on April 27, 2007
You may have read about Hemant Mehta in the Wall Street Journal as the "eBay Atheist" who offered to attend church for the highest bidder on his eBay auction. Well, Hemant has now written a book about his experiences visiting churches as an atheist. Think of Hemant as kind of a Mystery Shopper for churches. Most churches these days claim to want to be "seeker-friendly" and try to be welcoming to outsiders, so Hemant is there to tell us whether our attempts are actually working
I have to say that as soon as I started reading the book I could not put it down. It is engagingly written and deeply insightful about the pros and cons of Christian churches. Even as a Christian pastor myself, there were so many times I found myself agreeing with Hemant's assessments of contemporary churches. At other times I was amused at his bewilderment at some of the stranger things that we Christians tend to do in church (like the lady in the more charismatic church who kept shouting out random phrases like "Thank you Jesus" right over his shoulder the whole time, or the unenthusiastic liturgical responses from the congregation at the Presbyterian church.)
The book is actually written in three parts. The first four chapters are an introduction to Hemant, his eBay Atheist story, why he is an atheist even though he grew up as a Jain, and a couple of chapters about what atheists are and are not really like (we religious people tend to have a lot of false stereotypes about atheists). The middle four chapters are his reviews of the 14 different churches he attended, and the last two chapters are his summary of what works, what doesn't, and what it would take to actually convert him.
The thing that I've appreciated most about Hemant's approach is that he doesn't see himself as an antagonist to people of faith. While holding true to his own convictions, he nonetheless is open to exploring other options, and especially to helping Christians become better than we currently are. For instance, in his introduction he says:
"I am an atheist, but I don't fit the common stereotype held by so many in the religious community. I am not angry with God, and I don't want to rid the world of religion. In this book, as we talk about matters of belief and nonbelief, I hope you will think of me not simply as an atheist, but rather as a person with questions about faith, an openness to evidence that might contradict my current beliefs, and a curiosity about Christianity and its message. Please don't assume I am the enemy of religious belief. I'm not trying to tear down anyone's religion, and I don't pretend to have all the answers... I'm a friendly atheist. I'm serious when I say that in this book I'm going to do my best to help improve the way churches present the Christian message."
I think that's an admirable goal and I appreciate Hemant's open and friendly spirit. After all, I share his goal of wanting to help Christians become better at actually displaying Christ's message of love. I think any pastor or church-going Christian that is concerned about how we really come across to outsiders ought to read this book. You'll come to respect and appreciate Hemant's advice just as I have. Definitely buy this book!
on April 17, 2007
Let me first begin by saying that I have been a pastor for nearly 21 years.
I believe Hemant Mehta's book is a must read for every pastor and every Christian that cares for unchurched people. It is an easy read that most will knock out in just a few sittings. His writing style made it seem like I was sitting across the table from him at lunch. He is an honest and brilliant young man who raises some legitimate and thoughtful questions about the Americanized Church. I thoroughly enjoyed his reviews of the churches he attended. Since I was raised in the church it's difficult for me to view our liturgy and traditions through fresh eyes. Hemant helped me do just that. His blatant, and at times humorous, critiques lend valuable insight that most church goers will appreciate.
Most churches espouse in their mission statements that they desire to reach the unchurched, but few, including my own church, take consistent and proactive measures to do so. We fall into the trap of thinking that if we have a hot band and a funny speaker, people will line up for life change. Those days are over.
I hope that "I Sold My Soul on eBay" will open dialogue between Christians and Atheist for years to come. I think we all could learn from one another's perspectives. I know Hemant has already taught me some priceless lessons.
This book is a good reminder that people, even those who disagree with our beliefs, are not the enemy.
on August 23, 2007
A book about Christianity by an atheist? Another hatched job, right? Actually no. Hement Mehta is not an angry atheist. Yes, he's a nonbeliever, but he's seeking answers. He auctioned off the opportunity for the winning bidder to send him to church,and got more than he planned. He ended up attending a lot of worship services covering a wide range of denominations, and both large and small churches. He plays fair, giving a serious critique of what he saw, what worked for him, and what didn't. Since we approach the subject from different perspectives we don't always agree. I'm coming at it from a basis of faith, while he admits he doesn't have faith in much except himself and what he can prove from logic. We did agree on several things though, and I came away with a stronger conviction of what I have believed for some time, that we Christians need to stop and evaluate what we are doing to show Jesus to nonbelievers. We've come a long way from the simple teachings of the Savior we claim to follow, sometimes going in the wrong direction. Menta asks a lot of questions, and I didn't always have the answer. He made me think about what I believe and why. Sometimes it's good to see what the other side thinks, and we need to remember that people who don't believe the way we do are not always our enemies. I recommend I Sold My Soul On eBay for both believers and nonbelievers.
on April 18, 2007
The unique aspect of Hemant going to various churches is that he has little knowledge of Christianity. You can see that by the questions he asks while attending church services. Anyone that is familiar with Christianity will enjoy answering the questions Hemant asks throughout the book. One theme throughout the book is Hemant wishing for sermons to be relative to everyday living and not just scripture reading with no elaboration. I also think Hemant has a good idea that dialogue needs to be more frequent concerning atheists and christians. On page 142 he really hits a personal aspect to why I'm am an atheist. He even gives a chapter to what it would take for him to believe in god. I think it's a well rounded book and very objective. I think the target audience for this book is Christians who want to see what it's like for someone to enter a church and unaware of what is going on.
on June 6, 2007
Hemant Mehta, the "eBay atheist" who agreed to go to the churches of choice of the winning bidder, pens this intriguing, often humorous and sometimes disturbing look at today's Christian churches in I SOLD MY SOUL ON eBAY.
Mehta begins by unpacking his own upbringing in the Jain religion, detailing what led him to give up his faith at age 14. As an adult, however, he freely explored the deepest questions of religion. An intellectual and leader in the Secular Student Alliance, he was puzzled at the hostility against his group by Christian organizations. "What were they so worried about, that someone would hear a new idea?" After deciding he wanted to learn more about Christianity, Mehta posted a "send an atheist to his local church" opportunity on eBay --- with surprising results.
For $504, Jim Henderson, author of EVANGELISM WITHOUT ADDITIVES, won the right to send Mehta to church. Mehta attended 15 churches in four states, encompassing a wide range of church communities: from small-town parishes to megachurches. He then filled out a survey for each one and blogged about his visits on his website.
Mehta, who calls himself a "friendly atheist," believes he is part of the demographic that most churches want to reach. "But based on what I have experienced, the things many churches are doing on Saturday night or Sunday morning are not the things that will pull in those who share my mind-set." While attending the churches, Mehta says, "I kept running across a consistent and troubling truth about American Christianity." People of faith, he says, make enemies of those who don't believe in the same God they do by displaying a negative attitude toward anyone outside the religious community.
Another observation: "Any religion that wants to keep people believing should do one simple thing: instead of limiting religious teaching to matters of what to do and how to do it, tell people why they are saying certain words, performing certain rituals, and adhering to certain beliefs." He often found himself confused by traditions or liturgy that he had no background for. Christian readers will wince at some of his experiences (after a scathing interview with Kirk Cameron on the radio, he asks, "...are comments meant to embarrass a guest and a lack of kindness really accurate representations of Christian compassion?")
After detailing several of his visits in four middle chapters, Mehta offers some practical advice to those who want to reach non-Christians. Talk to us (without preaching to us), he writes. Have a conversation with us about a broad range of topics (religion doesn't dominate our thinking). Shorten the singing time.
Pastors and their messages were of primary importance, he says. Preach relevant sermons. Explain why a Bible story has meaning today. Don't talk as if non-Christians are the enemy. Remember to appeal to an atheist's intellect, not his emotions. Offer opportunities to ask questions. Invite someone who is an atheist or agnostic to have a friendly public dialogue.
The congregation is not off the hook. He urges attendees to pay attention in church. "If you don't like church, then don't go to church." Be on time if you respect your church. Get involved in social justice issues in your community --- feeding the hungry, educating the illiterate, assisting the poor. Actions, he says, speak louder than words.
Christian readers looking for the seemingly inevitable conversion scene at the end of the story will be disappointed. Mehta says he went to church looking for answers to the big questions in life, and came away unconvinced that Christianity had them. If any church could have converted him, he believes it was Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. "It was a place where I could think about the message after I left."
In the foreword to the book, author and pastor Rob Bell (SEX GOD, VELVET ELVIS) says that "Lots of people in lots of churches will find this book very helpful in their efforts to put a face on God for the world we live in...prophets can come from the most unexpected places, can't they?" Excellent food for thought. A study guide for small group use at the end of the book will help Christians explore the ideas presented here more thoroughly.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby
on August 29, 2007
I found the book I Sold My Soul on eBay a must read for anyone who is looking to impact the nonreligious community.
It's a story of a young man, Hemant Mehta, who decides to auction off his willingness to attend church, synagogue, or temple. The winning bid of $504 by Jim Henderson, propels Hemant into the public's eye. The unique story is picked up by various national media outlets. Jim and Hemant come to an agreement, where in the next year Hemant will attend 15 different churches, observe and fill out a survey that is posted on Jim Henderson's website.
Hemant Mehta also relates his journey of how he left the faith of his childhood, Jainism, and has embraced atheism. As he has embraced atheism he has discovered that there are very few atheists groups that have formed in colleges around the nation. In an effort to right this wrong, he relates how with one other student in his second year at University of Illinois-Chicago, he forms the group, Students WithOut Religious Dogma or SWORD.
About half of the book details his insights gleaned from attending these churches; they range from small churches of less than 100 in rural Dekalb, Illinois to mega-churches of thousands. He not only varies the size of the church, but also seeks out ethnically diverse churches. Most of the churches understandably were in his native state of Illinois, but he did make a couple forays, one to Houston and another to Colorado Springs. On his trip to Houston one church he attends is Lakewood Church the mega-church of Joel Olsteen. In Colorado Springs he attends Ted Hagard's New Life Church while Ted is still senior pastor and has an interesting exchange with Pastor Ted.
At times it was almost like reading a cultural anthropology book, and he's vulnerable enough to explain what it would take for him to believe the claims of Christ written in the Bible. He is always respectful in writing about his experience. The publisher also includes a helpful a small group discussion guide at the end of the book.
Sometimes we need fresh eyes to view our experiences in church.
Armchair Interview says: Hemant Mehta does an excellent job in that.
on April 22, 2007
Unlike some other atheist authors, Hemant does not write in a way which is insulting to Christians - he is respectful, friendly and fair. For that reason I'm pleased to recommend this insightful, informative book to Christians as a window into how one atheist views church and life in general.
Christians, if you read this book it will help you understand how to have better conversations with atheists. Instead of relying on what other Christians tell you about atheists, why not 'go to the source'? No-one knows better what atheists think than an atheist. You may also be surprised how much you agree with Hemant's observations about church. Hemant asks great questions throughout the book about why churches and Christians do things the way they do. I hope you will think seriously about them.
Atheists, I hope you will follow Hemant's example in engaging with Christians in a respectful friendly way. Given all the misconceptions non-atheists tend to have about atheists, can you really afford not to? Friendliness opens doors; Hemant is proof of that. After all, how many other atheists do you know who have had a book published by a Christian publisher?
on February 25, 2008
I bought this book because it was recommended to me by Amazon while perusing other atheist literature. I'm glad I read it but make no mistake, this book is NOT for atheists. If you enjoyed any of Sam Harris' books, you will probably not enjoy this book.
America is polarized on all fronts these days and I'm glad that Hemant Mehta has helped correct this. However, I would have liked a more in-depth examination of the church experience It would have been nice if Mehta had asked "Let me get this straight, you guys actually believe that...?" This seems to be the purpose of the study guide in the appendix (which is great, but not apparently written by Mehta). Unfortunately, to use the guide with other people, I'd have to be a member of a church, which brings me back to the conclusion that this book really wasn't written for me.
However, if you are a Christian who feels the need to save the souls of those who don't even believe they have souls, I would encourage you to buy a copy for you and everyone who shares your mission. There is nothing wrong with improving your customers' experience.
on February 11, 2008
I have had the pleasure of meeting Hemant a few times now and on each occasion I was impressed with his amazing ability to express what most atheists feel in a way that anyone could understand. Hemant is incredibly articulate and he can express that articulation and ability to speak to the masses in his book. Hemant decided to hear the Christian message in churches and put it up for bid on eBay. The winning pastor asked him to visit multiple churches and write a critique about what he liked, did not like, and what can the churches do to attract non-Christians. Hemant offers an incredibly insightful critique of each church he visited, from a small rural church all the way to a 40,000 member mega-church. Hemant's main point is that if Christians want to market toward non-Christians they need to change their message and image and appeal to non-Christians. Treating non-Christians as "the enemy" is not going to draw non-Christians to church. Hemant's critique is honest, including listing things that he did like about the different churches. I Sold My Soul on eBay is a must read for pastors, preachers, priests, and ministers everywhere, especially ones motivated to appeal to non-Christians. The book is equally a must read for atheists to better understand the church environment and grasp the concept that most atheists already understand: Christians churches seem to advertise and market themselves to existing Christians, often as nothing more than attempt to draw worshipers away from other churches to theirs.
Now here's something you don't see every day. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen it: a book by a professed atheist published by a Christian publisher. WaterBrook Press stepped out into some interesting territory by publishing Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist's Eyes. Mehta, the self-described "friendly atheist," wants Christians to be better Christians, and wants churches to be better at representing Jesus and his teachings. For I Sold My Soul, Mehta visits churches around the country and reports back here.
Mehta's suggestions and reflections frequently reflect his ignorance about the church and biblical teaching, but he does offer some ideas worth considering. To an atheist, the most important expression of church, as a social organization, is an impact in the community. I don't agree, but I do agree that churches should have an impact on the community as an outpouring of the Spirit's work in them. He thinks we sing too much, but we know that worship through song is integral to biblical worship. On the other hand, he observed many who arrived late for church, missing the singing, or didn't participate in the singing, as if singing were just a warm-up for the "main event," the sermon. That sort of rudeness irks him (and me, too, sometimes!). He also says churches show "a lack of sensitivity to nonreligious people." He's right, that we should always be seeking to build healthy relationships with people who are not Christians, and we should have civil dialogue with those with whom we disagree, but I think the exclusive claims of Christianity will be offensive to any who are not Christians.
There are some good nuggets of truth in Mehta's book, which can help us to be more effective in reaching unbelievers, but Mehta's writing calls out for a response. At many points, he expresses his perplexity at some point to which any Christian could bring clarity. I hope someone filled him in on what he was missing. From an entertaining premise (hiring oneself out for worship attendance) to a worthy goal (helping churches become better churches), Mehta can help you become more aware of how you relate to that stranger in the next pew.