Atheist: Church isn’t a bad place

He sold his soul on eBay to evangelical, who has him critiquing sermons and services.

A few weeks ago, Hemant Mehta posted an unusual item for sale on eBay: a chance to save his soul.

The DePaul University graduate student promised the winner that for each $10 of the final bid, he would attend an hour of church services. Mehta, 23, is an atheist, but he says he suspected he had been missing out on something.

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“Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me ‘the way’ could do what no one else has done before,” Mehta wrote in his eBay sales pitch.

When the auction stopped on Feb. 3 after 41 bids, the buyer was Jim Henderson, a former evangelical minister from Seattle, whose $504 bid prevailed.

Henderson, 58, wasn’t looking for a convert. He wanted Mehta to embark with him on an eccentric experiment in spiritual bridge-building. Mehta’s mission: attend 10 to 15 services of Henderson’s choosing and then write about it for Henderson’s Web site,, whose professed mission is “Helping Christians be normal.”

“I’m not trying to convert you,” Henderson told Mehta. “You’re going there almost like a critic. … If you happen to get converted, that’s off the clock.”

For Mehta’s first service, the two attended noon Mass at Old St. Patrick’s, a Catholic church near Mehta’s apartment. In the third pew from the rear, Mehta silently gazed at the statues and the worshipers’ folded hands. He tried to follow along, but was a beat behind the congregation as it stood and knelt on cue.

Henderson asked Mehta to score the priest, on a scale of 1 for boring to 10 for “off the charts.” Mehta gave him a three. “More stories” in the sermon, Mehta suggested — and less liturgy.

Asked about that advice, the Rev. John Cusick, who said the Mass that day, was unfazed: “There’s nothing he could say that I haven’t heard 100 times over.”

Mehta’s commentaries award sermons kudos for clarity, demerits for redundancy. After a service at Chicago’s nondenominational Park Community Church, he criticized the preacher for repeatedly referring to a Bible verse in which the Galatians are called “fools” for doubting the divinity of Jesus — without explaining why the passage was relevant to his congregation. The room, Mehta noted, was full of people who didn’t share the Galatians’ doubts.

Associate Pastor Ron May wrote in to thank Mehta: “As the guy who spoke yesterday, I really appreciate the honest eval. (Unfortunately, a lot of the time you only get polite smoke … good job … thanks for the message.)”

With about half his obligation to Henderson fulfilled, Mehta says he’s no closer to believing in God, although he does admire churches for the communities they create. Church, he has decided, is “not such a bad place to be.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Wall Street Journal, via the Detroit News, USA
Mar. 19, 2006
Suzanne Sataline, Wall Street Journal
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 20, 2006.
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