Yesterday, I was at a church (Willow Chicago) to talk with the pastor on stage about what Christians can learn from outsiders about how Jesus-followers and churches appear to the rest of us.
The talk was brief but it went well, I thought. And the people who stopped me afterwards were sweet and genuine with their questions — I didn’t get the feeling they were trying to convert me. If audio becomes available, I’ll post it.
I’ve done this sort of event a number of times ever since the book came out and it’s always been enjoyable — and from what I hear, the churchgoers like it, too. Not because it’s critical of what they do, but because it’s refreshing to hear an honest dialogue with someone who holds an opposing viewpoint.
Churches aren’t exactly known for allowing dissent among the ranks, so it takes some courage on the part of the pastors who invite me.
Pastor: I have an idea for next week’s sermon!
Church board: What is it?!
Pastor: I’ll have a conversation with an atheist!
Church board: … have you been drinking?
I’m sure that can’t be easy. But it has happened and it has worked.
Every time this has happened, though, it’s always been a conversation with the pastor on stage. Or, in some instances, they would take questions from the audience, filter through them, and then pose them to me. In all cases, I think the reception has been positive. None of these pastors were fired the next day. If anything, the congregation thanked them for doing something “risky.”
What I have NOT seen are churches brave enough to allow someone with a dissenting viewpoint to take the stage by themselves. (And why would they, right? It’s their church and their beliefs.) But if they’re strong in their faith, I’m sure they could allow someone to talk about the importance of questioning beliefs, or the problems a person has with Christianity (or Christians, specifically), or the truth about what non-Christians are really like… without fearing that the congregation is going to run away screaming. Think of it as an honest critique that would be a starting point for future conversations on how the church could improve.
When I had my atheist group in college, we invited speakers who disagreed with us quite a bit. For example, we once invited a lecturer who said he had good reason to believe that out-of-body experiences (like in a hospital emergency room while you were being operated on) were real. We’d hear him out and then pose our questions to him.
It would’ve been equally interesting to hear a good speaker talk specifically to our group about why pornography was evil, or why abortion should be outlawed, or why gay marriage should be banned. I’m sure the post-talk conversation would’ve been exciting for everyone.
With the right speaker, how interesting would that be? I think it’d be fantastic. And I’m confident enough in my beliefs on those issues that I could rebut whatever the speakers were throwing at me without feeling threatened by their presence
So, I’ll just throw this question out there:
Are there any churches out there that would let me speak to their congregation for at least 30 minutes?
I promise not to wreck your church, only to talk about the concerns I have as an atheist living in a predominantly-Christian country. I’ll ask some tough questions, share some personal stories, and even give credit to the church where it’s deserved. I won’t say/do anything that would get you in trouble with the law or try to dismantle the church in that time. That’s not my goal. You also don’t get to screen my talk beforehand — you have to trust that what I have to say is worth listening to. Other details, we could work out together.
I think it would get media attention, and I think it would draw in lots of people who wouldn’t normally step foot inside a church. You would be showing the world that you’re not afraid of criticism and opposing viewpoints — in fact, you welcome the challenge because it’d make you take a good hard look at your faith. And you’re confident you’d end up in a better position as a result.
I don’t know if any church would be willing to do this.
I also know this wouldn’t work with just any random atheist. But it might work with me. I think I have some pastors who could vouch for me as well as people who work for a Christian book publisher. I have references at your request.
Plus, I’ve seen enough sermons to know I could deliver a good one on my own terms. (The main speaker this weekend was author Donald Miller. Despite the Jesus-speak, I thought his talk was excellent.)