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Christians and atheists start a calmer dialogue

Atheist militancy followed Christian vehemence; now some on both sides see the need for cooler rhetoric.

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Henderson also conducts interviews with men and women who are non­believers as an event at church and pastor conferences. Many Evangelicals "are obsessed with conversion," he says, and always speak of non-Christians as "lost." The interviews show Christians immersed in their own culture and how that sounds to the people they approach.

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At the Salem conference, Mr. Bleiweiss recalled a co-worker who "worked Jesus into every conversation we had."

Henderson's experiences have led him, with his "Off The Map" venture, into "something larger than evangelism," what he calls "otherliness." Otherliness – "the spirituality of serving others" – involves "drawing people into the idea of paying real attention to each other, of listening." He wants to teach individuals and groups of all kinds how to do a much better job of listening to those they interact with.

For his part, Mehta is still open to "any compelling evidence of the existence of God." He describes positive elements in some churches, such as top-notch speakers and impressive community outreach. "The more work churches do for everyone, the more respect they'll get from outsiders," he writes.

Yet churchgoers are missing the mark, he says, when they think non­religious people lack a basis for ethical values, look down on non-Christians, or fail to speak out against religious leaders who make outrageous public statements.

What would convince him? A miracle.

During church services, they often fail to explain traditions or rituals, which leaves visitors confused. "Why is the structure of the service always the same?" Mehta wonders.

Zeroing in on "what it would take to convert me," he says a church would need to appeal to his sense of reason, challenge him to think more deeply, and allow for asking questions. "I wasn't confronted with a new line of thinking that challenged my commitment to scientific empiricism," he writes. Also, he'd want a church where "men and women lead on an equal basis."

Most important, he states, what would convince him would be "a miracle – an undeniable miracle that has no natural explanation."

While on their tour of the most prominent megachurches and stylistically innovative churches, Mr. Casper asked Henderson, "Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?"

The 30-something father of two is generally unimpressed with the multi­media "killer" church services they attend. Articulate in explaining his reactions in detail, he, like Mehta, also finds in the predictable format of services that "certainty is boring, certainty is closed off."

When a healing is mentioned in one Pentecostal service, though, he reacts strongly. If that man can heal, he says, "why is he ... hanging out in this building?... Get out there, then! There are people who need your help."

Saying that he loves the teachings of Jesus, along with those of other important teachers, Casper concludes: "The question that just came up for me again and again ... is, What does the way Christianity is practiced today have to do with the ... words and deeds" of Jesus?

For Henderson, Wyman, and Mehta, the value of talking and listening to those with differing worldviews has become crystal clear.

Pastor Wyman has been reaching out to non-Christians in Salem, and particularly to the large neopagan community here (attracted, no doubt, by Salem's identification with witchcraft in Colonial times). His stereotypes about witches were often wrong, he says. Having formed respectful relationships, he's now being asked to come to pagan events to speak about Christian perspectives.

"Christians for quite some time have been creating events and trying to draw people into our little box, and we call that 'outreach,' " he says. "This is an exciting opportunity – people are opening, listening, and seeking out spiritual things."