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My atheist mate: Why children and young people need non-Christian friends

It had been an ordinary day at school, but when she walked through the front door of her home at the end of the day she found that all her belongings had been packed up and there was a taxi waiting to take her to the airport. There was no time for any goodbyes. She was on the other side of the world before anyone noticed.

Her parents had found out she was dating an atheist boy and decided that the best thing they could do for her was get her out of the country and enrolled in a Christian school as far away from him as possible. There is no doubt the parents loved their daughter and God, and were prepared to make huge sacrifices for both. They genuinely believed this evacuation strategy was the safest way to protect her faith.

Sometimes it feels as though our youth and children’s ministries are on the same wavelength. If we can just occupy our children and young people with as many different Christian activities within Christian friendship groups perhaps we can protect them from the harmful influences of atheists. I want to suggest a different approach, along with four reasons why.

Demonstrating grace makes faith shine brighter

A quick YouTube search for ‘atheism’ or ‘Christianity’ reveals many angry videos on both sides, each trying to demolish each other’s arguments and viewpoints. The Christians and atheists involved display a lot of aggressive language, and it is hard not to take the shredding personally.

Some of that attack mode travels with people into schools, so a religious education class can be a challenging place to be either a Christian or an atheist. Because of this experience of hostility – or even just a perception of hostility – the knee-jerk reaction can be to ‘protect’ our young people from proximity with people who have opposing opinions.

The mentoring, encouragement and support I received from youth workers played a pivotal role in helping me get out of the Christian bubble and find common cause with others who wanted to make a difference in society

But this strategy is counter to the biblical norm for Christians. At the very least we are called to love our neighbours. Loving our neighbour cannot mean running away from relationship with them. We are also called to let our light shine in front of a watching world. This light is most clearly seen through our good deeds (Matthew 7:15-19), demonstrating God’s compassionate and gracious character to those around us.

A little bit of grace and compassion can go a long way in today’s schools. It used to be that school was like a goldfish bowl, where everyone could see your life up close and personal from 9am until 4pm. Thanks to social media, young people are now living in close proximity every waking second of the day. The videos they watch on YouTube, what they eat and the clothes they wear are all under scrutiny from their peers at unprecedented levels. With all this comparing and criticising, the world needs people who can be compassionate toward those who don’t fit in, don’t hold the same opinions or take a different approach to life. Helping our children and young people develop this virtue is essential to discipleship.

Challenging beliefs makes faith stronger

The stress of school life can mean that some young Christians find it easier and safer to retreat from their secular friends and live, in the words of John Stott, as “rabbit-warren Christians”. They primarily live in the Christian huddles of youth or children’s group and church, spending as little time with non-Christians as possible, like rabbits minimising their time in the open. They are afraid of getting picked off by predators, retreating to the safety of the burrow as quickly as possible.

Sometimes this kind of thinking is encouraged by the Church. In his recent book, The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher goes so far as to say that parents who send their children to mainstream schools in order for them to be salt and light may as well also toss their children into a white-water river in the hope that they could possibly save another drowning child. He promotes home-schooling as the only viable Christian solution for raising a child so that “the values in your home are not undermined by the company he keeps”.

But this advice underestimates the mission of God and the practice of Jesus. If, as missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin argued, the disciples were teenagers, Jesus did not hold back from sending them into the world “like lambs among wolves” in order to declare the gospel and disciple the nations.

In my experience, faith grows most when it is put to the test, not when it is mollycoddled. Helping our children and young people develop meaningful friendships with people who do not share their opinions can genuinely help them work through and figure out their faith, especially when they have the support, discipleship, mentoring and love of Christian parents, mentors, peers and youth and children’s workers. This is preparation for the rest of their lives. At some stage, whether at work or university, they will be exposed to some form of challenge, and it is so much better to get used to facing this while all the support structures of home and church are still available to them.

Faith grows most when it is put to the test, not when it is mollycoddled

Genuine friendship breaks down barriers

We are living in a highly polarised society, as any news broadcast will reveal. Sadly, the Church itself is continually splintering into competing factions and denominations. As youth and children’s workers, we can be part of creating a better, more cohesive and integrated society by helping our children and young people develop the skills they need to connect, converse, challenge and collaborate with people who have a very different set of beliefs from them.

When I was at university my Christian faith provoked me to challenge companies who were using unethical practices in the developing world. Along this journey I found an unlikely ally in the form of an atheist. I initially had grave misgivings about working with the president of the Amnesty International group because of his atheistic views. Perhaps he had similar concerns about associating with an outspoken Christian Union president. However, my mentors at the time pointed out that joining forces with him on some of our initiatives might break down barriers and send a message to other students that religious differences do not always have to end in conflict and hostility.

One of my most vivid memories is of us rolling an eight-foot inflatable globe around campus and wearing T-shirts bearing messages that flatly contradicted each other. Little did I know then that this learning experience would help prepare me for my future work.

The charity I founded, Home for Good, works collaboratively with secular councils, MPs and NGOs like Save the Children and UNICEF to help vulnerable children in the UK and around the world grow up in loving and secure families. The mentoring, encouragement and support I received from youth workers played a pivotal role in helping me get out of the Christian bubble and find common cause with others who wanted to make a difference in society.

Loving our neighbour cannot mean running away from relationship with them

Ongoing relationships create ongoing opportunities

Face-to-face evangelism is good but shoulder-to-should evangelism can be better. I had some great conversations with my mate as we were rolling that eight-foot globe around campus. It was in finding common ground that we were able to build a relationship that was strong and safe enough for us to talk meaningfully about faith. It eventually led to a weekly Bible study, working through Luke’s Gospel together.

A friend of mine became the social secretary of his university rugby club so he could look out for the younger rugby players through the initiation and heavy drinking culture. He was the one who stayed sober to keep everyone else safe. He was the one cleaning up the minibus after the games and the social outings. Mopping up vomit is not glamorous at the best of times, but looking out for the wellbeing of the atheists in his club earned him a hearing for the gospel, and he also started Bible studies with his rugby teammates.

Atheists need the gospel as much as the rest of us, and if there are no atheists in our lives it will be very hard for us to share the gospel with them. Paul put it so perfectly in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”

Paul the missionary did not do hit and run evangelism. He invested in relationships to the extent that he could say that he shared his life with those he was seeking to reach. We must encourage our children and young people to do nothing less.

I never found out what happened to the young girl whose parents pulled her out of school, out of her romantic relationship and out of the country. I really hope things worked out well for all concerned. Without advocating a policy of encouraging interfaith dating, I am convinced that all Christians need more atheists in their lives and that all atheists need more Christians in their lives. That includes our children and young people, and it includes us. We need to model this in the way we, as leaders, relate to atheists. Whether it is through our work or in our book groups, during our park runs or at the school gates, down our streets or over our fences, we should seek out atheists to share our lives and our hope with. It could do all of us a world of good.

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