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Has the Church Become an Atheist Incubator?
by Steve Wilkinson
I suppose I should first apologize for baiting you into reading this article with a catchy title. No, I don’t actually suspect the church is creating a huge number of atheists, as there simply aren’t that many of them (as vocal as they may be!). While their numbers are on the rise, they are statistically few. What I am going to argue the church is often creating, might be better called: apathetic unbelievers or quasi-believers who might retain some form of ‘spirituality.’ That, however, would have made for a long, boring title. But, I think that this is just as bad, maybe worse, than if these people were becoming atheists.
Before I get started (especially considering it is Valentine’s Day!), I do want to make it clear that I love the church. As one of my former professors used to say, be careful what you say about Christ’s fiancé!1 I just think the church has become quite distracted, lazy, and sick. I, like most apologists, want to help revive and heal her!
Is There a Problem?
Incubator – “an enclosed apparatus providing a controlled environment for the care and protection of premature or unusually small babies.”2 Much of the problem with the modern church, is that it has been designed to shelter, and keep cozy, baby Christians. I’ve heard frustrated Christian educators complain that they are often ordered to keep everything at a ‘lowest common denominator’ level. Yet, I’ve found that there are a number of people in any congregation who are hungry for more depth. The problem isn’t just with an apathetic laity, but often with low expectations of the leadership. I think the Apostle Paul would quickly spot our problem: we’re generally consuming a lot of milk, but little meat. (1 Cor. 3:2, Heb. 5:12). Or, to put things another way, we’re failing to create disciples.
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If you have been paying any attention over the last several years, you have probably heard that youth are leaving the church in droves. (Note: I’m talking about North America and Europe. The church is rapidly growing in many other parts of the world.) Much ink – and electrons – have been spilled over what the numbers are, but suffice it to say, too many! More conservative church studies set the figure high and are excited over the problem, seeing these as a total loss. Many sociologists put the figure considerably lower, as they claim this is a trend that has been happening for quite some time, and in the end, these leaving-youth return as adults with their families in tow.
It is true that many do return. The sociologists have a point. Yet, it would be nice to keep our young adults, so that there is no exodus and return in the first place. But more important is what this return looks like for the ones who come back. (Even if we weren’t concerned about the ones who never come back.) This is where I think the sociological studies have been failing and the concern of the alarm-sounding Christian leaders is warranted. If their faith is undermined and their trust of their former church experience shaken, what kinds of churches and beliefs do these people return to? They will probably still check the ‘Christian’ box on the survey, but what kind of Christianity will it be?
I actually think the decline in the number of believers we see in the surveys has actually happened some time ago. People are simply being more honest as there is less social repercussion in doing so today…
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