Larry Taunton has an article in The Atlantic describing what his organization found when they asked college students who were actively involved in campus atheist groups the question, “What led you to become an atheist?” He told a particularly telling story about why an atheist named Phil left his church:
[Phil’s youth leader’s] Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.”
Listening to his story I had to remind myself that Phil was an atheist, not a seminary student recalling those who had inspired him to enter the pastorate. As the narrative developed, however, it became clear where things came apart for Phil. During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim’s dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, “didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.
An hour deeper into our conversation I asked, “When did you begin to think of yourself as an atheist?”
He thought for a moment. “I would say by the end of my junior year.”
I checked my notes. “Wasn’t that about the time that your church fired Jim?”
He seemed surprised by the connection. “Yeah, I guess it was.”
A few of the themes that emerged from the atheists through this study:
- They had attended church
- The mission and message of their churches was vague
- They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
- They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear”....
[T]hey often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant.
I’m sorry to say that my experience has taught me these atheists are not referring merely to liberal churches. I’ve visited quite a number of churches, and I’d say that at 90% of those, I’ve heard nothing but moralism.
Churches, often for good reasons, want to increase their membership. So to get people’s attention, they operate under the assumption that they must be relevant. They look around and say that self-improvement is relevant. Practical is relevant. Fun is relevant. Being just like the culture around us is relevant.
All this relevancy is making us irrelevant by removing every true and glorious thing from Christianity that makes us unique. Where is Jesus? Where is the Gospel? Where is the context for the actual Bible passage being cited? Where is our connection to history and the great Christian thinkers? Where is the theology? Where is the centrality of God in every message? Where are the answers that every human being cries out for? We would trade these weighty things for a boring sermon we could have heard on Oprah?
Relevance is not conformity. What’s relevant to human beings made in the image of God is the historical reality of Jesus and His payment on the cross for our sins, given freely out of “the great love with which He loved us,” in order to remove our objective guilt and reconcile us to God, upholding both God’s perfect, good justice and His beautiful, awe-inspiring grace. What’s relevant is hearing this, learning about this, and responding to this in worship to God and love shown to our neighbor.
When we avoid saying these things as a strategy for drawing people, we betray both our lack of conviction and our lack of love for these truths. Is the story of God and His work in the world the treasure hidden in the field for which we happily sacrifice all else because we value it above all else, or isn’t it? If you act as if it is not, then don’t be surprised when people like these atheists see right through you and walk away.
Read the full article.