In 2019, Pew Research Center conducted a study on the religious landscape of the U.S. Through this study, it was revealed that the population of people who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” had increased 17% since 2009 (Pew Research Center, 2019), thereby positioning the “religiously unaffiliated” to account for 26% of the U.S. population (2019).
Nearly a decade ago, Stuart Redcay found himself among those numbers. Today, Redcay is the associate pastor of family ministries at Big Woods Bible Church in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.
“I had a reputation built around who I was,” recalled Redcay, noting how a collegiate minister once dubbed him the “flaming atheist of Lock Haven University.”
Growing up in the church and a tragic discovery
Redcay actually grew up in the church and cherished his time in youth group.
“I grew up in a megachurch in southern Pennsylvania and, in all honesty, I loved youth group — I’ll say I loved youth group, maybe not so much the church. I loved retreats, all-nighters, paintball, whatever it might be,” he recalled.
After high school, Redcay attended a Bible college with the intent of becoming a youth pastor.
“My thought process at that point was, literally, I like youth group [and] I wanna do retreats and all-nighters and get paid for it. If that doesn’t quite give it away, I had no concept of what it actually meant to be a pastor, and I really had no concept or solid grasp of the gospel either.”
During his first semester of Bible college, Redcay’s perception of Christians became muddled and conflicted, both from seeing the way his peers were living and from a tragic personal experience.
“Interactions with multiple Christians, in all honesty, [left] a really bad taste in my mouth. I’d look at these individuals and be like, ‘Okay, you claim to love God and love others, but you act this way or you do these things.’”
Redcay also discovered during his first semester that a friend of his had been sexually assaulted by a church leader. “Through all of this happening, I really grew to hate the church and hate Christians,” he said.
Becoming an atheist
After that first semester, Redcay decided to forego the college experience and apply for military training. He enlisted at 18 in the Air National Guard and would be in training for a year.
“During that year, [I] didn’t like the church, didn’t want anything to do with it, but was trying to discern intellectually what do I do with this. So, I started reading and doing research on my own, and that research was pretty much in one vein: atheism.
“Whether it was Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bertrand Russell [or] Daniel Dennett — reading all this throughout that coming year, I would become fairly convinced in my mind of atheism but would become more vocal about it in the months to come.”
Two years after becoming an atheist, Redcay returned to the college scene, but this time at Lock Haven University in pursuit of a degree in pre-med.
“So, I went to Lock Haven for the purpose of eventually going to med school, and I heard about this college ministry called NewLife before I arrived. When I arrived on campus, one thing I noticed — the very first day there — is there [were] chalk murals and advertisements for this college ministry everywhere,” he said.
Being new on campus, Redcay decided to check out the NewLife campus ministry.
“I think the first night we were out they invited me to Denny’s. I got to know some of them and, to be honest, I was pretty antagonistic because, you know, I’m very able to debate, can be very argumentative and I was very much characterized as arrogant.
“But, in the midst of this, they would still put up with it and try to minister to me, which I’m sure was a challenge because my viewpoint wasn’t just that I was an atheist, but you’re kind of foolish for believing Christianity, as well.”
A radical change
As time went on, Redcay built relationships with the NewLife members and had several conversations with them about his resistance to Christianity.
It wasn’t until after having a conversation with his, unbeknownst to him at the time, future wife that Redcay really started to dig into the Bible. Though, his intent was to develop a “cast iron reason” as to why he was not a Christian and why she shouldn’t be either.
“Over those next two weeks, God would radically change my heart and mind, because, I mean, I was pouring over Scripture trying to find the reason why this entire book was just bunk. But in [that] time period, God radically changed me from an arrogant individual, who is comfortable living — and happy to live — without God to recognizing my need for Him,” Redcay said.
“[God] started tearing down, you could say, the intellectual walls in my mind, but would especially tear down the barrier around my heart one particular night. I remember 1 a.m. in the morning, kneeling on the small, college dorm floor giving my life to Christ. It was through reading His word, and God ultimately working in my heart, that brought me to Christ.”
Redcay then started attending Big Woods Bible Church, which is affiliated with NewLife college ministry. There he found a mentor and began to be discipled.
Called to ministry
Then, nearly two years after becoming a Christian, he started to feel a call to ministry — a call he was reluctant to pursue.
“I was actually really resistant to ever going into ministry of any kind, including any kind of the volunteer, mentoring, teaching or anything like that in the church. I had no desire for any kind of working in that sort of ministry because I viewed myself as permanently damaged goods that shouldn’t be given any kind of trust or chance in that sense,” Redcay said.
Although, after being challenged by one of his mentors to get more involved at the church, Redcay changed his mind and gave youth group another try. Redcay volunteered with the middle school as a sixth-grade small group leader. Shortly after this, the youth pastor resigned, and the youth were led by a series of volunteer leaders for the next several months.
One of those leaders was Redcay. In 2017, he would become the leader for the church’s youth and family ministries. Now he often finds God using his past disbelief to help fuel the faith of future leaders.
“One of the things I tell students every year, especially at the beginning of the year, is that no question is off-limits. You don’t come to wanting to reject God, the church or Christians in an instant; there’s questions that are boiling for a while or problems that are surfacing,” he said.
“God is real, and God is big enough for our questions. So, we can sit down and work through those as part of the church. That’s what the church is here for, for us to challenge, but also lean on, one another and work through these questions.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was written by Macala Mays and was originally published by the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey.