Let’s be honest: many times, perhaps more often than not, when an atheist and a Christian discuss religion, the conversation eventually get hostile, or at least, has the beginning of tension before the conversation meets. As a progressive Lutheran, I know I find it can be particularly frustrating to hear so much of the argument focused on the right-wing, homophobic, and literal Christians – the ones who get the media headlines by preaching, basically, hate-filled judgements – and not the lessons of the gospel as so many of us understand it. But setting aside those frustrations, those conversations are always constructive – exposing where the church I believe in has failed to make its case, or, more importantly, where it failed to step in with an answer when many people begin the have the tough questions.
There’s a great piece in the Atlantic, by Larry Alex Taunton, the executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation in the United States, who spent time talking to young atheists about why they had left the church. (Here’s the article:http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/)
Some of their reasons are hard to fix: a charismatic youth pastor left, for instance. But there is a common theme in their answers: the church, basically, failed to address the tough questions. It failed to make Jesus relevant in a modern time. It used too many platitudes to keep everyone happy, and thus satisfied few.
Basically the church was not bold. That could be interpreted that churches need to be more concrete about who gets to heaven and how doesn’t– something that certain evangelical denominations have made their bread and butter.
But, in my view, being bold doesn’t mean intolerance. It doesn’t mean deciding who fits and who doesn’t. And it certainly doesn’t mean simplifying a complex world down to a step-by-step instruction manual.
In fact, often the hardest thing to say is: I don’t know. The gospel is a template for helping to reach the answer, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what that answer is. Oh, and by the way, there are no easy answers. Faith is hard work. Being a good person takes persistence. Sometimes, you get the gushy feeling of satisfaction from it. Sometimes, actually, it sucks.
But churches can’t be bold if we don’t address the really tricky problems confronting our youth: mental illness, bullying, sex, drugs, relationships. And not in the way, their parents understand these questions. In the way, that their teenagers do.
Yes, some will say, atheists are always blaming the church for why it failed to keep them. And it’s true, if you are going to ask the questions, you should stay around to hear the answer (or at least be part of the search for it.) But that doesn’t mean we can’t both learn from each other. It’s only those without conviction who walk away from a difficult conversation.
So Be Bold. When you read Taunton’s piece, it becomes clear that this needs to be a leading principal for every modern church that wants to ask the right questions, and hopes, maybe, to answer some of them.