Welcome back to our series about the future of Christian leadership. This is an extended version of a conference talk I gave at the recent Acts29 National Conference. For this series, I am leaning on 1 Corinthians 16:13–14, which says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” I think this short passage captures several important themes that are in tension with one another. Those themes are the five verbs in the passage, four of which form two pairs of ideas that work in tension with one another.
The first tension is between the twin commands to “Be Watchful” and “Stand firm in the faith.” For a couple of weeks, we are looking at what it is we are supposed to be watching for. Last week, we talked about the need to watch for trends, not fads. This week, I want us to think about the need to watch for language, and not just words.
What’s the difference between language and words? Words are the things a culture will use to explain and define the way they experience reality. Words like virtue and vice didn’t only differentiate between the good and the bad but also spoke to a deeper reality about the way culture thought about itself. Virtue and Vice are biblical words and they reflected a world that was shaped by the Bible. 18th-century European culture argued about what belonged in each of those categories as the Romantics reimagined human freedom and sexuality, but the conversation was still framed by biblical ethical categories.
Today, words like harm, abuse, and trauma permeate our society. I see a tendency in more conservative pastors like myself to roll our eyes at these words as yet another sign that the millennial and Gen Z generations are overly fragile and dramatic. This may still be true, but if we get hung up on the words being used, we can lose sight of the broader trend that has been happening in our culture.
If you haven’t read Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I highly recommend that you do so. In it, Trueman traces the historical arc of our culture and its current obsession with self-expression and autonomy. This philosophical trend has resulted in a society that largely expresses itself through therapeutic languages like harm and abuse. It has reconstituted a word like violence and made it mean any act, word, or even sentiment that a person could deem as personally harmful. These sometimes eye-roll-inducing words actually reflect a far larger and more important shift in worldview and even - as Trueman argues - a redefinition of the self. This kind of shift is tectonic and worthy of our attention.
The question we have to ask ourselves as pastors are, “what does this shift mean?” Why would a generation of people become convinced that therapeutic language best represents their world and the way they think about themselves? The first answer is philosophical and it's what Trueman argues for in his book. The shift that has taken place is a movement from a divinely ordered understanding of the universe and, therefore, the self to a pure materialist and therefore subjective and internal view. We don’t think of ourselves as primarily defined by our relationships to God and our family as traditional cultures did, but primarily in terms of how we feel about ourselves and would choose to express our identity. I cannot understate the importance of this transition.
The second, and perhaps more pastorally important aspect is that the effect of this atomization of the individual has resulted in a world that is freer and simultaneously more lonely for people. People use therapeutic language because it best reflects their loneliness and existential need. People feel like their world has been turned upside down and they desperately need the community and support that they were made for but culture has convinced them they do not need it. This is a weird moment for our world because an entire generation has chosen to try on a whole new way of being and relating to the world. It’s a way of being that is ultimately bankrupt but without the benefit of the scriptures, they don’t know it yet.
So they are looking for something they need while rejecting the very thing they long for. If we get hung up on the words they use because they seem to be trendy and squishy, we can miss the broader movement of language that reflects both a deep need and a deep confusion. Into this confusion, we can bring a biblical understanding of the self and offer them the flourishing life they really want.