Listening to Young Atheists:
Lessons for a Stronger Christianity
Surveys in recent years have shown that between 60-75% of American Christian youth will cease attending church after graduating from high school. This low retention rate has led to many concerns about the demographic decline of confessing Christians.
Many speculate as to why, and a Christian foundation asked confessing atheists at colleges across the country why they became atheists. The conclusions were surprisingly uniform – and present a damning condemnation of contemporary approaches to youth ministry.
One student, Phil, shares his journey to unbelief:
“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kumbaya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.” …
[Phil] loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’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.” …
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.
Too often we think that youth ministry should be about fun and games. With the reduction of “Big Church” sermons in the Evangelical world to simplistic, rhyming aphorisms for a better life, the standard has been set so low that the youth ministers are forced into farce. From the adults our youth have learned that doctrine isn’t fun, and catechism is a terrible game. Of course, catechisms were originally meant to train children in the faith.
In tandem with, and likely because of, the dumbing down of our teaching in youth ministry, there has been a devaluation of the depth of the Christian response to this world:
”The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. [Stephanie] seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. …
Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”
Jesus’ call is not to a better life, at least, not in the way that the world understands as better. Jesus calls us to lose our lives, to renounce all that we have. Personal significance, purpose, ethics – our whole lives – are to be understood through God’s plan of redemption and self-revelation in Christ.
Our answers are deeper, sharper, more meaningful … and costlier than the world’s. We just shy away from them. Through our methods we teach that fun is the core value of life. Are we surprised that when freed from church they continue to seek out self-centered pleasure?
We should not be ashamed of Christ’s full-throated proclamation of payment for and dominion over our lives. If people don’t sense that we take the Christian message very seriously, why would they?
But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening:
“I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,” someone asked.
“I do not,” Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, “But he does.”
You can read the full article here: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” [The Atlantic]