Evangelism Q&A: Atheists Are Our Friends

Sipping coffee with Jim Henderson

interview by Kristyn Komarnicki

Jim-HendersonWhen an atheist put his soul up for sale on eBay, Jim Henderson bought it—for $504. Then he asked the young man, a graduate student from Chicago, to help him evaluate churches from an "outsider" perspective. That experience led to a website called ChurchRater.com, where folks can check out churches and submit their own evaluations. Henderson learned so much about Christians from the experience that he brought on another atheist to continue the project.

Henderson is the author or co-author of Evangelism without Additives: What If Sharing Your Faith Meant Just Being Yourself (WaterBrook Press, 2007); Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversations about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians (BarnaBooks, 2007); Saving Casper: A Christian and an Atheist Talk About Caring Versus Scaring Evangelism (Tyndale House, 2013); and Outsider Interviews: A New Generation Speaks Out on Christianity (Baker Books, 2010). Curious about the stories behind the statistics indicating that young adults are more disenchanted with the church than ever, Henderson and his co-authors sought out, sat down with, and listened to dozens of young people from across the country. We caught up with him to find out what he learned.

What did these interviews reveal to you, about both Christians and non-Christians?

That Christians come in all shapes and sizes. In general they're well-intentioned but lack insight, which in and of itself isn't so bad, but when coupled with a devotion to "certainty" creates mean-spirited, arrogant people—nothing like Jesus was aiming for.

Non-Christians are burdened with the same biases and confidence in "certainty," but when you find one who is humble and curious it's like finding the treasure hidden in the field that Jesus mentioned.

Who was the most memorable person you encountered in these interviews?

Rio in Denver. On the face of things she appeared to be the most "on fire" Christian we encountered, which she probably was at one time in her life. Hearing the painful journey she has been on since coming out as being gay was disturbing, heartbreaking, and revealing. Her unwillingness to make a commitment to being gay for life made her even more fascinating. Lots for Christians to learn in that interview.

What are some practical ways to nurture and engage in real conversation with people outside our faith?

1. Be open to being influenced by the people you hope to influence.
2. Be transparent about what you truly believe.
3. Ask questions about them instead of about their beliefs.
4. Tell them about your doubts and failures. In other words, give them some ammo they can use against you and then see if they do.
5. Ask them the following questions:

  • What would you say to Christians if you thought they would listen? (Then take notes.)
  • How do you navigate life spiritually (or not)?
  • How are you? (Then put something in your mouth and listen. See my headshot above for an example of how to do this.)

    (Photo by J. Bicking / Shutterstock.com)

    Good evangelism doesn't look like this! (Photo by J. Bicking / Shutterstock.com)

Learn more about Henderson's work at JimHendersonPresents.com and OfftheMap.com, an "idea lab" that aims to energize the church.


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