Selling Your Soul on Ebay
How much would you sell your soul for? Hemant Mehta sold his on EBAY for $500 smackaroos! You don’t really believe me do you? Anybody with half a brain would know that nobody can really sell their soul for $500 dollars although I’ve heard of someone who lost their birthright over a bite to eat. (Sarcasm Off) Back to the lecture at hand, Hemant Mehta considers himself a friendly atheist. He is so friendly that he started a website called www.friendlyathiest.com. Hemant was raised Jain, which is a religion similar to Hinduism. The goal is to live a good life and reach a state of enlightenment through asceticism (abstaining from worldliness). When Hemant was 14 his sister was trying to be a “devout Jain” and so she fasted for 8 days straight. Nobody discouraged her from doing this even though it could cause serious health issues. This event was the last straw for Hemant. Hemant had been asking intellectual questions about his faith for quite some time and nobody had any decent answers for him. After witnessing his sister go through this 8 day fast he finally turned his back on the existence of God. At age 22 Hemant does not consider himself bitter or mad at religious people, he just does not believe in the existence of God. He doesn’t need that crutch. I’m sure you’ve heard of similar experiences.
My dad did something great when I was young. He was teaching me how to ride a bike and he would hold on to the back of my seat and run with me so that I felt safe peddling without the training wheels. I can still remember the day I turned around to see if my dad was still holding on to the seat and he was 50 feet behind me with a big smile on his face watching me soar. Needless to say I didn’t know how to stop and so I started crying and crashed. But the point is that I realized I didn’t need my dad there holding my seat. I could ride my bike on my own. Hemant I think could relate to this experience. After Hemant rejected the existence of God he learned that he could make it on his own and actually enjoyed life much more than trusting in God. This sort of thing happens all the time. If you’re honest, I’m sure you could remember a time when you’ve felt that your faith was just a crutch to serve a need that could be served elsewhere. I believe Sigmund Freud said something to the effect of religion being created to help people deal with their pent up sexual frustration.
Earlier I mentioned EBAY and it’s because Hemant placed an add on EBAY titled “Send an Atheist to Church” (pg 7). In this add he proposed that he would attend any church one time for every $10. The winning bidder was one Jim Henderson, a former minister from Seattle and author of Evangelism Without Additives. Jim changed the deal up just a tad bit and asked Hemant to attend no more then 15 churches, fill out surveys and post the results on Jim’s website.(www.off-the-map.org) Hemant agreed and wrote this book “I sold My Soul On Ebay” as a bit of a wrap up critique of his adventure or disadventure. In this essay I will be reviewing and responding to Hemants adventure.
Hemant offers some excellent critiques. Throughout this book I was amazed at his truth telling and also felt a bit of embarrassment for being a prime example of some of his critiques. Hemant spends a great deal of writing in the first few chapters making a case for his non-condemning attitude and also sharing his story. Hemant makes you feel comfortable and eager to hear what he has to say. He makes the point over and over that he feels religion can serve a good purpose and he has no feelings of negativity toward Christianity. The one frustration I had in the beginning of this book was all the “name dropping”. I’m tired of seeing people drop names like C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, or Norman Geisler as evidence to their intellect or spirituality. In all honesty, it just shows how pathetic the Christian sub-culture is that anyone can drop names and we automatically ascribe some sort of intellectual credibility. It is like what I do when a cop pulls me over, I try to mention some sort of name to get me out of the ticket. It usually never works. Our Christian sub-culture has its own celebrity darlings and it’s sad to see how this plays out. Nonetheless Hemant does a good job of capitalizing on this medium for building credibility with his readers and it opens the door for more feedback. The man is well studied. I appreciate that about him, although I would have been convinced of his intellect without the name dropping.
The critiques I mention from here on out will follow similarly same order that they are presented in the book. The four areas I will cover are the preacher, community outreach, energy level/passion, dialogue, relevant sermons, lack of sensitivity to nonreligious people, too much time devoted to singing, not paying attention in Church, distracting behavior during worship, lack of opportunities to ask questions, religious extremism, rituals and traditions, and finally intrusive projection screens.
According to Hemant “the one element that stood out most noticeably during every church visit was the quality and effectiveness of the speakers” Pg 140. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with Hemant about the weight given to this area. I think that in the Christian community there is a lot of emphasis placed on the Pastor/Preacher. I did not realize how much of a phenomenon this was until I moved to Dallas. Here in Dallas many churches are recognized by who their Senior Pastor is. A typical invitation to church here in Dallas is “Come check out my church this Sunday “insert celebrity Pastors name” is speaking.” It pleases me that some people have the drive and giftedness to become top notch speakers and that they attract large crowds, the dangers are that the church movement ends up revolving around the speaker and not the mission of the church. What happens when that speaker/preacher dies? What happens when he moves? Often times in those situations, the church is like a chicken with its head cut off. I’ve witnessed this myself and the end result is damaging to community. Hemant however makes basic observations about what is effective and what isn’t in a preacher. His admonition is that preachers need to be more relevant. The relevancy needs to spread throughout the presentation. From the way a preacher stands behind the pulpit to the illustrations in his message. Hemant witnessed many preachers who stood still behind the pulpit and were incredibly disconnected from the people they were speaking to. The preachers were reciting facts that the congregation could have looked up on their own. Hemant says “The best ones made you want to listen-they had a way of making the subject come alive” Pg 140. My opinion is that the face of preaching is changing. The best expositors are not the ones who can explain the Greek infinitive, rather the ones who can remind you of what God has placed within you. The preacher needs to be authentic and relevant. People are looking for relational connections more then they are looking for biblical facts. A well rounded message should invoke a persons mind, emotions and senses. Jesus taught both through parables and through actions. In fact as one reads the gospels it is important to try and connect the action scenes in the narrative with the teachings presented. Hemant had the best of both worlds and positively encouraged speakers to look into public speaking courses that will give them the ability to be a well rounded speaker.
In Matthew 22:39 Jesus commands us to “love your neighbors.” Unfortunately this verse has been applied only to our Christian neighbors. Hemant noticed that some churches are doing wonderful community service but much of the community service was “focused on helping Christians or those who are likely to convert” Pg 140. His point was “the more work churches do for everyone, not just to help Christians but to come to the aid of all needy people, the more respect the church will get from outsiders” Pg 142-143. I agree with what Hemant is saying regarding this topic but my only concern is that he and many Christians see this as a directional problem. Perhaps someone might recommend starting a program that helps the needy in order to be a well rounded church but in my opinion that is only mowing over the surface. In order to get to the root the question must be asked of all churches “why isn’t our devotion to God translating into a better life for everyone, believers and non believers?” My belief is that Churches shouldn’t be directing their efforts towards helping the needy but that should be an outgrowth of a healthy church. I’m not sure that this is a church function problem as much as it is a skewed view of the Churches mission. I must admit that this proposal is very daunting and cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. The real critique here is that we Christians are only helping those who will help us. We are loving people with an agenda. The writer John says that “we love because God first loved us.” God loved us out of a self-sufficient gracious love, NOT an agenda to convert us. Jesus ministry helped all who were open to receiving the help. The church needs to continue this tradition and help anywhere and anyone who can benefit from the help. This topic can be expounded on much more but I will keep it short for the sake of length.
Energy Level and Passion
Hemant noticed that some churches have a buzz about them. The people are genuinely excited to be there and it can be sensed. The interesting thing about this observation is that it isn’t related to the aesthetics. Some churches he noted had beautiful buildings with the latest technologies while others were “empty boxes.” The three churches in particular that had a buzz about them were Lakewood Church, Willow Creek, and Mars Hill Bible church. The point Hemant was making is that these three churches are different in cosmetics but the buzz in the air was the same. I agree with Hemant on this issue and I believe churches should have a buzz about them. A fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy. Even in the worst of times, a sense of joy should be evident. Churches that are dead are churches that don’t have joy. People are basically punching in their time cards and going home for the week. One of Hemants solutions is to give people the opportunity to help others more often. This will help people to be enthusiastic about what they are doing at church.
For an atheist to go to church is a huge step but often times the atheist will have many questions. Hemant noticed that there was not a place for him to ask questions immediately following the service. This brings up an interesting question, should church be a place where non-believers can ask questions? As my favorite professor says “That’s a bad question.” It doesn’t matter if a believer or non-believer has questions the truth is anyone should be able to ask questions. As Christians we don’t simply proclaim our message to people who aren’t listening. No, rather, we engage people in a conversation. Conversations shouldn’t be one sided. A church needs to setup some sort of function for people to ask questions and think through what has been presented at church.
See my paragraph on “the preacher.”
Lack of Sensitivity to Non-Religious People
Hemant points out that if you want to reach non-religious people, simply giving them “The Case for Christ” won’t cut it. One of the things Hemant mentions early on is that religious people consider him lost and immoral. He said he doesn’t feel lost, in fact he feels incredibly found and healthy. Often times during the services he would hear people referring to atheists as lost, immoral, unethical, and nonspiritual. Hemant would like to see the church be more sensitive to non-believers by understanding where they are coming from. I am in agreement with Hemant on this topic but I have a different way of solving the problem. Our preachers need to preach messages that are relevant to everyone. The words we use shouldn’t be applicable to the whole culture, not just the Christian sub-culture. To quote Rob Bell, “the interesting thing about the Bible, isn’t that it happened, it’s that it’s happening.” If we preached messages that were real, we would be sensitive to all people because the things found in the Bible relate to all people, not much religious people.
Too Much Time Devoted to Singing
Hemant says that from his observations the amount of people who enjoyed singing versus the amount of time spent singing was not equal. The only thing I can say about this is AMEN! I do not feel comfortable singing. The most embarrassing thing you can do to me is ask me sing a song. I have no rhythm, beat, or artistic ability. I think Hemant is pointing out the fact that churches are not spreading worship into a healthy balance. Every thing we do is an act of worship and we need to remember to be balanced in how we worship God. There is no need to spend 30 minutes out of an hour long service singing songs.
Not Paying Attention at Church
On page 151 Hemant says “One would think the adults would be role models, listening to the pastor, maybe even taking notes. Instead, what I saw especially in some of the smaller churches were adults who were obviously bored.” Ouch, this is obviously a death blow to ego. Isn’t it interesting that people at church services are bored? What can we do to make our churches less boring? For some people going to church is like watching a movie that will satisfy someone else. I know I’ve watched plenty of movies that I wasn’t interested in for the sake of a girl. I usually fall asleep during those movies. With that being said, I think one of the things we should do is spend less time and energy on advertising the church and more effort on becoming a community of believers is experiencing the power and peace of God. Yes, I know that sounds like jargon, but my point is that people who are bored at church probably shouldn’t be there. I wonder how it is people who aren’t interested in church go to church? Perhaps churches are attracting the wrong kind of people? Perhaps we should tell people to sell all their possessions and come back?
Distracting Behavior During Worship
See above paragraph. The basic principle here is that people don’t show proper respect for the activity they are engaging in.
Lack of Opportunities to Ask Questions
See paragraph on “Lack of Sensitivity Toward Non-Religious People”
On page 150 Hemant notes that he heard some statements that were a little too extreme. For example at times he heard influential pastors relate feminism to lesbian or natural disasters associated with Gods judgment. These types of statements give Christianity a bad name and are inaccurate. This world is full of evil in all different shapes and sizes and I see no reason to pinpoint certain segments as being “judged by God.” This is not biblical, and it is flat out ridiculous. All of us are under the same judgment of sin and are suffering because of it. People like this shouldn’t call themselves Christian; they should give their Bibles away and take on jobs yelling at people. Yikes, that was harsh. Well if you are offended by what I just said, let it be an example of how others feel when they are being judged unfairly. Everybody hurts, everybody is judged, and everybody needs encouragement.
Rituals and Traditions
On page 154 Hemant makes an excellent observation, “But personally I have a problem with rituals in church for one simple reason: I don’t believe everyone present knows why they are performing a certain action.” Let me first say that churches should partake in rituals and traditions because they appeal to a persons emotions and experience but if one does not know why they are doing what they are doing then how is that engaging them? Churches would do well to sit down and establish why they do what they do at Church services. This might clear up the confusion and make the services meaningful for everyone and not just empty actions.
Intrusive Projection Screens
I’m all for big screens and excellent media when it will help advance Gods kingdom, but there is no reason to get big screens if they are not needed. Hemant is making this same point. When I was younger I was told that churches that had big screens were only trying to make money and were for show. I heard this from many sources and then I actually believed it. It wasn’t until I visited Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago that I realized this wasn’t true for all churches. Some churches actually utilize their equipment and have a serious need for big screens. I agree with Hemant that we need to be wise about our audio/video equipment. I would suggest bringing in quite a few professions to determine if expensive ritzy audio visual equipment is needed.
This book was an excellent read. I believe all pastors should pick up this book and read through it. This book helped me to see the prejudices I have toward atheists and it also was a good reminder of why I do the things that I do at church. I hope this essay has blessed and encouraged you. This essay does not do the book justice. My hope is that you are more aware of the things that happen at church and perhaps you can be encouraged and challenged.