This week I watched a news story from CTV in Canada that quoted “atheist minister” Gretta Vosper, who serves at a church with the word “Christ” in its name. First of all, I’m mind-blown by the phrase “atheist minister.” More on that in a minute. First, here’s a short excerpt from the interview:
Reporter: “It’s an interesting poll from Angus Reid [Canada’s Gallop], Gretta, showing that the numbers are dwindling. Why do you think that is? Are people just in search of something else?
Vosper: “I’m not sure that people are in search of something else, but they are not in search of doctrinal beliefs that are dictated by religious organizations — however progressive those beliefs may be articulated. I think that people want to find ways to create meaning in their lives, they want to come together to engage in those conversations. They want to find ways to improve their own wellbeing, and their engagement in the community beyond themselves. So, I think that liberal religious traditions have done a great service in coming to the edge — to the margins as you mention — but I think that some of the language and doctrinal claims just have pressed people out of the church and out of other liberal traditions as well.”
Reporter: “And people have questions — so many questions that maybe aren’t being answered — questions about, you know, ‘why do bad things happen?,’ ‘why is there pain and suffering if there is this supernatural, all knowing, lovely God; why do things like this happen?’”
Where to even begin? Let’s start with the term “atheist minister,” which is fraught with problems. Everyone knows what the word atheist means, so let’s consider the word “minister.”
The word originated in Latin in the Middle Ages and meant servant. The title (in other countries) of prime minister then simply means “chief public servant.” In the ecclesial (Christian church) sense, a minister is one who serves God, which may prove problematic if you’re an atheist — just saying.
According to Dictionary.com a minister is 1) one who conducts religious services, 2) who administers ordinances/sacraments, and even 3) one who acts as an agent or instrument of another.
In pastoral care class in seminary one of the first lessons was that as a pastor, there are times when you are the tangible presence of God to someone.
Of course, it’s difficult to be an agent or instrument of the Divine Other when one doesn’t believe in God. In my mind this should go without saying, but in some circles it seems that people might have abandoned their first love, as did the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2.
The reporter’s questions are also telling. Many people are giving up on God because the church isn’t helping them wrestle with the tough questions in life. It’s fascinating. They are not giving up on each other. They are not giving up on searching for answers. They are not giving up on seeking counsel and help. They are not even giving up on church (in the “atheist minister’s” case). They are giving up on God.
So, how high is the price when the church avoids uncomfortable and difficult topics? How much does it really pay to attract a crowd to the detriment of true discipleship? What happens when we embrace worship-tainment over helping people in the midst of their most profound grief, sorrow, loss and doubt?
The answer seems to be that they give up on God altogether.
My fear is this: The American church has for far too long shied away from being the church because of a desire to attract more people to church. Ironically, nothing could be more thoroughly detrimental to the church.
When we sell people on the idea that the Bible gives easy answers, people eventually realize they were sold a bill of phony goods — a bastardized version of the spiritually penetrating and sometimes paradoxical Word of God.
If the above interview teaches us nothing else, it’s that fundamentalism is highly unlikely to reach the culture of our day (or at least a growing majority of it). Vosper gets it right when she says, “They are not in search of doctrinal beliefs that are dictated by religious organizations.”
People are in search of community, authentic relationship, opportunities for service, and spiritual connection with the Divine and others. If the church cannot facilitate these human longings in light of the incarnation of Christ, or of imago Dei, or of Christ’s suffering and resurrection, maybe we’re all atheist ministers.