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).
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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.