Two recent books offer the ultimate “outsiders” perspective of the Christian Church. In I Sold My Soul on eBay and Jim & Casper Go to Church, two atheists evaluate various evangelical worship services in order to offer their insights for the benefit of the church.
The mastermind behind both books is an evangelical, Jim Henderson. It was Henderson’s winning bid that sent atheist Hemant Mehta on his paid assignment to evaluate various churches. Hemant placed himself on eBay out of a desire to learn more about Christianity. He admittedly doesn’t fit the common stereotype. Unlike some atheists, he claims, “I am not angry with God, and I don’t want to rid the world of religion… I’m a friendly atheist” (Mehta, 4).
Henderson also hired atheist Matt Casper to personally accompany him during his visits to notable evangelical churches. Henderson and Casper travel to twelve churches in order to discuss their experiences. They write, “This is the story of what happens when two guys with polar-opposite worldviews go to church together” (Henderson & Casper, xxix).
The Inevitable Shortcoming of Atheist Evaluations
Though the atheists’ evaluations are helpful, they suffer from an inevitable shortcoming. Their perspective as atheists gives them a certain degree of objectivity, but it also limits the significance of their evaluations. How will atheists – who dogmatically reject the existence of any transcendent, supernatural reality – accurately evaluate services intended to celebrate and respond to a transcendent and supernatural reality? How likely is it that an atheist will be impressed by how a greater vision of the transcendent can motivate, shape, and direct human thoughts, affections, and actions? And yet, isn’t this what is at the heart of sacred worship? [Note: If one has not rejected the supernatural or transcendent but continues to remain unsure of its existence or significance, then one is an agnostic and not an atheist. However, both authors clearly label themselves as atheists.]
This disinterest in the transcendent is obvious in what impresses both atheists. In their visits to churches, Mehta and Casper are both impressed with liberal social activism, but they show little interest in training people to better understand distinctively Christian doctrines. For example, when one preacher speaks of the Holy Spirit as one “who would lift us up when we were down” Hemant wonders, “Isn’t that one reason we have human friends.” Certainly, this is one reason we have friends, but if a transcendent and benevolent God exists, then this “lifting” is much more profound, stable, and consistent than any human friendship could possibly offer. Another example: When a speaker comments on responding to God’s inner promptings to moral behavior, Mehta responds, “I kept thinking that since God doesn’t exist for me, there has to be some other explanation for why people have these inner promptings. I have them too” (Mehta, 125). He continues, “If I’m an atheist and I get these inner promptings to be ethical, then what’s so special about hearing that inner voice? … Whenever I consider telling a lie, there is a voice telling me not to. But is that God? I don’t think so” (Mehta, 126). Christian teaching would suggest that the urgings of the human conscience are prompted by God, arising from the fact that we are moral beings who reflect the divine as image-bearers. But having rejected God, Mehta would never allow this as an explanation. Thus, this distinctively Christian means of spiritual transformation has no significance to Mehta.
Because the reality of the transcendent is negated, the centrality of faith and the necessity of hope have little “cash value” to the atheist evaluators. Thus, it is practically impossible for the atheists to accurately evaluate the place of faith or eschatological hope in Christian experience. When Mehta hears a testimony of a changed life, he writes, “As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that his personal experience did not constitute proof of anything” (Mehta, 85). Certainly, other explanations can always be found, but for those open to the reality of a benevolent and transcendent God, it is not a stretch to believe that God changes lives. In another setting, Hemant is frightened by lyrics based on Philippians 2:10-11: “One day every tongue will confess you are God.” This glorious hope of a world completely restored and surrendered to God’s will is at the heart of the Christian story. It is central to faith, gives hope, and provokes meaningful expressions of love.
Rejecting the transcendent, the importance of faith, and the necessity of hope (as conveyed in the Christian story of redemption), the only thing that impresses the atheists is that which is not distinctly Christian: “I really liked it… [because] the messages – rather, the challenges – [the pastor] relayed were not entirely faith dependent” (Henderson & Casper, 23).
The atheists’ perspectives are unique but limited in shaping Christian worship services. They offer us a necessary objective quality that is expressed well by Henderson: “One thing I like about Casper and atheists in general is that due to their lack of reverence for our religion, they often see through things much more quickly than most Christians, and they feel free to tell me so” (Henderson & Casper, 28). However, this irreverence also severely limits their evaluations. Worship is not something entered into as a science experiment – coldly, logically, analytically, and objectively. Therefore, we should recognize that the atheists’ evaluations will be of no help when it comes to treasuring the transcendent, nurturing and forming faith, and inspiring hope in a God-centered trajectory to human history. In short, they will offer nothing that helps to form a distinctively Christian worship service.
Helpful Atheist Suggestions
This is evident in their respective conclusions. Casper has little constructive advice to give to Churches. Mehta, on the other hand, concludes with a chapter of suggestions, some of them helpful, but none having to do with the heart of Christian worship.
First, he suggests that churches tone down the amount of time devoted to “singing praise songs with repeated choruses” (Mehta, 138). The reason: “I consistently noticed a lot of people showing up late for church. And I know of at least one Christian family that deliberately arrives late on Sunday morning in order to avoid the lengthy and repetitive songs. In this case, something I found personally irritating apparently is also bothersome to some Christian worshipers” (Mehta, 138).
He suggests that the energy level and passion of the church is more important and more inviting than the building. “The churches I enjoyed the most had a buzz of excitement that was noticeable from the moment I walked in the door… A church’s high energy level is not produced by meeting in a beautiful building. The positive feeling I picked up came from other churchgoers. It stands out when you are around people who look forward to coming to church, people who are glad to see one another. That vitality brushed off on me” (Mehta, 143).
He commends pastors who connected faith to contemporary life: “Finally, the pastors that made the best positive impression on me made sure their message was relevant today” (Mehta, 146). After visiting many churches, Hemant concludes he prefers Willow Creek above all others: “It wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone service. It wasn’t a worship-God-out-of-fear-of-hell service. It was a place where I could think about the message after I left. If any church had a chance of making me come back for more, it was Willow Creek” (Mehta, 135). Casper also admires effective preaching. While commenting on a Presbyterian pastor he says, “One thing I really liked was their use of the Bible. In many of the churches we’ve ‘worked,’ they pull one sentence or even just one clause from one verse, and we get no context…. But here, we read a whole passage (Acts 26:1-29), and we got the whole story in context…. The Bible is chock-full of interesting stories, and sometimes it may be more effective just to let them speak for themselves” (Henderson & Casper, 60). One of Mehta’s most helpful suggestions is that pastors hold a question-and-answer forum after each service that address questions related to the sermon (Mehta, 153).
Both authors also commend churches engaged in positive community work. Good deeds speak loudly. Casper writes: “Lawndale [Church] is providing the kind of compelling evidence someone could reasonably point to as evidence of a God being active in and through people” (71). Curiously, Casper continually rails on churches that don’t emphasize social activism, but when he is challenged to do the same, he admits the following: “But then I realized that I am way too preoccupied, busy, and/or lazy to start really helping others. I think maybe I do enough by doing no harm” (85). For all his criticisms, Casper does not even apply his own standards to himself. If he is unwilling to dedicate some of his time and energy to good works, why is he so quick to condemn every church where social activism is not of primary importance.
Casper concludes by expressing his disgust for dogma (Casper, 153). His evaluations prove that he has no interest in Christian doctrine. Mehta concludes with a more positive evaluation: “Now that my experiment is over, I realize I didn’t find God, but I saw the incredible power a church can have. I hope that power is used to benefit society instead of hurting it through creating unnecessary divisions between Christians and non-Christians” (Mehta, 173). Even though he is convinced that God does not exist, Mehta realizes that the “idea of God” can be of positive value.
Unhelpful Evangelical Evaluations
The atheists’ evaluations were mildly helpful, but nothing earth-shattering. I expected short-sighted evaluations from the atheists. I expected that their perspective would certainly influence their evaluation. I did not expect the same from Henderson, but I found his comments more frustrating, and frankly, more damaging to the life and health of churches.
He writes, “Jesus never intended for the institution we call Christianity to form into a religion… he personally only mentions the word church twice” (Henderson & Casper, 18, 19). What then is wrong with the church? Jesus’ plan was “hijacked early on by some religionists who managed to institutionalize the movement” (Casper, 19). Jesus may have only used the word church twice, but it was in the context of stating his life purpose, “I will build my church.” Jesus did come to create a church. The training of the twelve, the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, the rise of the church in Acts as a work of the resurrected Christ, all point to Jesus’ mission to create a people of mission in and for the world. This will, by default, have organizational qualities. We begin to see the birth of these organizational qualities in Acts and Paul’s epistles. (One could even argue that the genesis for this organization is in Jesus’ calling and training of the twelve as leaders of the primitive church.) It is unhelpful to condemn the church merely because it is organized. All living things will be organized. Obviously, the organization should exist for the sake of promoting the life of the organism, but one doesn’t exist without the other. The body of Christ, in order to exist, will take an incarnational form, and this will have a structure.
Henderson’s comments border on the ludicrous when he presents the following false dichotomy: “Are we in the preaching business or the people-changing business?” (Henderson & Casper, 150) Why must it be one or the other? In the Great Commission, Jesus calls us to “baptize” and to “teach.” Certainly, this can be done in many ways and forms, but one does not have to undermine preaching. Preaching still remains the best and most effective means to teach a large group of people. One wonders if Henderson even pays attention to the fact that both atheists actually expressed interest in and appreciation for good, biblical preaching!
Perhaps the craziest comment Henderson makes is: “We need to honestly admit that in fact, Jesus didn’t care a whit about church services” (Henderson & Casper, 150). I guess that is why Jesus regularly attended synagogue services on the Sabbath and holy feasts and festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. (Yes, the previous sentence is sarcasm!) Those who claim that Jesus did not participate in the religious life of his culture simply need to reread the Gospels. Henderson’s comment is completely and utterly false – and unhelpful in every way. Are to conclude that if we want to be like Jesus we shouldn’t “care a whit about church services”? Does this reveal Henderson’s profound bias? Could it be that the irreverent atheists have more reverence for worship services than the evangelical? Is Henderson’s point to completely undermine all organized expressions of faith, all preaching events, and all church services? It is unfortunate that the most unhelpful comments in books by two atheists come from one of the Christian co-authors.
An Insecure Church
Sadly, we live in a time where the church has absolutely no trust in its liturgy, its doctrines, or its traditions. We are an insecure church with little confidence in our heritage or courage of our convictions. We frantically look for silver-bullet solutions that will make us “relevant” and, in the process, we sacrifice the beauty of what we have received and currently possess.
Try as we might, we will never find a better way to gather together as God’s people than to call people to worship, confess our sin, hear the sacred scriptures read and opened by faithful preaching, give testimony to God in word, song, and praise, respond to God’s grace through communion, and then go with blessing into a world in need of God’s grace, truth, and love. The traditional elements of worship have lasted this long because they all contribute to a celebration of a transcendent reality that pervades our lives, our world, and our mission together.
Rather than trying to reinvent ourselves at every turn, we should recommit to the tried and true basics handed down to us in the Spirit-given sacred tradition of the Church. Certainly, we must give them fresh life in our contemporary world. The tradition must be a “living” tradition. But this is not found by shaping worship services according to the perceptions and biases of those who reject the reality of the transcendent, the centrality of faith, or the motivation of eschatological hope. Worship must, after all, be worship of the divine – not of ourselves or of our good works.
Our works of love are not the good news but our response to the Good News. Morality and good works are certainly part of religion, but religion is more than morality. The second greatest commandment – loving our neighbors as ourselves – is distinct from and after the first, which is to love the Lord God with everything. The order is significant and the reason for worship of the transcendent, nurturing faith, and building hope. I don’t expect an atheist to “get this” but I certainly expect evangelicals to.
Quotes excerpted from I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes by Hemant Mehta and Jim & Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation About Faith, Churches, and Well-meaning Christians by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007