Who will bring a Christian back to church when he's pushed into atheism?
How do we respond when a Christian acknowledges that he's fallen into doubt about the existence of God and his purpose as a Christian?
What about a pastor who struggles to keep up the mask of faithfulness, but of late isn't convinced anymore there's a God?
We all want to believe there's more to life than "be born, suffer, die," but whether it's Christians, or our conscience, or both, sometimes all we see and hear and experience are variations on a theme: "You're an embarrassment to God and the church."
For a Christian who struggles with disbelief the message that he must offer sacrifice and behave himself if he wants God to reward (and not punish) him sounds like one of many similar religious variations.
What do we say when a Christian admits the church has driven him to atheism? He doesn't mean that ideologically either. The church has convinced him there's no God and one religion is about as good as the next. He's noted that in his conversation with people of different beliefs everybody's looking for a greater meaning. They plug into whatever religion offers them meaning, into whatever offers them a place and purpose.
This is the root of many Christians' negativity and animosity toward their church. Their time sitting in a pew, listening, observing, and interacting with other Christians has convinced them Christianity is just another religious movement.
"Scratch another Christian hard enough," they'll say, "and just beneath their skin is a pagan. They know the rituals, rules, and rhetoric that make a Christian 'Christian,' but take away the 'Christianese' and many Christians could just as well worship Thor Sunday morning instead of Jesus."
Then there's all the people who didn't grow up in a church, who walk into a church looking for a way out from the start. They're fighting against their belief that there's a God who orders all things, tests all things, and judges all things. They're troubled and they've come to find answers.
What do we say to people who join our church because they're alone and don't know where to go with their questions, turbulent feelings, and so on?
How do we respond when another Christian finally admits that today he's as close to being an atheist as ever?
First, we remind him that it's a good thing our hope isn't in the church, especially not the church this side of the resurrection.
Next, we recognize, as C.S. Lewis writes:
“That [that] is why we... can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality — from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself...
That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist.”
When we can’t trust our faith - when we're forced to admit that belief in our ability to believe doesn't save us from unbelief - we're turned round, turned back to trusting God's Word and only what it says about Jesus' faithfulness to us.
We can assure new and old Christians, "Don't be worried," when you're afflicted by doubt, as Martin Luther writes because, "indeed such a trial is the very best sign of God’s grace and love for man.”
Who will bring a Christian back to church when he's pushed into atheism? Only God can bring him back from unbelief to trust in the faithfulness of Jesus his Savior.
Point a Christian who doubts to God's Word and to Christ and his gifts. Pray for him. Surround him with the love of the saints so that, as Luther writes, "hands may be joined together and one may help another." AMEN.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.