Bill Hybels, a well-known pastor, author and christian leader, famously articulated his dream of irreligious people becoming fully devoted followers of Christ. The dream eventually came to be represented by the phrase atheists to missionaries and the phrase stuck. It does have a certain stickability!
It’s a bit fashionable to be an atheist; all the time I hear people proclaim their atheism, sometimes accompanied by a missionary zeal, to those around them. No one ever seems to question or doubt this self-proclaimed and pervasive atheism; it is simply accepted as the natural course of things where religious institutions have missed the mark. And – let’s face it – it’s distinctly unfashionable to nail your colours to the mast as a card-carrying follower of Jesus. There’s no quicker way to stop a social conversation over dinner dead in its tracks than to mention the name of Jesus (without swearing).
So I’ve taken to asking atheists some questions, giving them the opportunity, perhaps, to defend their view of the world and even to stand up for themselves. What caused you to become an atheist? is often my first question. Or how about what evidence have you discovered for the non-existence of God? Most folks, if able to respond at all to a well-placed question, haven’t given any serious thought to their God-denying views. It’s assumed that, since The Church has let us down in this country that the only reasonable way forward is to disbelieve the existence of God. It’s a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: a slightly lazy approach that, as I’ve said, doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny and doesn’t even attempt to make the distinction between God Himself and the practice of religion. Atheism begins with a faith premise – harder to buy into than faith in God, in my humble opinion – and relies on some sort of evidence if it’s going to stand on its own two feet.
How do these sort of atheists become enthusiastic advocates for faith in Christ? First, folks have to be quizzed about their atheism (see previous paragraph) instead of coddled by the notion that default atheism is a no-brianer for those sick of religious institutionalism. Second, the difference between the Lord God Himself and religious institutions must be emphasised. This would seem obvious but the obvious is easily missed. A friend recently declared, having been exposed to a living, breathing expression of faith in Christ, that her long-held disbelief was probably actually aimed at religion, not at God. This essential distinction had escaped her notice for decades.. Then, the consistent influence of a credible witness for The Kingdom also matters. All of us know folks who proclaim their atheism but who we suspect have never thought hard about it, or may never actually have known someone possessing a living and dynamic relationship with Jesus. Most have never been prayed for by a caring believer in Christ.
Jesus loved skeptics and those far from God. He went to great pains, in Luke chapter 15 for instance, to emphasise the importance of those who are lost by telling the stories of the lost son, the lost coin and the lost sheep. These stories, told by Jesus is response to the Pharisees’ observation that this man receives sinners and eats with them (15.2) illustrate beautifully the truth that the lost matter to God. Since the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19.10), His agenda is also our agenda.
Who do you know who is lost without Christ? What one thing could you do, right now, to move toward that person, develop a relationship or to articulate the dynamic hope present in relationship with Jesus? Think about it. Then do something.