Andy Gray explores the rise of atheism and its impact on young people’s beliefs, and concludes that how Christians ‘do church’ is key in affecting whether young people serve God
Since 2004, we have witnessed the rise of New Atheism, which ironically started as a result of 9/11, triggering the release of Sam Harris’s book, ‘The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason’.
It was said that after 9/11 Islam would suffer. Somehow, New Atheism has kept most of its focus on Christianity, even though its first rise was a direct result of Islamic extremists’ terror attacks on that fateful day. The key figures of New Atheism became known as ‘The Four Horsemen and Horsewoman of the Non-Apocalypse’ consisting of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, with Hirsi Ali replacing the now deceased Christopher Hitchens.
A decade later, and the landscape has evolved as things have taken an unpredictable twist; atheist churches have now sprung up across the globe – yes,‘churches’ – although the good news is, at first glance, the Black Church in Britain seems yet to feel the real pinch of the New Atheist movement. I fear that this will change, because often we lack vision, foresight and any resemblance of true prophetic gifting. As a result of these things, churches end up playing a more reactive strategy rather than a proactive one.
My wife, Jodi, and I started CityHill Church in Clapham Common in February last year. It was just the two of us to begin with. Now, we are averaging fifteen regular attenders per week. Often the figure is closer to 30 over the course of the month.
On Good Friday, we had a social in a bar, where the first cocktail was on Jesus. We invited different friends who probably wouldn’t come to church on Sunday, but would be happy for Jesus to pick up the bar tab!!! One of the guys I chatted to that night was upfront with me; he said, “I am cool with this Jesus, but me and church just don’t work…” He then started to list the problems in church and, as I listened, they were all valid: mainly money and corrupt, manipulative leadership. I just listened and invited him to check us out and, if he wasn’t feeling it, no biggie.
‘If every generation makes it their priority to serve the generation coming up, we will have a church that can weather every age’
Since the first day of CityHill, we have not taken up a single offering. The reason for not taking an offering was the reoccurring message I kept hearing from 20- and 30-somethings: they were tired of financial corruption in the Church! I had a decision to make as a pastor: what do I love more? The budget or the people?
New Atheism has some good arguments, but that is not why churches are losing the younger generation; we lose them when we push them away. Sunday after Sunday, the style of the talk pushes them away, the music pushes them away, the culture of judgment and hypocrisy pushes them away.
Out of the people we have had visit CityHill, who have previously stopped going to church, not ONE has stated atheism as their reason for leaving. New Atheism has been successful in taking ground with the nones (people of no faith) and agnostics.
Once I was invited to speak at a church, who had brought me in as ‘that youth guy that the kids will love’. They sat me down, telling me about their passion for young people and that they wanted to see JESUS move among the young people. Their talk made me excited but, when the service started, after 10 minutes I realised they did not have a passion for young people. Passion means to suffer; they were not prepared to suffer any change in church culture to reach young people.
I firmly believe the biggest problem is church pushing people into the embracing arms of the New Atheist movement, by clinging on to a ‘church culture’ that is way past its sell by date. Jesus called us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. I want to implore the older leaders in the church to do this.
If every generation makes it their priority to serve the generation coming up, we will have a church that can weather every age. However, if each generation creates a power struggle to keep church exactly how they like it, we will watch it lose its power. A church’s power is in serving; it is true that young people should serve those who are older, but we must accept that they, on the whole, are too immature to know what humility, service and sacrifice look like… until we show them!
Back to Good Friday. The guy who ‘didn’t do church’ has been coming to CityHill ever since; he has signed up to serve on team. All it took was showing him a place where money was not valued more than people.
Andy Gray is founder and Pastor of CityHill Church, Clapham Common, and has been involved in children and youth ministry for over a decade. His biggest achievement to date is ‘convincing his wife, Jodi, to marry him’.