Apostacon is happening this weekend in Dallas, Texas, and in addition to Penn & Teller and other atheist speakers, the organizers thought it would be interested to have a public conversation on stage between Neil Carter (my Patheos colleague from Mississippi who used to be a Southern Baptist before shedding his faith) and a local religious leader.
Remember: This is Dallas. You can’t walk across the street without bumping into a religious leader. And many of them are known far beyond their congregations.
Late last night, they sent an email to First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, a man so conservative, American Atheists once quoted him in a billboard:
“There’s no doubt more and more people are leaving religion behind,” [Apostacon President Sarah] Morehead explains; “This is an excellent opportunity to discuss the reasons behind the exodus and the implications it has on society. Out of sensitivity to Jeffress’ possible discomfort with being surrounded by hundreds of people celebrating secularism, myself and Mr. Carter have offered to attend his church service Sunday morning as a show of ‘good faith’.”
So it’s not a debate. It’s just a discussion about how and why people are leaving religion. You would think this is the sort of conversation pastors live for. A chance to speak to an audience of atheists while simultaneously getting direct insight into a problem that affects churches? Why would anyone say no to that?
Earlier this morning, the church’s Minister of Media (his actual Hogwartsian title) responded to Apostacon organizer Shanon Nebo:
Hello, Shanon! Thank you for contacting us.
Let me get this in front of the appropriate people, and we will be happy to get back with you as soon as possible.
That’s a nice response. Not a yes, but not exactly a no. Let’s call it a “Christian Rejection.” It’s delivered with sweetness, but contains the subtext, “No chance in Hell we’re doing this.”
A little while later, the church sent a follow-up email saying Jeffress wouldn’t be available during that time slot. His schedule was just too full.
Understandable. But just in case…
Shanon wrote back and said that any of the church’s several pastors would be welcome to take Jeffress’ place. So how about it?
What the church didn’t understand is that our side, too, can be polite and aggressive at the same time.
Shanon called the church back and left a message with their Special Events coordinator, eventually getting her on the phone. She asked if anyone from the church would be available to speak.
No, the church staffer said. Everyone was busy on Saturday during that time slot.
So Shanon said thank you and hung up… then called back a little later with a revised offer: The atheists would accommodate anyone from the church leadership at any time on Saturday. Surely someone had to be available!
Again, no. This time, the woman on the phone just hung up on Shanon.
So Shanon called back, saying with a smile, I think we got disconnected and tried again.
The woman was finally very blunt: I’m trying to help you by saying we’re not interested in the event. Then she hung up again.
I’ll say this: When I first heard about this back and forth, I thought the Apostacon people were being a little too annoying. It’s just a couple days’ notice and they’re bringing Jeffress into this conversation without giving him any advance notice. But if the church refuses to give a straight, honest answer right up front, I’m not sure what they expect from us.
This isn’t about shaming anyone there, either. What I have a hard time understanding is why no one at the church has the desire to reach out beyond their bubble (if their schedules would accommodate it). Isn’t that one of the main goals of Christianity? This is a chance to speak to an audience full of atheists. We’re not gonna bite. We’re not even going to argue. Like I said, this was all for a public discussion, anyway.
In any case, Shanon is now reaching out to Pastor T.D. Jakes and his staff. Maybe someone there will make the most of the opportunity.