I recently read an article entitled "Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity." The thesis of the article is one well worth considering. Young people who abandon their Christian faith tend to do so because the Christianity they are exposed to is lukewarm. The young (college age) atheists interviewed by the author speak admirably of those Christians they know who take their faith seriously. But they don't represent the norm in their perspective, and this makes Christianity as a whole less attractive.
Point taken. But there is more to the story here that I believe the article misses. The author opens by relating the story of Phil, a young man who was very much involved in the youth ministry group at his Methodist church. The youth pastor, Jim, is described as someone who really "knows the Bible," who led dynamic Bible study sessions, took his faith seriously and attempted to pass that zeal on to the youth in his charge.
However, the pastor wanted to shift the focus of the youth ministry program to something more lighthearted and fun. Jim didn't want to go that route. So Jim was out. And Savannah was in. Savannah is described as someone who was great fun, could play games but who "didn't know a thing about the Bible." While the numbers in the youth program did increase, Phil left. He became an atheist.
The moral of the story seems to be that the "fun and games" approach to Christianity is shallow and ultimately unfulfilling. Fair enough. But I can't help but feel there is more to what happened.
I sympathize with Phil. He had an intelligent and engaging youth pastor whom he admired. That youth pastor was removed (no doubt unjustly in Phil's view) and replaced with someone with a very different approach. I imagine many young people in Phil's shoes would become less involved in their youth ministry group; maybe they would find a different church to attend with a youth group more in line with their standards; maybe they would step back from active participation in this sort of group and take more of an internal approach to their practice of the faith. But to become apostate? To abandon the faith altogether? To renounce Christ? To profess that there is no God?
These actions strike me as a rather extreme reaction to not liking your new youth minister. No doubt something more was going on with Phil; something internal that perhaps he never shared with Jim or anyone else. Despite his admiration of Jim and active participation in youth Bible studies, Phil suffered from a lack of faith.
One of the criticisms leveled at the "fun and games" approach to youth ministry is that it provides nothing of substance for the participants. It becomes just another social group. And if you decide you don't like the social group any longer and want to find another one (or none at all), then what's the big deal? The same criticism is leveled at churches who focus on social justice issues while neglecting doctrinal fidelity, catechesis and liturgical reverence. If your church is just another volunteer service group, then there are plenty of other organizations that can provide that experience for you without the religious baggage.
What we don't hear talked about as much is the fact that more traditionally minded Christians can fall into this trap as well. The Christian circles you travel in might be very devout, very orthodox, very pious, heavy on the Bible studies and traditional liturgies and devotions, and all that. But if you don't bring a personal faith to the table, then it is still just another social group.
We see it happening all the time. A very orthodox pastor, one who takes great care to teach the unadulterated faith to his flock and celebrates beautiful liturgies, who is a gifted homilist, a good confessor, and all we hope for in a priest, is transferred to a different parish. The new pastor comes in who is more on the "let's just all get along" end of the spectrum, heavy on the hugs, light on the doctrine. His liturgies are more casual. His approach to catechesis more lax. And the pews grow empty.
Where have all the faithful gone? Some have decided to attend a different parish the next town over. But most have just decided to stay home. They would rather commit a mortal sin by missing their Sunday obligation than sit through a homily from their new pastor. Why is this? Were not these the very people attracted to their former pastor's dynamic orthodoxy?
A cult of personality can be just as much a danger with a charismatic orthodox leader as with a charismatic heterodox leader. If your participation in the faith is about a person or social group, rather than Jesus Christ, then you are in trouble regardless.
This is a very serious concern that I have in campus ministry. Campus ministry groups tend to be really amazing groups of young people. Friendships are easy to form. Students get attached to their campus minister or other students in the group. They get heavily involved in "church things" through campus ministry and this can look very much like a sincere religious conversion.
The sad reality is that many times the conversion is not truly to God, but to campus ministry. Some of these same students, a few years after graduation, discover that their faith was centered on the campus ministry group and not on a meaningful relationship to God in Christ. They may attend their local parish for a while, but it is not the same. They believe it is because they are not being fed spiritually. And so they leave. They might join another denomination, or stop practicing any faith at all.
You would be surprised at how often it is the "very active" student, one whose faith seems to be on fire, who you find out four or five years down the road is no longer practicing their faith. It is very hard, if not impossible to judge someone's sincerity in this regard, often because the student does not know themselves.
It is something I think a lot about as campus minister. What can I do to ensure that a student continues in the faith post college? The answer, I have determined, is nothing at all. Because I cannot give them faith. And that is the key.
Faith is a gift from God. I am not saying this to imply that God predestines some of us to have faith and others not to, and therefore our efforts to evangelize are moot. Not at all. But faith is a gift and a gift must be both given and received. In that regard, faith is very much between God and the individual soul.
What I can do - what youth ministers and pastors and others in a position to shepherd someone in the faith can do - is to help the person nourish that relationship with God, grow stronger in that relationship, to live out their faith in an authentic and meaningful way in this world. We can provide them the tools they need to be good Christians. And God help us, we want never to be an obstacle to their faith.
But we have to realize at some point that we can never give that gift ourselves. We can be conduits. We can plant seeds. But the Holy Spirit is what gives those seeds life.
It is this supernatural element of faith that is the missing piece in this article on atheism. Phil did not become an atheist because of anything his youth minister did or did not do. He became an atheist because of a lack of faith. The change in his youth minister was just the excuse he needed to put that lack of faith into action.
My desire for all of my college students is that they possess a faith strong enough to sustain them through incompetent ministers, bad liturgies, boring homilies, and all the goofy things that we weak and sinful human beings are capable of. God willing, you will leave college and find a wonderful parish home with a dynamic priest in love with God, a parish that provides you with many opportunities to enrich your faith. I hope you do. But you may not. Will your faith sustain you? Is your faith dependent upon having a good and strong faith community (whatever your definition of that may be)? Or is your faith in something higher and transcendent?
If it is, then you are blessed. For a faith such as that can carry you through anything.