Atheists in the Church

Atheists in the Church

Jerry DeWitt served as a Pentecostal pastor in rural Louisiana for 25 years (note: this is not only a “big city” phenomenon). But he has now left the Christian ministry. In 2011, he found himself struggling with his own faith and soon came to the place where he declared himself to be an Atheist. It seems that he is not alone. There are actually organizations which have been created for the very purpose of supporting people in the ministry who have “lost their faith.”

DeWitt has not been shy about his new direction. He even shared his story with the world in a NY Times interview (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/magazine/from-bible-belt-pastor-to-atheist-leader.html). Based on his own testimony, DeWitt had no higher education. He indicates that, in his youth, he simply felt the call to preach and began doing it. Initially, he was an itinerant preacher who later became a full-time pastor. During the time of his itinerant ministry, he began reading more widely. For some reason, much of what he read was the work of Atheists and liberal theologians. In the process, be began to absorb a Naturalistic worldview and came to a place where he didn’t feel he could believe the Christian message anymore. So, he finally left the Christian ministry and began getting involved in atheistic groups.

I am firmly convinced that this phenomenon is not limited to clergy. In fact, there are probably a greater percentage of “lay people” in churches who have set aside their Christian faith than there are clergy. People deal with this “loss of faith” in different ways. Most of them, most likely, simply quit participating in church. But I believe that there are also a certain number who simply stay in church and keep their mouths shut, or they find a church which professes some form of liberal (non-biblical) theology that doesn’t require them to believe in a literal God.

Consider Dan Nerren of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Nerren is a retired railroad employee and a former Southern Baptist. He claims to have become an Atheist after reading a book about contradictions in the Bible (http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=18&articleid=20120828_18_A9_CUTLIN479677). Too bad he didn’t take the extra step to research why the supposed “contradictions” are bogus.

Unfortunately, DeWitt’s and Nerren’s stories are all too common. They represent a hoard of people who were raised in a Christian environment, but were later exposed to naturalistic beliefs and persuaded by them. So, just what is going on here, and what can churches do to help keep people from drifting away from the truth?

What is the Problem?
First, let’s look at the problem. Why do we have such a low level of fervent commitment in the church that often manifests itself in people actually turning their back on the faith?

To get at the heart of the matter, we have to understand that there are two aspects of the Christian faith that must constantly be engaged. If you take one away, or even weaken one, it will spiritually weaken or destroy the individual or the church.

The first part is our relationship with God. The core of the Christian faith is relationship, and this is engaged by personal and corporate praise and worship. It is entirely possible to be very knowledgeable about the tenets of one’s faith, yet be spiritually lost or totally out of fellowship with God. Christians must focus on a relationship with God or they will become susceptible to being pulled away from the faith when they come under the influence of a different, persuasively presented, worldview.

The other part of the problem is a lack of knowledge. Praise and worship can become shallow emotionalism if it is not solidly grounded in truth. God is a real person that we can know in a real personal relationship, but he is also spirit and is not typically engaged through our physical senses. In order to understand the true nature of spirit, it is critical for Christians to become powerfully grounded in the faith – not only knowing what we believe, but also why we believe it.

An equally important part of the knowledge equation is understanding why atheistic beliefs are not true. Often, Atheists try to connect their beliefs with science by saying that their Naturalistic beliefs and science are one and the same. But actually, Atheism is a belief system whereas science is a methodology. The only thing required for the use of science is that one believe in an ordered universe which can be studied. The truth is, Christians have a profound and logical reason to believe in an ordered universe since we affirm that God created the universe orderly. On the other hand, Atheists don’t even have a foundational basis for affirming an orderly universe. They must believe it by blind faith.

What is the Solution?
The problem Christians have in composing a solution to this problem is related to the fact that both sides of the equation (spiritual and intellectual) must be continually addressed at the same time. There is a personal part and an intellectual part which support one another. And the effort necessary for both elements is enormous. There are many churches, and individuals, which are very good on one side but quite weak on the other. This is a serious problem because both are absolutely NECESSARY. Spiritual engagement without knowledge becomes empty emotionalism. Knowledge without a vibrant relationship with God becomes dry intellectualism.

To solve the personal, spiritual part, it is necessary for individuals to make a habit of being personal with God. This means spending time with him in prayer and in receiving what he has revealed in his revelation – the Bible. Maintaining this as a personal activity, and not allowing oneself to drift into an impersonal mode, is a big part of the challenge we face.

The second part of the solution involves building our knowledge base. We can’t act on what we don’t know. If our belief about God is not accurate, our worship of him will be flawed. If the understanding we have of our own faith is wrong, we will not be able to stand with confidence against the many non-Christian beliefs we confront in our post-Christian world. If we don’t know why our faith is the truth and others are not, we will not be able to effectively share a witness about Christ to those from other worldview backgrounds.

Of course, using our traditional means of studying Christian doctrine is a key part of the mix. But there is something else that needs to be added in order to understand it in the context of today’s culture. We need to understand our doctrine in the context of worldview. It is an understanding of worldview that helps us see why our Christian faith is the truth and other belief systems are not. It is a knowledge of worldview that helps us grasp, and more easily immerse ourselves in, the personal reality of God. It is an understanding of worldview which gives us the ability to understand other belief systems in order to share the gospel across worldview barriers.

Making the Commitment
It is not enough to simply recognize the problem that exists with Christians who lack confidence in their faith. Churches must make specific efforts to equip their people to understand competing worldviews and explain why they are not the truth. They must also go one step further to teach the basics of our own worldview and explain why it is the truth. Atheism truly has no basis in reality. Those who disavow belief in God and accept Atheism must do it out of blind faith based on presuppositions which cannot be demonstrated in any manner.

There certainly are pastors and lay people who struggle with their belief in Christ. But the struggle is not related to whether or not the Christian faith represents the truth. Rather, it relates to which set of worldview (faith) assumptions a person embraces. The Christian faith has very strong, even compelling, foundational worldview principles which can be supported. But unless individual Christians make the effort to learn them, they cannot be applied in life. The key to success in this arena is the commitment an individual makes to personally interact with God and to grasp the knowledge base which supports our faith. We are spiritual beings who live in a material world. We must address both parts of our personhood. When we do, we will find ourselves in a position of absolute confidence that our Christian faith is the truth about reality.

© 2012 by Freddy Davis