Atheist Worship Leader
Featured in the October 2019 Issue of Angelic
By Brandon Lyons
Read Brandon’s bio
“What do you do when you’re a worship leader in your church and you’re not sure you believe in God anymore?” That was the question posed to a pastor in a breakout session I was sitting in. I felt drawn to this young man. He sat alone and left alone. His bearing akin to a downtrodden Charlie Brown. I tried to grab him but lost him in the crowd.
During the lunch break on the following day, he walked in front of my lunch table and I shouted, “I appreciated the question you asked in our breakout.” He looked as if to ask if he heard me correctly. We exchanged numbers, and I offered my prayers. Over the last 18 months I’ve prayed for my friend daily, texting him from time to time. We speak rarely but when we do it is for well over an hour each time. My takeaway- he was set up to be disappointed in God.
I spent my twenties working at premium wineries. It was an industry full of hedonists. Bosses who would mock my faith. Consumers who couldn’t believe I’d be so naïve to believe the Bible. I loved it. Rarely a Christian. Fine by me. I’d never had Christian friends, so the wine industry felt right at home. My favorite part of the job was giving vineyard tours. I could tell the varietals by the leaves. The vineyards were in calcareous soil, that just means chalky limestone. Yields were low. Most of the vineyards were watered by drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is enough to sustain the plants in a heatwave but force them to find their own water most of the time. Their roots were driven downward, deep through hard soil.
I heard a recent podcast with David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group. Their research is showing that while Gen Z is less Christian, of those who still self-identify as Christian, 10% are what Kinnaman refers to as “resilient disciples.” Think Daniel and his friends in Babylon. The more pressure, the stronger they got. They were exiles in a foreign land who laid the foundation for Israel’s revival. That’s what this next generation represents. They weren’t raised with the same Christian culture of boomers, Xers, or even Millennials. Being a Christian was no longer assumed, and those who remained are more resilient for it.
One of my favorite kids at our church is named Jack. I’ve become good friends with his father, Pete. Pete told me a story of when his son wanted to go to a party with drugs and alcohol. Pete obliged. No long lecture. No just say no. Just a father who had built his son up for years for this moment. He explained to his son that this wasn’t the party for him, but he’d take him. Pete waited down the street and sure enough within minutes Jack called, wanting to go home. Jack was raised at a great church, his parents served at their church, he was involved in student ministry, but he was never held back from real life or discouraged form real questions. He, like the rest of his generation were raised like exiles.
I just smile now as my peers share how they plan to help their child avoid the evils of public education. The walls of Jerusalem are crumbling all around them as they squeeze their child like Lennie Small holding the rabbits. I work extensively with the Z generation in my church. I love them. The depth and sincerity of their faith is something I rarely see in people in their 30s or 40s. What is usually reserved for those who have walked with God through the dark night of the soul is alive in our youth and I’m here for it.
In the 1960s, students were trained on how to persist during a sit in. Training was intense. They were yelled at. Called derogatory names. Had milkshakes dropped on them. The list goes on. Their organizers knew it was not enough to tell them to be strong, they must be trained to persist and resist. They must know what it was to be yelled at, mocked, ridiculed, taunted, provoked. Nobody was trained to expect applause or plaudits. More like beatings and abuse. Yet, when the pressure came, they were ready. They knew it would be hard, and they were ready.
My friend from the conference was raised with a God who would bless those who were faithful. They’d experience his presence. They’d have a great marriage, kids who obeyed, and friends who loved them. When the ball of twine began to unravel, it all felt so foreign. Where is God? Where is the blessing? Why is God silent? Was it something I did? Suddenly, God’s love letter written to us felt empty. His good plan for our life didn’t feel very good. Friends were hard to find, marriage was difficult, the church was unhealthy. No wonder God was so disappointing.
I don’t fault his parents. They were just doing the best they knew how. Like so many parents today, they couldn’t read the times. They didn’t feel the undercurrent pulling our nation’s Christian morale from under their feet. Still, I do wonder. Would he be as disappointed if he knew God owed us nothing, because he already gave us everything? Would he find courage knowing we follow the suffering servant, not yet the conquering king? I don’t know.
I was once told this, we aren’t trying to raise great children, we want to raise great adults. It’s not a new idea. Paul tells us that’s what God wants for us! God has called us into maturity. We need more than milk, we need meat. If we want to help someone develop a faith that last, we must teach them to be spiritually resilient. It is a skill we must embody so they can learn it. Like those students in the 60s, we need to be allowed to feel the pressure. We need experience delaying gratification, answering hard questions, turning to community. We need to learn that pain, heartache, frustrations are not bad, they’re just hard, and hard allows us to leverage what we don’t enjoy so God can redeem it. It’s not something negative, it’s an opportunity for God to grow us. Our resolve is a testimony of God’s faithfulness to a world that finds our faith impossible to believe.
We are exiles in a foreign land. God is not concerned with our political rights. He’s not concerned with our comfort or social calendar. No, he’s developing something far greater. It’s something I find reverberating from the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to King Nebuchadnezzar, “we do not need to defend ourselves before you. _If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. _But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” God can do all things, heal all, save all, but even if he doesn’t, I won’t deny him. For my faith is not based on God’s willingness to remove obstacles, but the comfort I have in following him into the fire.