The Odd Couple
WYSU Commentary, #157
In 2006, Jim Henderson, a Christian minister, (1) turned to an unusual source for help with his project to improve churches. He outbid more than a dozen competitors in an eBay auction in which Hemant Mehta, a self-described “friendly atheist,” offered to attend churches and evaluate their services and programs. Thus was born a religious version of the odd couple. (2)
Over the next few months, Mehta visited fifteen Christian churches of differing sizes in four states. (3) So, what did an atheist have to say about them? (4) Here are eight of his major findings and recommendations:
• One. There are very few female pastors and speakers. Churches need to do more to identify and recruit gifted women for these roles;
• Two. Some churches overdo music and singing. As a result, many members, by their own admission, show up late or tune out in midstream. Time devoted to music and singing should be reduced;
• Three. Common rituals, such as frequent standing and sitting, and scripted group responses, are typically mechanical and meaningless. Some rituals should be phased out; the history, meaning, and value of those that are kept should be fully explained to the congregation;
• Four. Pastors often quote the Bible without giving any clarification of its relevance to day-to-day life. A greater effort should be made to show a connection between Bible verses and the actual issues and challenges which people face in their lives; (5)
• Five. Some churches invest significant resources in missionary work in faraway places but do little to help those in need locally. Part of the mission of all churches should be to improve living conditions in their own community for all residents; (6)
• Six. Some pastors tend to attack virtually everything they oppose as part of a war on Christianity. Examples are evolution, gay marriage, and objections to religious displays on public property. This practice demonizes many good people, closes off the possibility of honest dialogue, and needlessly fosters a bunker mentality. Pastors need to tone down the rhetoric and work harder to understand, tolerate, and respect people with whom they differ;
• Seven. Many pastors and other speakers, especially those at mega-churches, are very effective communicators. They give instructive and entertaining talks, they focus on one central theme, and they use humor. By contrast, some pastors are poor communicators who do none of this. They would benefit from a refresher course in public speaking; (7) and
• Eight. Many churches need an infusion of energy and excitement. To this end, they should institute programming such as inviting “a compelling speaker”; sponsoring debates on critical issues, featuring opposing viewpoints; (8) holding question-and-answer sessions; organizing volunteers for community service; and donating funds to a charity that helps all people, not just Christians. (9)
As the project drew to a close, Henderson and Mehta learned that Mehta’s reports resonated with many of the congregations that Mehta visited and many others. Thus, the eBay collaboration was a win-win venture for this odd couple. (10)
1. Henderson is also author of Evangelism Without Additives, WaterBrook Press, 2005, 2007.
2. Eventually Mehta wrote a book about his project entitled I Sold My Soul on eBay, WaterBrook Press, 2007. The forward is by Rob Bell, a well-known evangelist. WaterBrook Press serves the Christian book market. Subsequently, Mehta published two books: Friendly Atheist, which is available from Amazon in a kindle edition, and The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide, Patheos Press, 2012. Also, see his website - FriendlyAtheist.com. Money was not the reason that Mehta opted for the eBay auction. In fact, he donated his proceeds to a secular organization, the Secular Student Alliance, “an umbrella organization for atheist and agnostic college groups.” I Sold My Soul on eBay, p. 49. His primary motivation was to learn more about Christianity. Although he grew up in Chicago, Mehta’s exposure to Christianity was minimal because his family was part of a “committed Jain community”; his secondary motivation was to promote dialogue between believers and non-believers.
3. At each site, Mehta looked and listened, used a tape recorder, took notes, and in many cases talked with pastors and church members.
4. Mehta submitted his reports online on off-the-map.org.
5. See p. 146. On scriptural relevance, Mehta writes: “One thing I always found effective in the churches I visited was that certain pastors followed their retelling of a Bible story with a variety of current applications: Here’s how we can be like Joseph at our workplace. Here’s how we can emulate Jesus in our relationships. Are you having trouble handling the amount of your school work? Let me point your to a relevant passage in the Bible.” (p. 147)
6. Mehta gives high marks in this regard to the Windsor Village United Methodist Church, an African American church, which has brought “social services, commercial enterprises, health services, educational opportunities, job skills assistance, and much more to an underserved area in Houston.” (p. 95) On the other hand, Mehta is critical of churches which establish explicitly “Christian” schools “in parts of town where students are struggling,” allegedly to improve education. He opines that the same goal can be accomplished simply by “pitching in to help improve the work being done at existing (public) schools in the neighborhood.” (p. 142) Overall, Mehta says that “the churches that made a big impact on me were the ones that knew their ‘church’ was not limited to a building. They made it a priority to spread the values of Christianity by serving the real needs of people around them. In this case, actions speak louder than preaching.” (p. 143)
7. Mehta has a fascinating suggestion for pastors to gauge their effectiveness as speakers. They should videotape their sermons with the camera directed not at them but at the audience. When they review the tape, they should ask “Are the people attentive? Are they taking notes? Are they smiling? Or are they staring at the same page in the day’s program for extended periods of time?” (pp. 140-141) This technique is likely to work, however, only if the audience does not know about it.
8. See pp. 143-144. On the need for speakers who differ with many Christians, Mehta writes: “If the church has the correct stance on, say, Intelligent Design, then there should be no problem with bringing in a credible evolutionary biologist who can explain the scientific view.” “Bring in someone from the gay community when gay marriage issues arise. Bring in a leader from the Muslim community when you’re discussing Islam. Bring in a pacifist when you’re considering issues of war, national defense, and militarism.” (p. 145)
9. Mehta submitted many other findings and recommendations beyond these eight. Among the others are these two: a) Some pastors urge congregants to seek forgiveness from God when they mistreat people. Pastors should also urge them to seek forgiveness from the people whom they mistreated; b) Some pastors condemn the distribution of condoms to young people despite the fact that they impede the spread of STDs and AIDS and that calls for abstinence don’t work. Pastors need to be more practical and realistic.
10. Henderson was so pleased with Mehta’s work that he hired another atheist, Matt Casper, and together they visited and evaluated twelve more churches. This later collaboration resulted in two books: Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, Jim and Casper Go to Church, Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, and Saving Casper, Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.