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Is America Burning Out? (How to Minister to an Exhausted, Cynical Culture)

You know that people burn out. In fact, given the way you feel, you may have asked whether that’s what happening to you.

But here’s a deeper question.

Can a culture burn out?

And if the answer is yes, any chance that’s happening to America in this moment?

An accurate diagnosis might be helpful right now because, if you’re like me, as you read the news and scroll through your feed, it’s hard not to feel despair.

I was speaking to a group of next generation church leaders recently, most in their twenties or early thirties, and as I thought about their future, I was reminded of how pessimistic so many of the outlooks on the future are right now.

That’s when it hit me: It is possible for an entire culture to experience burn out, and is that, in fact, happening? 

Between a pandemic, a fragile economy, racial injustice, climate instability, and very stressful election and political tone, it’s a very difficult moment.

Then the even bigger question: In light of all this, how do you minister to an exhausted, cynical culture?

If in fact, a country is showing signs of burnout, that does three things.

First, it provides an accurate diagnosis, which has value in itself. Not knowing what’s wrong makes it very difficult to make things right.

Second, a diagnosis points the way to treatment.

And third, it ultimately offers hope of recovery.

Which is my motivation in writing this post. Although I’m a Canadian, I’ve always had a deep affection for America and (until the pandemic impacted travel) spent a great deal of time there.

Many of my deep friendships and partnerships are with Americans, so the connections mean a lot to me. Add to that the fact that America is still such a global influencer, and we realize we all get better when America gets better. And we all suffer when America suffers.

So, what’s going on, and what can we do about it?

How do you minister to an exhausted, burned out culture?

Some Signs it May Be Burnout

I’m personally familiar with the challenge of burnout. Having burned out personally around the age of 40, I’m all too familiar with the symptoms and challenges associated with it.

I’ve outlined the symptoms to look for here, but let me give you a partial, short list of what people go through when they experience burn out.

Given that a nation is the sum of its people, it’s good to look within to yourself and around to others. And when certain behaviors and characteristics are widespread enough to characterize a people, you could argue the culture is burning out.

So, what do you look for? While this is not a medical diagnosis, see if any of this sounds familiar.

Cynicism, a loss of passion and a pervasive numbness often signify burnout. To say we’ve grown cynical and grown numb as a culture is a bit of an understatement right now. And cynicism never finds a home in a healthy heart.

In addition to numbness, though, burnout can bring out disproportionate emotional responses like anger over things that shouldn’t normally make you angry. The weird combination of numbness to many things and a livid anger about other things is a classic sign of burnout. On that note, that’s exactly what your social media feed is right now—a strange combination of indifference and fury.

Other symptoms include loss of motivation (this will never get better, so what’s the point?) and the inability to think straight. When I burned out it was as though my mind stopped working…I just couldn’t form many logical thoughts. Taking a look at our culture right now, and it’s easy to see we’re not making great decisions, and the decisions we are making are often fueled by impulse, emotion and anger (see above).

A final sign worth noting is that people who are burning out often self-medicate. That usually takes the form of addiction.

The addiction can be something as ‘virtuous’ as work or food.  For me, it was both of those things. I worked far too many hours and ate some of my feelings (which of course, just makes you feel worse).  Other times you can get addicted to spending, gaming, binge watching, exercise or anything else that helps you numb out or escape.

And, of course, people also self-medicate through the use of alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling.

The fact that we’re a deeply addicted culture points to an inability to cope with the current reality. Which opens the door wide for healing and ministry.

So, what can you do to point toward a solution, rather than be part of the problem?

1. Drink From a Deeper Well

It’s not your imagination, your social media feed and news feed are hard to take right now.

While it’s important to stay connected and in touch as a leader, the main thing your social media and news feed do these days is feed your anxiety. What’s used to feed your mind and heart now just feeds your despair.

Which is why you need to drink from a deeper well.

Obviously, for Christians, that starts with scripture.

But in a fractious time, even reading the Bible can be one more way to find ammunition to attack the other side or prove your point. That’s just a bad use of the Bible.

Don’t let your news feed filter your reading of scripture. Let your reading of scripture filter your news feed. The former fuels anxiety. The latter diffuses it.

Another great practice right now is to anchor yourself in timeless truth. Go back to a favorite devotional book, spiritual classic or something that wasn’t written in the last 20 years.

Sages have made it through crises in the past. If you keep yourself anchored, so will you.

2. Bind Wounds, Don’t Aggravate Them

When a culture is wounded, ask yourself whether your chief goal is to bind the wound or aggravate it. Right now, it feels like many have gone beyond poking and into aggravation.

What if you just decided that your approach in life and online was going to be to bind wounds, not aggravate them?

To try to heal your enemies rather than harm them?

A simple way to begin is to ask this question: How can I help?

If what you’re about to say or do doesn’t help your neighbor, don’t say it and don’t do it.

3. Offer a Real Alternative to Hype and Hate

Our world is looking for an alternative right now.

Deciding what you want to be known for is the first step in the right direction.

As my friend Jeff Henderson points out, most churches (and many church leaders) have been known for what they’re against. It’s much better to be known what you’re for.

Being against something takes almost no work. I personally find it easy to come up with almost instant criticism of almost anything.

So many people eating Doritos who have never once stepped foot on a field know how to manage an NFL team better than a head coach. Criticism is easy and often inaccurate.

It’s much harder to decide what you’re for. But that’s where all the value is.

Being for something will actually require something of you. Some effort, some principles, some sacrifice and perhaps some misunderstanding.

Church leaders make a mistake when they imagine that the scripture is mostly about things we’re against. It’s not.

It’s about things we’re for. The alternative community that emerged in the first century that was characterized by love, equality, generosity, sacrifice, caring for the marginalized and least important and the outward thrust of the Gospel reshaped the world and reshaped history.

The next generation today is looking for an alternative to hype and hate. They’re looking for hope.

The church is their best hope for finding that. If we focus on the things the early church focused on, they will.

4. Take Care of Yourself

This is a long, tiring journey we’re on.

The crisis everyone thought would last for a few months is dragging on with no end in sight. With chronic instability on the indefinite horizon, healthy leaders are the only leaders who are going to make it long term.

So, take care of yourself.

For years I ran on no reserves. You just can’t do that.  And your vacation won’t save you.

Here’s why: Time off won’t heal you when the problem is how you spend time on. Most of us run at unsustainable pace, limping into our weekends and vacation hoping they’ll restore us. They won’t. A vacation can’t solve an unattainable pace. A sustainable pace can solve an unattainable pace.

The mantra I’ve lived by for the almost 15 years since my burnout is live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow. I’ve adjusted everything in my life to try to make sure that happens: My sleep, diet, exercise, time off, the kind of work I do and so much more.

So think about that: What do you need to do today so you can thrive tomorrow?

Cancel some meetings? Delegate a little more? Say no to some new opportunities? Go for a run? Get to bed early tonight? Stop drinking every night to relieve the stress? Take a nap? Get that workout in?

It’s probably a combination of all of that (and more).

If you don’t put some margin in your life today, you won’t have much of a tomorrow.

5. Unfollow 

One of my personal values is ‘err on the side of generosity.’ I like being generous, not just financially, but in spirit, trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and including rather than excluding.

I’m also deeply concerned about confirmation bias and the echo chamber that social media algorithms create (I wrote about that here).

That said, I’ve unfollowed more people in the last year than in the last five years combined largely because they are fueling the anger rather than diffusing it. And no, I’m not talking about the racial justice discussion (I’ve actually followed that conversation more closely).

But the kind of people who are always stirring up controversy, magnifying division, and taking entrenched partisan (rather than principled) stands became such a distraction and agitation for me that unfollowing or muting seems to be the best option.

It’s difficult to think (and pray) deeply when you have people constantly yelling in your ear about their take on every issue whether it matters or not.

So, you may want to consider unfollowing or muting a few people. It’s hard to bring something positive if you constantly fill your mind with negatives.

It’s hard to bring peace if you only fill your mind with division.


What Do You See?

I really think this is a great opportunity for us, as leaders, to speak into the culture in fresh ways. But to do that, we have to be healthy.

What are you seeing? Do you think people (and perhaps our culture) are burning out?

What do you need to do to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

Is America Burning Out? (How to Minister to an Exhausted, Cynical Culture)

15 Comments

  1. Wil Williford on October 9, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Thank you for doing what you’re doing, Carey. For some reason, I don’t believe you „set out“ to be or do this…but you have actually been a pastor to pastors in this difficult season. Thank you for your diligence and persistence to prayerfully speak to topics that we are all observing and the emotions many of us are experiencing…and by skillfully spreading so much wisdom from week to week. I appreciate you from afar! 😉 (Germany) Thank you for ministering to me…

  2. Dan Czaplewski on October 6, 2020 at 10:35 am

    This isn’t push back, but an effort at perspective. I’m 63. When I was a “young leaders” (or aspiring young leader) in my 20’s and 30’s everything was negative. The Church was losing the influence over culture it had in the 1950’s and early 1960″s, church attendance was declining, the great flagship churches were slipping, and the old geesers (like I am now) were saying how glad they were not to have to minister in the world that was emerging.
    My point is that it can always look tough for young leaders. It can also look like a time of unprecedented opportunity. We have opened a digital mission field in just 6 months. The reach is global, the start up costs are cheap, and it’s there before us. Is it the same? Of course not! Can the kingdom still grow – yeah, I’m pretty sure it can. Just some thoughts. I think it was an excellent article and made me think. Thanks!

  3. Chip Freed on October 6, 2020 at 9:20 am

    Bruh, this was deep water for me today. Thank you!

  4. LINDA BROOKS on October 5, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    I look forward to the summit on Thursday. I liked your comment about being more like the first church. I feel that they welcomed everyone, helped those in need, shared what they had and were truly excited about the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They offered “the Way”, which was a new way open to Jew and Gentiles. We are called to offer “the Way” to people today and in so doing, offer hope.

    Linda Brooks

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 6, 2020 at 6:44 am

      Trying to get back to what we’re really all about. Thanks Linda. And I hope the Summit helps!

  5. Ernie Perry on October 5, 2020 at 10:32 am

    I appreciate your words and insights. I am thinking that for me, having been in ministry for 40 years and seeing how the culture has digressed rather than progressed in the ways of God, has been disheartening. My generation of ministers started out with great hopes of changing the world, and now, after all these years of faithful hard service, we are tired and saddened by how the world has changed the Church.

    • Ruth Morgan on October 5, 2020 at 9:37 pm

      Ernie, I really feel for you. This really is a tough position to be in and my heart goes out to you. Trust me, what you are feeling and saying is very common for your generation of church leaders. I agree, your generation of ministers are most definitely under attack. You did an amazing job of holding back the wave of Anti-Christian attacks that we continue to experience right now.

      Your “fighting for what’s right” generation defended thousands of churches while giving them the opportunity to grow very deep roots that will provide the means to survive what’s yet to come. I’m not the only one to notice this and stand in awe of what where you have brought us.

      I hope that your church fully owns a building, and has a financial situation etc. that will allow you to circle the wagons around the people that have stuck by you and your “clan”, giving everyone you hold dearly a chance to just enjoy the safety and security that you all have worked for.

      If anyone ever wanted my advice (they don’t), I would tell them – Survive.

      Now is the moment to take that deep breath and focus entirely, 100 percent, inward to your community, your people, your clan. Keep your church and its members healthy and vibrant until the end of this attack. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

      Study yourself. Remove what people don’t want and double down on what people DO want. Right now, spending resources to provide what the world needs will only result in a loss to your church. Very few people are receptive to what they need vs. what they want. The more you try to provide God to people who reject your efforts will only make you more disheartened. (“Pearls before swine,” etc)

      Church members who already know each other and trust each other need you to hold everything together and protect what they have. It’s not the time to focus on bringing lost sheep into the fold. “A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”

      Churches are perfectly positioned for our future. All you have to do is keep it together until it gets here.

      Really.

      Other than senior centers, I personally cannot think of any remaining buildings other than churches that are already set up to receive people when they realize the sky is not falling and the World is not ending and everything Twitter has told them to be terrified of is a load of hogwash.

      You will start to grow again. Don’t worry about the outside world right now; they will always be there. (Like Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.”)

      Eventually, people will look away from everything that is wrong with this world, and when they do, they will see the community you have built and want to be a part of it.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 6, 2020 at 6:45 am

      Ernie, somehow I take comfort in the sovereignty of God, but yes, I hear you!

  6. Stephen Svelmoe on October 5, 2020 at 9:59 am

    I’ve always thought that cynicism was a step in the path towards spiritual wholeness – beyond certainty but short of true faith.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 6, 2020 at 6:46 am

      That’s an interesting thought. I’m going to chew on that. Thanks

  7. Linda Miller on October 5, 2020 at 9:36 am

    After reading your article on the decline of the church a few days ago (If you won’t leave the 99), with every suggestion starting with the word “Don’t”, I have to admit it was easy to once again spiral down into discouragement and despair over the state of the church, thus, fitting the description of “burnout” in this article! I look forward to hearing positive ways we can shore up our online engagement with folks on Thursday. The challenge is finding creative ways to engage people online if they are adamantly opposed to online engagement in any form, including participating in Sunday morning live stream. The long shelter in place has also exposed some of the great divides in churches as well: how people view racial injustice issues, political views, outreach to the marginalized, etc. The list goes on and on. Thanks for reminding us that we cannot fill from and empty cup and that the Scriptures must inform our political views, not the other way around.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 5, 2020 at 9:41 am

      Hi Linda…that’s a good point. Sometimes it’s a don’t, but I’ll have to watch that. Glad this one helped. You’re so right that this has revealed and exposed so much that’s been lurking below the surface. Here’s to healing.

  8. Sheryl Disher on October 5, 2020 at 8:59 am

    Carey, Your analysis of our malaise makes a lot of sense, & your suggestions are full of wisdom for ANY diagnosis. Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 5, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Thanks so much Sheryl.

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