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Larry Taunton conducted a nationwide series of interviews with hundreds of college-age atheists. His question was simple: “What led you to become an atheist?”

Create a memorable church experience1. They had attended church: Most of them had a church background and had chosen atheism in reaction to Christianity.

2. The mission and message of their churches were vague: While there were many messages about doing good in the community, “they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ and the Bible.”

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions: Churches did not address questions like creation versus evolution, sexuality, reliability of the Bible, purpose of life, etc. Messages were bland, shallow, irrelevant and boring.

4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously: This is summed up in one student’s response: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive: Most embraced unbelief in the high school years.

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one: Although all gave rational reasons for becoming atheists, for most there were powerful emotional reasons too—usually associated with suffering.

7. The Internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism: Instead of being “converted” through the popular New Atheists, most were influenced by Youtube videos and website forums.

So, what are the lessons for a stronger Christianity? Taking the above points in order:

1. The church has to evangelize its own as well as those outside. We can’t assume that just because kids go to church, they are saved and thus will continue to attend. Our first mission field is our own family and church. This also puts huge onus on professing Christians to believe, speak and act consistently because many who left the church were turned off by hypocrisy within it.

2. Our messages must be clear and Gospel-centered. All doctrine, practice, service and devotion must continually be tied to the center of the Gospel, Jesus Christ’s person and work.

3. We must tackle the hard questions: We can’t just preach nice, heart-warming, encouraging and inspiring sermons. We have to face the reality of our current culture and its varied challenges to Christian faith. And if we do engage these questions, we must do so fairly, lovingly and honestly.

4. Evangelize passionately and persuasively: Students were unimpressed by dispassionate presentations of the truth and a reluctance to press the claims of Christ upon them. Perhaps this is the most surprising finding of all. We’ve somehow been convinced that sermons have to be more like lectures or just conversational; cool, calculated, casual discussions that present the truth with as little feeling as possible. We mustn’t be pushy, emotional or earnest in our witness. But according to the students, this bland approach is a complete turn-off.

5. High school years are more dangerous than college years: We can’t wait until college to equip young people with spiritual armor and arms.

6. Appeal to the heart as well as the head: As most people turned to atheism for emotional reasons, usually related to suffering, we must also appeal to their emotions to win them back. We can’t just offer cold logic and philosophy, nor even just biblical truth. We need to communicate love, joy and peace in our witness, as well as offer them an experience of these healing Christian emotions through the Christ who purchased them through His suffering.

7. Use the Internet to promote Christian truth: Many kids are in church and Christian youth groups a couple of hours a week, but are spending 20 or 30 hours a week online. Unless we give them some healthy regular alternative to the videos and forums that are overtly and covertly attacking the Christian faith, we shouldn’t be surprised if they gradually drift away.

“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope… The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose.” — Rick Warren