Atheist Goes Undercover

Gina Welch describes herself as “a liberal secular Jew, born to a Communist father, raised in Berkley, educated in the Ivy League.” So what is she doing becoming a member of Thomas Road Baptist Church whose pastor was none other than Jerry Falwell? Going undercover to decide whether evangelicals were as nutty as she’d always thought or if there were real possibilities to “open channels of understanding writ large between evangelicals and the rest of us.”

Her recently released book, In The Land Of Believers, tells her story of deceit and discovery. Although the writing isn’t top notch, Welch shares stories that are both interesting and entertaining while giving Christians an idea how they appear to outsiders. She believes that she’ll never get a true and accurate picture of the evangelical culture as long as she is seen as an outsider so Welch’s first move is to fake an altar call conversion. This is followed by learning church jargon (e.g. “God told me,” “personal relationship with Jesus”), getting baptized, taking communion, becoming a member, and joining the church’s singles group.

Welch is caught off guard by the sincerity of the Christians she meets and even finds herself developing genuine friendships with other singles with whom she spends the bulk of her “church time.” Pastor Ray and his wife Clementine lead the singles class and Welch realizes that they are the “real deal” and deeply care about the men and women they shepherd. But her biggest surprise is that she doesn’t find Falwell to be “a homophobe, a fearmonger, a manipulator, a misogynist” as she expected him to be.

“One look at Jerry Falwell’s life showed that he was no hypocrite: he lived precisely according to the message he preached, bilious as it often was.”

Falwell unexpectedly dies (in 2007) during her stay at Thomas Road and she finds herself grieving along with the rest of the church.

“Disturbed by my own sadness, unable to explain the odd couple of my affection for Jerry Falwell and loathing of his ideals, I drove down to Thomas Road that evening to mourn his death.”

In the last part of the book Welch recounts a week long mission trip to Alaska that she decided to be a part of. There she and others went door-to-door and led various children’s ministries all in the attempt to meet their own goal of 100 people praying to receive Christ.

2 Interesting Insights

1. I was dismayed by how these particular Christians thought about the gospel. To them becoming a Christian was nothing more than praying a “sinner’s prayer.” Even Welch sees the problem with this asking, “In other words, aren’t you simply counting the people who prayed the prayer in that instant rather than counting new Christians?” Her conclusion was that this kind of thing happened because “Evangelicals were padding their rosters.”

2. What Welch finds most attractive about Christianity is the authentic community that it creates.

“What I envied most about Christians was not the God thing–it was having a community gathering each week, a touchstone for people who share values, a safe place to be frank about your life struggles, a place to be reminded of your moral compass. Having a place to guard against loneliness, to feel like there are others like you.”

While there is much that she doesn’t get about real Christian community (For example: It doesn’t happen apart from God and the gospel), it’s interesting that throughout the book she shares how she’s drawn by Christians love and concern for each other. The kind of community that we are seeing as we go through Acts on Sunday mornings and are trying to build at The Crossing is truly magnetic.

I’d recommend this book if you are at all interested in how non Christians perceive Christians and the church.

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