom we can bring our failures and our weaknesses. We have the promise and the hope of redemption in a careerist society where there is no distinction between who you are and what you're able to accomplish at the office. Well, there's no recourse for the person who's been fired outside of just, I guess I don't matter.
Karl Vaters: It is strange. As you're describing it, it feels like we've subconsciously decided let's pick the hard parts of religion and let's not bring in the best part of it, which is the grace and mercy offer through Christ's sacrifice and resurrection that actually helps us to overcome these things. It's almost like we've gone really legalistic. We've replaced the target of that legalism from the church things to… Although in the last chapter, you talk about how we do that in the church as well. But it is, it's like we picked the bad stuff and left the good stuff behind. It's really a weird… It's all subconscious; nobody would do that on purpose.
David Zahl: Yeah. I don't think we do it on purpose. I think we do it for the sake of control. If I'm told that I can be here, that here's the 10 steps I can take to master my own fate or to ensure my own immortality, I will take that over the wild and unruly love of God, which operates outside of my ability to control it, thank God. But however, I think the human condition is such that we would rather have the illusion of control than the security of God's sovereignty.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, fascinating. For those who aren't aware of the book, just to walk folks through what it's about. You've already defined seculosity for us. In fact, you define it in the book, which I love, as it's religion that's directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects. So it's not a change of practice, it's simply a redirection of the object of that practice, to beside me rather than above me, metaphorically.
David Zahl: And the funny thing about seculosity is such that we can have many, many directions that it's directed horizontally in every conceivable way. It's not just either horizontal or vertical, it's like a gazillion horizontal options and then one vertical option. But you can also say that as I tried to get to with Christians or just religious people, is that you can subscribe or ascribe to the seculosity of romance, for example, while also being a church-going Christian and saying, I believe that God is ultimately my Savior, and yet functionally, you also have sort of bought into kind of a soulmate myth about how maybe my wife is also my savior.
Karl Vaters: The book divides out by chapters, and in each chapter you deal with a different target of worship, basically. You look at the seculosity of busyness, romance, parenting, technology, work, leisure, food, politics, and Jesusland. And in our conversation, I'd like to narrow in on four that first of all have been most, I'll use the word vexing, to me, frustrating to me. And I think I've heard the most frustration expressed to me from the pastors that I work with. So what I want to do is let's talk through four of them. Busyness, parenting, politics, and Jesusland. These are the ones that I keep hearing reflected back to me, is people are trying to pastor their churches. These are the ones that are like, how do I answer these questions for people. So busyness, the first one, is fascinating because as you say right at the beginning of that chapter, busyness has become a virtue in and of itself. It's one of the few vices that we are congratulated for and that we in fact do a humble brag about. Oh, I'm just so busy right now, as though somehow that elevates my status and my importance to the people we're talking about. And then you use a term that I don't know if you made - I don't know if this is two terms you made up or if this is one that I’ve just never heard of before. You introduced the term performancism in this chapter, and then you come back to it a lot. So is this a second word that you made up? Are you just going to add to the dictionary? Or is that one that I just hadn’t heard before?
David Zahl: I'd heard that. Performancism is basically my euphemism for… The whole book is really a work of translation, and performancism is my euphemism for… The New Testament calls justification according to works of the law. But that's a big mouthful as well as it's a little incomprehensible to folks on the street. So I think performancism is the idea that there's no difference between who I am and my performance at X, Y, or Z. That might mean my job, that might mean as a parent, that might mean as just a social media influencer or something like that. But there's no distinction between I am synonymous with the likes or the followers I have on social media. Very few people, again, would consciously ascent to that. Unconsciously, we almost all ascent to it. It's the same, with pastors, frankly, there's no distinction between my value as a pastor and the number of people who are in this church. The numbers game that we play as ministers is just insidious. We know that oftentimes the health of a church has very little to do with the number of actual people who are there, but it's true. So performancism sets up a treadmill mentality where I cannot get off the treadmill for fear that someone else will overtake me, and so you get this busier than thou atmosphere where it doesn't really matter what you're doing as long as you're busy.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, so this busyness is one of the first ways that performancism often rears its head in our lives. We’ve just gotta keep going. But isn't the opposite of busyness laziness, some people might respond. Aren't we supposed to keep active and keep busy, and isn't there this call that Christ has put on our lives, and shouldn't we be continually active? Where does staying active become busyness, and why is busyness such a problem for us?
David Zahl: I think busyness is more in the sense of like sheep without a shepherd, going to and fro and no one knows why. There's a long distance between busyness and laziness. And I think, culturally speaking, laziness is not my fear right now. I think the level of anxiety and the level of depression and things like that, and just spiritual despair is usually much more correlated with this over demanding, never resting. If you project onto God that God is basically just like Mark Zuckerberg or is just like your boss, and demands from you incessant activity, that doesn't sound like my yolk is easy and my burden is light. That sounds a lot like late stage capitalism, basically. And plus, if you look at the rhythms of Christ's life, He withdrew. He wasn't always on. He never turned away from those in need, but he wasn’t trying to maximize his output. It was much more personal and intentional, and full of withdrawal and time with God, and inactivity, and prayer. The busyness that we deal with is usually we're in flight from some kind of verdict about ourselves, some sort of negative feeling, or that if we stop too long, we would start to maybe feel the consequences of our own sin, maybe we would just be the accusations of our conscience. I don't know what it is, but I know that the manic pace of modern life seems to be at odds with spiritual health. And churches that are just doing activities for the sake of doing activities, we see this happen because we are justified by the number of programs we have. That just is… What's the great cultural malady right now, is burnout. Everyone is sort of… You can do it for a while, until you're a pastor, and then all of a sudden you see all these pastors saying, Okay, I'm can't do this anymore, this is too much. So that's certainly not what we're called to as Christians.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. You mentioned in the book, church used to offer a break from the busyness, and you say, even to the point of, quote, being boring and full of silence. And now it's this constant beehive of activity. I like a church that's got a buzz and it's got some vibrancy to it and so on, because the opposite of that feels like it's either boring or it's really active. But it's not a binary choice here, where it's either hyperactive or completely boring. There is a place for silence and for rest and for contemplation and for pondering. You mentioned Jesus’ time away, plus you've got Sabbath built into the Ten Commandments. You've got the seventh day of rest that God Himself took, and He didn't exactly need to re-energize. He wasn't tired, but He did it, obviously, as an example for us to follow. So what are some thoughts that you might have for the pastors who are listening in, who are thinking they are being driven to keep their church a constant beehive of busyness, which in fact is contributing to this overstimulation, and how do we back off from that and offer them an alternative to that?
David Zahl: I think pastors, first of all, it involves them taking a day off. I think that the rise and more popularity of all sorts of churches asking their pastors to take sabbaticals, paid sabbaticals, I think is a very, very healthy thing. Funding them too to do it. All boats rise. I've watched it too many times to notice. You do get today a little bit more appreciation of the notion of Sabbath. I think that's a good place to start for folks who are struggling with it. But I think ultimately it's a confidence thing. I want to say to the pastors who are there that it's okay to provide an alternative to the busyness. And that is not saying we are just gonna do one thing all week. It means consciously saying, are we doing too much? Are we just trying to compete? Have we become another source of stress for people or have we become the place where they go when they need a comforting word, when they need their community, when they need to be with God? Are we the refuge or are we… And I really think the church has an opportunity here to say this is at least what we want to be. We want to be the refuge amidst the storm, not a cause of more storms.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. Sabbath has two parts to it. It has rest and worship. If you've got rest without worship, it's just a day off. And that's fine. Days off are good, but it's not Sabbath. But if it's worship and no rest, then it's not Sabbath either, because rest is built into it. It needs to be a wonderful balance of both. And I think you're right. I think for most of us as pastors, we are not doing that ourselves. Breaking the Sabbath may be the only thing that pastors regularly do that we're congratulated for, and that we really need to make an adjustment on because we can't keep burning ourselves out like this. It's killing us.
David Zahl: No, the burnout is very real.
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Let's move from busyness to this next one, parenting. And I was so thrilled when I started reading your chapter on parenting, which actually starts with a little bit about marriage, where you talk about the soulmate myth. I was thrilled. I nearly stood up and cheered because this is something that I seldom see addressed, this whole idea of: I found my soulmate. This is not only not a Christian concept, it is in fact a very pagan concept. When people talk about this and I go, I don't know, I could have been happy with hundreds of other women, probably. There's a whole bunch of women in the world who we probably could have made it work as married to. I'm glad I married the one I married, but she wasn't the only one out of the 7 billion people, and three and a half billion women on the planet, that I could have been happy with. This idea that there's only one person out there, I think it puts a pressure on people, first of all, and secondly, it's not a biblical concept, this idea of the soulmate myth. So you talk about the soulmate myth. And I probably just made a whole bunch of people mad, and I won't have made my wife mad by what I just said. She's heard it before; relax. But this idea that there's only one person for me and the pressure that's there, and then when we do, there's this expectation of fulfillment from the other person. Why is this idea of the soulmate so dangerous to us?
David Zahl: Well, again, it puts pressure on the other person to basically be God. When you drill down to what we are expecting from a, quote unquote, soulmate, it's we're expecting them to anticipate our every need to have all sorts of capabilities that we don't have. It's usually about what we can take from them or receive from them, rather than a Christian understanding of marriage is much more about what we can give. And I think that that’s beautiful, not worth walking away from. But I see there's a lot of paralysis and a lot of resentment around unconscious expectations we have brought into our marriage that we weren't aware of. I don't know, I don't want to point too many fingers. I think it's a story book, Disney-fied view of one day my prince will come, or this lady who's gonna completely rock my world and gonna be my one and only. There is a deification of the romance in this regard. And I think it can sound like I'm talking about being anti love or anti romance, and that's not the case. I think romance is wonderful and it's a gift from God, and what a wonderful thing that we get to experience that in any respect. But the way that we have pressurized or moralized even there's one person for me, it tends to create the sort of expectations that prevents another person from even being anyone for you. And again, it's all self-focused and it has a narrative quality to it that's just out of sync with what the purpose of life is.
Karl Vaters: Now I think it also has to be balanced out, and just for those who are listening and wondering what's wrong with me, before you're married, there's not just one person for you. After you're married, there is.
David Zahl: You said it.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, exactly. So then you move from the soulmate myth and establishing the parenting thing, and then you talk about parental overinvolvement. And I know for people of my generation, it's become this cliche of, back in my day you just hung around until the streetlights came on, my parents never came to my baseball game and I turned out fine, and now they're obsessed over everything. And so I'm always slow, to jump onto that bandwagon. But you do talk about the dangers of parental overinvolvement. Where did this come from and why is parental overinvolvement dangerous?
David Zahl: There's a lot of reasons why it's dangerous, and there's a lot of reasons why parental underinvolvement is dangerous. As you say, it's not like… The parenting stuff is always on a pendulum, I find, it's always a reaction, a counter reaction thing. What we're dealing with now is the pressure on modern parents sets them up to resent their children for completely taking over their lives, and taking over their marriage in other ways. But you also start to see you, a, you imbibe a view of our own power as it relates to our children. If they're amazing, it's completely because we did a great job, and if they're terrible, it's completely to be our fault. And a Christian believes ultimately it is a child of God, and that you are a steward of this child and you do your best, but you're not completely… There's all sorts of other factors in the world. The other thing is though, we start to lean on our… When we over-identify with our children, and this drives, I think, a lot of our seculosity of parenting, is when we over-identify with our children, we see them as a complete and utter reflection of us, or echo of us, rather than a person that God has made. We see them only as an extension of ourselves, and so they become sort of like a chance at redemption for us. You watch that with, like, parents on the sideline who had frustrated athletic careers, just humbling their children with expectations. Or your children become aanother sort of way for you to control and dictate the entire world. Either case, to love another child, or love a child that you've been given, is to not inflict them with pure performancistic pressure, but to, again, be the person they run to when life gets hard. It's complicated, but I do think the pressure on modern parents, they're basically told that they're terrible all the time. Again, it's like a church without any grace. So it's one false move and your child is gonna be living under a bridge. That is, like, why parents are so involved. Or they feel like everyone else is doing it and they can't opt out, or their children will suffer. So it's a hyperview, a high view of human agency, it's a low view of a child's actual personhood and their own belovedness or dignity, and it just drives people insane.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, and it's become so common, it's actually become like an overused trope in sitcoms where the parents are so concerned about getting their child into the perfect preschool because if they won’t get into the perfect preschool, then they won't get into the perfect grammar school, then they won't get into the perfect high school, then they're not gonna go to Harvard, then they're gonna end up living under a bridge somewhere. And it's this joke that happens in multiple sitcoms, I've seen it, but it doesn't come that often in fiction unless it's got some basis in reality. But that's really what's happening.
Let's move from parenting now, though, to politics. Up until now, we've probably been getting some head nods and maybe a few amens from listeners, and just so you know, that's all gonna change right now when we get to politics.
David Zahl: I hate talking about this. Yes, keep going.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, here we go. So the way you put it in the book is this: With the possible exception of career, politics has become the most popular replacement religion. Let me first respond by saying, how dare you. The most popular replacement religion. I agree with you. Let's talk about that. Why has politics become the go-to for so many people?
David Zahl: There's a lot of reasons behind it. I think one reason is politics offers a completely, what I would call a totalizing narrative. So that everything, the way that the American, at least, political system is set up is that your point of view can explain absolutely everything about the universe. If you're a conservative, you're progressive. Like there's nothing that falls outside of its sway. So anytime you're dealing with totalizing narratives that claim to have the access to the entire truth about everything, you're going to get people invested spiritually, whether you want them to or not. That's just the case. I think that politics is more and more seen as a secular form of redemption, of saving the world. It is the approved means by which we can achieve salvation. And that might not be an eternal salvation, the salvation of our country, the salvation of our community, et cetera, et cetera. And again, it's no longer governance we're talking about here. We are talking about actual salvation. When that happens, you also have good versus evil that come into play very quickly, and you have candidates put as Messiahs on all sides. No candidate, by the way, can live up to that, and we watch it over and over again. But it's so tempting to… And politics also becomes very religious in the sense that it gives people a sense of belonging in a way that churches, churches that have a common purpose, have a sense of belonging. But of course, in a political realm, you also have an enemy, and that gives you even more belonging, because if you can bond over common enemy and a common set of values, then the person who holds those values the most strongly and vocally becomes the most beloved. And so it's an internal police force in which everyone feels like I have to shout louder and louder and louder. And it creates a very oppressive situation in which a lot of these people I know don't feel like they can really say what they really think about any number of things, because they don't want to lose their belonging they don't want to be condemned in some way.
But even if I'm a person that says simply that I think politics are important, but I also don't think that they're all important, to a lot of people, they would say, how dare you? Again, how dare you underplay? That's something that's, Oh, that's easy for you to say, Dave, as a privileged person on the East coast, but what about so-and-so. It has this self-reinforcing importance and absolute importance on all sides of the equation that is deeply religious. A lot of the same dynamics of heresy hunting go on within political realms. But again, you have no mercy at the center. There's no allowance for people being very hypocritical, no matter what values they hold. There's no allowance for humanity, but there's also no allowance for sin and self sabotage. It all becomes about defeating other people.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, the extremism is the thing that's really changed, I think, in the last few years. You mentioned, politics has gone from being not just one lens through which we understand the world, but the only one for a whole lot of people. And then as you mentioned already, it's not enough to hold the same beliefs as me, but you've got to hold them as strongly as I believe them. And it's not enough for you to be against the policies on the other side, you have to be as angry about them as I am. And I've actually experienced that with friends, both as a pastor as well as just simply in my regular friendships, where there's been a bit of a rift between me and some of my friends in recent years. And we are still on the same side politically, we can sit down, and if you were just technically to list what we believe in and what we don't believe in, we may check every one of the same boxes, but I'm not as angry as they are against the other side, and I don't yell as loudly as they do for my side. So my lack of extreme emotion is then interpreted by them as somehow you must be actually on the other side. I get this pushback and I'm like, I literally agree with you on every single one of these steps, I'm just not that angry and I don't make it my entire being for every single conversation. But if you don't, for a lot of people right now, that's not enough. It's gotten that extreme. Where has that come from and what is that doing to us?
David Zahl: I think a lot of it, honestly, I hate to say it… I think that the need to feel justified and to feel like you're enough, according to some external barometers of righteousness, is an age old human situation that the Bible addresses more or less directly. People usually can admit this if they're being honest. I think that the way technology has annexed all of our lives just does this thing, and is made to do it. It's not like a byproduct. It's made to do it, where I get exposed to only those things that make me angry, because I'm more likely to click on that. That's the economic model. I only get exposed to the worst possible examples of the, quote unquote, other side. Or stuff that already supports my conclusion. So if you're only ever being exposed to worst actors on the other side, and vice versa, and it's a bubble that is being created around you. Christians believe that sort of the essence of sin is not only rebellion from God, but a sort of a curving in on oneself. That's what we create. We create these little filter bubbles so that we're constantly being confronted with stuff that makes us extremely angry, and then that excites our self righteousness, which is the number one thing it seems to me that Jesus and Paul, at least, were very much on guard against. But we confuse that for actual righteousness when we're really being manipulated. So I think that there's a lot of that and people don't want to see themselves as being manipulated because we all believe we've got such free will and we're so strong and good actors. But that's really, from where I'm sitting, that's what's happening. And it has erased the middle. Or you might say there is an exhausted middle. There's people on each side and then there's the people in the middle.
Karl Vaters: It's silenced the middle, at bare minimum.
David Zahl: It’s silenced the middle. So I think that that's happened, and I think that that's really unfortunate. And I also believe that more and more people are coming to grips with, like you said about your actual friends, the fallout in real time of this sort of manipulation. And so if you're actually able to get off social media and… But of course then we don't even trust certain media outlets anymore, we can't agree on what are facts. That's undermined a whole lot of trust, again. However, if I sit down with you and we talk, it tends to be much easier to deal with someone who I've otherwise vilified. But we create these us versus them dichotomies that are… The best way to feel righteous is to feel like other people aren't righteous. It's a very human, and again, sinful tendency. Even if we believe, if we can check the box and say all have have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but I could say still those people are still either insane or evil.
Karl Vaters: A lot of the binary of politics creates that, of course, because it's a vote for or a vote against, and you can't split your ticket… Well, you can split your upper ticket and lower ticket, you can vote for president of one and senator of another. But basically it's binary; you're in or you're out. Whereas most of life is not binary when we're actually having conversations with other people, you may find people who… there's a Venn diagram, there's some overlap, and there's some places where it doesn't overlap. But once you get to the ballot box, you've got to pick yes or no. There's no subtlety of that shading. So this idea of the binary of yes or no, when we live our lives in the political realm, that binary then comes over into all of our relationships. You're either for me or against me. There's no middle ground where we agree on some things and don't agree on other things, and we can have civil conversations.
And I love what you said earlier about what we see is we compare the best of my side to the worst of your side, rather than, let's be honest about it and compare the best of my side to the best of the other side, because if my side really is better, then the best of mine will be better than the best of yours. And it's a much more honest way of making those comparisons. But I find myself even being called down for even attempting to do that. Why are you reading such and such from that other side? Why are you even bothering with it? Well, because being an informed individual means that I actually want to read intelligent ideas from the other side. And there's some things they say that I actually agree with. The underlying premise of it I don't, but that doesn't mean everything they say is stupid or evil. And there are conversations that we can have and move forward in a civil society, but that is really disappearing very quickly.
David Zahl: I cite something in the book, it might only be in the paper back, but I cite some study out of the University of Pennsylvania. And I say that and people might already roll their eyes. But saying that in the past basically 30 years, it used to be that your faith would inform your politics, and today it's much more common to people to choose a church based on its politics. So the politics leads the faith rather than the faith leading the politics. Even the notion of saying, what are your politics, that's a very modern idea. It sounds very similar to what is your theology. That's a fundamental shift for Christians who… I believe the real dichotomy in the Bible is a righteous God and sinful humanity, not varying shades of humanities. So the political narratives are so tempting. Sometimes people hear this and they say, Oh, you are undercutting any kind of right and wrong. By no means. But we're so far away from that. We can have right and wrong. I can disagree with what you say without thinking that you're evil or insane, or like a comic book villain. I think that's basically where we've come to, and that's very religious, in the worst possible way. We're bordering on crusade type mentality, and that's not… As religious people, you want to say, Do we really want to go down that road? Haven't we seen where that leads? It's not good, it doesn't do well for people who say they believe in the forgiveness and blood of Jesus. I don't think it's a good…
Karl Vaters: And yet sadly, there's a growing group of people who would say, Yeah, that's exactly the road we want to go down. Like consciously are saying that, I'm hearing that it's that dangerous. Well, we could stay on this one forever and just really depress ourselves, but let's move along to another depressing one: Jesusland. Now, is this a third key word that you've made up, because you made up seculosity, you may have borrowed performancism from somewhere. Is Jesusland another word you made up and created, or is it something you picked up somewhere else that I hadn’t heard before?
David Zahl: I picked it up from a song that a guy named Ben Folds wrote. He was sort of lampooning a pop American Christianity, a billboard type Christianity that I think is tacky or some… In his view, he saw it as antithetical to actually Jesus. So it was like a Disneyland type of version.
Karl Vaters: So it's a Ben Folds Five song that I just wasn't aware of.
David Zahl: Yeah.
Karl Vaters: Okay, gotcha. Alrighty. The way you define Jesusland in the book is “a bastardized form of Protestant Christianity that dominates much of the spiritual landscape.” And you say it often resembles the secular replacements more than the real thing. It's fascinating to me because it feels to me like what you're talking about here is First Corinthians one, where Paul is talking to the church in Corinth and he's saying, You've got these divisions in the body of Christ. You've got some saying I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas, or Peter, and then he adds a group that says, I follow Christ, as yet another sectarian divisive choice rather than… So it's almost like he's saying Jesusland here. Like when you're using the terminology of Christianity as yet another way to bring about divisiveness, that feels to me like what you're talking about in this chapter here. Am I somewhat close on that?
David Zahl: Yeah. Very much so. If performancism is at the heart of a lot of seculosity, then how many Christians have you talked to - certainly I've talked to over the years - who feel like they became a Christian because they heard the promise of God and the forgiveness, and heard about the resurrection of the dead, and they got so excited about the rebirth in Christ, and then they're all of a sudden Christian for a few years and they're like, Wait a second, why does it feel like I'm on a new ladder and a new treadmill and now I'm performing again, and Sunday I have to put on my Sunday face, and I’ve got to shiny happy church guy, and if I don't then I'm sort of second class citizen. And that form of Christianity, which is, I guess, a legalistic caricature perhaps, but it's very real in the world, that is what we see. That's how Jesusland Christianity ends up aping its secular equivalent. It becomes another ladder to climb, another performance game, another means of asserting your own enoughness rather than church being the place you go to hear about what's been given to you from God himself. It's sort of an age old thing. I think the American landscape gets all mixed up with commerce and celebrity, which can be very strange, in fact tragic bedfellows with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But you do see it, and there's a real dissonance that people… You hear people be like, Oh, I just couldn't keep it up anymore, I just couldn't. And that's usually because they've embraced a form of Christianity. They may not have even known it, but it had more in common with performancist seculosity than it did with the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead and resurrection of Jesus.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, absolutely. And before people start thinking we're just, okay, we're just going to start beating up on American evangelicals again because we're the easy punching bag, you have a refreshingly balanced approach to modern day and to American evangelicalism. You talk about some of the stereotypes that are out there and then you say actual evangelicals rarely fit that mold. And I think at one point you even said, The average Southern Baptist is not any more judgmental than the average person in the culture. You go right straight to that. That's the stereotypical punching bag. So you address that and you go, in fact, these caricatures are in fact caricatures, they are overdrawn. There's a real healthy, balanced approach to that. But then you do say, when it does come to performancism, the Jesusland thing is just as bad as the others, right?
David Zahl: Yeah. The liberal church has a sort of performancism about social justice that is very pernicious and self-righteous, and just burns people out. There are just not as many of those people. Though a lot of them are refugees from a sort of a more evangelical form of Jesusland, and then they think, Oh, this will be better because it's more collective law instead of personalized ones. And they find out they just end up judging the heck out of everyone again. And yes, in my opinion, most dyed in the wool Christian conservatives, Southern Baptists, most of them are kindhearted people trying to love God in the best way they can, and there's nothing nefarious at all. I think that there's a strand that gets into the American church where we lose sight of God's grace for Christians, then you end up pushing people. You start to say, Well, it was good for you when you were not a Christian, but now let's get serious and let's start, time to conform and start changing. And you just start yelling at people, and you have pastors who just get more and more upset at their congregation for not giving more or doing more, or praying more.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, I've seen that. Legalism or Pharisaism, whatever you want to call it, appears to be more tied to a person's personality type than to their theological beliefs. Because if you're a fundamentalist on the right and you deconstruct and go to the left, you almost always end up as a fundamentalist on the left, and vice versa.
David Zahl: Almost always.
Karl Vaters: You carry your personality type with you, so all of the problems that you had, but now it's towards one set of beliefs, now you do exactly the same thing towards a different set of beliefs.
David Zahl: Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. And that's unfortunate, and it's ironic, but it's sad. It doesn't excuse it on either side, by the way, but I'd be lying if I didn't see people who were shouting bloody murder on one end, then they have some enlightenment moment and now they're shouting bloody murder about what they came out of. Dispositionally, spiritually, you might even say, the same kind of immaturity might kind of still reign. It's very sad and I don't think… I think God is forgiving. I don't feel like you can write yourself out of Hhis plan in a way that people think, or meaning, like the hope is not… I don't really necessarily pause at the hope as being in the church, but in what the church proclaims in the God that we worship who is the God who welcomes sinners, who is in the business of redeeming those who cannot redeem themselves. And ultimately, the word of God's grace is the final word, not the condemnation of the law.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. Again, so much that we could go into, but in the last few minutes let's take it down to the practical for the pastors who are typically the audience listening here. What can we as pastors do to help our congregations understand and overcome some of what we're talking about? But I think even before that, you mentioned it earlier, what is it that pastors need to do ourselves for those pastors who are trapped in this? What part of this do we tend to be susceptible to ourselves, so how do we address the issue within our own selves first as pastors so that we can then turn around and help our congregations?
David Zahl: Sure. Well, the performancism inherent in the pastorate, it creates enormous amounts of despair. And I think it's just not based in anything biblical, but it's deeply human, and it's reinforced by the culture at every conceivable turn. How many programs do you have, how many people are coming, how many baptisms, how many giving units, all these things. That is the law, and it will burn you out. And whatever practices a person needs to do that are effective with them in order to remain grounded in the gospel itself that applies to you as a pastor. That you are not defined by your annual report or your newsletter numbers, you're defined by what God has done for you. We remained grounded in that message, the same message that justifies is the one that I think that that sanctifies. So we try to… How can we keep the main thing the main thing? It's different for every person. For some people it is going on a sabbatical, some people it is retreats, some people it is just being able to pray with your wife and have a daily quiet time. I don't know what it is for you, but that has got to be first and foremost. I think in terms of ministry, we must acknowledge that everyone is suffering under this burden, this enormous burden of seculosity.
So chief of sinners right here, when people come to church, it's okay to highlight the fact that this is not another venue for them to establish their enoughness. That this is where you go when you fall off the treadmill, and that's okay. And how can we, quote unquote, brand in a way that really… That's what's different. That's what we have to offer, that the world doesn't have to offer. We have forgiveness, the forgiveness of God. And bring here, bring your failures, bring your shame. And trusting in the fact -because I think a lot of pastors think, well, I have to go and preach against these things - I think it's okay to tear down idols, idol smashing sermons are very popular and I think they're very effective, but I think ultimately we can also rest in the knowledge that people are generally pretty beaten down by the seculosity of the world, and that we don't have to amplify those voices, or the voice we're there to amplify is the voice of the gospel.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. One of the both challenges and joys of being a pastor in a smaller congregation is in a bigger church, you're going to address it almost entirely in your sermons and then in the programs that follow out of that, whereas in a small church, you're actually hanging around with people who really know you. You're having conversations, you're at a potluck together, you're visiting them in the hospital, they're coming to your home for a Bible study. There's actual hours spent with people who actually know you and you know them. And so it's as much about living it out in front of them and among them as it is about preaching it. So in a smaller church it's not more important to be genuine about it, it's important to be genuine about it in any church of any size, but it's going to be more obvious, I think, and evident in people's lives if you're not living it out, if you're pastoring a smaller church. Because they're in your life, they're in your face, they're in your house.
David Zahl: Yes. But that's why small churches are so beautiful too. That's the opportunity. You talk to a big church and you’ll be like, Well, I need to have my staff all read this book so that it goes from the top down. When you're actually the person who's doing the marrying and the burying and the welcoming and the teaching, I think that what an opportunity to just let it all hang out and to say, Hey, it's like this for me too, this is how pastors struggle with this. Welcome to the human race, we can talk about these things, and how can we see the church as a respite from. I need that as much as you do, let's get together, let's look at the scriptures, let's look at the Bible. Hey, let's look at this amazing book, Seculosity. But I think that a pastor in a smaller church has actually a much better place to do this sort of effective ministry because you don't have the cult of personality that sometimes seems inevitable in a larger church.
Karl Vaters: Well, hopefully not anyway. Let's get to the lightning round, shall we? We've got our four lightning round questions we're gonna throw at you.
Number one, what are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years, and how have you adapted to it?
David Zahl: I have two answers to this question. The first is that I work primarily in my actual ministry here at the church, I work with college students, and what I've seen is a larger and larger divide between girls and boys, between men and women. And I find the achievement gap is enormous. And so my need and hope to reach out to young men who feel ostracized has become more and more acute for me.
Karl Vaters: Wow.
David Zahl: The other thing I'd say is that I started out, with the ministry I do with Mockingbird, which is my nonprofit I run, in the last 10 years, we've watched a major shift between blogging to podcasting, and I think that in fact, the pandemic was a great opportunity for people in ministry to sort of embrace the opportunity afforded them by podcasting, and all these amazing communicators talking to people's ears I think is generally a good thing. It's no substitute for the real thing, but podcasting content, like what we're doing right now, Karl, I think is a worthwhile. It's not a add-on necessarily, it can be a key part of what you're doing.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, that's huge. Secondly, what free resource, like an app or a website, has helped you lately that you'd recommend for small church ministry?
David Zahl: Well, the one I run, I'm just gonna have to go with that. But it's Mockingbird, mbrd.com, and we have a free app called the Mocking App, which is a daily, there’s a daily devotional to it, there's lots of podcasts, and there's mainly just like constant stream, a barrage of stuff about seculosity, about all sorts of elements of connecting the culture with everyday life. So I find that to be, I'm gonna be selfishly or self-interested here and say that that’s my favorite because it's free.
Karl Vaters: There you go. And we will put a link to that in the show notes. What's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?
David Zahl: Do as little as possible, and that was what I watched someone do at the institution of… A dear friend of mine is part of a big church. What was meant by that was wait and see what God is doing. Try to hit your…Rather than come in with a bunch of agendas, there will be things to do, plenty of things to do, but if you come in with a bunch of extra ideas about what needs to be done immediately, I've found that in my case, it's almost always stop and see and pray and see what is said. So it sounds like a kind of a totally discouraging point of view, but I've found it to be enormously life giving.
Karl Vaters: I agree. The move towards minimalism, I think, is really healthy. And then the last one, what's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?
David Zahl: Well, I was in New York City for many years and I had a dear friend who was near Union Square, and we would regularly have, homeless people just come and interrupt the service. And I watched one guy one time, a homeless man who it wasn't just substances, he was clearly psychotic, and he came and started threatening all of us, and my friend had to stop the sermon and he came down and he sat with the guy. We all just stopped the service. There were 150 people there, and we stopped the service. The police were called, but he didn't… There was something about it that he was unflustered and was able to make us all feel safe, but that we were not just gonna turn off our Christianity once we got a little threatened. And they got this guy some stuff he needed and a drink of coffee, and got him some new shoes or something like that from the soup kitchen, and then were able to find him some resources. But it happened in the middle of the service. And I think instead of following the script, I watched my friend basically become a Christ-like presence in that moment. And anyone who wass there is still going to that church because they were just so impacted by it.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, that's great. Yeah. It reminds me, the disciples had all kinds of important stuff to talk about and the kids ran in and Jesus said, Yeah, we're going to do this stuff with the kids here now, this is real life interrupting us, let's do the real life thing. And that feels like that to me. Again, thank you. Your book, “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became our New Religion and What to Do About It.” I highly recommend that for anybody who'd like to follow up on anything else with you. How can people find you online if they would like to get in touch with you in any way?
David Zahl: Sure, I'm on the Mockingbird website, which is mbird.com. I have a podcast called the Mocking Cast. And I actually have a new brand new book out called “Low Anthropology, the Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others and Yourself.” And so it's really nice to actually not be talking about that today, but that's out there too. So I'm all over the internet.
Karl Vaters: All right, terrific. Hey, thank you so much for this. Thank you for the wisdom in the book, I encourage people to get it, and for your time today. You have helped a lot of us, I'm sure, and hopefully help us understand how to recalibrate some of what's happening in our world around us and how to help our congregations get to a more healthy and balanced approach to life in keeping the object of our worship where where our worship ought to go. Thank you so much for that.
David Zahl: Thank you, Karl. Thanks for having me.
Karl Vaters: You're welcome. Which of the subjects we talked about are you dealing with in your congregation? One of them, a few of them, maybe all of them? The manner in which David approaches these realities is so helpful for me. His book and this conversation have helped me make sense of what is often confusing and conflicting signals that I get in my personal relationships and in my attempt to be a church leader. So can this work in a small church? Well, of course. As we mentioned near the end of the conversation, in a small church, addressing these issues may be harder than it is for our big church friends because we are actually living these issues out in real life relationships with the members of our congregation, but that's also what makes this such a great opportunity for us. I really encourage you to ask yourself if you yourself have been seduced by one or more of these competing worldviews. It's possible. In fact, it's probable. In fact, I know it's happened because I've talked to a lot of pastors, and I've had it happen myself. It's very easy to get sucked in by these worldviews. So let's address it in ourselves first, and then let's live out a more Christ-like alternative in our homes, in our churches, in our marriages, and in our lives. Who we are will speak louder than any sermon we preach.
If you'd like to support this ministry with a one-time gift or monthly donation, and help put these resources into the hands of ministries that need them the most, check out our support link in the show notes. Would you like a transcript of this episode? It will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at christianitytoday.com/karlvaters. You can find the link in the show notes. This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver, edited by Phil Vaters. Original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of Jackwilkinsmusic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters, and I'm a small church pastor.