Frustrated at his inability to draw more people to his church, Mr. Henderson set out to learn how “the unchurched” respond to various kinds of worship services â€“ what it is they find appealing and what leaves them cold. He began to pay nonbelievers $25 to go to a church and tell him what they thought.“I also became intrigued by why evangelism bothered everybody, including me,” he says in an interview. “I decided to devote my life to reimagining evangelism … how to do it and be ‘normal.’ “
Soon, he got wind of an auction on eBay in which a student at the University of Illinois in Chicago proposed “selling my soul” to the highest bidder. Young atheist Hemant Mehta had been raised in Jainism, but left the faith in his teens. Mr. Mehta was curious about Christianity and whether it could provide any evidence for the existence of God. Wondering if he might be missing something, he offered to attend church with the winning bidder.
With the top bid of $504, Henderson asked Mehta to visit 15 churches, fill out a survey on each one, and share his perspectives on Henderson’s website (off-the-map.org).
The experience has changed the lives of both men. Mehta, now an honors graduate in mathematics and biology, has not converted, but the two have become friends. Mehta has started his own blog (friendlyatheist.com) and travels to speak to churches and humanist organizations. He has written a book â€“ “I Sold My Soul on eBay” â€“ that explains why he is an atheist and gives churches advice on what it would take to reach nonbelievers.
Henderson has gone on to pair with another atheist, Matt Casper, for further church visits across the US, and they’ve written “Jim and Casper Go to Church.” Both books offer insightful, revealing, sometimes humorous critiques of what a variety of Christian services, in churches of different sizes and denominations, look like to the uninitiated.
Henderson also conducts interviews with men and women who are nonÂbelievers as an event at church and pastor conferences. Many Evangelicals “are obsessed with conversion,” he says, and always speak of non-Christians as “lost.” The interviews show Christians immersed in their own culture and how that sounds to the people they approach.
At the Salem conference, Mr. Bleiweiss recalled a co-worker who “worked Jesus into every conversation we had.”
Henderson’s experiences have led him, with his “Off The Map” venture, into “something larger than evangelism,” what he calls “otherliness.” Otherliness â€“ “the spirituality of serving others” â€“ involves “drawing people into the idea of paying real attention to each other, of listening.” He wants to teach individuals and groups of all kinds how to do a much better job of listening to those they interact with.
For his part, Mehta is still open to “any compelling evidence of the existence of God.” He describes positive elements in some churches, such as top-notch speakers and impressive community outreach. “The more work churches do for everyone, the more respect they’ll get from outsiders,” he writes.
Yet churchgoers are missing the mark, he says, when they think nonÂreligious people lack a basis for ethical values, look down on non-Christians, or fail to speak out against religious leaders who make outrageous public statements.