Well, Hemant has now written a book about his experiences visiting churches as an atheist, and I was fortunate enough to obtain an advance copy (to do one of the endorsement blurbs for it). It's appropriately titled I Sold My Soul on eBay. In it Hemant chronicles his impressions of a second round of churches that his publishers sent him to. Think of Hemant as kind of a Mystery Shopper for churches. Most churches these days claim to want to be "seeker-friendly" and try to be welcoming to outsiders, so Hemant is there to tell us whether our attempts are actually working
I have to say that as soon as I started reading the book I could not put it down. It is engagingly written and deeply insightful about the pros and cons of Christian churches. So many times I found myself agreeing with Hemant's assessments of contemporary churches. At other times I was amused at his bewilderment at some of the stranger things that we Christians tend to do in church (like the lady in the more charismatic church who kept shouting out random phrases like "Thank you Jesus" right over his shoulder the whole time, or the unenthusiastic liturgical responses from the congregation at the Presbyterian church.)
The book is actually written in three parts. The first four chapters are an introduction to Hemant, his eBay Atheist story, why he is an atheist even though he grew up as a Jain, and a couple of chapters about what atheists are and are not really like (we religious people tend to have a lot of false stereotypes about atheists). The middle four chapters are his reviews of the 14 different churches he attended, and the last two chapters are his summary of what works, what doesn't, and what it would take to actually convert him.
Chapters 1 & 2 tell his personal story, while Chapter 3, "Getting to Know an Atheist: Most Nonreligious People Don't Fit the Stereotypes", was especially helpful in debunking some of the most common misconceptions religious people have about atheists: atheists actually are a discriminated against minority in the U.S. and - contrary to what most conservative Christians believe - do not have much influence in government or even on most university campuses (at least as reflected in the student population). Having grown up in the evangelical subculture, I was used to the assumption that it is Christians who are a persecuted minority in the United States. Hemant and other atheists like him have helped me realize that this is actually a ridiculous assumption. Something like 80% or more of Americans believe in God, nearly half go to church every week, and, up until recently, conservative Christians controlled all three branches of our federal goverment. By contrast, to date there is only one confirmed non-theist in the U.S. Congress.
Chapter 4 continues in this thread, focusing more specifically on clarifying atheist beliefs and approaches to questions that many Christians also wrestle with (e.g. the efficacy of prayer, the problem of suffering, how best to raise children in your belief system and cultural/religious traditions, the separation of church and state, the meaning of life, the reality of death, etc.) This is helpful, though at points during the chapter I was itching to be able to respond to the questions he raises - the discussion was too one-sided. (I guess I'm just spoiled by the online world where you can actually interact with what someone writes. :-)
Chapter 5 reviews four smaller sized churches - one rather emerging-ish church in downtown Chicago, and three more traditional churches out in rural Dekalb, IL. One was an Evangelical Free Church in Dekalb. (I loved reading about Hemant's confusion over what exactly the name "Evangelical Free" actually means. Our denominational labels are confusing enough for Christians - I can only imagine how difficult they must be for an outsider.) His description of this church totally reminded me of most of the churches I've attended in my life - small, rural, contemporary evangelical but still rather stiff and boring, disinterested congregants who don't sit near each other in the pews and have trouble staying awake during the sermon, everyone in dressy "church clothes", etc. Hemant describes how after the final "Amen" of the closing prayer everyone just abruptly got up and left. "By that point," says Hemant, "I was ready to join the others who were racing out the front door to their cars." Yep, that pretty well sums up most of the churches of my youth.
Chapter 6 focuses on three mid-sized churches: one multi-ethnic and two other predominantly African-American congregations. I chuckle a bit every time Hemant reviews a black church - he often seems as bewildered by the liveliness of the African American religious culture as most of us white Christians are. One of his big questions, which I've often asked myself, was regarding the endless repetition of songs and praise choruses in more charismatic style churches. He writes:
I knew music was a large part of the worship experience in African American churches, so I expected the service to run long. But at Windsor Village it kept going. And going. It wasn't just the length of the songs that bothered me; the lyrics added to my irritation. The lines and the refrains were repeated so many times I lost count. Why do churches do this? What's the point of so much repetition?Amen brother Hemant! It bugs me too. :)
However, he does compliment these churches for the energy of their worship and especially for their concern for social justice and community involvement. In the book he makes the point that more churches should be known for their service to others if they really want to make a positive impact on nonbelievers like him.
Chapter 7 reviews four mega-churches that many of you have probably heard of: Second Baptist in Houston, Harvest Bible Chapel here in the Chicago suburbs (James MacDonald's church), New Life Church in Colorado (Ted Haggard's former church), and The Moody Church in downtown Chicago. It's pretty obvious that Hemant likes big churches. (At one point he quips: "Call me crazy, but the presence of parking-lot attendants has become the indication that I'm going to enjoy a service.") It's understandable, if your only connection with a church is their Sunday morning service (as it is not only for Hemant, but for many Christians as well), then it makes sense that you'd prefer those churches who have the resources to put on a better show. (One more reason that churches who value community and mission more than numbers shouldn't even bother using programs or performances to try and compete with the big, attractional churches.) Hemant liked the top-notch preaching, the concert-quality music, the non-threatening mall-like atmosphere, and all the other bells and whistles that come along with a church of 10-20,000 people.
In chapter 8 Hemant praises three mega-churches that left him with an especially good impression: Willow Creek - the mother of all mega-churches here in Chicagoland; Lakewood Church, Joel Osteen's congregation that meets in the former Houston Rockets stadium; and Mars Hill Bible Church in West Michigan where Rob Bell preaches. He praises the seeker-sensitive, nonthreatening atmosphere that Willow cultivates; the inspirational, low on Bible-references, big on personally applicable self-help messages of Joel Osteen; and the amazingly engaging and humorous teaching ability of Rob Bell as well as Rob's open-minded "emerging" approach (he and Hemant got to chat personally afterwards, and Rob actually wrote the forward to this book.)
In chapter 9 Hemant summarizes the previous chapters by listing the things that he feels churches do right and what they're doing wrong if they want to reach out to non-Christians like him. Here are his short lists:
- Top-notch Preachers & Speakers
- Community Outreach
- Energy Level & Passion
- Dialogue Featuring Opposing Viewpoints
- Relevant Sermons
- A Lack of Sensitivity to Nonreligious People
- Too Much Time Devoted to Singing
- Not Paying Attention to Church
- Distracting Behavior During Worship
- Lack of Opportunities to Ask Questions
- Religious Extremism
- Confusing Rituals and Traditions
- Intrusive Projection Screens & TV Cameras
I've got no complaints with either of these lists. In fact, our church shares many of these concerns and they're why we've tried to do things differently at Via Christus. Ironically, Hemant also noticed this fact, and he closes this chapter with a mention of his visit to Via Christus last March, holding us up as an example of a church who is making positive innovations in our approach. I'm gratified that he thinks so.
In the final chapter Hemant first recounts his experience being invited to do an onstage dialogue with the pastor at Parkview Christian Church, a large congregation in the south suburbs of Chicago. He then wraps up by listing the reasons that are still holding him back from becoming a Christian. They are:
- The Faith Requirement
- The Personal Nature of Faith
- The Damage of Faulty Assumptions
- The Offense of Religious Exclusivity
- The Problem of Preferential Treatment
Again, I wished that I could have responded to Hemant's issues in this chapter - he raises a lot of good points, but they are the kind of things that require some good dialogue to really work through. But then, that's what his blog and the Off the Map message boards are for. I highly recommend getting involved there if you want to engage with some of these issues in a deeper way. It's one way to follow Hemant's closing piece of advice about how Christians can actually impress people like him: be open to reaching out to people with whom you disagree. I can truthfully say that doing so has been a transformative experience for my own faith over this past year.
The thing that I've appreciated most about Hemant's approach is that he doesn't see himself as an antagonist to people of faith. While holding true to his own convictions, he nonetheless is open to exploring other options, and especially to helping Christians become better than we currently are. For instance, in his introduction he says:
I am an atheist, but I don't fit the common stereotype held by so many in the religious community. I am not angry with God, and I don't want to rid the world of religion. In this book, as we talk about matters of belief and nonbelief, I hope you will think of me not simply as an atheist, but rather as a person with questions about faith, an openness to evidence that might contradict my current beliefs, and a curiosity about Christianity and its message. Please don't assume I am the enemy of religious belief. I'm not trying to tear down anyone's religion, and I don't pretend to have all the answers... I'm a friendly atheist. I'm serious when I say that in this book I'm going to do my best to help improve the way churches present the Christian message.
I think that's an admirable goal and I appreciate Hemant's open and friendly spirit. After all, I share his goal of wanting to help Christians become better at actually displaying Christ's message of love. I think any pastor or church-going Christian that is concerned about how we really come across to outsiders ought to read this book. You'll come to respect and appreciate Hemant's advice just as I have. Definitely pick up a copy of the book as soon as it is released (in one more week!) and read it for yourself. You can pre-order it here.
If you're in the Chicago area, you can also join us at up/rooted on June 18 for a discussion on the book with the author himself!
UPDATE: For more good reviews of the book, check out
Helen's on the eBay Atheist blog
Carol's on Letters from a Broad
Mark's (TXAtheist) on YouTube
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