Annual conference time is upon us, that season in the United Methodist church where clergy and lay delegates sweep in from all points of a defined geographical area to worship, hear reports and vote on resolutions. On the first morning of the Central Texas Annual Conference in Ft. Worth, we watched a video on what constitutes a United Methodist with points on how to renew the church.
We ‘ve heard this before. For a few decades we’ve heard it with only slight variations: the grand old mainline denominations are dying and we better do this and accomplish that if we are to survive and revive. Among the suggestions were to form small groups, be in ministry with the poor and spark interest in personal spiritual disciplines, such as Bible reading, fasting and prayer. Nothing new there.
Then along comes a recent articeg 300w, http://onemanshow.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/MyCloud-768x500.jpeg 768w, http://onemanshow.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/MyCloud.jpeg 827w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />le in The Atlantic Monthly that actually deals with church subtraction, but may have much to say about church growth. The solution to declining attendance may be this: befriend an atheist or two.
The article, Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity by Larry Alex Taunton, summarized the findings of researchers of the Fixed Point Foundation when they engaged members of secular and freethought societies on college campuses. They discovered that most skeptics came from church backgrounds, left religion in adolescence, and turned to secularism after experiencing deep hurt or disappointment while claiming it was for rational reasons. Surprisingly, a lot of atheists said they deeply respect Christians who passionately embrace biblical teaching and try to convert others. Tautnon brings up the well-known video of magician Penn Jillette, an avowed atheist who said: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. . .how much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
This article really made me think. Are we, as mainline churchgoers, engaging atheists and agnostics on a regular basis? Do we seek to develop relationships with them or do we simply hope they wander into our church buildings on Sunday morning? (Or would we prefer that skeptics just stay home and keep their opinions to themselves?) Can we passionately trumpet our testimony — what God has done in our lives and what God is doing in our lives right now? Do you know the reason for the hope that is inside you and can you share it with gentleness and respect? (I Peter 3:15)
Years ago, as an associate pastor in a declining church, I talked about evangelism a lot. Every time I got behind a pulpit or Sunday school lectern, I’d hammer out the themes of the joy and responsibility of sharing our faith with others. One morning, a church matriarch marched up to me and sniffed, “You’re always talking about evangelism and reaching out and inviting others to worship. Well, that won’t work with me. Everybody I know already attends church.”
I smiled at her and said, “Then maybe you’re hanging out with the wrong people.”