Agnostic Humanist In The South

A Conversation About Ministry And Child Atheists

Edited to Add Preface: I wrote this last night, almost immediately after Nikki told me how her friend told her she was going to Hell. I clicked “publish” this morning and now just read it again and realize that maybe I’m coming off as preachy. I don’t know. Please just read this as written by the Mother of a Child who gets her feelings hurt when people tell her she’s going to Hell. I’m also a Mother would does not want to discourage a path to the Church. If my kids want to go to Church? I hope they find one that is welcoming. But they’re never going to even look if they keep getting told they’re damned.

So, please know that’s where my mind was when I wrote this last night. If it seems self-righteous, I’m sorry. I was feeling a bit raw.


If your child has been taught at church that non-believers go to Hell, will you do me a QUICK favor and have a variation of this conversation with them? A message that has surely been delivered at Sunday School, but is boring and gets lost behind the much more exciting NON-BELIEVERS GO TO HELL! message.

While we do believe that non-believers (or the unsaved) will go to Hell, it is not our job to condemn them. It is our job, as believers, to try to bring them to salvation. And we do that by acting Christ-like. We do that by praying for them. We do that by living the Gospel and the commandments. We act in a way that makes our non-believer friends want to learn more about our church. We invite our non-believer friends to worship with us. But most importantly? We show by our actions what God’s love and salvation has done in our lives.

We do not, ever, tell someone we can not be their friend if they do not believe in God.
We do not, ever, tell someone they are going to Hell if they don’t believe in God.

Those two things will not help a non-believer feel welcomed by our church family. And if something we say drives someone away from the church, instead of to the church, then we have done the opposite of what God wants from us.

So, if you have a friend who you know doesn’t believe in God, then first we should pray for them. And if this person’s salvation is very important to you, then we should pray for guidance about how best to show them the path to salvation. Jesus loved the sinners, and by showing them love – even if they didn’t believe, he led the sinners to his Father.

123297584_a4a5870bdd_oKids often build judgements and opinions based on things they hear adults they trust say, which is why we have to be VERY CAREFUL to make sure and have real discussions with them about important topics. In my family? We talk about religion a LOT. I talk about my own journey in the church and why I ended up living my adult life as an Agnostic Atheist. We talked about Lent recently because I made a Lenten goal to send forty letters by mail before Easter. We talked about First Communion the other night thanks to this picture here. We talk about Jesus and Allah and Buddha – although not too much about the latter because the kids laugh too much when I say the word “Buddha”. I’m very knowledgable in some areas, in others we hit up Reverend Google for answers. These conversations have really helped me hash out a lot of my own “beliefs” – which is why I encourage them so greatly.

I’m pretty sure all kids are fascinated by the concept of Hell, I know I was. Hell was probably the big thing that drove me away from the church because I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that good people who just didn’t believe in God or Jesus – would end up in Hell. I thought about Hell a lot. From the time when I was 6 and prayed the rosary over a dead bird I found (I hoped that would convince God to let the bird hang in heaven) to the time when I challenged my religion teacher in high school to explain to me how it would be fair for good people in a remote tribe in the jungle to go to Hell when they had never even met a Christian.

It also didn’t help that I had several “bad” years which – you know – guaranteed me a ticket to the hot zone.

Anyway – I tell you this so that you know your kids might think about Hell all the time too. I don’t know how your church works, if your child goes to Sunday school or if they sit in Big Church with you, but any time they’ve heard about the fact that non-believers go to Hell? From that moment on – they are intrigued. So, if they’ve heard that simple message: Non-Believers Go To Hell, then they walk away with that on their minds and in their hearts.

First? You need to decide in your own heart of that’s what you want them to believe. My Dad, while Catholic in many ways, did not really believe in any sort of hellish afterlife. And if there was one, he didn’t think the main exclusive variable would be “Do you believe in God? Are you saved?” So, if your church teaches one thing and you believe something different, make sure to talk to your kid about that.

But if you believe Non-Believers will go to Hell, then you need to talk to your children about what to do with that information. Sometimes they remember the “HELL!” part because that’s exciting, and ignore everything afterwards about ministry. Have that conversation OFTEN. Maybe EVERY time Hell is mentioned in church or in Sunday school. Make sure that proper, Christ-like ministry is JUST as important of a message as damnation. Because chances are, you are not the one teaching them on Sundays. Either a minister or a Sunday School teacher is. And while they know the lessons, they don’t have time to follow up on repetitive ideas to make sure the RIGHT message sticks. Even if they say once, “Non-believers go to Hell, so we need to be Good Believers and bring people to the church!” your kids only hung on to the HELL! HELL! HELL! part.

Because that’s the cool part.

So, it’s your job to repeat the boring part OVER and OVER and OVER again. How to properly minister and bring non-believers to the church. How Jesus embraced the non-believers.

Now…why did I write about this today? Because Nikki came home with – YET ANOTHER – story about a friend who told her they can’t be friends anymore if she doesn’t believe in God. And that she’s going to Hell.

Now, do I fault the parents or the church? No. I’m sure they’re teaching the right messages. But the kids are only grabbing the EXCITING! part of the message. So the boring part has to be taught more often. Over and over and over again. Just like how we have to remind our kids to brush our teeth every day. Christians need to remind their children the value of good and proper ministry in their community. Sometimes it’s as boring as brushing your teeth, but it’s as important.

Because, no matter how saturated your community is with Christians, the world is NOT saturated. Your child is going to meet a non-Christian. 17% of people in the U.S. claim NO religion. That’s almost 1 in 5. Your child needs to be properly prepared to embrace the non-believers as Christ did, not condemn them. And since you’re a believer, you would have no reason to know your child’s message to non-believers. And if your friends all go to Church, then you’ve never seen them interact with non-believers.

My children are the non-believers. Or at least non-church goers. Sometimes they say they “believe in God” but then they describe a God that is basically Santa Claus, so I’m not sure what religion they’re trending to yet. Either way – they know I don’t believe in God. And they know that’s why we don’t go to church. And they’re not ashamed of that, they’re not embarrassed by it, so they have no problem talking about it. I’m just asking that your child be aware that kids like mine exist.

I don’t remove the possibility from my children that they some day go to church. I tell them the right questions to ask, and the right things to look for if they ever want to join a church. I don’t encourage it, but I surely don’t discourage it at all. But when they’re told they’re going to Hell at age 8? It steers them off any path that might have had them curious to begin with.

So, have the talk with your kids. Make sure they carried the FULL message out of Sunday school. Not just the “HELL! HELL! HELL!” part. (Even though that’s good part.)

Remind them that the boring part about good ministry is just as important.

Kim – Mother of the Damned.

23 thoughts on “A Conversation About Ministry And Child Atheists”

  1. VERY well written and well-thought out post and good lesson for kids (and adults). I shared this on FB. πŸ™‚ This paragraph, in particular, is just such simple truth! I wish more people paid attention to this detail….

    “While we do believe that non-believers (or the unsaved) will go to Hell, it is not our job to condemn them. It is our job, as believers, to try to bring them to salvation. And we do that by acting Christ-like. We do that by praying for them. We do that by living the Gospel and the commandments. We act in a way that makes our non-believer friends want to learn more about our church. We invite our non-believer friends to worship with us. But most importantly? We show by our actions what God’s love and salvation has done in our lives.

    We do not, ever, tell someone we can not be their friend if they do not believe in God.”

  2. As a mother of two Christian kids who do go to church, first thank you for this reminder. We have that conversation often but it is probably time for a refresher. Also, my kids are not baptized yet and have been told by other Christians they are going to hell so I wholeheartedly agree with getting this message out everywhere.

  3. Yeah – I don’t think they’re not hearing it – I just think it’s boring. The Hell part is not. πŸ™‚ Just like I have to remind my kids to brush their teeth, but NOT to put on their seatbelts. There’s certain exciting lessons that stick better because they’re…well…EXCITING! Teeth brushing and Christ-like ministry tend to be a little…Ho Hum…whateves. πŸ™‚

  4. This upsets me because I am a christian and I would never say anything like this to anyone. I am so sorry this has ever happened to you or your children. You are so correct that this line of thinking is not what Jesus taught us. I want to show everyone love, this includes people from all different faiths and backgrounds. I never comment but I am a long time reader. Just felt the need to speak up to say that we are not all this ignorant.

  5. THANKS!!! And I have SEVERAL Christian friends that I brought up last night as examples of people who would never treat us like that!

    I think part of it is the age and the love of the dramatic. “OOOOhhhh…you’re going to Helllllll!!!” is kinda like, “OOOOOH…You’ve got coootttiiieess!” I think if their parents knew they were saying those things, they’d probably want to talk to them about it, because I’m sure their parents don’t TEACH them to tell their friends that. So, I thought it was my job as the parent of the kid they’re talking to, to point it out πŸ™‚

  6. I must chime in. Kim, very well said. I have had this happen to my kids. When my oldest was in KINDERGARTEN, a girl told him he was going to hell because he’s Jewish. In fact, when I was pregnant with my second, sitting right next to my oldest (18 mos) a woman told me my husband and children were going to hell. But not me, because I was raised Christian. I had to inform her, I was going too if her standards were how it was all decided. Normally, it wouldn’t have phased me at all. But the pregnancy hormones? Never really got over someone sending my babies to hell.

  7. Once again, great thoughts on treating others with care and respect. All the time, no matter what. Christians can get all wrapped up in the “rules” and forget that Jesus would never behave that way. A lot of Christians live a life of fear of God or spend their lives looking for loopholes because they are afraid of going to hell. Here’s my personal experience: I am currently going through the RCIA process to become a Catholic. My husband is Catholic, my kids were baptized Catholic so I knew it was only a matter of time until I would join them. I was honestly not looking forward to it, but I am actually enjoying it. The people in my group are so great, and our church is very non-judgemental and welcoming. (One pair of candidates was an engaged couple living together and she was 8 months pregnant and no one even batted an eye.) One really interesting thing I learned was that the Catholic church believes that even non-believers and those who have never been exposed to the idea of God or Jesus will not go straight to Hell for that, but instead will have the opportunity to meet Jesus after death. So all those remote tribes in the jungle aren’t going to be “punished” simply for never having heard of Jesus. And really, there is not much talk of Hell at all but more of God’s unconditional love, mercy and forgiveness. As far as some of the other beliefs and traditions of the church? Well I am still sorting a lot of that out. I don’t agree with everything that the church teaches, but neither do the leaders of my RCIA group. I am finding I can respectfully disagree and hope for change over time while still being Catholic. I think Pope Francis is moving things in the right direction, at least. It seems as though you have a good handle on this in your family and I hope your daughter doesn’t let one girl’s mean words get her down. Whew! That was long. Guess I just had to get some thoughts out! πŸ™‚

  8. My Dad was very much the same way – chose not to fret about the parts of the dogma he didn’t agree with or maybe doesn’t want to focus on. And I have loved ones in the Mormon church who strongly believe in gay rights – so faithful like you guys I think will be what helps keep the church alive.

  9. I grew up in a strict Catholic house, and my husband and I identify as secular humanists. I was prepared for adults in my kids’ lives to make comments about their lack of faith (that’s just the way they are), but I wasn’t prepared for a neighbor kid’s friend to tell my 2.5-year-old last year that she was going to hell. Thankfully she didn’t understand what she meant and kept playing, but it was a rude awakening for what her school years might entail.

    The problem I see is that while there are many Christians who just don’t realize what their kids believe about hell, and there are many who are careful to teach their kids not to judge, there are a WHOLE lot (who I know personally) who take it as a sign of excellence that their children tell other children they are going to hell. Those are the kids (and parents) I am most worried about. I want her to be able to respond with something like “I know you believe that, but I don’t,” or “I don’t think it’s our place to judge,” but I imagine it’s just wishful thinking that I can ask five-year-old to not care too deeply about what her peers say to her. What are the Damned to do? πŸ™‚

  10. I do worry about that situation too, but I try to remain optimistic. I think that this community is SO dominated by Christians, that these parents don’t ever consider what their child might say to a non-Christian. Kinda like I didn’t discuss children with Special Needs with Wesley until he had one in his class, because I just hadn’t thought of it, honestly. So, I’m hoping these parents just don’t realize there might be kids in their kid’s class who don’t believe the same thing, so they haven’t had that talk with them.

    Which, of course, makes me worry even more when The Gay talk happens. My kids are very protective of their big brother, so encountering kids who don’t even know what “Gay” means, they get all freaked out. Like, “What? How can you not know what Gay means?” So, of course they teach them and are greeted with, “EEEEWWWWW…” which, you know, does NOT go over well.

    I think this community is waaaaaayyyy too homogenous on all fronts, so kids just have no preparation for encountering any other religious or sexual identities. *sigh*

  11. Oh, goodness, that is a whole other barrel of monkeys. My kids have a gay Uncle and a gay Great-Aunt, but our community is, like yours, very homogenous. Pretty much all white, Christian, and straight. It’s scary when I think about tossing her out there amongst all the people who have no experience with people unlike themselves, but I suppose we could have much worse problems to be worried about. I’ll try to be optimistic like you.

  12. And the great irony here is that JESUS WAS JEWISH. Oy vey.

  13. This is so well written and I agree with almost all of it. However, in most of these situations you SHOULD blame the parents and/or the church–hell (see what I did there!), most of those parents would probably say to you the same thing their child said to Nikki, and would probably be held up as an example of a ‘good’ Christian at their church. Sad, but likely true. I honestly don’t know what I’d do in this situation–I would be SO MAD, but what could I do? I wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to it since frankly, my child shouldn’t give a flying eff about what the other child said, but at the same time, the other child’s parents should know THIS IS NOT OK.

  14. I have to confess that I was telling someone significant about all of our high school religion class debates. They factor big time in my current thoughts about religion, but I cannot get away from my Catholic guilt. Anyway, since moving back, I’ve had A LOT of questions about why my kids are not in Catholic school (first ones ever in my family in public school) and I am trying to get comfortable telling family that I just don’t want them there. I don’t want my kids hearing the things I heard in middle and high school. To top it off, my kids had been in a school with Jewish families, Buddhists, Muslims (my 6 yr daughter always reminds me about Ramadan), and where there was a club for atheists. I refuse to send my kids someplace where they’re told that their friends are wrong, bad, or heading to hell. I don’t pretend that I have all the right answers, but I sure as HELL (bad pun intended) know that the “answers” that are usually provided at parochial school aren’t all right either. I guess if my kids are going to be screwed up by religion, it’ll be me doing it…not religious zealots.

  15. I get frustrated by this type of thing. I know Christians who would totally high five their child for saying just that and it bothers me a lot. That said I grew up going to catholic school and never once was I taught that only Catholics or even Christians were the only ones going to heaven. No not once..yet ive been told multiple times from other denominations that I am not saved. It always seems like catholic education gets slammed but some of the most exclusionary faiths simply dont have schools…so maybe thats why?? I dunno.

  16. This speaks to me, but you know I am a paranoid nut about commenting in public with my real name about religious stuff. BECAUSE OF CHILDHOOD. (Hope my gravatar doesn’t show up.)

    My heart goes out to Nikki, because oh, have I been there. My parents think being in a religious private school must have been terrible, but I keep telling them, I wasn’t *different* there. Public school was a completely different story.

    As an adult, I’ve found a church that I think I could enjoy, and I can’t make myself go. I’ve followed the pastor’s sermons online for awhile, and while I know that they truly mean it when they say they accept you wherever you are on your spiritual journey? Still can’t make myself go. The Christians I’ve been around in my life have left me feeling excluded rather than included. There’s just a barrier there now, and while it may seem ridiculous to say these things start as kids, they do!

    Glad you wrote this, Kim.

  17. This makes complete sense to me. I am a Christian….or I think I am. But I am clinging to the edge of that…in a very narrow category that is basically “God is love. I believe in love, therefore I believe in God. Jesus was a great example and teacher sent by LOVE to show us how to LOVE and show us how to INCLUDE EVERYONE.” So anything that goes even remotely against that MAKES ME WANT TO JUMP OFF THE PATH entirely. I have been all over the map religiously and I have come to cling to a very small sliver of “Christianity” where prayer = meditation. God = Love. Jesus = Example. And EVERYONE is included. So this essay meant a lot to me. Thank you for your bravery!

  18. AMEN! I wish the pastors, etc, I know could express this as clearly and sweetly as you did, Kim. Please don’t take this the wrong way–I mean it as the highest compliment, having been raised Christian; you just preached the gospel as it should be preached and in a way more Christlike than many Christians.
    And I love that while you have your own set of beliefs, you don’t restrict that of your kids and actively and respectfully educate them in/on/about the religious things they ask about–without bitterness, judgment, condemnation, or even snark or derision (I infer, based on what you’ve written here)–which I find unusual among those who unembrace the church in which they were raised.
    Blessings to you and yours!

  19. I’m so sorry that Nikki is going through this kind of thing. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that the condemning to hell thing is coming from the parents as much as anyone else. I used to think that it was just kids focusing on the wrong message, but now (thanks to Facebook posts about religion/church & state, especially on WHNT’s page) I’m sure they focus on the hell bound stuff because their parents do. And the parents got it from their parents, so I guess it’s really a combination cultural/parenting fail that goes on a lot in this area.

  20. THANK YOU!

    Now, for an embarrassing admission. When I was a young kid, we were LDS, and both my brother and I were old enough to be going to primary(basically Sunday school). Well, the message we heard was “people who aren’t LDS aren’t going to the celestial kingdom”. We didn’t hear the “but, that doesn’t mean we can’t save them!” So, the entire week of school after that message had been out in our little heads, we alienated ourselves by telling other kids that if they weren’t LDS, we couldn’t be friends.

    My mother got a very angry call from the school…. I remember how long I was grounded for that stunt!

    Now, I can only hope that my child receives better treatment than I gave my friends.

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