IF YOU’RE AN ATHEIST WHO IS STILL A WORKING PREACHER, WHAT DO YOU PREACH?
Excellent question! This is obviously the most difficult part of my job. So much of being a pastor doesn’t require you to actually believe anything, you just need to be a person with empathy.
I don’t need to be a believer in order to :
- Hold the hand of a dying person
- Counsel an older gentlemen who is coming to grips with his daughter being an alcoholic
- Help estranged sisters find closure after the death of their abusive father
- Visit and rejoice with brand new parents at the maternity ward
- Organize volunteers and run a kids program
- Fix the church gutters
- Get prices on new A/C units for the sanctuary
- Show the building to potential renters for a wedding
- Run a church counsel meeting
But preaching, this is where I tell people what they should believe and how they should live. How the heck can an atheist preach in a conservative evangelical church?
With much difficulty.
However, the Bible is a very versatile document (or rather collections of documents). While I may not believe in it’s stories, that doesn’t mean I don’t think people can learn and benefit from these stories. There are grand themes of scripture that I think our culture can benefit from.
- The Bible loves the underdog. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Jesus, et al. There is no room for biblicaly minded people to be elitist.
- Sacrificial love. We can see the impact of Ghandi and MLK, the world could use more love and less revenge.
- Humility a la “The Tax Collector and the Pharisee”
- Confidence even with there is little cause for hope. “Faith the size of the mustard seed can move mountains”
- Hospitality – Turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000
- Care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the prisoner, the “other”
- Love of enemy and neighbor
In essence I preach the best of the Christian life, drawing upon Christian spirituality as motivation. In many ways my sermons are very Humanist friendly. But alas, they obviously cannot be secular. I do preach and teach that Christ was sacrificed for the sins of mankind. That salvation comes only through the blood of Christ. That it is the Holy Spirit who gives us strength to love God and others. That it doesn’t matter how hard we work, grace is given to us because we are sinners and not because we are holy. I preach an evangelical gospel. Conservative Christian Humanism is probably the best way to describe my sermons. Which leads to obvious problems.
Since I cannot contradict the conservative faith, I must allow the congregation to continue to believe in things that are morally repulsive to me such as Hell or “Traditional/Biblical Marriage”. I also have to allow them to believe in things that are just plain stupid to me like Creationism or you know… the existence of an interventionist God.
HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE TOPIC OF HELL?
Even when I believed in Hell, I didn’t talk about it often. I didn’t think scaring people into believing was an effective way to create loving disciples. But the sense of final judgment is in fact a necessary element to Christian theology. I speak of final judgment in more allusions and assumptions. I’m far more likely to say “The only way to be saved is through faith in Christ” than I am to say “You will go to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus.” The difference is subtle, but ask any orthodox believer and they’ll tell you I’m not giving the whole “truth”.
There is a saying, “The Gospel assumed, is the Gospel forgotten.” I allow Hell to be assumed (and not contradicted) and to be the subtext of discussion on final Judgment. This allows true believers to maintain their belief. But by not teaching it explicitly, I’m not forcing people to believe in it explicitly. Perhaps those not being told about it explicitly won’t hold to it too tightly.
But I’m still doing what I’ve always done. When I must explicitly talk about Hell, it is most often as a reminder to those who are “saved” that they have no reason to feel superior to the “lost”, since the saved deserve Hell as much as the lost do. Christian theology teaches that Christians deserve Hell, but are saved from it because of the work, love, and goodness of Jesus Christ. Therefore Christians should have compassion on those who don’t believe since Christians are not different than them. “God wishes none to perish, but all to come to repentance.” “Do you not know that it is God’s kindness that leads you to repentance.” “God wishes all men to be saved.”
I use Hell as a tool to remind Christians to be humble when interacting with nonChristians. After all, if Jesus loved and died for the Christian when they were the “enemy” of God, how then should we treat our enemies? (Romans 5)
HOW DO YOU HANDLE HOMOSEXUALITY?
Much like I handle Hell. I quickly remind people that divorce is a violation of the same commandments, and divorce is far more likely to threaten your marriage than two men you’ll never meet who get married. Even when I still believed, it always astounded me how quick Christians will excuse divorce but how virulent they’d attack gay marriage. Hypocrisy!
When I was a believer, I firmly believed that the only thing a homosexual person could do to maintain a “relationship with God” was to remain celibate. I very quickly realized that being gay wasn’t a choice and it wasn’t something you could just pray away. But I also regularly preached in such away that straight Christians would see that being gay isn’t just about sex, it’s also about love. We were asking gay men and women to never be loved like I can by my wife. This was one of the big reasons I came to reject the bible as a moral authority.
Now what do I teach? Nothing. I’m a silent on this issue. More silent than I am about Hell. Since I’ve always thought American Christians were far too focused on this subject, I find plenty of other topics to preach on. NOBODY is going to be happy with that answer. Gay rights people will want me to explicitly teach acceptance, Christians want me to explicitly teach rejection. If I preach acceptance I am instantly fired. If I preach rejection and I won’t be able to live with myself. If I was forced to preach a conservative message on “traditional marriage” I would just resign instead. While I’m not doing much to combat bigotry, I refuse to actively promote it. “The Gospel assumed is the Gospel forgotten.” By not actively preaching on it, it will allow the wider culture to inform the views of more impressionable Christians.
WHAT ABOUT CREATIONISM VS. EVOLUTION?
Fortunately I had already rejected Young Earth Creationism. I had also always taught that it doesn’t matter how old someone thinks the Earth, a Christian is defined by belief in Christ and not their view on Gen 1. It’s interesting to note that prior to Darwin, there were some very famous Christians who believed that Genesis 1 was not a literal account of creation.
DO YOU TEACH THE BIBLE IS THE WORD OF GOD?
Yes I do. In fact, I actively promote reading it all the way through. I have yet to read 1 book on atheism written by an atheist, but I’ve read the Bible multiple times. That was enough to disabuse me of my faith. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is the best book for creating atheists. I don’t even need to try, I just read the book and say “yep, this happened” and it’s usually so repulsive to people, that they stop reading it. It’s that odd moment where being biblically faithful actually makes me feel good about what it might do to someone’s faith.
Church member: Pastor, did God just threaten to kill babies and have the women raped?
Me: Yes He did. If Israel would not return to God, that meant God wouldn’t protect Israel from her enemies. And these enemies, by the will of God, would over take Jerusalem. Armies being armies, they’d kill the men and the children, rape the women and take some as wives.
Church member: Why would God do that?
Oh, because that’s how God loves his children. And welcome to the path towards atheism.
Do you have any other question about how I preach or what I preach on? Ask in the comments below, and I’ll try to respond.