In his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Parker J. Palmer writes about functional atheism, the belief that God is distant and the ultimate responsibility for everything rests on us. Functional atheism confesses on Sunday morning that God is the sovereign Lord of creation, while acting during the rest of the week as if it’s really all about us and what we do. If in our deepest heart we really believe we are pretty much left alone in the universe to fend for ourselves, churches will tend to function like religious do-it-yourself projects instead of being outposts of the Kingdom of God.
Usually the viewpoint of functional atheism is not intentionally adopted but rather creeps into minds and hearts unconsciously over time. Those who bear the burden of leadership, who deal with institutional administration, budgets, fundraising, or management of buildings, programs, and volunteers, are especially at risk of coming unconsciously to act as though the responsibility for what happens in the church is all on us. As go the leaders, so goes the church.
Perhaps the surest indication that functional atheism is alive in the church is the widespread neglect of prayer by many Christians. No one really denies that prayer is a good thing, especially since Jesus practiced and commanded it. However, the question remains “why pray, if God is distant and in the end, we are on our own?”
Another distorted attitude is that circumstances and physical realities inevitably determine outcomes. In this way of thinking,only tangibles that can be seen, heard, felt, and counted really exist and make a substantive difference. Spiritual realities are effectively discounted. To act as though material circumstances have the last word on us or on the church or on the world is effectively to discount God’s sovereignty and put ourselves at the mercy of whatever our circumstances may be. This version of functional atheism leads us to a life of impotence amid the powers and principalities of this world.
Spiritually healthy congregations tend to focus, instead, not on what they lack, but rather on God who makes all things possible. Some years ago, I was visiting churches in an area of the country that was suffering a decline due to changes in agriculture. Communities were shrinking and along with them, their churches. I sensed that for many of these congregations this was the end of the story. But then in one church with similar circumstances I heard something different. After speaking about their own loss and decline, one of the elders of this congregation said, “We know we can’t do church the way we have done church before. So, we are asking God, “What do you want us to be doing now?” These folks had moved beyond functional atheism and were preparing themselves for a new adventure with a living and present God.
A Spiritual Exercise
Take some time in a quiet place to think about your experience as a church leader.
Where do you find yourself carrying heavy burdens?
Where do you sense that you have hit a dead end in terms of what you can accomplish?
Where do you feel alone in your work?
Think about the term “functional atheism” in relation to your own life and the life of your church. Where do you sense that God has become more a concept than an empowering presence?
After meditating on these things, write a prayer voicing your need to God and your hunger for a closer experience of God’s presence.
Joan S. Gray has served as teaching elder in twelve congregations. She is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, and the author of Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers and Sailboat Church, all published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Joan concluded a two-year term as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PC(USA) and lives in midtown Atlanta.