As regular readers know, several years ago, I wrote a book called I Sold My Soul on eBay about the time a former Christian pastor Jim Henderson paid money on eBay to send me to a variety of churches.
While I ended up writing my own book about the experience, Jim partnered up with another atheist, Matt Casper, and the two jointly wrote a book called Jim and Casper Go to Church, written mostly from Jim’s perspective, doing essentially the same thing: telling Christians what their churches looked like through the eyes of an atheist.
It’s been a while, but Jim and Casper have teamed up once again to write a book about what the “conversion conversation” looks like from the atheist perspective and how Christians get it wrong. It’s called Saving Casper:
Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book — one from Casper’s perspective — about what advice he would give Christians who mean well but fail at converting him. (Keep in mind the book is published by a Christian publisher and intended for a Christian audience):
If you’re a Christian reading this book, I have a request: Please try to understand a few things from my point of view (a view that may be shared by people close to you that you would like to bring closer to Jesus). I do not believe I am unsaved. I do not believe I am lost. I do not believe I am a sinner. Those may be your beliefs (they’re most certainly your words), but currently they’re not mine.
So what are you going to do now?
Not about me, but about the people in your life you believe are unsaved / lost / sinners / damned-for-all-time when they say something similar to you: “Hey, you may think I’m lost, but I sure don’t.”
Are you really going to throw in the towel and say — literally or figuratively — “Well, to hell with you!”? What do you think will happen next if you do that? Will the people you think are lost be any more found?
Likely, the only thing that will happen is that you will increase the distance between yourself and the people you care about. And if you’re truly concerned about bringing your lost friends and family closer to God, adding distance to those relationships will do nothing to help you in your mission.
So what can you do to keep those people close to you? Try caring instead of scaring, for starters. We’ve talked a lot about hell in this book, and that’s because so many Christians seem to think that hell is where conversations about salvation should begin. I get that. Sort of. After all, you believe that salvation is what keeps one from ending up in hell, and I understand how endlessly important that is to you.
But for most of us who don’t share your beliefs… we don’t think too much about eternal salvation — or about your version of eternity. (My vision of eternity is pretty boring, as I said: I think the same thing that happened to me before I was born will happen to me after I die, which is to say, not much.) So do you really think that’s where a conversation with your favorite atheist should start? Put simply, why start with The End?
Putting me in your “unsaved” category makes me feel like it’s all over. You’re telling me I’m doomed — not just lost, but a lost cause; it always feels like a put-down. I know that’s not the intent, but at best it feels as if you’re telling me, “The End is near! Repent!” As far as I can see, in this day and age, that’s probably not the best place to start.
So where do we start?
Maybe start by trying to see me how I see myself. I don’t see myself as unsaved or wrong or doomed. I just don’t currently believe what you believe, that’s all. But even though I may not share your beliefs, I respect them. I’ve always respected Christians’ beliefs, but my respect is definitely stronger now because over the past few years, I have worked so hard to understand your beliefs. Maybe that makes me different from your “garden variety atheist,” but not by much (based on the atheists I know, anyway).
So I guess turnabout is fair play: Can you respect what I believe or don’t believe? That would be a much better starting point than “I’m right; you’re wrong.” Even if you believe with all your heart that I’m wrong, try not treating me that way. Respecting our differences will always be a much better starting point for us. I know they are big differences, but starting from “we’re different” beats “you’re doomed” every time.
I understand it’s hard to accept these (apparently) fundamental differences, so try this: Imagine that instead of talking about God, we’re talking about something else — a specific type of food we enjoy — let’s say, pizza. One day, you meet someone who has never tasted pizza. And it’s not because they’re not aware of pizza — it’s all around them: there’s Methodist pizza, Jewish pizza, Buddhist pizza, Lutheran pizza, Baptist pizza, non-Dominos-ational pizza.
What do you do?
Do you feel superior to this non-pizza-eating person? Probably not. You’re probably just curious as to why they’ve never had pizza, so you ask questions. Then you might ask if they’d like to try a slice sometime. If they say no, you may say to yourself, “Okay, maybe some other time.” But you don’t damn them to hell, do you?
… I believe the focus on whether or not I’m saved is the wrong focus; that evangelism based on outcomes (total number of souls saved) rather than processes (practicing grace to build working relationships with most everyone you meet) is always bound to fail. If you don’t get the outcome you want, well, “See you later. You’re not my target anyway.” Throw in the towel.
The Christians I feel closest to are the ones who seem least interested in whether or not I myself am a Christian. These are people who talk very little about being saved, but who also openly discuss their faith and their doubts and would consult the Bible to inspire themselves, not to disprove me.
This feels, in my mind, closer to what it may mean to be a Christian; but guess what? I only found out about this as these particular people made a choice to befriend me rather than convert me. They kept me close, and I learned how they live their faith simply by being in their lives.
And that’s what I think works. Don’t show the unsaved/lost/damned people where they have gone wrong and what they should be doing and what Bible verse they may have missed. Instead, develop your friendship and simply show them how you live your faith. And though I don’t think anyone on earth can objectively say, “Here’s how it’s done,” I also know that each person can subjectively say, “Here’s what living the faith means to me, and here’s how I do it.” And that’s a perfectly good answer. Especially when shared among friends.
The clearest path to saving someone doesn’t always reveal itself immediately. You need to make sure you’re there when it does (and accept that the when could even be an if). If you throw down the gauntlet — “Have you thought about where you’ll spend eternity?” — you will likely force your “atheist daughter” or “unchurched brother” to turn away from you, when what I think you want is for them to turn toward you. And that means keeping them close. And if they’re close to you, they’re close to what you believe in, too, because the foundation you have built, the relationship you have, allows them to witness your faith in action.
In that way, even though I may not currently Believe (with a capital B), I’m probably closer to knowing God than I’ve ever been before. And that’s because people who are close to God have also chosen to be close to me.
(Taken from Saving Casper by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper. Copyright © 2013. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.)