Using the Fixed Point Foundation website, email, my Twitter, and my Facebook page, we contacted the leaders of these groups and asked if they and their fellow members would participate in our study. To our surprise, we received a flood of enquiries. Students ranging from Stanford University to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, from Northwestern to Portland State volunteered to talk to us. The rules were simple: Tell us your journey to unbelief. It was not our purpose to dispute their stories or to debate the merits of their views. Not then, anyway. We just wanted to listen to what they had to say. And what they had to say startled us.
This brings me back to Phil.
A smart, likable young man, he sat down nervously as my staff put a plate of food before him. Like others after him, he suspected a trap. Was he being punk'd? Talking to us required courage of all of these students, Phil most of all since he was the first to do so. Once he realized, however, that we truly meant him no harm, he started talking -- and for three hours we listened.
Now the president of his campus's SSA, Phil was once the president of his Methodist church's youth group. He loved his church ("they weren't just going through the motions"), his pastor ("a rock star trapped in a pastor's body"), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim ("a passionate man"). Jim's Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn't dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: "He didn't always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn't run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart."
Listening to his story I had to remind myself that Phil was an atheist, not a seminary student recalling those who had inspired him to enter the pastorate. As the narrative developed, however, it became clear where things came apart for Phil. During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim's dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, "didn't know a thing about the Bible." The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.
An hour deeper into our conversation I asked, "When did you begin to think of yourself as an atheist?"
He thought for a moment. "I would say by the end of my junior year."
I checked my notes. "Wasn't that about the time that your church fired Jim?"
He seemed surprised by the connection. "Yeah, I guess it was."
Phil's story, while unique in its parts, was on the whole typical of the stories we would hear from students across the country.
The article then lists some of the characteristics of these young people.
They had attended church
The mission and message of their churches was vague
They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life's difficult questions
They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
Ages 14-17 were decisive
The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheismThis article of course begs the question what should the church's response be. Quite simple. Jesus' call to discipleship. "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, pick up his cross daily and come follow me." It's not by softening the message as some seeker friendly churches try and do. But rather laying out the challenge, excitement and joy which comes from giving oneself fully to Christ and His Kingdom.