About two weeks ago I had the honor of speaking in chapel for a Christian grade school in my area. The age span was from first to the twelfth grade. I had to think and pray about this presentation a lot because it had to be done in such a way that it would interest the first graders and teach them something and at the same time have some substance to engage the twelfth graders. I decided to use an illusion (magic trick) and talk about the need to be able to ask the fundamental questions instead of being distracted by the slight of hand. Part of the talk was my testimony about growing up as an atheist and the process of coming to the faith. As an atheist I had hard questions which Christians typically ran from. The occasional retort of “That’s a stupid question” was unpersuasive to me. I prided myself at cultivating questions that required thought and evidence. Christian’s inability to answer helped to confirm my atheism to me. Eventually I discovered there were actual, credible answers to the hard questions. A pivotal point for me was the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.
While preparing for a number of upcoming speaking engagements I had a call from a good friend. As we spoke she raised the topic of the resurrection and the upcoming celebration of the anniversary of that event. Over the last several years a number of liberal scholars are trotted out on various television specials and in popular magazines like Time and Newsweek to claim that Jesus really wasn’t raised from the dead. The idea of His resurrection is simply religious myth and a faith fable. Last year Simcha Jacobovici and filmmaker James Cameron aired their film “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” on the Discovery Channel. We were both interested in the special last year because the one thing that proves Christianity is true is the physical resurrection. It is also true that the one thing that would prove Christianity is false would be if someone produced the body of Jesus. If this “Lost Tomb” was indeed where Jesus Christ was buried years after the resurrection spoken of in Scripture and history then there would be reason to question the validity of the biblical claims.
The “Lost Tomb” discussion is returning a bit again this year. My friend was a little distressed because this is a question that is not allowed as a valid question in the church she attends and indeed in few if any churches in her area. It is regarded as a stupid question.
On another front the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life came out with their Religious Landscape of the United States poll this week. Time Magazine called it America’s Unfaithful Faithful . The study shows a great deal of movement between religions and worldviews or what Pew called “churning.” One of the better commentaries on this was by tmatt at GetReligion.org titled Pew Forum marches on (post No. 3,000) . All of this actually ties together if you will bear with me a bit.
The Pew study is fairly large as studies of this type go having compiled data from polling 35,000 people. They show certain trends. For example, although it was reported last week that Jehovah’s Witnesses Fastest-Growing of U.S. Faiths that is misleading. The Pew study shows something else (which we have been saying for nearly 20 years) that the Jehovah’s Witnesses:
lose more believers than any other faith, with some two-thirds of adult members severing ties.
The study shows what is happening but doesn’t address why. For example, although the Jehovah’s Witnesses grew this year on percentage what the percentage growth doesn’t show is that they are adding only slightly more than they are losing. It doesn’t explain why some (or in the case of JWs, a lot!) are leaving or why others are joining. Like tmatt I haven’t poured over and dissected the study as yet but I think these two paragraphs from his article Pew Forum marches on (post No. 3,000) deserves consideration:
However, I hope to ring up the omnipresent John C. Green of the University of Akron and ask a few questions, like these: Are people changing faiths or is the content of these faiths changing? In other words, what role does doctrine play in all of this? People may flee one pew — in a splitting church — and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend. It may even be a church without pews.
You may have people who are exiting a church because they have lost their faith or radically changed it. Then again, it may be the faith of their old church that has radically changed. There are different reasons to hit the road on a personal pilgrimage…
Are Christians leaving churches that focus on “felt needs” nearly to the exclusion of teaching sound doctrine? Are churches that are geared primarily for reaching the “unchurched” losing people who actually want to learn the biblical faith and who then opt for house churches or experimental and in some cases experiential churches? That is at least possible and in my opinion probable. It is becoming increasingly more the case that biblically literate and discerning Christians are unwelcome in the seeker sensitive/Purpose Driven (did the church really have no purpose prior to the advent of Rick Warren?)/emerging church. Are churches being split because some of the die-hards who believe sound teaching is essential are being shown the door by emerging seeker-sensitive leadership with purpose? Where do they go? A new concept might be to start a church for believers where they can be taught the word and prepared to be missionaries to their culture.
My friend Dani had been raised in the church. She had hard questions and for most all of her church life was discouraged from asking them. She embraced a New Age religion as a result. Not because she wanted to rebel against God or Scripture. She loved God and still does. She switched or at Pew put is “churned” because the group had answers. The answers weren’t true but the group wasn’t afraid of her questions. When we met and I began explaining worldviews and how we can determine the truth or falsity of a worldview she was thrilled. A whole new world of knowledge opened up to her. She asked and continues wondering why she never learned this in church. As we discussed the evidence for the Christian claims and faith she grabbed on to it and loved the answers. More than the answers she loved learning that there are tools that can be used to find more answers and that questions are not the enemy. She deals with non-believers who hold to other faith claims and believers who have and are struggling with holding on to their faith. I think she is probably most alive while answering their difficult questions. Like me and others I know, she grieves because these questions cannot be asked in church. And so more people leave and become something else. When I speak on college campuses I have always had some who have talked to me afterward with the same question. “Why didn’t I learn these things in church?” They too had left to become something else. New Age, Wiccan, atheist …
As I spoke at the chapel in the Christian school I wondered how many of those that were there that day will still be a part of the church after they graduate high school? I know the pastor there encourages them to ask questions and he himself loves apologetics, discernment and defense of the faith. I don’t know about the elders or the parents of the children. Growing up in the faith, whether we are children or adults, is very much like growing up in life. Part of the process is asking and learning. Trial and error. For kids this needs to be done in the safety of family life where guidance and gentle correction can happen. There is not a day that goes by that my grandchildren don’t ask me something that is important to them. “Where does snow come from?” “Why was my sister in mommy’s belly?” “Does God have eyes?” “My friend as school is an atheist and says that people who believe in God are stupid. What should I tell him?” (I am not sure how much of an atheist a 7 year old can be). Of course, if I don’t take the time to let them ask whatever questions they have and work with them at finding answers there are others out there who will be more than happy to fill in the blanks. The same is true with the church. If the church doesn’t teach or respect and address the difficult questions there are plenty outside the church that will be more than happy to accommodate.
This is so true. We were “church-goers” with no belief in or true knowledge of Jesus Christ when my husband and I were led by God (even before we realized it) to enroll our sons in Christian school. Our oldest was in second grade, and our youngest started there in kindergarten. When our oldest was in sixth and seventh grade, he began asking questions about things that were being said in Bible class. One day, a teacher, the wife of a pastor, told him he was wrong on something he said. Well, tell a sometimes headstrong sixth grader “you’re wrong” and you just made a big mistake. Instead of going with him to the Bible, and checking out what the Bible actually said about his belief, the teacher simply made him angry by waving him off and saying he was wrong (in front of the whole class). In another instance with a science/Bible teacher, the teacher became flustered in class at one of my son’s comments regarding faith, and answered something like “because it’s what the Reformed Church believes.” Then the teacher quickly moved on, no more questions allowed.
This is why we moved our son to public school when our oldest was in 8th and our youngest in 5th grade. For these reasons, and others, we saw the beautiful faith that had grown and flourished in the elementary Christian school begin to be lost by the stiff-necked behaviors of the teachers. When my youngest son came home one day, in tears, asking me if “public school kids are bad,” because the kids and teachers at the Christian school were saying this, I knew that my kids were about to lose their faith. Thankfully, God had brought my husband and I to a faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ during this time, so we could now do the job of training up our kids in the way they should go, along with our Bible-based church. Initially, having no faith, we could not do this. What a shame that the wonderful job the school did in teaching our kids in the early grades was threatened by an atmosphere of not being able to question anything in the middle school. This is why I’ve heard those who went to Christian school all their lives tell me that they left the faith as adults because they no longer wanted to “feel judged” and to have “religion shoved down my throat.”
If we are confident in our faith and in who God is, we will never be threatened by questions. We must remember that all of us at one time did not have all the answers. All of us have gone through the process of coming to know who God is, and who He isn’t. This is a journey that can be wonderful to take with a child.
One of the things I am most thankful for is that my family is on this journey together, and I often go to my kids with questions on the Bible. With prayer and God’s Holy Spirit guiding us as we read His Word, we can prepare ourselves to joyfully share the reason for the hope that we have.
This reminds me of an evangelist that used to visit my Pentecostal church as a kid. We would dance when he came and he said that if we didn’t allow for dancing unto the Lord that people would find readily available opportunities dancing with the devil. Whether one embraces that practice or tradition in one’s denomination is not so critical as the metaphor that it presents. I found the same thing to be true in many “experience-oriented” churches that I attended over the years where critical thought and reason (in concert with the Spirt, of course!) was discouraged.
I’m grateful to the Lord for having nearly always provided an adult that took my seemingly insignificant or impractical questions very seriously. I asked plenty of questions, and I am especially grateful to my pastor who even went to talk to a public school teacher on my behalf after that teacher questioned my faith. I was always taken seriously by him, and there was a temporary void in my life when he left our church. I was thrilled again to eventually find my Christian high school teacher who lovingly and patiently bore my many seemingly insignificant questions for my years of study with him. Both these men laid a foundation and standard of committment to the Word of God as well as a living example of good hermeneutics that continue to bless me.
God bless all who take the time and go through what can often be “pains” of diligenly and honestly answering questions for those who ask for wisdom and guidance. I remember being especially impressed when both these men were humble enough to admit when they had no definitive answers to offer. We kids, still grown and asking questions, are eternally grateful, literally! So many of those seeds planted in my heart have yielded good fruit and continue to do so. May the Lord put a diligent teacher in the life of everyone and prepare them well for the answers!