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What would an atheist experience at your church? Their feedback could change the way you do things and even lead you to a deeper encounter with God

I am tempted to invest in a T-shirt with the slogan ‘God loves atheists’. Thanks to ‘Ditchkins’, the term coined by philosopher Terry Eagleton to describe Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the like, many Christians have a mental image of atheists that is a cross between a stern university professor and Rambo. But, in fact, atheists come in all shapes and sizes, don’t necessarily use words that have more than five syllables, and are very rarely bloodstained aggressive killing machines. Let me introduce you to three card-carrying atheists I know (names have been changed).

Shane works in the city. He’s a physicist turned financial analyst with two small children and a wife who loves Jesus. Shane is a devoted husband and he frequently accompanies her to church. He arrives in good time for the service, sometimes sings the songs, always stays in for the sermon and he hangs around at coffee time and asks people how they are doing. Shane is part of the community of the church: he helps out if called on, he turns up at socials – especially if they involve go-karting or clay pigeon shooting – and he’s not afraid to think seriously about faith and life and be open and honest about how he has arrived at his beliefs.

Ayman runs a large electronics company. He’s known as a great boss, constantly looking to improve his skills as a CEO and relate well to his team of managers. He likes rock music and fine wine, is passionate about his family, the environment and greyhounds. Ayman lost his first wife to cancer so he has deep-felt reasons for not believing in a loving omnipotent God. Nevertheless he enjoys talking about faith, and hosts a serious non-fiction book group exclusively for dads, where he often initiates discussions about the merits of thoughtful Christianity versus futile fundamentalism, acknowledging that atheism does not have all the answers.

Steve was the brains of the youth group. He was the one who finished reading Wayne Grudem’s 1,257-page Systematic Theology from cover to cover when he was 17. He could handle the apologetics questions in the Bible studies where his friendswould come to investigate Christianity. He was also the technical genius who would wire up the sound system and the data projection and produce the photoshopped fliers for all of the outreach events. Yet six months after Steve went to university he was an atheist who struggled to look his Christian friends in the eye.

None of these guys fit the ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler’ stereotype of Ditchkins. They are just like any of us, with strengths and weaknesses, fears and hopes. A misconceived image of atheists can often lead us either to ignore or avoid them, or even to go on the defensive, mirroring their perceived militancy. We must learn from the mistakes of the past, which made church a toxic place for many people wrestling with divorce, doubt or homosexual desire instead of a safe haven where these issues could be talked about and worked through. But how do we go about making church conducive to dialogue and relationship with atheists?

A Brush With Church

About 2.9 million of our neighbours are likely to go to church in the future if they are given a personal invitation or if they encounter difficult personal circumstances, according to Churchgoing in the UK – research published by Tearfund in 2007.

While this figure has encouraged many of us to bring our neighbours along to church events or seeker-friendly courses, there is a dark side to the statistics that is far less encouraging. There are about 32 million more neighbours completely disconnected from church. Around half of these people have had the ‘Steve’ experience – they used to be churchgoers but have now grown so disillusioned they say they will never come back. The other half are more like Ayman who have had no contact with the church and have no intention of ever having any either. As Tearfund’s report stated: ‘This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches.’ While we may fervently pray that atheists will change their minds, their advertising slogans or their popularity ratings, perhaps it is up to us to make some changes. Most of our missionary energy currently goes towards the few people on the fringe of our communities, reaching out to the Shanes who will attend church occasionally. But in order to reach the 32 million, perhaps we need a more radical rethink of church.

CS Lewis famously commented that ‘fish don’t feel wet’. Because our culture quickly feels normal to us it can be valuable to engage with people from different cultures to see things from a different, perhaps clearer, perspective. With this rationale, in order to learn how Christians could relate better to atheists, I decided to take an atheist to church.

Julian Baggini, an atheist with impeccable credentials, kindly agreed to come to church with me. He is the author of: A Very Short Introduction to Atheism (Oxford University Press). He is also the editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and regularly appears in The Guardian or on BBC 2’s Newsnight.

This was no mystery worshipper experiment. I deliberately chose a church that was strong on truth and not too exuberant in worship style, and I called the preacher in advance to warn him that a world-class philosopher and atheist would be listening to his sermon. It always feels risky bringing a friend to church, and as well as having made the preacher nervous, I was also on tenterhooks myself.

Would Julian get a warm welcome? Would anyone ask him an awkward question? Would he ever speak to me again? To my relief the person on the door was friendly, the church was packed full of people of all ages and races, and there was an expectant hubbub as proceedings got under way. Julian was relaxed enough to tell his neighbour that as an atheist he was coming to see what he’d been missing all these years. The service started with highly polished music and enthusiastic singing echoed around the impressive building. A team of young adults who were going to teach English and share their faith in the Far East were prayed for, and then came a clear, well-illustrated sermon straight from Mark’s Gospel, with lots of references to contemporary culture including recent film adaptations of Marvel comics. I was pleased – the service had been everything I’d hoped for – friendly, welcoming, professional, multicultural, biblical and engaging.

After the service, we sat on the steps outside the church and I eagerly awaited Julian’s response. Did I dare to hope that some element of the gospel message, or apologetic argument, or encounter with the Holy Spirit, or God moment would have touched him and have him confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness? Julian’s response indeed began with an apology – but not to God. Asking me for forgiveness, he then proceeded to explain why he had found the service, in his words: ‘cobblers, from beginning to end’.

He was visibly disappointed. He was hoping, almost as much as me, that he would encounter something positive in the service. But when I asked him what he thought of the event it was like a floodgate was opened and everything that was wrong with the church was suddenly gushing out. He was both venting and regretting at the same time. He wanted faith that was hardhitting, but what he saw was faith that ‘seemed hollow’. I tried not to look too disappointed, and braced myself to hear some hard truths from a friend.

1. Worship

‘I saw a side of Christianity that I don’t like. They all seemed obsessed by salvation and glorifying Jesus. You would not have guessed that the only prayer their Messiah gave was directed at God, not himself, and that he repeatedly told people not to worship him, but the Father. You would not have guessed that he spent much of his time telling people to be good neighbours, irrespective of what other people believed or who they slept with. The very human moral teacher of Matthew, Mark and Luke was eclipsed by the more ethereal Christ of John.’

That’s how Julian described our visit in The Guardian. Some may say this is just evidence that men don’t like singing in church, but I beg to differ. Anyone standing on the terraces of a football game will hear thousands of men singing songs of praise. The challenge I heard from Julian is that our worship appears restricted to 20 minutes on a Sunday simply singing songs about Jesus to Jesus. What Julian was hoping for was worship that was grounded in, and spilling out into, a life of sacrificial service.

This active worship has the power to disarm atheists. Roy Hattersley wrote: ‘We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings...The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand...’ Matthew Parris, an atheist and proud of it, wrote in The Times: ‘I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of…government projects and international aid efforts…In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts…It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.’ I am reminded of Jesus’ evangelistic strategy for the church, ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16).

2. Word

Here’s what Julian Baggini had to say about the sermon: ‘The sermon really did test my patience, it was very long for a start…People read the Bible for what they are looking to find… There was no real moral teaching. There was nothing for me to take away. I really wanted to find something more positive to say about it, I didn’t come with the intention to rubbish it. But Iwas really quite irritated…’

The preacher may have been all too aware that he had an unbelieving philosopher in his midst, but he also knew that the majority of the congregation were eager to lap up all they could from a well-respected teacher of teachers. It occurred to me that the context of his sermon was very different from biblical times. There was something significant about the fact that both Jesus and Paul often taught in public spaces. They were often preaching to the converted, but they were aware that there were plenty of sceptical ears overhearing their message. So Paul preaching in the Areopagus or Jesus preaching his Sermon on the Mount knew that what they were teaching their followers would be open to question from the most antagonistic hearers.

By doing most of our teaching inside church buildings we can become sloppy in our thinking and quaint in our expression. This has two problems: Firstly, if thoughtful unbelievers come into our services they find our messages disconnected from their language and thought patterns and closed to discussion and debate. Secondly, congregations listening to this kind of preaching will not grow in their ability to explain their faith to friends outside the church or in their ability to defend their faith when asked difficult questions.

A way forward

I would love to see the church rethink its preaching and worship to offer something deeper for Christians and more inviting for non-Christians. Perhaps we should even take a leaf out of Paul and Jesus’ book and find appropriate ways to take the sermon to the streets, schools and social spaces of our towns and cities.

But the church for all its failings is God’s community and it is as we love each other, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and embrace the atheist that others will know that we are Jesus’ disciples, living out God’s words in worship. I’d like to finish with a story of hope from another atheist friend of mine, whom I would love to bring to church. Jeanne is an academic philosopher at a leading university. She authors books and is at the global cutting edge for free online tertiary education. In the last few months, Jeanne has come to the conclusion that atheism no longer satisfies her intellectually, and she now believes in God, although she is still wrestling with questions about the Trinity, forgiveness, and atonement. Jeanne’s next step is to go to church, where she hopes to find somebody who will listen to her as she works these things through. I wonder. Will she come to my church or your church? What will she find and how will she react? Let’s make sure all our churches are ready for people like Jeanne, Julian, Shane, Ayman and Steve, where atheists can discover a God who loves them. Maybe then I won’t need to buy the T-shirt.

God for non-believers

Think about people you know who aren’t Christians – whether they are atheists, agnostics or something else. What would they find if they attended a typical Sunday service at your church? Think about the worship, the preaching and other elements of the service.

• How much do these things encourage a deep faith for Christians? How inviting are they for non-Christians?

• Do you think it is possible to have a church service which offers both at the same time? What would that look like?

• How much do you want your church service to be for non- Christians? What might you have to sacrifice?

• Do you think too much of our preaching and worship happens in private? What could ‘preaching in public’ look like today?