Don’t let the religious preference on their dog tags fool you—like American society, the vast majority of soldiers are not practicing Christians. Yet even if, say, 80% of soldiers are not Christians, some 80% of soldiers will go to their chaplain in their hour of need. Compare this to mainstream society, where struggling people rarely shadow the door of a church.
All of this gets at a central point: There is no better mission field in America today than the American military. In a culture that is increasingly divided on religious and ideological lines, the military provides a connection point between Christians and their contemporaries. Not only does this connection point create ample opportunities to share the Gospel, but it also provides a venue to better study the surrounding culture and hone methods for faithfully presenting the Gospel. Let’s look at a few of these ideas in turn.
The Cultural Melting Pot
It is fair to say that the military is a microcosm of America as a whole. Demographically, it draws a bit more from the lower and middle classes and is also more culturally conservative. But it is also more diverse than any other sector of American life. There are few echo chambers here. The military takes people who are different from each other in every way, trains them together, deploys them together, and if need be, calls them to die together.
I personally resent any attempts by pundits to label the military “woke” on the one hand or “reactionary” on the other. Anyone who tries to put such a black-and-white label on the military clearly has no understanding of its diversity. On the way back from Afghanistan in 2014, I was given a peek into the gift that this diversity gives to soldiers. Two soldiers—a self-identified white redneck and black man from the projects—approached me after serving for nine months together.
“Chaplain,” the redneck told me with his arm around his battle buddy, “I was raised to hate this man, but I have to tell you that I love him and would die for him.”
This is what makes the military different from mainstream culture: Suffering is expected and willingly chosen for the sake of higher causes. It binds people together—not only of different backgrounds but of different belief systems as well. One of my best friends in Afghanistan was a gay man who helped lead the charge for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” We met for lunch every week to contend over matters of faith, sexuality, and liberty. He also came to all my Bible studies.
The level of suffering that the military is called to face enables most service members to tune out the spiritualizing of politics and culture that is turning most Americans from community to tribalism. Soldiers aren’t thinking about the 2020 election before they jump out of planes, nor do they ponder the complexities of COVID-19 before rolling out on convoys in combat zones. They think over their lives and prospective deaths—and wonder what this is all about.
Chaplains typically minister to soldiers in three ways (or three “C’s”): They circulate amongst their soldiers on a regular basis; they counsel many of those same soldiers—usually after building trust with them; they formally minister to soldiers in chapel services. Again, all three of these activities resemble the mission field far more than they do the average American church.
When chaplains circulate amongst their soldiers—roughly the equivalent of visitation within the church—they are doing something that many churches no longer do, and when churches do engage in this work, are often met with resistance. Soldiers not only tolerate the regular presence of their chaplains, they expect their chaplains to be present. Much of the banter that occurs during such circulation is light-hearted, yet far more substantive than most conversations you would see in the workplace.
As chaplains regularly circulate amongst their soldiers and build trust, some of the same soldiers will start to frequent the chaplain’s office for counseling. I would venture that about 80% of soldiers have grown up in broken homes (divorce, abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc). This figure is similar to the culture-at-large, but the effects of broken homes are often more dramatic in the pressure cooker of military life and chaplains can help heal old wounds.
The contour of counseling is also far different than what you’d find in the church. You’ll find few books out there on biblical counseling for unbelieving friends, though there are plenty of books on counseling those who already presuppose the Bible to be their authority and means of growth. (I hope to write that book someday.) This is often where the most fertile ministry to soldiers occurs. They come in their hour of need, are led to examine past wounds and how it shaped their worldview and are given reason upon reason to consider the Gospel as the means by which to have their life reshaped.
John Piper has aptly noted that missions exists because worship does not. The goal of sharing the Gospel is to see more church-attending, Christ-adoring worshippers. This is also the end goal for many of our chaplains. They labor in the counseling office so that they can minister to the same people in the chapel service or hand them off to a local church. For several years, my staple ministry was “Chappy Hour,” where I’d meet with soldiers at a local brewery to discuss faith, life, suffering, relationships and countless other topics.
Perhaps the most valuable service that chaplains offer the broader church comes in the intelligence that we gather on the broader culture. The longer chaplains labor in this vineyard, the more they understand about a culture that has largely become unfamiliar to most Christians. This is where the chaplain finds that psychology has replaced philosophy at the heart of American discourse. Apologetics is no longer the battle of ideas but the battle of storylines. How can God make sense of my suffering? This is where chaplains learn that education, technology, and the media have not corrupted our youth nearly as much as their parents—that we have a generation that feels betrayed and has no idea how to rebuild their lives.
We learn that most young adults care nothing for abstract concepts like “Darwinism” and “theological liberalism,” but are becoming more comfortable with everyday concepts like polyamory and open marriages. Through practical experience, we realize that most people are willing to talk about truth, but only after they’ve been able to safely share their own heartache. And as we learn these things, we seek to bring these lessons back to the church.
The Field is White
There is much more that could be said about the chaplaincy and the culture, but let me close this piece with a call to my fellow ministers and future ministers: Please join us. If you are an evangelist by heart, consider this mission field. If you currently have a calling, consider becoming a chaplain in the Reserves. The opportunities are endless, your abilities as a minister will grow exponentially, and you will better equip your church in the cross-cultural ministry that is present day America. This is where ministers are trained as happy warriors. As Christians head into cultural exile, it is easy to grow sullen, bitter, and dispirited. Unable to decipher the culture, politics becomes the easy path toward reorientation, but often in a way that is counter-productive to the Gospel. In the chaplaincy, you can work in an ordinary ministry that provides extraordinary fruit. In this work, you will help lay the groundwork for future generations of Christians who will joyfully engage the culture on behalf of Christ our King.