Broken church

Has the Church Become an Atheist Incubator?

In Church, Commentary by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

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)Maxine Hancock of Regent College 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)New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc. 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.

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.

The Fall of Christian Education

“I’ll never forget the look on the Sunday-school superintendent’s face when I took my son – a 2nd grade Sunday-schooler – withdrew him from the Sunday-school. I took a look at what he had colored that morning and it was a picture of a Midwestern backyard where there was leaves all over the place and a rake leaned against the garage and you could see mother with a stack of dishes, washing dishes. And the caption underneath it was, ‘What do you think Johnny could do right now to show how much he loves Jesus.’ And, I said, ‘That’s it! He’s out.’ And the blessed little lady said, ‘Do you mind telling me why you want your son out of our Sunday-school?’ And, I said, ‘Because you’re going to make an atheist out of him; it’s just going to take a few years.’ And, she had no idea what that was about, but Sunday-school can be dangerous.” – Dr. Rod Rosenbladt (3)Dr. Rod Rosenbladt on The White Horse Inn – “Whatever Happened to Bible Study?” – 10/07/2012

I suppose many will read that and think it overly harsh. If you’ve listened to Rod, you’ll know he doesn’t pull punches, yet has a great sense of humor. (4)I’ve heard it said he embodies the spirit of Martin Luther as well as anyone alive today. 🙂 Humor or not, I think it gets us started on the conversation. I pulled a basic 2nd-grade objectives and curriculum from Scholastic:

  • – Identify main ideas and supporting details
  • – Demonstrate comprehension by predicting outcomes
  • – Use basic research skills for presentations
  • – Discuss current events
  • – Recognize historical figures and their contributions to society
  • – Explore physical science, covering topics such as electricity, magnetism, and gravity
  • – Study dinosaurs and the process of extinction


Now, seriously ask yourself; how do you think the typical 2nd-grade Sunday-school curriculum and effort compares? Not very well! But, things are even worse. Unless parents are equipped to educated their children with some depth in Christianity, we’re talking about only an hour, maybe two at best, per week. Even the best curriculum can’t solve that kind of problem, though a good one would at least be a start.

So, we turn to the status of adult eduction. How well does it fare? Unless you’re a highly motivated adult Christian learner in a church blessed with resources, you probably know the answer to this rhetorical question. If the surveys we keep hearing hold any water, it quickly becomes clear that most people, even those claiming the Christian title, can’t answer the most basic questions about what Christianity is all about. How are such people going to instruct their children in the faith, let alone help them address the questions and challenges they will face in their most formative years?

The Exile of Children from Worship

One (controversial) issue I would like to put on the table for discussion is the move from children in worship to children in daycare, sunday school, youth-church, etc. This is something our own family has struggled with since our son was born. I grew up IN church/worship, as did nearly everyone from a churched family just a couple of generations ago.

Why the change? I’m sure it was motivated by practicality and good intentions. However, I’m skeptical it was well thought through and grounded in Biblical principals. Thomas Bergler, author of “The Juvenilization of American Christianity” argues that the whole category of adolescent started in the 1940s. This was when a majority of young adults graduated high-school and marketing began to this age-group specifically. He says that the Roman Catholic church had created a ‘ghetto’ about as effectively as anyone at the time, and was losing the youth in large numbers. Evangelicals picked up many of them by starting youth groups. (5)A Juvenile Church?” – White Horse Inn – 08-05-2012

I also believe changes to the worship service, shortened services and attention spans, as well as seeker-sensitive initiatives all played an important role. If people won’t come to education opportunities, should we move it primarily into worship time? If worship time becomes more about education we’re familiar with in school, should we divide into age-groups? If worship is about evangelization in an entertainment and day-care culture, should we respond by offering child-care, entertainment-like worship, and a unique experience for the kids?

And, at what cost? Have we divided the family up too much? (In a culture where there is already much division.) Didn’t Jesus welcome the distraction of the children and scold the disciples for not including them? Do our kids do Sunday school, youth-group, then ‘graduate’ church? Have they been welcomed (or do they feel welcomed) to be an integral part of the body for the whole life of the church? Is the concept of segregated worship Biblical?

It is my opinion that we need a serious examination of how we are ‘doing church.’ (This extends to the ‘lowest common denominator’ or ‘fill the room and aim low’ approach too. a good read would be Greg Ogden’s “Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time.”)

On the flip side, for children to be involved, parenting needs to be ratcheted up a bit. When I do see children in worship today (like Family Sunday), it quickly becomes clear the children have no practice at attending any such events. And, if the child is throwing a tantrum, it might be time to take them out for a bit. Some common sense goes a long-way here. Your grandparents, maybe even parents, figured out how to make it work.

What Can We Do?

The big question, then, which we need to ask is not, “How do we get people to church?” but instead, “What are we doing with those we already have?”

Should we get rid of youth ministries? Not at all. But, we do need to re-think them a bit. We need a middle of the road approach. The past often had too little focus on children, to which our current state was an over-reaction. As Bergler points out, youth ministries need to be thought of as a ministry of the entire church. Rather than cater to youth as the main focus, the goal should be on helping youth integrate into the church body (worship included!). Note carefully: This doesn’t just apply to the youth. The older folks often need to be integrated with the young ones too!

We also need to be careful we aren’t underselling our youth. They are often quite interested and hungry to ask the tough questions they are facing and get good, honest answers. And, while they do like to have fun, we must realize they can probably find better parties elsewhere. They need to realize they are there for a much more important reason.

That weight of importance needs to be felt. Watering things down simply backfires. David Aikman notes, “Well, it’s a paradox that even as young people all over the world tend to go in a sort of ethically and morally liberal direction, they are always attracted by movements that demand firm standards of behavior and performance. They find that much more attractive than watering down anything.” (6)Line of Fire – Dr. Michael Brown – “Dr. Brown Interviews David Aikman” – 11/19/2012 I can think of one religious movement in particular that has done a good job of not watering things down and requires strict disciplines and behavior; Islam.

J. Warner Wallace often emphasizes the importance of training vs teaching. We all know this from our school days. If there isn’t some exam coming up, we tend to slack off. We need to provide training FOR something, to motivate ourselves so learn. This might be something like setting up a youth-trip to witness to atheists or Mormons, or as simple as engaging the culture, which will undoubtedly push us to learn more.

“If someone doesn’t think they need apologetics, one has to wonder if they have tried evangelizing lately.” – Bobby Conway (7)Bobby Conway on Apologetics315 – 08/26/2012

The Role of Apologetics

It is no secret that we are rapidly heading into a more skeptical, if not hostile, culture towards Christianity. We’re Biblically commanded to be prepared to give an answer for our Christian hope (1 Peter 3:15 among others). This applies, as above, to nearly any evangelistic situation today. However, while evangelism seems to be a gifting, ALL Christians are called to be apologists. Yet, few of our churches offer any apologetics training. This needs to change, not only for evangelism, but internally to give our faith meaning, depth, and stability. I’m pretty convinced that the church will not be turned around without it.

The Critical Role of Adult Education and Equipped Parents

My final degree-work was focused on this question of how to equip and repair the church. I went through a lot of the work of both sociologists and church leaders on the problem and solutions. One big thing jumped out at me by the end, which became my thesis: “While apologetic training of youth directly is a very important task, apologetic training of parents and adults in our churches is an even more pressing need and a big part of the solution to restore ‘health’ back to the North American church.” (8)Steve Wilkinson, “Triage and Healing through Christian Apologetics: Or How to ‘Heal’ a ‘Sick’ Church.” – Comprehensive exam paper for Regent College

It’s intuitive really. Parents, influence children’s faith outcomes by a wide margin over other influences. I’m not simply talking about Dawkins’ fear of the fundamentalist homes churning out fundamentalist children. Instead, this includes factors like the importance of Christianity to the parents and how they lived their lives in light of it. Though the sociological data gets a bit more sparse when it comes to specific educational markers, it certainly includes the PARENTS ability to pass on the details of the faith and answer challenges to it.

Christianity Does Actually Make a Difference

I also think it would be good to feed our practical side and properly recognize that Christianity does indeed make a difference. All too often, it is repeated that Christians live just as poorly as the culture around them. Their divorce rates are just as high (or higher), their kids get into the same kinds of trouble, etc. We even hear this from the pulpit.

The problem is, this just isn’t true! While it is true that sanctification is a process that won’t be complete until the hereafter, statistically, it isn’t true that Christians are, in whole, as bad as everyone else. If even somewhat meaningful criteria are used to determine Christ-followers, their behavior is statistically different. The problem is that what is called Christianity by the polls and media is really cultural Christianity, not the real thing. Check out John Stackhouse’s excellent article on the subject. (9)What Scandal? Whose Conscience?” by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Image credit: Misty Church by cbamber85

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