Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
What is it that young atheists believe? What do they look like?
Larry Taunton, founder and executive director of Fixed Point Foundation, asked a number of college students, those identified as atheists, this question: “what led you to become an atheist?” Here is how Taunton explains how they went about this:
To gain some insight, we launched a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). These college groups are the atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade: they meet regularly for fellowship, encourage one another in their (un)belief, and even proselytize. They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irreligious.
Through the Fixed Point Foundation, they contacted people who are a part of these groups. As Taunton notes, “the rules were simple: Tell us your journey to unbelief.”
Through listening to these “testimonies,” they developed “a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists.”
- 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
- Ages 14-17 were decisive
- The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
- The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism
Their conclusion is reflected in the title of the article: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.” They did not engage in an apologetic to respond to the statements made by the students. They simply listened to their responses to the one main question. That is one important way to engage in the lives of these young people. Here was their take-away:
If churches are to reach this growing element of American collegiate life, they must first understand who these people are, and that means listening to them.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us.
That these 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.
Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. 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 very concerned about the number of young people that were raised in Christian homes and attended Evangelical churches that leave church and the Christian faith once they leave home for college/university. Being raised in a Christian home and/or attending an Evangelical church does not make or guarantee that one becomes a Christian. But God does use means, and two ordained means He has given are parents in the home and the church. This is one of the reasons I teach the Sr. High Sunday School class at the local EFC church. But it is also important to remember that even if both of those means are faithful in the proclamation and living of the gospel, there is no absolute guarantee as the young person can be represented by various soils that depict various responses to the Word (cf. Mk. 4:1-20).
The questions I ask: are we doing all we can or should in the catechizing of young people in our churches? Are we equipping parents with the tools and resources and relationship support in the vital task they have of passing on the faith? At the end of the day we will not be accountable for whether someone is or becomes a Christian or not. But we will be accountable before God with how faithful we were in living and passing on the faith, and how repentantly we were in being honest about how far short we fell, that we knew truth much better than we lived it.
What about you? What are the lessons you learn from this?