In his book I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist's Eyes, Hemant Mehta describes his visits to multiple church services over the course of several months. Mehta brought a notebook into the pews, recording how he--a person not raised in the Christian faith--understood the services (or didn't). Below are some of his impressions.

A Smaller Church: Westminster Presbyterian Church, DeKalb, Illinois

…When it came time for the scripted readings, I had a hard time understanding the point behind them. The leader would say, “Our help is in the name of the Lord.”
We would respond, “Who made heaven and earth.”
The leader would say, “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.’
We would respond, ‘They shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

And so on.

It was all written there for us, but what was the purpose? To get us more involved? If it was meant to energize us about God, you would never have guessed from the lackluster responses given by the congregation. If it was meant to be a prayer, it gave no evidence of being heartfelt. If it was just a ritual, I didn’t see the point. I recalled some of the Jain rituals that never made sense to me when I was growing up. There were times I was supposed to kneel when I prayed, but only on my right knee; there were certain words I was supposed to say when I walked into the temple; there was even a specific way I was supposed to say certain mantras--and repeat them exactly one hundred eight times. Even if there were reasons behind the rituals, the reasons were never apparent and rarely satisfied my curiosity. I felt the same way this morning in church.

A Mid-Sized Church: Mars Hill Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois

…I agreed with the pastor’s optimism for the wonderful day we were having, but his words quickly became repetitious. It’s good to be here! Yes, it is.
Are you blessed? Sure.
I said, it’s good to be here! I agree.
We are blessed! Okay.
Are we blessed? I answered that already.
Praise Jesus! We just did.
It’s good to be here! Oh boy...

I wasn’t accustomed to this type of audience participation.

A Megachurch: New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Editor's note: Mehta visited New Life Church when Ted Haggard was the church’s senior pastor.

...Pastor Ted mentioned a story in 1 Samuel 11, where King Saul saved a city that was about to be attacked by the Ammonite Nahash. ...In the story, Nahash offered a treaty with the people of Jabesh on the condition that Nahash would gouge out the right eye of every citizen of the city. Saul, upon hearing of the threat, cut up two oxen into small pieces and sent the bloody meat out to the rest of Israel, rallying his countrymen to come to the defense of the people of Jabesh.

As Pastor Ted told the story, he gave no indication that any of this was at all unusual or worthy of further comment. If Nahash had gouged out the right eye of every citizen of Jabesh, he said, it would have rendered the victims unable to shoot arrows in defense.  But he didn’t acknowledge the fact that such an attack would be torture, pure and simple. In fact, he didn’t seem fazed by what I considered to be the cruel butchering of oxen. He called Saul’s act a sign of power. I didn’t understand how anyone could rationalize the actions of any of these people, regardless of whether it was Nahash, the enemy of Israel, or Saul, the king of Israel.

…Pastor Ted and other evangelical pastors I hear about in the media seem to perceive just about everything to be a threat against Christianity.  Evolution is a threat. Gay marriage is a threat. A swear word uttered accidentally on television is a threat. Democrats are a threat. And so on.

I don’t see how any of these things pose a threat against Christianity. If someone disagrees with you about politics, or social issues, or the matter of origins, isn’t that just democracy and free speech in action? How do opposing viewpoints constitute a threat?  The ideas that can be defended with reasoning or evidence will stand while others fall. But if all these issues are spun as if they are threats, New Life Church has an army of thousands of people who are being told to be stubborn about their beliefs. Why do Christians feel so threatened?

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