Just Ask Phil

Just ask Phil: How Shallow Youth Ministry Contributed to His Journey to Atheism.

I became an atheist after my church fired our Bible teaching youth pastor for a hip twenty-something who could attract a larger crowd. That’s not an exact quote, but it describes the way at least one college student (Phil) assesses his journey into unbelief. He said the way his former youth pastor taught the Bible made him “feel smart” because he responded to difficult questions head on. The new guy? He barely even knew the Bible, Phil says. And it was at this critical juncture that Phil began thinking of himself primarily as a skeptic.

This story is from an article “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” the Atlantic published online yesterday by Larry Taunton, executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation. Taunton is a leader in the public dialogue between Christianity and Skepticism, and his article offers summary observations from a national survey conducted with skeptic college students. His conclusions are surprising, not that they are unexpected, but that they powerfully affirm existing fears of church leaders regarding an entertainment approach to reaching young people, a model that offers a pay off in both the short term (with larger crowds) and tragically in the long term (with disenfranchised dissenters).

Taunton offers six common traits among the students they interviewed:

1. They had attended church.

2. The mission and message of their churches was vague.

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.

4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took their Bible seriously.

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive.

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one.

While Taunton doesn’t provide statistical data for his observations (I imagine he will in the near future — perhaps a book project?) his insights resonate with my experience of working with college age students. If anything is for certain, it is that students don’t respect entertainment oriented gimmicks in the long run and they are looking for someone with the audacity to tackle honest questions and demonstrate the relevance of the Bible.  It’s also a reminder that emotional worldview decisions are rarely lasting. That’s true of the unfortunate easy-belief tactics employed in some youth ministry venues, and it is also true of the adoption of an en vogue agnosticism.

This reminds me of an event we hosted at the campus of the University of Louisville that we called Christianity:True or False. We spent a day on campus asking students about their thoughts on Christianity. One female student began by telling us that she became an agnostic as a freshmen because, as she said, that’s how most of her friends described themselves. But when she learned of the tragic death of her high school brother she reconsidered her position. He was an outspoken Christian remembered by those who knew him as a person of deep faith. His unfortunate death led to her return to the Christian faith. We captured part of her story on video here.

This fits nicely with Pastor Tim Keller’s outline of three reasons why people choose to believe or not: intellectual, social, and emotional (I would add the categories of moral and theological). While Taunton doesn’t say that the students he interviewed made their decisions exclusively for emotional reasons, he did find that this particular category loomed large in their departure from the church.

Parents and ministry leaders should note with special care the observations in Larry Taunton’s article. The high school years are formative and foundational. Intellectual commitments will be made. Life trajectories set. And students are looking for leaders who can shepherd their doubts and questions with the power of the gospel and a tenacious commitment to teaching the Bible. They probably won’t mind if you offer them food and games in the process, but they will likely resent you if that’s really all you have to offer.

Just ask Phil.