God has instilled among us many core truths we are pursuing together. I want to highlight two of them and show their interaction with each other, reinforced by recent research. The two truths are the importance of building strong local churches and an emphasis on legacy (imparting into the coming generations).
One of the oldest magazines published in America, The Atlantic (founded in 1857 as a literary and cultural commentary magazine) recently featured an article containing research that shows an effect of local churches on whether or not children grow up to become atheist. The article’s title “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” is very revealing. It contains research from a study about militant atheist’s journey toward unbelief. I encourage everyone to read the article at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/
The author, Larry Taunton, and his Christian organization launched at nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Free thought Societies (FS). These college groups are the atheist equivalents to campus Christian organizations and they meet regularly for fellowship, encouraging one another in their (un)belief, and even proselytizing to atheism. They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irreligious. What Taunton and his team discovered revealed the effect of local church experience on legacy.
The research found a common profile of college atheist
They had attended church. Most of the participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions, but in reaction to Christianity. Many had previous involvement in church during their formative years.
The mission and message of their churches was vague. 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. Stephanie, a student at Northwestern said “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She 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. They heard this idea over and over.
They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions. Many had gone to church hoping to find answers to challenging questions like evolution vs creation, sexuality, the reliability of the Bible, Jesus as the only way etc. 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.”
They expressed their respect for those ministers and others who took the Bible seriously. Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told them that he is drawn to Christians like who have convictions, adding: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.” As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian said, “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Ages 14-17 were decisive. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.
Their decision to embrace unbelief was an emotional one. It wasn’t just rational decisions but often emotional ones as they encountered difficult life and family circumstances, like abusive parents etc.
The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism. There were many vague references to YouTube and other videos, not specific instruction or teaching on atheism. Lack of firm convictions by churches and mishandling of church problems also were a factor. One college student, Phil reported, “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.” His youth pastor was replaced by a hipper youth leader who could attract more youth with fun and games and a cooler approach.
Overall the longing for authenticity was there but they didn’t find it in churches. The students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. One student Michael said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” Authenticity/sincerity was seen as indispensable.
This should be fuel to the fire of what God has called us to pursue together. The way we serve Christ, build the church, and deposit in the next generation is critical and interconnected. Please read the article.
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