Saturday, June 30, 2007

casper the friendly atheist

I just read a fun and provocative little book that has stimulated some good thinking and some verbal sparring among some friends of mine. The book was written by Jim Henderson, a follower of Jesus, and Matt Casper, an atheist. It’s called Jim and Casper Go To Church. (Yep, that’s the actual title…makes you want to read it, doesn’t it?) It’s the whimsical and sometimes disconcerting story of their visits to a dozen different churches sprinkled across the states, particularly focusing on the observations and insights Jim was able to elicit from Matt Casper, the friendly atheist.

It didn’t take Matt long to wonder if there was some kind of script that churches are supposed to follow, because even though they experienced some stylistic differences in churches, almost all of them seemed to do essentially the same things. While they were taking in all the Sunday morning happenings and having a groundhog day experience, the question kept resurfacing, Did Jesus tell you guys to do all this?

That’s a great question. Over time, we add layers and layers to our programs and services. New ideas get added on to our traditional operating systems and our churches start to feel like the religious equivalent of Microsoft code. We do lots of stuff and add lots of bells and whistles to our events because we think people will like it.

And then a guy like Matt comes along who simply asks, Is this what Jesus told you guys to do? And then, with a biblical literacy that defies his own beliefs, he wonders why we gather so often in big comfortable spaces and put lots of money and energy into self-gratifying services instead of just keeping things simple, rolling up our sleeves and living out Jesus' love where it’s needed most, which is probably not in these buildings.

Good stuff. If you’re interested in hearing about their little journey, check out their book, Jim and Casper Go To Church. But here’s the question some friends of mine have been sparring over, and I’d like to invite you into the skirmish:

Should we even care what an atheist thinks of our church?

After all, atheists are not our audience, right? Church is for believers, right? I mean, it's great that non-believers occasionally drop in to visit, but the church doesn't exist for them. Hmm. Is that true? Well, then who are we doing this for? Who are we really putting on all these services for anyway?

I’d love to hear your take on that question(s).

I’ll give you my take in the form of a metaphor. Let’s say you were going to invite some friends over to have dinner with your family. Would you care what they thought? Would you consider what might make it a more enjoyable evening for them? Of course you would. It would be strangely awkward to invite people to your place if you didn’t even care about what they thought. Now, would you cook something your family didn’t enjoy just to satisfy your guests? Would you ask your family to become something other than who they really are so the guests are satisfied? I hope not. You’d probably prepare something you think your whole family and your guests would enjoy. And you’d hope your family was comfortably genuine, engaged, and engaging, (okay, and maybe a bit more polite than usual).

So, is that dinner for your family, or for your guests? Both, isn’t it? It was true to your family. It nourished their appetites, and it invited their real, genuine presence. And it was thoughtful. It also considered the needs of those who were invited to join you.

Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t have lots of "just family" meals. You need to do that, and if you get some drop-in guests, well, they may have to flex a bit to fit in.

But any time we open our doors to guests, when we invite our neighbors to join us in our community gatherings, we are by definition entering into an act of hospitality. And the exercise of hospitality--caring about all who are in the room--is a very Jesus-like thing to do.

What’s your thought?