Monday, February 22, 2010

Is Church Meant for the Atheist?

I love books, and reading, so on my day off I rest and read.  Today I am reading a book I picked up at Chapters titled "I Sold My Soul on eBay - Viewing Faith through an Atheists Eyes" by Hemant Mehta. It was a great deal at only $4.99.

You may recall the name Hemant Mehta, he is the Atheist who auctioned off the opportunity for someone to have him go to a church of their choosing.  The bidding started at $10/hour and he figured it would probably top off there, meaning he would have to go to church 1 week for 1 hour.  In fact the auction closed at $504 with Jim Henderson of being the winner.  This meant the Hemant was to go to church 1 hour, each week, for a year.  In fact Jim had him attend no more than 15 churches and write his impressions of those churches for his blog. I am on Chapter 6 of 10 and my first impression is that the book would have been more accurately subtitled "viewing church through an Atheist's eyes".  I will let you know if this impression changes by the end.

As I entered the 3rd Chapter, I found myself asking.  Is Mr. Mehta's opinion as an unbeliever pertinent? Is a Sunday morning service meant for Atheists?  Historically, were non-believers catered to in the holy temples?

In his book, Hemant, revisits an old parable of the sun and the wind.  The story goes that a battle ensued between the wind and the sun over who was more powerful.  The wind contended that it had the ability to move ships across oceans, destroy cities, and cause bridges to collapse.  The Sun countered that it could start fires, help crops, and power entire buildings.

The Wind and the Sun decided to settle the matter once and for all.  Spotting a young girl walking to school, they decided to compete to see who could make the girl take off her jacket.  The wiser Sun, knowing he would easily be the victor, sat back and watched while the Wind went to work.  The Wind's strategy was to blow the jacket off the girl.  It blew harder and harder hoping the girl would give up the struggle and stop clutching her jacket.  Yet every time the Wind blew, the girl only clung more tightly.  No matter what the Wind did, it could not find a way to separate the girl from the jacket.

Next, it was the Sun's turn.  It simply shone as bright as it could.  As the girl felt the heat building up, she quickly removed her jacket.  The Sun won the contest.

As I read this parable, I drew a parallel between the wind and a Sunday morning service as it applies to the Atheist. Sunday morning service has the potential to feel like your entering a wind tunnel to those who have not been introduced to Jesus. The Church is a place of worship and if someone does not have a personal relationship with God, then many of  the expressions of that worship will hold little meaning. As it appears by Hemant's experience, Sunday morning service  can leave the unbeliever confused by rituals they do not understand, prayers to a God they do not yet believe in, songs that hold little meaning, and messages that could be perceived as judgmental or coercive rather than persuasive.  Not that all is lost, good fellowship, engaging songs, and great teaching will undoubtedly benefit any unbeliever in attendance.
As I continue to read this book, I grapple with the idea that Sunday morning service should  be designed specifically to attract the non-believer. Undoubtedly the church body is to be a supportive, if not, the primary source for meeting the needs of those that make up the community outside their stained glass walls (Christian or otherwise) yet the discipleship and worship programs of the church have a primary responsibility to the body of believers. I would not go to a mosque and expect that they would need to change their style or method of worship in order to convert or even attract me as an unbeliever.

I appreciate Hemant's views as an Atheist attending church, and agree many of his observations have merit, however, they are observations that many believers would make as well as they are matters of preference of style and form of sermon delivery, worship, etc..  His criticism of content, appears to be more a result of a lack of biblical understanding or faith experience.  As a result I would be more interested in knowing what a Christian thinks of the places we worship? Do the sermons minister to them and are they grounded in biblical truth and balanced with relevance? Does the music draws them into the presence of the God they love? Do they find themselves involved in lifting up prayers from their heart?  Is the service relevant, is there accountability in place, is the fellowship sincere, is their foundation in Christ strengthened?

I do not believe that Sunday morning (or whichever day and time your church body gathers) is meant to be seeker sensitive, unless you are being sensitive to the only seeker who matters - God.  However, the most recognizable entity of the Christian faith has become the church as signified by steeples and stained glass. When what should be the most recognizable entity, is us as individuals within whom Christ Dwells. When non-Christians are seeking the truth they go to what we have created as the most recognizable, most significant symbol - where we have dictated the truth is kept, a temple of brick and mortar.  When in actual fact, that greatest testament to the truth of God, lives within us, the body of Christ - the individual members of the church. We, who have already entered into a relationship with Jesus, should be like the Sun in the parable, emitting the warmth of God's love to those around us. When we allow His light to shine in our life, and are obedient, to leave our places of worship and go into our communities and LIVE out our faith, then the seekers would seek us out {the real church/the true temple}, and we could gather where they are and share the truth that has been given to us, allowing the love of God to permeate and persuade them. Isn't that the model of church Christ exemplified.

That being said I would love to hear a non-believers critical analysis of the programs, means and ways in  which we try to evangelize, the organic ways and the planned and plotted ones.  I believe this would be more pertinent coming from a non-believer and would help to curb the risk of the body of believers becoming like a wind tunnel, blowing a lot of hot air at people, in our attempts to convert them (like that is our job). I would also purchase a book that chronicled first hand accounts of the ways in which God used others to bring individuals into a personal relationship with Himself.

So do I think church is meant for the atheist or non-believer? Referring to the building and worship programs, not specifically, it's primary purpose is to the body of believers, though it is still a great place for all to come on a Sunday morning, and I delight that the doors are open to all.  In fact I have witnessed time and again, first hand accounts of God's salvation grace being extended to an unbeliever after a Sunday morning message, resulting in their lives being transformed. If we are referring to church as the body of believers - definitely, the church as an extension of God himself is for everybody. We are commanded to love others as we love ourselves - all others. [Matthew 19:19]

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