By Albert Hung
“A pastor and an atheist walk into a church.” It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But it’s not. It’s what happens every Sunday morning in America. Or at least, it should.
I have this friend named Pete who’s a bit of a mystery to some folk. He and his family have been part of our congregation for several years. He worships with us. Prays with us. Studies the Bible with us. Serves in ministry alongside us. Over time, Pete has become one of my closest friends. I love this man. My life is immensely richer because of our relationship.
Pete’s somewhat of an enigma because although he is an active participant in all the rituals of the church, he doesn’t believe in God. He’s an atheist. An atheist who practices Christianity. He doesn’t believe in many of the things we sing about or read about in Scripture. But he believes in the power of spiritual community to bring about positive change both in the individual and society as a whole. Sure, he’s jaded. So am I. We’re both tired of the shallow, insular, and pretentious brand of spirituality that characterizes Christianity in this country. The damage that is often done in the name of religion makes us want to throw in the towel at times. But there’s something that keeps drawing us back to the church, as broken and dysfunctional as it is. For me, that something is the very real, living, person of Jesus Christ. For Pete, it’s the psychological and social benefits of living in community with people who share a common set of values. And so, every Sunday, a pastor and an atheist walk into a church, and try to make sense of the world we live in, together.
This doesn’t just happen at Trinity. It’s happens all over the country, whether we know it or not. Sitting in our pews are thousands of people who attend church but do not believe. Some were dragged there by their spouses. Others are like Pete, people who choose to participate despite their doubts. And I’m glad he does.
Earlier this year, Trinity made a commitment to become a church for unchurched people. A church that does not exist solely (or even primarily) to serve its own members, but to serve those who are far from God. We believe that God is calling all people to Himself through Christ, and we, the church, are the means by which He extends that invitation. We asked ourselves: “Who is the church for?” Even a cursory reading of the New Testament makes the answer obvious: the church exists for the sake of those who have yet to hear the good news that God exists, that He loves every one of us, and that He has come for us through Jesus Christ. The church is not a private social club for Christians. It is a public gathering place for the entire community to come and meet with God and His family. It’s a party. Christians are the hosts. Our unchurched family, friends, and neighbors are the guests. And Jesus is the reason for and central figure in our celebration.
The church is many other things as well. A hospital for sinners. A sanctuary for the outsider. A refuge for the weak. A voice of truth in a sea of confusion. An outpost manned by soldiers on mission to love their enemies. What ties these motifs together is the conviction that the church is not for us. It is for those far from God who are looking for a way home. It’s for the prodigals. The misfits. The outcasts. And it’s up to the Christians to let them know they are welcome. It’s up to the insiders to make room for the outsiders.
These convictions were put to the test recently. Pete wrote a heartfelt post for our blog on why he participates in church even though he doesn’t believe in the God we worship. It was thoughtful, honest, and even poignant at times. Pete revealed a side of himself that he felt he had to hide in order to be accepted in the church. He bared a bit of his soul, in writing, for all to see.
I didn’t quite know what to do with that.
Out of respect, Pete sent me a draft of his post asking if it was all right to put it on our blog. One glance at the title, “I Don’t Believe in the God I Worship,” and my heart sank like a stone. It’s not like I didn’t know Pete felt this way. But seeing it there, in bold print, reminded me just how differently we see things. The thought of publishing his views on our church blog flooded my mind with anxiety: What kind of backlash would we receive? Would anyone think we were embracing a more pluralistic theology, one that no longer considers belief in Christ to be essential to salvation? What if a young person still in the formative stages of his faith were to follow Pete’s example and decide to live as a secular Christian? It was a difficult moment. I felt the full weight of my responsibility as a pastor, one who is charged with helping doubting people trust and follow a God they cannot see or touch. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And I just couldn’t see how Pete’s post helped us do that.
So I told Pete in so many words, “I’m sorry, my friend. We can’t post this.”
The dialogue that followed was messy. Pete was disappointed, to say the least. As the editor-in-chief of our blog, he had helped create a space for people to tell their stories of faith. That space quickly became something precious, even sacred. People shared things I never knew they felt. The frustration they felt toward hypocritical Christians. How the experience of carrying a child in the womb led to fresh spiritual insights. Personal reflections on what it means to be a godly man. One blogger started a dialogue on how Christians can better embody the love of Christ to the gay community (a conversation that we have been far too slow to join). Pete has been the curator of this fragile community of voices. And now I was telling him that his voice was not welcome. Everyone could tell their story of faith – except him.
Pete was honest about how my response had left him feeling marginalized. But he was also exceedingly gracious. I asked for some time to reflect. And he gave it to me.
Here’s the question I had to wrestle with: how far are we willing to go to make room for those who feel like there is no place in the church for them? Do we accept people as they are, or do they have to pretend to be something they’re not? Are the Christians going to do all the talking, or is this a true dialogue? Can believers and non-believers work together to accomplish good in the world? Can they serve side-by-side, regardless of their differences? And in this case, can an atheist who practices Christianity have the freedom to tell us why he does so? A man who participates in the life of our church more fully than many who claim the title, “Christian” – can he join the conversation?
Of course he can.
I believe there are solid, logical reasons to believe in God. I believe He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). I believe there is credible evidence that Jesus was and is the Son of God, and that He literally died and rose from the dead. I believe the eyewitness testimony of John, who faithfully recorded Jesus’ declaration, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). I have staked my life on the truth of this claim. I believe.
But that’s not the point.
The point is, will I make room for Pete in my life? In my church? Is he a second-class citizen in this community of believers, seekers, saints, and sinners? Obviously, there are some areas of service that remain off-limits to a non-believer, like preaching from the pulpit, teaching a Sunday School class, or serving on the board of trustees. Pete recognizes that and isn’t bothered by it. But at the very least, Pete deserves to tell his story. I see that now. I was wrong to exclude him, even if it was for what I considered to be valid reasons at the time. So I’ve invited him to post his journey right alongside mine, and that of anyone else who calls Trinity home.
God’s not done with Pete, or with me, or with any of us. I continue to hold out the hope that Pete will have a fresh encounter with God that erases any doubt that He is indeed real and that Christ truly is Lord. He knows that. And I’m glad he recognizes that I too, am a work in progress. God is growing me. Pete gave me the space I needed for that to happen. I pray I will always do the same for him.
Albert is the Lead Pastor at Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Monterey Park, California, a multi-cultural church with services in English and Mandarin. After spending several years working in theater, television, and the music industry, Albert committed his life to Christ in 2000 while living in Taipei, Taiwan.
Soon afterwards, he moved to Southern California to begin a new journey as one called to full time ministry. He is passionate about leadership development, cross-cultural ministry, and mobilizing Christians to use their gifts and abilities to advance the kingdom of God in the local community.