***Update***: A video of the service is now online!
I spent the past couple of days at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, talking to about 8,000 Christians about what they do right and wrong, at least when it comes to their interactions with atheists.
There aren’t a lot of megachurch pastors (or congregations) who would be okay with that sort of thing, so hats off to Pastor Randy Frazee and his staff for making it happen and making me feel really comfortable there. Video of the event will be available within a couple of days and I’ll post something when it’s up.
In the meantime, John Tedesco of the San Antonio Express-News was there for one of the services and his article accurately captures how things went:
A few highlights from the piece:
At four church services over the weekend that attracted about 8,000 people, the preacher and the atheist casually talked and laughed on the brightly lit stage at Oak Hills. Online [live-streaming] videos of their talks were posted on the church’s website, which crashed Sunday morning from the demand of so many people trying to watch.
I can now say I brought down a megachurch. *Cue evil laugh*
On Sunday, a few members of the congregation at Oak Hills didn’t want to listen to a nonbeliever and they left before Mehta was introduced, Frazee said. But most of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “I think it was healthy,” said church member Jim Robbins. Mehta’s words struck a chord with him because one of Robbins’ sons had been an atheist for many years. “I don’t have a problem with people asking questions.”
I didn’t even know that happened. But we’re talking about a few people from a congregation of several thousands. Many of the church members spoke to me after each of the four services and they were courteous and sweet, thanking me for visiting and letting me know that they were praying for me as I walked down my path.(I guess they missed the part about how I’ve already walked that path and decided God wasn’t at the end of the rainbow…)
Frazee encouraged his congregation to follow the friendly atheist’s inquisitive journey. It’s OK to doubt, he said. The deep questions Mehta wrestled with are the same questions many Christians are asking themselves privately — especially skeptical teenagers.
“They start asking questions,” Frazee said. “And if your home, or this church, is a place where we don’t allow that to happen, we’re going to lose our kids.”
That’s such a huge point and it’s one of the reasons I appreciated that the church put together this event. For so many people who have religious doubts, church is not a safe place for them to raise their concerns. They’re told to just have faith. They can’t tell their family members, either, out of fear that they’ll be disowned (or at least seen as a disappointment). So what do they do? Best case scenario, they realize they’re onto something with their doubts and end up discarding their faith altogether. Worst case scenario, they’re in for a long psychological battle, as if they’re somehow disappointing God for questioning His eternal wisdom.
If Christians are right, I would think they’d embrace those doubts and respond to them in kind. When they ignore or suppress the doubts, it’s all the more reason for people to give up the faith altogether.
I obviously don’t think churches have the ability to address those challenges as a satisfying way. The people at Oak Hills obviously think they do. For the sake of the people who are questioning their faith, though, both sides are better off if churches welcomed those doubts and attempted to engage the tough questions. The truth will hopefully win out.