Welcoming an Atheist at Church

Welcoming an Atheist at Church December 13, 2016

This piece was originally written in January 2014.

Early in my pastoral work I found myself in the middle of an intense season of transformation and conflict at my church. I wasn’t prepared for the dynamics I faced then; really, nobody at church knew quite what to do with the ongoing and painful situation.

In desperation, church leadership called in a coach, whose first order of business, he told us, was to meet with the pastor to provide support in this stressful time. When we sat down for that meeting the first thing he said was, “How is your relationship with God these days?”

The question hit hard and deep and I immediately responded: “I don’t think I believe in God anymore.” The coach immediately said: “Don’t ever say that again. You’re the pastor and that kind of comment is not appropriate in church.” I heard his message loud and clear: church should never be a place where you ask questions and it should certainly never be a place where you wonder out loud if God even exists.

After that, I fired him.

I remembered this conversation over the holiday, when my college sophomore son came home to visit. After his first semester away last year he’d come home knowing most everything (though he would say he was pretty sure he knew everything before he left for college), and that has only continued into his sophomore year.

Among the things about which he’s sure he knows everything are: how to have the perfect romantic relationship, how the dynasties of ancient China have impacted our political system, and how the whole concept of the existence of God is ridiculous.

Learning as I am to know and relate to an adult who I can still picture toddling around in diapers is a process for me. Part of that, I’m guessing, is honoring his convictions as they appear and shift and express themselves in his fledgling adult life.

And I can do this most of the time, especially as those convictions relate to dynasties of ancient China. But we ran into a bit of a conflict when the subject of Christmas Eve worship arose.

I asked my son to attend the service with the rest of us, but he demurred. He doesn’t believe in God anymore, he reminded me. What was the point of attending church? He continued: “The church is a place filled with hypocrites who behave badly but say they believe in God. Since I don’t believe in God anymore, I don’t belong there.”

And so we left for church that night without him, my powers of persuasion ineffectual in the face of a broken, damaged and damaging institution claiming to represent God and sending a message that right doctrine is the litmus test for inclusion in the community. If you can’t tow the party line, if you have questions and doubts, if you don’t think you believe anymore, then you don’t belong.

But what about the space we all need for the human struggle of reaching and finding and giving up and hoping and maybe trying one more time in the ongoing search for God?

I think that the faith of my childhood, that faith that was neatly encapsulated in a two-sentence sinner’s prayer prayed at an exact time and place that instantaneously and transactionally changed me into someone who never has doubts again, has not held true in my own experience. On this journey of looking for God I’ve experienced instead: tentative hope, dark doubt, bright epiphanies, and even some days when I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.

In the healed and healthy place that my congregation occupies now, in fact, we welcome many people whose faith has been tarnished, if not almost completely dismantled, often by the institutional church. They don’t know if they believe in God anymore. And they are welcomed and loved and honored as individuals honestly grappling with questions we can never fully answer anyway.

Along with the sure convictions held by some of us, all of these questions and more are part of the human journey to know and to live in relationship with the divine. Even not believing in God anymore. And I think all of these questions and doubts belong in church, the very human community of faith seekers that (let’s review) is not God.

I thought as I drove down to church on Christmas Eve that I should have told my son that people who don’t believe in God anymore are welcome at church. They are welcome to ask big, hard questions, to raise painful doubts, to challenge long-held assumptions.

They are welcome.

He is welcome.

But I didn’t say that; I only felt grief at the ways in which the very real failure of human community can cut us off from any accessible understanding of God and even from each other.

Christmas Eve. The service always touches me, even though I’m usually working. There’s something beautiful and moving about renewing our hope that the birth of a baby, that unlikely expression of God’s love for the world, might help us find our way back to God.

And I felt it again that night as I looked out over my flawed and faithful congregation and my eyes landed on a face I have loved since before he was toddling around in diapers, my kid who doesn’t think he believes in God anymore but who decided that he’d come to church that night after all.

And when he did, there was a place for him.

Originally posted on Baptist News Global.

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