Monday, May 14, 2007
A Missional Challenge from an Atheist
At the heart of the Missional Church movement is the idea that the church exists to bless the world - that it is at its best when it is giving itself away (to those in need, to the oppressed, etc.). What has surprised me on several occasions is to find that some atheists seem to get this better than some Christians do. My atheist friend, Dan Harlow, recently issued a challenge to Christians that is essentially a call for the church to live up to our missional purpose. In answering the question of what it would take to convert him to Christianity, he basically says Christians would have to start actually serving the world and not wasting their time on just "doing church". Here is his post (note - this was originally written as a response to some rather aggravating fundamentalists on the Friendly Atheist blog, which explains some of the frustration expressed in his tone):

First, a question:

What is a true Christian and is it possible for anyone to be a true Christian?

Since I try to be open minded, I also think it’s fair to ask myself “What would it take to convert me to faith?” Yes, I am an atheist, but I have very good reasons for being an atheist - some are cynical reasons, others are much more reasonable.

Now, here’s my problem. You see, if any believer was ever going to get me to ever go to church and become a Christian, it would have to be like this:

  1. Every Sunday I would arrive at my hypothetical church.

  2. When I arrived, there would be no building or altar or band. All that would be awaiting me is a fleet of buses.

  3. Standing in the middle of the parking lot would be the pastor holding a hat or large bowl that I would drop my name into.

  4. When all names have been collected, the pastor would draw names from the bowl and assign each person to a bus.

  5. The destination of each bus would be somewhere like an inner city where each person would teach kids how to read, or maybe a senior center to assist with the elderly or the side of a highway to clean up the trash or to the home of someone who needs home repair.

  6. For the entire day (not just an hour or two, but the entire day) each person would be responsible for taking part in this charity work.

  7. At the end of the day the buses would take us back to the parking lot and everyone would go home.

  8. The next week would be the same except that to be allowed on the bus you would have to prove to the pastor holding the hat that you did 10 charitable deeds during the week and not one of them would consist of giving money or preaching the word of God.

  9. If you can then prove you have been useful during the week, you get to also be useful on Sunday.

This is what religion should be doing. Any money raised by the church would go only to pay for the buses, not the pastor. In fact, the pastor would be working right along side everyone else. The only difference is that the pastor and his volunteer staff would spend their week organizing next Sundays activities.

If my idea caught on, imagine what sort of world we would be living in where every day tens of millions of people were helping each other out.

Now, as you can see, I’ve not mentioned God, but I have talked about doing “Gods” work. My idea puts the responsibility of loving my neighbor squarely in my lap.

Unfortunately, my idea will NEVER happen. Why? Well, it’s naive, that’s why. It’s naive because what I’m talking about is HARD TO DO. It’s much easier to talk about God and quote scripture. It’s also easier to worship and praise God then actually do real work. It’s fun to stand around and sing songs, it’s easy to speak in tongues, it’s not hard at all to write a check to the church. But it’s hard to teach someone how to read. It’s not fun to change an adult diaper. It’s back breaking work to fix someones home.

In other words, Jesus (supposedly) set the bar pretty damn high yet all anyone really wants to do is talk about how great Jesus is. Now, I may be an atheist, but I’m 100% certain that Jesus was more interested in people helping each other out than he ever was in people just standing around talking about him.

I ask all the Christians reading this : is going to church and quoting endless lines of scripture more Godly than helping your fellow man?


To read the rest of Dan's challenge click here.

Personally I wouldn't structure a church exactly as Dan suggests. For instance, a lot of inward spiritual transformation will probably be necessary in many people before they'd even be willing to spend every Sunday out serving people. Plus I'm not opposed to the idea of pastors getting paid. It takes a lot of time and effort to plan even a weekend worship service - how much more would it take to coordinate all these volunteer activities?

However, I think his larger point is good, and too few churches prioritize this kind of activity at all. And far too many Christians think that the whole point of being a Christian is just to "get saved" and then go to church to so you can learn how to pray, read your Bible, and get other people saved. We forget the whole part where Jesus said to "obey everything I have commanded you" (which included things like serving the poor and oppressed and marginalized).

Anyhow, what do you think of Dan's challenge and ideal church? Thoughts? Comments?


posted by Mike Clawson at 9:10 PM | Permalink |


At 5/14/2007 11:26:00 PM, Anonymous Dan Harlow

You make a good point about pastors getting paid, I mean, pastors have to eat too, right? :)

I guess I made that comment more because too often I see the pastors of the huge churches living so far above what their flock lives like. It just seems hypocritical to me.

Of course, that's not a new argument, and I am not saying you are like that, but I think it's important for everyone that works for a church to stay grounded.

Growing up Catholic, I learned that priests (and nuns) take a vow of poverty because it helps them better understand what Jesus was trying to teach. By owning nothing, a priest has nothing to loose and, in fact, his faith is probably stronger because of it. Then again, the Vatican does a poor job of acting impoverished, so there are major hypocrisies there too.

As far as the "inward spiritual transformation", I'm not convinced that has to happen through prayer and worship. Personally, I find hard work to be more spiritual than anything else. It's like when I go rock climbing and I get to the top and I feel different somehow. I never could have had that feeling by watching someone else do it or talking about it.

I see your point that studying the Bible can be a big help in that it reminds people about morality - I mean, you have to have a starting point and a guide with anything in life, it's just that I don't place a high priority on those things.

Besides, people may be more open to "radical" ideas after a long, hard day of work. :)


At 5/15/2007 12:41:00 AM, Blogger Nance

I like this. In fact I may end up doing this from time to time for whole Sundays. Except no buses; the members can drive themselves. The money can go to something else, World Vision or Compassion. Not many people would come on those weeks(at least at first) I think, but that may just prove that it's a good idea. But that's a ways off... I'm not a pastor yet.
My church actually does try to do as much service work as we can though, anything from little service evangelism projects to Habitat for Humanity. Of course it's not on this level... and we do still have worship services with music, Bible study, etc, although we do lack a building, which apparently is good. It seems in the end that Dan is asking for an efficient charitable organization with devoted members... the church is to be a bit more than that, I think.

Mike, Richard Wade from Friendly Atheist told me about your site. He mentioned a "project O" that I'm not finding much on so far. Any help there?


At 5/15/2007 01:22:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hi Nance, welcome to my blog! I can tell we have a lot in common. For instance, I studied Philosophy in college too, and I'm a huge fan of Lewis, Kierkegaard, Rob Bell, and especially NT Wright! (And Matt Groenig too.)

Good point too about the church not merely being an efficient charitable organization. That is definitely part of our calling, but we are also a family, a community. Church is about doing charitable projects together, but it is also about simply sharing life together - sharing meals and fun times and times of worship and times of learning and times of prayer and times for tears and all that.

In other words, Dan's vision is good, we need more of that too, but it's part of an even larger picture.

Though of course the idea of the church as a community (even with a strong missional emphasis) is radically different still from a church that only exists to put on a big show on Sundays and draw a big crowd to pay for their big buildings. I know what Dan is reacting against, and trust me, I've reacted against that approach to church too. Not that I think all megachurches are evil. There are ones (like Mars Hill, or even Saddleback and Willow) who do the serving others part very well, and who prioritize community too as much as they are able. But I have seen enough of the other type (and they're not all just big churches) who are exactly as inward focused as Dan describes.

Anyhow, thanks for stopping by. As for the O Project, go here.


At 5/15/2007 01:31:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hmmm, re-reading what I just wrote, I think I slightly mis-spoke. I don't want to imply that mission is just a smaller part of some larger purpose of the church. Mission is the larger picture, it is the reason for the church's existence.

However, those other things - like community and spiritual formation - are necessary components as well inasmuch as they enable the mission. A community of people sharing life together who are fixated together on a missional goal will (IMHO) be far more effective at reaching that goal than a random group of people who come together once a week to do service projects. And (again IMHO) people also need to be inwardly formed through teaching and spiritual disciplines so they will have the motivation and knowledge to engage in mission.

So yeah, just to clarify, mission is the big picture, but those other aspects of the church are still necessary insofar as they serve the mission.


At 5/15/2007 01:55:00 PM, Blogger Nance

So what exactly do you think that "the mission" entails? I'm asking just because you use "mission" and "missional" pretty frequently, but I'm new here, so if you could expound, that'd be great.

And yeah, I noticed your book list as well... and some of the movies. You officially have good taste.


At 5/15/2007 03:19:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Good question Nance - in a nutshell I think it's our ongoing participation in the gospel that Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4:18-19

""The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

The mission is increasing love and justice and reconciliation and compassion and generosity and joy in this world; and to proclaim Jesus' victory and Lordship over the powers of violence and greed and oppression and death. It's to bring heaven to earth, as Jesus tells us to pray in the Lord's Prayer.


Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link