Sorry about the long post, but this one is interesting…
A few weeks ago, Hemant Mehta posted an unusual item for sale on eBay: a chance to save his soul.
The DePaul University graduate student promised the winner that for each $10 of the final bid, he would attend an hour of church services. The 23-year-old Mr. Mehta is an atheist, but he says he suspected he had been missing out on something.
“Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me ‘the way’ could do what no one else has done before,” Mr. Mehta wrote in his eBay sales pitch. “This is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me.”
Evangelists bid, eager to save a sinner. Atheists bid, hoping to keep Mr. Mehta in their fold. When the auction stopped on Feb. 3 after 41 bids, the buyer was Jim Henderson, a former evangelical minister from Seattle, whose $504 bid prevailed.
Mr. Henderson wasn’t looking for a convert. He wanted Mr. Mehta to embark with him on an eccentric experiment in spiritual bridge-building…
Days after the auction, Mr. Henderson flew to Chicago to see Mr. Mehta, who is studying to be a math teacher. The two met in a bar, where they sealed a deal a little different from the one the student had proffered. Instead of the 50 hours of church attendance that he was entitled to for his $504, Mr. Henderson asked that Mr. Mehta attend 10 to 15 services of Mr. Henderson’s choosing and then write about it.
“I’m not trying to convert you,” Mr. Henderson said at the bar. “You’re going there almost like a critic… If you happen to get converted, that’s off the clock…”
Mr. Mehta has also been reading and critiquing church bulletins. In one, Park Community asked the congregation to pray, in advance of a coming meeting on the construction of a church building “that God would.. .open the doors to the right parking solution, allowing us to build a worship space for 1,200 people, rather than the 850 currently permitted.”
“Really?” Mr. Mehta observed on the Web site. “That’s what you’re praying for? Do they think a god will change parking restrictions? Will a god change the price of nearby property? Will a god add another level to a parking structure?”
Mr. May, the pastor, admitted such talk sounds weird to an outsider. “It’s good to be reminded it’s unusual,” he said
Mr. Henderson says he is thrilled that Mr. Mehta is prompting such reactions. “We’re getting to a place where we’re talking and not converting,” he says.
With about half his obligation to Mr. Henderson fulfilled, Mr. Mehta says he’s no closer to believing in God, although he does admire churches for the communities they create. Church, he has decided, is “not such a bad place to be.”
Here is what Mr. Mehta had to say about his visit to Willow Creek:
So, the first impression I had as I drove into WCCC (Bill Hybel’s megachurch in South Barrington, IL) was the parking lot. And how it was full. On a Wednesday night. I went inside the building. I’ve never heard of a church with escalators… when I entered the auditorium, I realized I hadn’t seen that many white people in one place in a *long* time.
I watched Pastor Randy Frazee give a sermon on a section of Luke, when Christ ressurected the “widow’s son.” While I didn’t think any of that was actually true (Either it didn’t happen, or the son was never really dead), I was still captivated by the way Frazee spoke. He spoke (digressed?) about his mother and how she had been sick, and how she later died, even though he had prayed as much as he could to keep her alive. It was a powerful speech. And I felt sorry that he had to go through all that. In the end, he managed to relate it back to the part of the scripture. Again, I don’t believe the prayers did anything, but I understand how a son would do anything he could to help keep his mother alive.
I was surprised he had me listening so attentively. I know the sermon could very easily have been boring. After he finished, a small 4-person band sang many songs. The audience sang along. I noticed many people who had their eyes closed, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the whole “Hand up in the air as I sing for Jesus” gesture. Which was followed by the “I’m going to out-Jesufy you and put two hands up in the air as I sing for Jesus” gesture. I don’t get that. Regardless, the music was good.
The megachurch had everything seemingly taken care of. From my vantage point, there were 4 huge television screens to watch the service. (There were many more everywhere else in the building.) When Frazee recited scripture, it was up on the screen. The broadcasting-aspect of the service was extremely professional. There was a soundproof area in the back where people with crying babies could listen to the service. There was a sign-language section. A separate handicapped section. Outside the auditorium, there was a cafe, another cafeteria, a bookstore, a prayer room… It was impressive. It’s not hard to see how people could spend their whole lives *in* this church. And I can understand why it’s so popular. But just because something is popular doesn’t make it right (see below).
I was curious how much money they took in. According to the pamphlet I was given, they made nearly $500,000 in the past week. And over $2,000,000 since the year began.
They also had job postings for the church. (Atheists don’t have this system down. It’s difficult to have a career being an Atheist. It wouldn’t be hard here, though, if I wanted to work full time as a Christian.) What bothered me was they asked company owners and hiring managers to post job openings on their “Job Connection” board. They’re asking bosses to hire people simply based on the fact that they’re Christian… which, if these bosses work outside the church, seems illegal to me.
I’ll admit that if I were to convert, it would have to be at a place like this. They drew me in, and I’m not even a believer. They discarded the numerous rituals I expect to see at other churches. The sermon was interesting, and the activities that they hold would certainly be entertaining (e.g. A lecture called “Who’s Your Daddy? Adam or Ape?”) However, the whole idea that a church of this size would be promoting Intelligent Design and non-scientific theories about the Earth’s origins scares me. Because if they’re doing it, the other megachurches are doing it. And if they’re all doing it, they’re rallying an army of millions of people who don’t know how science works against the precious minority who do. Frightening.
One funny point: As soon as the sermon ended and the singing began, I could see a good number of people begin to leave. It’s like they were at a sports game and the final score was already decided. They wanted to leave early to avoid the traffic. I didn’t know that was permitted at church.
Read the background story HERE.