The rise of the nones, and the corresponding fall of Christian affiliation, is arguably the most important trend in 21st-century American religion. According to the General Social Survey, between 1972 and 2018, the religiously unaffiliated grew from 5.1% of the population to 23.7%. During the same period, evangelical Christians grew from 17% to 21.6%, but mainline Protestants cratered, falling sharply from 27.9% to 9.9%.
This trend—rising disaffiliation, falling affiliation—presents Christians both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is obvious: knowing how to live in an increasingly post-Christian society: The opportunity is less obvious, but more important: finding new ways to draw post-Christian people closer to Christ.
Enter Preston Ulmer’s new book, The Doubters’ Club. Ulmer is director of network development for the Church Multiplication Network, founder and director of the Doubters’ Club, and a friend. The Doubters’ Club does not offer either a new model of church-planting model or a new method of evangelism.
Instead, it proposes that believers and nonbelievers — the “skeptics, atheists, and the spiritual wounded” of the book’s subtitle — become friends. In fact, that’s the mission statement of Doubters’ Club: “Model friendship with people who think differently and pursue truth together.”
Friendship across the dividing lines of religion is important for at least two reasons: the common good and evangelistic effectiveness. A deeply polarized America needs people to reach across the political and ideological divide and work together for the common good of our pervasively pluralist nation. Additionally, research reveals that hospitality to the unchurched is the best predictor of a church’s evangelistic growth.
This hospitality or friendship cannot be utilitarian, however, a means to an end. Inauthentic, utilitarian friendship are good for neither the common good nor evangelism. They are counterproductive. If you’re going to befriend a doubter, be their friend regardless of whether they come to faith.
But if you want them to move closer to Jesus, Ulmer proposes that you work on the following “Five Is”:
- Impression — how to rebuild the impression another person has of you;
- Intention — how to renovate the intentions you have of a nonbeliever;
- Invitation — how to invite a nonbeliever into real life, not a church service;
- Initiation — how to re-examine our views through conversations that matter; and
- Invitation — how to redefine progress.
Ulmer didn’t pluck these Five Is out of thin air. They resulted from his study of the issues, as well as years of experience befriending doubters, and they track with research on the relationship between deconversion and emotionally unhealthy relationships. Moreover, they emerged from Ulmer’s own crisis of faith and the relationships that brought him back to Jesus.
Speaking of which, the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus building friendship with nonbelievers that serves as the biblical foundation of Ulmer’s approach. He asks, “Would you be willing to start breaking bread with the people Jesus broke bread with?” In a post-Christian society, that’s a very important question.
For me, the primary value of The Doubters’ Club was not the Doubters’ Club model, but the mentality that lies behind it. I doubt (!) that I’ll start a Doubters’ Club with an atheist anytime soon, though I may go to the local club Ulmer co-leads here in town. Regardless, the book reminded me that while friendship doesn’t guarantee skeptics will come to faith, it’s almost certain that they won’t come to faith without it.
Preston Ulmer, The Doubters’ Club: Good-Faith Conversations with Skeptics, Atheists, and the Spiritually Wounded(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2021).
P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.
P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.
4 thoughts on “The Doubters’ Club | Book Review”
an interesting concept, but it has some serious flaws. First, atheists aren’t always the wounded that theists want to pretend we are. To repeat this failed trope doesn’t help. Many of us have very good reasons for not believing in a god or any gods. If you can’t accept that, you have little chance of converting an atheist, or another type of theist for that matter.
Second, the basis of Christianity, and many religions, is that anyone who doesn’t agree deserves death or worse. I find it hard to be friends with someone who would believe that.
Thank you for your comments!
Regarding your first point: I re-read my review, and I don’t see where I (or Preston’s book) used the trope of the “wounded” atheist, so I’m not sure your comment is germane in the context of this review.
Since we’re talking about it, however, research shows that some people who deconvert from Christianity to atheism do so because of emotional wounding. See my review of ‘The Anatomy of Deconversion’: https://georgepwood.com/2021/05/04/the-anatomy-of-deconversion-book-review/.
Still, you are right that emotional wounding is not every atheist’s experience, and that many atheists offer reasons for their disbelief.
Regarding the second point: When you say “death or worse,” I assume you’re talking about capital punishment for apostasy and hell, respectively. Perhaps my assumption is wrong, however? I need some clarification.
It was used here ” the “skeptics, atheists, and the spiritual wounded”. It is a very very common claim and you seem aware of this.
From your review of that book, it seems very flawed. It uses a common claim that the non-believer doesn’t “really” understand Christianity, which is often called the “sophisticated theology” excuse. The Christian tries to claim that an atheist is only an atheist because he doesn’t know the “real” Christianity. The problem is that there is no real Christianty, only thousands of versions.
Yes, I am indeed talking about most religions which need capital punishment or worse for apostasy. Christianity has hell, a concept that even Christians can’t agree on what it means and how it plays out, to be where anyone who disagrees with them is sent.
Ah, yes! It is in the subtitle of the book, which I quoted. Can we agree that some, though not all, atheists have been “wounded” by their experiences in church? This further implies that not all atheists have been wounded, which seems to be your point.
I’m not sure where you’re getting your point about “sophisticated theology.” I would argue that research indicates many–though not all–deconverts come out of fundamentalist forms of Christianity. (Again, see my review of ‘The Anatomy of Deconversion.’) Those forms are often rigid and anti-intellectual. On some points, they are also out of touch with the larger Christian tradition. There, exposure to the larger Christian theological tradition would be helpful, in my opinion.
As a factual matter, I’m not sure “most religions” advocate capital punishment for apostasy, let alone have a doctrine of hell. Some forms of Islam do execute apostates, and some theistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have doctrines of hell, but I’m not sure that’s true of Hinduism, Buddhism, or various forms of Jainism, among the welter of world religions.
This sentence puzzles me: “The problem is that there is no real Christianity, only thousands of versions.” If that’s the case, which of the thousands of versions of Christianity is atheism against? And to be honest, which version of atheism? John Gray has identified at least seven different versions. My guess is that if you throw in non-Western forms of atheism (such as some strands of Buddhism), there are even more.
My point is that there is a core of beliefs and practices that characterize Christianity (and atheism). That being the case, it seems possible to say that some forms of Christianity are more faithful than others.