Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Atheism and Evangelism

So I was checking the Twitter this evening when I ran across an article about a 1-800 number for religious doubts. Naturally this is going to create a lot of consternation among us religious types. My reaction was pretty visceral right off the bat.

"This is a threat" I said to myself.
"We should fight this" came the natural response.
"This is the natural progression of what the church has sown over the most recent period in its history"

Wait, what was that last one again?

I was musing with a ministry mentor of mine over a meal on Monday (an alliterative anecdote!). We shifted over to the decline of mainline churches, and how the primary shift has been that young adults, who traditionally step away from the church once they graduate high school and then return they begin having kids, have stopped coming back. When we ask them why, they tend to answer that the church is irrelevant and they're not sure how necessary God is either. Then they sometimes say that they learned it from us.

Yikes! In our affirmation of doubt as a natural part of faith, we've stepped out of the polarizing spectrum between Fundamentalism, which abhors doubts and questions, and Atheism, which says that doubts are stepping away from blindness and into enlightenment based on empirical observation.

Mainline Christians are in the middle, and therefore get painted with the same brush as each side uses to paint the other.

So here we are looking at a 1-800 number for people facing doubts that will be staffed by those who have a vested interest in confirming those doubts. Of course we're startled by it, it seems that Atheists are better at evangelism than Mainline Protestants are!

This is troubling stuff. Out of respect for others' views, we are trying not to step on their views, acknowledging that we don't know everything and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide people to whatever slice of truth fits them the best, be that Presbyterianism, or Methodism, or Atheism, or Buddhism, or Jedi, or what have you.

Are we surprised that when we say "we don't have the only truth" and others say "We have the Facts" that those who seek the truth are confused as to which is which, especially when we so often muddle the difference between facts and truth?

Well, my Mainline Protestant friends, here's my thought. There is an objective truth out there, and it isn't mathematics: It's God. All other truths derive from God, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Where we get into trouble is in thinking that we have control over, or unfiltered access to, that Truth. The only access we have is in God's own self-revelation of the Truth.

The truth is revealed most fully in Christ Jesus, who is, in the words of Hans Frei, most himself in the crucifixion and resurrection event. We've got to know that truth all the way down to our core, and use the gifts God has given us to testify to that truth.

I still affirm that doubts and questions are a healthy and necessary part of faith development, and should never stop. Though there is much that is unknown, and some that is perhaps unknowable, I can testify to this slice truth: Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.


  1. I tend to think that in mainline churches there's also this idea that young people want to be left alone. Which may be true in some cases. But I also think that mainline churches should try and think about ways to get millenials plugged in to the community and give them agency in the church. Granted this is difficult when so many of our generation have stopped even walking through the door! But I also think it can be quite intimidating to millenials when they see churches which seem to be run strictly by a different generation.

    1. That's a good point Bert, finding the balance between overwhelming and being welcoming can be a hard line to walk. The generational gap is a real problem as well, and the longer we ignore it the more difficult it will be to fix.

      The biggest potential problem I see is if the young adults wait for the church to fix itself and the church waits for the young adults to come back. That's the disaster scenario for me, because nothing will change.

      Any ideas on how the church can plug millennials into the community and give them agency in the church?

    2. I think greeting and just generally taking an interest in them goes a long way. You obviously don't walk up and say "hey, would you like to be on session?" But you could ask them what they do for a living, what kind of music they like etc. I think if someone takes the step of attending a worship service, and no one talks to them at all, then they aren't likely to come back. At least if that happens several times.

      I think small group gatherings are a good thing too. People with questions and doubts often feel more comfortable in such settings I think. I agree with those who say the church can't just offer watered down theology. But I think there should be places where doubters can come and explore Christian theology. I think there are lots of people who believe some aspects of Christian theology, and can't accept other parts. But because they can't accept those few parts, they assume that any church participation is a no go for people like them. Again, I'm not suggesting we become Unitarians! But it is fascinating how Jesus has such a higher popularity rating than the church; and it's worth engaging with people on why they feel that way.

      I certainly don't have many answers. This is a huge issue in a secularized culture, and there's no one size fits all answer.

  2. Hey, Karl Barth, knock it off...

    But seriously, you make an excellent point. The problem is, when Atheists confirm doubts in God, they don't have to prove anything. People want to be affirmed in their doubts, and have them confirmed, like you say, so an Atheist's job is superbly simple.

    However, in order for Christians (or whomever) to reel people in from doubts, we must prove God's existence and deny people the right to doubt. I'm not comfortable doing that, and I don't think you are either. I can prove God's existence with anecdotal evidence, but I have no scientific facts. And I will never tell anyone that their doubts are not okay.

    In fact, telling someone not to doubt is counter to our affirmation of our fallible humanity. If we claim we have no doubts, in other words we claim perfect faith, then we are essentially saying we know God fully. Things we cannot do...

    You may disagree with that, but I won't back down.

    As for how to respond to doubters and their accusations that we gave them the idea and the right to doubt, I have no idea. Bummer.

    1. Great comment Bethany! I don't think we have to prove God's existence in order to reel people in from doubting. At the end of the post I, like you, affirm the importance of doubt to faith development. If it weren't for doubts, there wouldn't be anything at stake in having faith.

      I think it's very important to give people permission to doubt, but it's also essential to tell the stories of our faith, both as revealed in scripture and of God's intervention in our own lives.

      We can allow people to explore other places, and even to leave if they don't feel called to the Church, what we cannot allow is for people to think that faith is unimportant.

      I think it's interesting that you point to scientific facts as the arbiter of what realness. That's an excellent observation of our culture. We're used to things being verifiable, repeatable, and disprovable. God is none of those things. One of the most dangerous trends in the history of Biblical Interpretation is thinking that we can prove some or all of the stories it tells with science.

      But there's a difference between facts and truth. You cannot factually prove that your parents love you. That doesn't make it any less true.

      I agree that we cannot know the fullness of God, but certainly it is possible to know something, especially when God has taken the time to reveal himself to us through the various anecdotal experiences you mentioned?