In a restaurant in North Dakota, I found myself sitting across from a pastor I had met just hours earlier when I presented at his church. By every outward mark, his congregation was vibrant. And yet he felt a creeping crisis.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said to me. “It’s something more than apathy. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that my church, maybe the whole denomination, seems depressed. I know that sounds weird, but that’s how it feels. I’ve battled depression myself for years. I know it from the inside. This feels like a church-wide depression. Like we’re stuck in mud or trapped underwater, and we just don’t have the energy to face it.”
We paused as our sandwiches arrived. He then continues, “I mean, these should be exciting times. Everyone across the church knows we need change. But instead of creating energy, it’s creating depression.”
The Fatigue to Be Me
Parisian sociologist Alain Ehrenberg made a provocative argument in his late 1990s book La fatigue d’être soi: Dépression et société, which was mostly unknown in the English-speaking world until it was translated and published in 2016 under the title The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age. In this book, the sociologist argues that depression is an ailment of speed, the feeling of not being able to keep up. Ehrenberg shows convincingly that while there are antecedents, such as melancholy (something Martin Luther battled), it wasn’t until the 1970s that depression became an extensive part of western societies.
The title of Ehrenberg’s book, La fatigue d’être soi, translates more literally as “the fatigue of being yourself.” Depression in late modernity is a fatigue with no direct outward cause. It is the feeling, born within yourself, that you just don’t have the energy to be yourself.
Psychiatric therapies outstrip psychoanalytic ones in late modernity because often depression has no real narrative source. That’s what’s so scary about it. It feels like there is no reason for it coming. It arrives like a dark cloud that, painfully, won’t lift. For instance, depressed people can have bad childhoods or not, experience abuse or not, feel unaccepted or not. Depressed churches can have big budgets or not, be in the suburbs or not, have a full-time paid children’s minister or not.
Depression is so haunting because, for some, you can have everything you want, seemingly possessing all the sources to be a happy self, and yet you’re sad. But not so much a hysterical sad, crying until daybreak—that would be a relief, those tears at least acknowledging that you feel something. What’s worse is just feeling nothing, unable to garner the energy to feel even hysterical. Without analyzable narrative sources, it becomes much easier—even logically presumed—to make it a chemical issue, making pills the best treatment for it. Enter the world of Prozac, which Ehrenberg richly delves into.
But it isn’t as though depression completely has no source. Rather, Ehrenberg argues that its source is late modernity’s demand to create and continue to curate your own self (hence his title). This task is taxing and deeply fatiguing. The speed of late modernity, its frantic pace of life imposed on us by the blitzing social and technological change since the 1970s, makes life a raging river. In this raging river, you need to not only create your own identity but also reach out into the world to receive recognition for that identity, swimming madly to keep up in the breakneck currents. It is your individual job in a constantly moving environment to be a self in the always-increasing pace of late modernity. And you need to be not just some generic, bland self but a happy, successful, recognized self who’s not spitting out water but riding the rapids, maybe even with style. Needing to swim yourself to the crest of the current means that the self in late modernity can never rest. To be this kind of self requires constant navigating. This self constantly rushes to keep up.
Ehrenberg believes depression is not necessarily a response to some objective disappointment outside of you, but a response to the fatigue of failing to keep up, to over and over and over again create and curate a distinct self. It is la fatigue d’être soi: depression is the fatigue of being yourself. When this fatigue becomes too much, when we can’t find the energy to keep going into the water, creating and curating our self, we feel stuck. We feel sucked back by the current, passed over (a potent nightmare in our late-modern secular age). Everything else is moving so fast, changing and adapting every minute, and we just don’t have it in us. Perhaps we even feel something overtaking us that just won’t allow us to ever catch up. “I just can’t be the parent, employee, spouse, friend I should be. I should try harder, but I just don’t have the energy.” I have every invitation to change and change again and then change more. But I don’t have the energy to meet this demand. If I had the energy, the openness of identity construction would be exciting. But without it, the choice and openness are depressing. According to Ehrenberg, this is the source of my depression.
Back to Depressed Churches
As I drove the streets of that North Dakota town, passing strip malls and pickup trucks, I couldn’t shake my lunchtime conversation with that pastor. Was Ehrenberg’s perspective applicable to the church? So congregations lack energy right when it’s needed, unable to garner vigor when the opportunity for change is most ripe?
Without the help of Ehrenberg, I might have thought this was just bad timing. Right when congregations need to change, many are too depressed to grasp firmly with both hands their destiny. What a shame! It’s like finding yourself with a terrible flu on the very day you hold front-row tickets to see your favorite band. It’s so disappointing, such a lost opportunity, but the concert’s arrival and the ailment are unrelated. Therefore, you can only chalk it up to bad luck, or blame yourself for not taking better care of yourself. But you would never think to blame the concert for the flu.
Yet this is exactly Ehrenberg’s point. The conditions for change are what push us into depression. Depression is la fatigue d’être soi; it’s the fatigue to be yourself. It’s the openness, the broad horizon stretched before us, that demands we create and curate our own self, which then boomerangs on us. Depression breeds within the freedom to change and then change again and again, but never delivers on the promise that this change will produce the good life we seek and the meaning we need. Depression is us facing this horizon and realizing that we don’t have the energy or time to reach it. It’s the need for change itself, the openness to be and do anything (which is supposed to be exciting), that turns on the congregation, giving us la fatigue d’être eglise, the fatigue of being the church. This is exactly what this pastor told me over sandwiches.
The Great Change Challenge
Being too fatigued to be the church is a challenge. When a congregation seems to be falling behind its most often assumed that what it needs is change. Perhaps, at some level change is needed, but the pursuit of change runs the ever-present risk of producing depression. If we fail to keep up, finding ourselves falling behind, depression will meet us. This fashions in us the very opposite disposition than what is needed to meet the challenges brought by changes in our culture.
For church consultants and denominational leaders to call congregations to change is to risk something significant. It opens them to communal depression, producing the opposite of what they need to meet their challenge: despondency. Church consultants risk moving the congregation into a vicious cycle that is too often misunderstood as a straight line. The consultant is often called in when a congregation has either fallen behind or is too obdurate to meet the challenges of a changing world. The consultant leads the congregation in a process of speeding up, offering new models to speed them up to meet change. And then leaves, moving on to another congregation needing change. That feels like a straight line.
Point A: the church is stuck
Point B: give it the strategies to get unstuck
Point C: so that it can meet the speed of change
Point D: move on (and return periodically to tweak the strategies, asking the congregation to speed up further, then move on again)
But once the congregation is up to speed, it needs to forever maintain that speed, and also continually increase the speed year after year.
Modernity is the constant process of speeding things up. If we’re not careful, to diagnose the church’s issue as the need for change is to cover it in the core commitments of late modernity itself. If the consultant raises the church to a new speed, this yokes the congregation to always be speeding up to meet the never-ending change that will always remain on the horizon, a carrot forever out of reach. Speed is the supposed gift of late modernity that can quickly turn into a depressive curse.
Change is almost always considered to be some kind of growth, and in late modernity that which grows must continually grow. Modernity is about change because it is about growth. It takes a lot of work, and a whole different imagination, to disconnect change from growth. Untying the two leads to something completely different: transformation in the Spirit. Being the church is about transformation, not change. Though at first blush these seem synonymous, transformation and change are quite different.
Transformation, in the Christian tradition, comes from outside the self, relating to the self with an energy beyond the self. Because transformation comes from an energy outside the self, it invites the self into the new as a gift, as grace. It demands no increase for continuation, no energy investment to receive it. Transformation is the invitation into grace, it comes with an arriving word: “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). Transformation is not the necessity to speed up, but the need to open up and receive. Change, on the other hand, comes from within the self. Change makes the self into something new, using the power and the effort of the self. It is produced by the energy of the self.
Transformation and change have significantly different relationships to time. Change seeks to catch up to and possess time. Transformation is an experience of encountering the fullness of time. It is to feel a resonance, not speeding up to change but remaining open to transcendence.
When we push for change, if we’re not careful we impose modernity’s pursuit of growth, which risks congregational depression by thrusting it into a vicious cycle we don’t often recognize. The vicious cycle is endemic to modernity itself. Modernity, at its core, asserts that all pursuits must be primed, mathematically speaking. The equation is always something like M + C = M’ (money plus commodity equals money prime, meaning money increased). You don’t invest money to lose it; the point is to get more. This is how late modernity is structured. The same equation works with the modern research university, where knowledge plus research equals knowledge grown (K + R = K’; I’m taking this equation and therefore the overall point from Hartmut Rosa, “Two Versions of the Good Life and Two Forms of Fear: Dynamic Stabilization and the Resonance Conception of the Good Life,” paper presented at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture conference on Joy, Security, and Fear, New Haven, CT, 8–9 November 2017). The point of learning, in late modernity, is not to encounter a mysterious world unveiled by that learning. Rather, the point is to prime knowledge. It’s to create more and therefore to advance. Those who publish the fastest win.
If modernity were a computer, the code driving the system would be the algorithm X + Y = X’. Everything must be primed, and as quickly as possible so that it can be primed again. Our models of exemplary congregations fit the equation. They are exemplars because we see them through the lens of late modernity. They are the few congregations that have mastered prime. Megachurches like Saddleback, Eagle Brook, and North Point function with an equation of M + P = M’ (members plus programs equals members prime). If, like Apple or Amazon, you can return back again through the equation, you can prime your objective again and again. But every time you prime—to be able to prime at all—you must speed up the enterprise, find a way not to become friends of time but to possess and master time. Tim Suttle shares the story of a megachurch that raised $5 million to fund a new overpass to the freeway so that the departure time from their large parking lot could be cut to less than twenty minutes (Suttle, Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture [Zondervan, 2014], 59). They knew that in order to prime the M (members), they would need to control the time. The faster you prime, and prime again, the faster you win, increase, and grow.
Modernity promises that if you can get to the speed of change, you’ll find purpose and significance. But this purpose and significance won’t deliver the goods of contentment, peace, or rest; instead, they only open new horizons inviting more change upon the change you’ve just met. Speeding up to meet change, late modernity pushes us inevitably to reach for another gear, to speed up further. Speeding up to meet change after new change only promises to create the necessity for more change. This may be good for corporations, like Apple and Amazon, competing in markets and seeking new products. But it’s much less so for persons seeking a good life, and communities of faith seeking the communion of the Holy Spirit through the crucified Christ felt as the shalom of God the Father.
Even if the congregation follows the consultant’s advice and reaches for an innovation that spurs them toward change, pushing them to a new speed, a new unavoidable demand to increase that speed is thrust upon the congregation. The excitement of reaching a speed that allows for change quickly reveals that exponential amounts of energy will be required in order to keep going. It is more than daunting to realize that change requires change which requires more and more change. Ehrenberg says poignantly, “Depression appeared not as a pathology of unhappiness but more as a pathology of change” (12).
Revving the engine to get up to speed to meet every new change over every new horizon produces the fumes of depression. These fumes gather as you realize that the tanks are too low to continue at this speed (let alone to meet the demand necessitated by speeding up further). This pastor in North Dakota was right: The church’s biggest challenge is not decline and the need for change, but how it relates to time.
[Adapted from chapter one of The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time against the Speed of Modern Life (Baker Academic, 2021).]