NPR featured a story on All Things Considered yesterday, From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith, that was intended as a heartwarming story of a born-again atheist and a not so subtle shot at Christianity. It is part of their series on "losing faith" but I will not hold my breath waiting for the series on "finding faith". Anyway, the point of the story is that a lady "pastor" at a United Methodist Church, Teresa MacBain, realized one day that she didn't believe in God, "came out" as an atheist and quit her job as a "minister".
So did a Christian minister suddenly lose her faith and become an atheist? Or was she an atheist all along? The most interesting part of the story came near the end when she was asked what she missed now that she suddenly became an atheist. Her answer is fascinating...
When asked what she missed most about "church", her answer was tellingOf course she didn't miss God. How can you miss something you never knew? God is not standing on the sidelines here, confused by the departure of Ms. MacBain. People who are religious but end up leaving "the church" are nothing new. The apostle John wrote:
Back at home, MacBain doesn't hesitate when she's asked what she misses most about her old life.
"I miss the music," she says. MacBain sang in church choirs and worship bands most of her life, and even though she no longer believes the words, she still catches herself singing praise songs.
She says she also misses the relationships — she'll often pick up the phone to call someone, then realize she can't. And she misses the ritual and regularity of church life.
"It's what I know. It's what I knew. And I still struggle with it. Life is just different," she says.
When it's pointed out that she hasn't said whether or not she misses God, MacBain pauses.
"No, no," she says. "I can't say that I do."
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)
When false professors are shown to be false, it shows publicly to the church that they were never part of us in the first place. It is a reminder that religion will appeal to many people but that when the benefits of religion are outweighed by the inconvenience, they will leave. Someone like Ms. MacBain "leaving" a faith that she never had in the first place is not shocking, it is entirely predictable.
What is lost here is that being a Christian is not about singing hymns, going to church, not even about being a "minister". Being a Christian is about being born-again, having a regenerate heart and a changed nature. Saying "born-again Christian" is redundant because everyone who is a Christian is by definition born-again! People who are truly born-again are new creatures with a new nature and can never go back. Ms. MacBain is living testimony to the difference between a religious person and a born-again person. Sadly the "church" culture we live in encourages these sorts of people. By any measure our local churches are full of unregenerate "members" who are attracted to the familiar patterns and rhythms of religious life. They like the feeling they get when singing religious songs. They like the feeling of belonging. They like the religious rituals that make them feel pious without the messiness of being a disciple. Our culture tells us that you can go to church on Sunday and act however you like during the week because an hour of "worship" inoculates you for a whole week. The big question here is that if the gathering of the church is something that unbelievers embrace and enjoy, even to the point of making a career out of it like Teresa MacBain, is that really a gathering of the church or merely a religious event targeted at unbelievers and giving them a false assurance?
Allegedly, according to Ms. MacBain, she received lots of hate mail from "Christians". I have my doubts about that. I am sure people were upset and confused when someone who took a paycheck week after week to be a minister comes out and tells people she was living a lie the whole time. but hate? As a Christian I don't hate Ms. MacBain. I am actually hopeful and praying for her. Now that she is free from religion perhaps she will be open to actual faith, a faith that is centered on a Person and lived in a relationship instead of a false faith founded on religion and organization and ritual. In many ways I see her in a position like the one I was in after leaving mormonism.
The more I think about it the more I see the many ways institutionalized Christianity is like a religious cult even though there are many believers in its ranks, in fact most believers are in its ranks. Questioning the system is met with the same anger as questioning a cult. Leaving organized religion is treated as a betrayal by many within the institutionalized church, especially those with a vested interest in the system. It is a delicate balance because we culturally associate "the church" with Christianity, so questioning one is seen as questioning the other. Even so, the greatest barrier to discipleship and evangelism in America is not atheism or Islam, it is pseudo-Christian religion. We are in the position of trying to tell people about Jesus who think they already know Jesus because they "go to church". Those same people are insulted when you try to tell them about Jesus because they have been given a false assurance based on religion. Going to church has nothing to do with following Jesus. There are so many people need to be freed from religion so that they can follow Christ.
Will you pray with me today for Ms. MacBain, a lost soul like billions of others? Will you pray with me for God to call His people out of religion and into a relationship through His Son?