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how do we get the people we need?

September 28th, 2018 | 3 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Alan Jacobs is, as usual, correct:

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.

This is a problem for everyone no matter what your politics or denomination; if you give a damn about anything then it should be very obvious to you that the world as we know it has an orientation that it forms people towards and that children who grow up in this milieu are generally predisposed towards acquiring wealth, making themselves feel good (through bloodless advocacy for the less fortunate, if necessary), and avoiding unchosen obligations to other people. It’s a problem that spans political, religious, or cultural divides; both American presidential candidates in 2016 represented different facets of this character-forming milieu. It’s more readily apparent to conservative Christians because they are more attuned to the idea that there’s a big bad world out there that is interested in making you comply with its directives, but it’s just as urgent a question for everyone else. You can bang on all day about the urgent need for justice & equity (as I am prone to do), but if you’re not interested in these questions of moral formation, your kids (or any people you might have any influence over, really) will at best grow up to be people capable of being outraged on behalf of the oppressed from a comfortable distance.

Here is more of Alan on the same subject. And here’s me responding to him at the time with some more of my thoughts about how we go about it getting our Daniels and Esthers. Short answer: send out groups of Christians who fear the lifestyle that kills body and soul to places that are in need (some might use the shorthand “Section 8” or “shithole countries” to describe these places) and keep a careful balance between the internally focused spiritual growth/emotional health of the community and the externally focused obedience to God’s directives to preach, teach, and heal. I agree with Jacobs that the localism is extremely important, but what is key is that these localist churches are pursuing a local mission to the particular community they are a part of. And if there aren’t significant local needs or there’s leftover time and money after meeting the local needs, then they need to start sending groups of Christians to places with greater needs. The only way to form a Daniel capable of loving his foreign colleagues and speaking the truth boldly to them is… to raise a child who has been practicing both loving those different from him his entire life.


Header Image: Wilkens Avenue Mennonite Church in Baltimore. The mural pictures Jesus giving a crab feast.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at