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Thank God for Atheists

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This piece first ran in USA Today.

Jim Henderson is a recovering evangelist. Back in his soul-chasing, church-starting days, he began hearing a grating dissonance between his faith in Jesus and the way he went about winning new converts. Henderson realized he was doing unto others what he would never want done unto him. He was manipulating conversations to set up a pitch. Viewing people as potential notches on his evangelism belt rather than fellow sojourners and prospective friends. Listening only to the extent it could reveal an argumentative opening. He realized he hated the whole enterprise.

"I told the people in my church, 'I don't like evangelizing, and I know you hate it, so I've decided that I'm formally resigning from witnessing. You're all free to do so the same,' " Henderson recalls. "I said, 'I love Jesus, you love Jesus, and we all want to connect people with Jesus. But we're gonna have to figure out new ways to do it.' "

In the 15 years since, Henderson has blazed a new path as an innovator, author, church-evaluator, self-professed subversive, and leader in the creation of new ways to be publicly and persuasively Christian in the 21st century. Maybe the most subversive -- and sensible -- surprise of all is the population to which this well-caffeinated Seattle man has turned for partners, friends and teachers: atheists.

What could a Christian possibly learn from atheists? A lot, it turns out. As more and more Jesus followers like Henderson are discovering, taking a look at yourself and your religion through the eyes of the unconvinced can be a revelatory experience.

Although he is just north of 60, Henderson is emblematic of an up-and-coming wave of evangelicals intent on course correction for the church. Through public-opinion research, grassroots dialogue and ears to the shifting ground, they are getting the message that the old ways don't cut it anymore.

The shift has serious implications for the age-old mission to evangelize -- the focus of untold generations of well-intentioned Christians compelled to live out the Great Commission that Jesus laid out in the Gospel of Matthew ("Go and make disciples of all nations"). The standard argumentative approach -- built around "spiritual laws," A-to-B-to-Z logic, and black-and-white propositions about the one religious truth -- seems more counterproductive with each passing year, more likely to repel than persuade.

Soul for sale

Rather than arguing with an atheist, Henderson bought one. In 2006, he heard about an atheist offering his soul to the highest bidder on eBay, laid down $504 and, lo and behold, claimed the prize. Henderson didn't try to convert that atheist, a Chicago graduate student named Hemant Mehta. Instead, he asked him to evaluate churches and report on his findings.

From that sprang a series of church visits and reports, books by both Henderson and Mehta, and Henderson's ChurchRater.com website, where people read and post reviews of churches they've attended. Henderson has also launched an offshoot church consulting business, again using non-Christians as partners in his work to help churches evaluate themselves through the eyes of outsiders.

What do Christians learn when they start listening to atheists? Henderson, author of the forthcoming book The Outsider Interviews, has found that the "I'm right/you're wrong" model is a conversation-killer par excellence. So is speaking of non-converts as "lost." "Nothing sets off an atheist more than hearing a Christian say, 'I know Jesus is God and that I'm going to heaven when I die,' " Henderson says. "They also notice that we often say it loudly and arrogantly, which only serves to reinforce their negative opinion of our certainty."

Atheists are also wary of being seen as "projects." Does continued contact and eventual friendship with the Christian in their life depend on them converting?

Possibilities for a new model hit home for me in a recent public conversation I had with my friend Doug Pollock, evangelism trainer for the sports-ministry organization Athletes in Action. Pollock had invited me, the non-evangelical religion commentator, to join him for his keynote remarks at an evangelism-training event at a megachurch in the Portland area. When Doug asked me what advice I would have for the assembled missionaries in training, the answer came quickly: If you want to have influence, I said, you have to be willing to be influenced. If not, I asked, would anyone want to have a conversation with you? (This was obviously not news to Pollock, as evidenced by his inviting me to participate in the first place.)

'Necessary interlocutors'

As Christian pastor Samir Selmanovic has written, two-way conversations with the not-like-minded are vital for a devout person's spiritual growth. Selmanovic, author of the 2009 book It's Really All about God, wrote in a Huffington Post article that friendly atheists are "desirable and necessary interlocutors in our human conversation. ... To us religious people, atheists are not only precious neighbors but also strangers who see what we cannot see and ask questions that we don't know how to ask. ... Atheists are God's whistle-blowers."

Benefits flow in both directions when Christian-atheist conversations break out. Matt Casper, the atheist co-author with Henderson of Jim and Casper Go to Church, and Henderson's partner in the ChurchRater.com venture, says his engaging with Christians is motivated by his desire to get them to question their certitude and to see that atheists don't have tails and horns. Being around Christians, Casper adds, "has made me a better person."

Conventional evangelism is often accused, and rightly so, of "bait and switch" tactics; think attractive social gathering or sports outing that, unbeknownst to invitees, is really designed to segue into a Gospel pitch. Henderson has a fascinating alternative to propose: all bait, no switch.

Call it promotion by non-promotion, evangelism by attraction, goodwill mongering, or letting one's life speak for itself, but this is what will best represent the faith among the many Americans who do not share the evangelical faith. Henderson and his fellow travelers are right in urging would-be evangelists simply to get to know people, become their friends and let the spiritual chips fall where they may.

This re-imagined form of witness trumpets good news all around -- for Christians who, as Henderson puts it, want to be "normal," for the public credibility of Christianity, and for all of the not-yet and never-will-be converts who don't want to be pitied or demonized for (supposedly) living in the dark.

These new-century Jesus representatives seem to be arriving at just the right formula for making their faith real and known in these changing times: no formula.