An Interview with Pastor Jim Henderson and Atheist Matt Casper
Jim Henderson is a church planter, pastor, and ministry visionary. Matt Casper is a marketing copywriter, singer—and an atheist. Together they have traveled the country visiting—and evaluating—churches, specifically Megachurches, including L.A.’s Dream Center, Saddleback, Mosaic, Willow Creek, Mars Hill Seattle, Osteen’s Lakewood, T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House, and others. Jim runs Off The Map, a ministry that first became well-known for hiring Hemant Mehta, the famous “eBay Atheist,” for the purpose of evaluating churches. Matt, too, was hired by Jim and Off The Map as he offers a “lens” to the Church for the purpose of facilitating self-examination and critique. Recently, Jim and Matt released Jim & Casper Go To Church, a book chronicling their church visitation adventures and the insights they gleaned from the experience.
Two things weigh on my heart as I publish the input of an atheist: First, I wouldn’t want someone who denies the existence of the God we serve negatively skewing the way we serve and worship our Lord. Second, the fact that Matt has yet to embrace God and his gift of eternal life in Christ could hardly be more serious as the destiny of a soul remains in the balance.
That said, I think we can take input from both Jim and Matt and capture insights without surrendering command of our own direction as a Church. I also remain encouraged about Matt not only because I sense a bonafide measure of genuine openness to the truth in him, but because he remains in relationship with at least two people I am confident love God and also want Matt to embrace Christ. Those two people are Jim and another friend of Matt, Jason Evans. Jason’s a believer who leads a house church and ministry to the homeless in inner city San Diego.
SermonCentral was able to capture a dialog with Jim and Matt that we’re pleased to share with you here:
SermonCentral: What was the overall purpose of your journey to visit the major churches across the U.S.?
Jim: To provide Christians an unadulterated and highly subjective view of Christianity as it is currently practiced in America.
Matt: To learn something new…and to enjoy this incredible opportunity! To travel, to talk with an interesting, open-minded person (Jim), to write. My purpose was to be a part of the book itself, and see what happens…
SermonCentral: What’s your overall highlight from your tour adventure?
Jim: My relationship with Casper. He was fair, fun, inquisitive and above all – not mean!
Matt: I'd have to agree with Jim in that my relationship with him and many other people I've met on the way is a highlight. I'd add that a highlight is also what's happening now. I believe we're starting to reach a few people, and that's simply awesome.
I may never become a Christian, but I am on a mission—to be as honest as possible. I think this book helps involve others in that mission by:
1) introducing readers to what I think honesty is and
2) pushing them to do the same and take an honest, open-minded look at how they practice their professed beliefs.
SermonCentral: Of all the megachurches (or churches) visited, which one was Matt’s favorite? How about Jim’s favorite?
Jim: I didn’t have a favorite among the Megas—none of them moved me personally.
Matt: Megachurches are pretty tough to take. I think they're more a reflection of America than the Jesus Christ I've read about in the Bible. Sign of the times…? Maybe. After all, "American Idol" is our most popular viewing, and every “mega” has a star pastor—celebrity worshipping is how a lot of people seem to spend their days. But I like things stripped down: stick with the heart of the matter…it's always more interesting than the spectacle.
SermonCentral: In your visits to churches, how important were first impressions, say during the first 5 minutes of arriving? If the first impression was negative, did you sometimes find the overall experience overcame that?
Jim: VERY important- if ANYONE approached us (without it being their job) it was the exception rather than the rule. It hardly ever happened but when it did we NOTICED. Frankly the lack of that failed to change much else for us since we adapted to the environment and simply stopped expecting spontaneous, unsolicited, non-directed greetings. Here’s how people feel whenever they enter a new experience—alone and stupid. Churches need to “attack” those feelings by training Christians (the non-professional and non-highly motivated kinds) to simply say “hi” to someone who they have not noticed before. That one small action would do more to increase church attendance than any other single action currently being tried.
Matt: Jim puts this very much like a pastor wanting visitors to feel at home in his church. For me, if everything in the Bible is true, and Christians are going to enjoy immortality in paradise—as church attendees are supposed to believe—why aren't they dancing for joy every second they're in church, or every second of their lives…? If I believed that my time on earth was only the beginning of my existence, and after I died I'd be going to heaven, I'd be WILD about my church. I'd probably scare people away I'd be so passionate. It seemed, at most every church, that what was going on—during the first five minutes, the middle five minutes, and the last five minutes—was simply a routine. Steps to walk through. No real thought about what was being offered and what awaits. Because if you REALLY think about these things (as I think I do) you find them simply too fantastical to believe.
SermonCentral: Jim and Matt, from most important to least important, which of the following do you find to be the most significant elements in rating a church, Preaching, Friendliness, Bias toward Action, Congregation Size, Grace/Tolerance, Conviction of Beliefs, Music Style?:
Jim: I will list them in the order of importance to me:
- Friendliness – this is a public meeting – lets say hi to someone
- Bias Toward Action – this was first on Jesus list
- Grace/Tolerance – This is why AA is safer than church for people
The rest are culturally determined and I don’t have big feelings about them.
Matt: 1. How much are they living like Jesus asked them to?
Everything else flows from that. If they're living like Jesus asked them to—loving one another, doing unto others as they would have others do unto them, forgiving sins, etc.—friendliness, freedom from prejudice, bias toward positive action, and grace are natural outcomes. The standards you have offered are more about how people "do" church rather than how they live it.
SermonCentral: Has Jim experienced much criticism for engaging an atheist to visit and evaluate churches? If so, how?
Jim: Not as much as you might think. Christians who don’t like the idea generally tell each other. I don’t hear that much but it might really be more the fact that not many know about our project. With ChurchRater.com up and running we are starting to get a few who think it is a dangerous idea—most people think it is funny or take it quite seriously and even rate themselves.
SermonCentral: Matt, what percent chance do you think that there might be a God after all?
Matt: Currently, 0%. I don't believe there are any deities of any kind running our world. In my opinion, God is cultural. If any Christian was born in China, they would not be Christian. Belief systems are not something that come from a supernatural god; they come from your culture.
SermonCentral: What about Jesus do you find attractive?
Matt: As you may be able to tell, I LOVE his message of love and equality. If everyone kept these messages close to their hearts and always on their minds, the world would be a better place. We're not going to heaven because there is no such thing. But by following the advice of people like Jesus, we can make earth a bit more heavenly.
SermonCentral: What do you think about the Bible?
Matt: I think it was written by men for men. There's some nutty stuff in it, some angry stuff, and some beautiful stuff, but I can say the same of the Qu'ran, the first draft of the Constitution (which allowed for slavery), etc. I don't think the Bible is the word of God, because I don't believe in gods of any kind.
SermonCentral: How do you handle the concept of “sin” in your own thinking? Is there a right and wrong in the world and what’s to say what is right or wrong?
Matt: This is a wonderful question. Right and wrong really are subjective, which means "sin" is subjective. Killing someone is wrong, but we're killing people every day in Iraq. Yet many American Christians would say that's right. (I read about a pastor the other day who called it "an act of love" as we're ridding the world of terrorists… but we're killing women and children over there, too…is that an "act of love?"). I see actions as constructive or destructive, not right or wrong. Why? Because constructive or destructive are slightly less subjective terms and easier starting points…
SermonCentral: Matt, in a nutshell, what are the primary criticisms you have of the churches you visited?
Matt: Too much focus on themselves, too little emphasis on the primary commands of Jesus, the person everyone is supposedly there to worship. If churches focused exclusively on making their attendees better at loving one another worldwide and doing unto others as they would have done unto them, well, wow…
SermonCentral: Jim, what does your organization Off The Map have to offer of service to churches?
Jim: We do two things:
We help Christians learn how to be normal. We offer Doable Evangelism Seminars and an annual event (conference) in Seattle where we gather Off The Map thinkers and practitioners for three days to learn from each other. We also offer DVDS of Interviews with Lost People. These help Christians [better understand who they are trying to reach].
[Editor’s Note: You can subscribe to Off The Map’s monthly ezine The Idealab and keep up with developments with the organization.]
We offer Spiritual Explorers a place to belong, space to think and a way to grow. We want the world to be healed in the way of Jesus. Spiritual Explorers are people who are trying to make meaning out of life and suspect that God might be involved in that process. Our annual event Off The Map Live—Nov 1-3 in Seattle—is a gathering place for this group which includes Christians, non-believers and even a few atheists.
SermonCentral: Jim, you spent a lot of time in this project and journey with Matt. What was your major take-away? In terms of biblical ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), do you have a sense of where we might be furthest from the Scriptural picture of church?
Jim: Alfred Loisy as quoted in Transforming Mission by David Bosch: “Jesus called for the Kingdom and the Church appeared.” We have become an institution that is more concerned about “right beliefs” (beliefism) than we are about “right actions” (serving).
We are completely comfortable asking each other about our beliefs and uncomfortable asking about what we are doing with our beliefs. This is the biggest drift I can see.
SermonCentral: In your broad exposure to churches across the country and in your understanding of the Protestant Reformation, which is further from the Biblical ideal: The Catholic Church of the 1400’s or the modern church?
Jim: The modern church is closing in on the Catholic Church in terms of competing for the “worst idea” in the history of Christianity. Our assumptions and arrogance make a dangerous mix in my opinion. I’m certain that 500 years from now followers of Jesus will look on many of our buildings the way we look at the medieval cathedrals and they will ask each other, “What were they thinking?”
SermonCentral: Are there examples you both observed where you felt churches “went too far” to reach out to people, perhaps in sacrificing the church’s own identity or values?
Matt: I think I see what you're getting at… no, we didn't see a pastor with a Mohawk trying to draw in the youngsters…but I saw a lot of churches that went too far by creating these giant facilities with all these bells and whistles to attract American audiences. Following Jesus shouldn't be about buildings, waterfalls, perfectly coiffed hair, spectacle, and "prosperity." It should be about humility, kindness, and sacrifice. So I guess you could say with one or two exceptions, every church we visited went too far.
SermonCentral: ChurchRater.com is a site you’ve launched to give visitors a chance to give feedback to churches. What is the objective of this site? What are the limits to its utility?
Jim: It’s like asking why we have mirrors in our house. ChurchRater.com is a mirror for the consumer church to check her/himself in. That’s all. If people like what they see they can keep doing more of it; if not, they can change. We also think Christians need to lighten up and laugh at themselves and get closer to the people Jesus misses most and hear from them.
Matt: I think the objective is dialog. After all, Jesus was a church rater himself, having given the churches in place at his time a mighty "thumbs down…" Maybe by giving people a place to honestly dialog, we can help those who profess to believe that Jesus was the son of God a place to return to more fundamental questions and issues. Churches are already reflections of consumerism. Maybe by being a little more plain-spoken about these issues we can make progress…
SermonCentral: Matt and Jim, thanks for sharing. Your perceptions certainly are of benefit in spurring churches to ask whether they are successfully doing what Jesus wants them to do. We appreciate your time and insights.
[To learn more about Jim and Matt’s church adventures, we encourage you to get a copy of their book Jim & Casper Go To Church, recently released by Tyndale Publishers.]