When Churches Confuse Atheists for Disciples

compassThe current edition of Ministry Briefing covers a story that has fascinated me. The story, Behold the Six Types of Atheistsgives an overview of the study done by two men from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga unpacks the six different categories of atheists. Upon first glance it would seem that researchers Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman have discovered that atheists, like christians, draw from a fairly diverse crowd… one that can not be defined with one sweeping definition. What has stuck out to me, and what I have continued to soak on, was the sixth category, the ritual atheist:

They don’t believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.

“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”

Last week I was able to have a conversation with Silver and Coleman about their research, and they described this type of atheist as someone you could be sitting beside in church each week. This is a person who may not believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit… yet they value the ritual of the church. While there are many parts of this that fascinate me, what concerns me is that many churches would consider these people to be faithful congregants, members in good standing, because they meet the default standard for what a Christian is.

In many churches the understanding of what marks a person as a disciple of Jesus is that they show up on Sunday mornings. Some churches ratchet it up a little more by expecting people to take part in classes, or going through special membership classes. While I am all for people showing up on Sunday morning, and being a part of classes, this does not a disciple make. 

In fact, a category six atheist could meet those expectations.

The way that we define what a disciple is, the way that we describe the be’s, know’s, and do’s of a disciple’s life is far too important to be allowed to default to showing up on Sunday morning, and sitting through a church business meeting. When helping churches define what a disciple looks like in their context, I encourage them to ask two simple questions:

What is true of someone who lives in our context?

Therefore, what qualities and characteristics does a fully devoted follower of Christ display in our context?

At first glance, this seems like a simple exercise, but to truly answer these questions will require you to exegete your culture and understand what makes the area in which you live tick. Next week, I will share what this looks like for my unique context: Long Island.

How does YOUR church define a disciple of Christ?


About the Author: Matt Steen

I love Jesus, Theresa (my wife), the Redskins & Capitals, and am currently living in Waco, Texas where I am studying the finer points of BBQ (while working on my MDiv and MBA at Baylor University). When not studying, I serve church leaders through and am the Director of Connections for Harris Creek Baptist Church's Downtown Campus.