What Can We Learn From The Atheist Church?

Cover of 'Christianity Magazine' July 2013 by Malky Currie
www.christianitymagazine.co.uk 
I had heard a few discussions about an atheist church starting up in London earlier on this year in the background on a breakfast TV show while I was in the kitchen making breakfast one morning. It was not until the July issue of 'Christianity' magazine that I really heard about it in more detail and began to think about the implications of such a thing upon our society as well as upon the Christian faith.

So, yes. . . it is true. There is an atheist church alive and well in London and is looking to spread its message of community, happiness and godlessness to other cities around the UK as well as around the world. The Sunday Congregation began in January 2013 and is growing fast! Lead by two stand-up comics the structure of the service looks familiar to many church-goers: uplifting songs lead by a lively band (Girls Just Want To Have fun; You Can Go Your Own Way); a talk on a subject (such as 'wonder' or 'play'), a sense of community and a mice cup of tea afterwards. The motto of the Sunday Assembly is 'live better, help often, wonder more'. As Christianity magazine points out:

What's surprising about the Sunday Assembly is not just that they break the stereotype of the angry atheist, but the number of Christians  and ex-Christians who are involved." (Christianity Magazine. p.27. July 2013 issue)

This highlights a few things for me. The first is that atheism is in itself a religion! Believing in nothing is still a belief. Just as I choose to believe in an almighty and ever-loving God, so an atheist chooses not to believe. We both choose. We both have a belief. It takes just as much faith for an atheist to believe there is no God when faced with the wonders of nature, the universe and everything than it does for me to believe that there is a God behind it all.

It also highlights the human need for community. This sense of togetherness that connects us and helps us to be more than just an individual self. Together we are more. People yearn for this and search for this.

It also can help us to evaluate where church is going wrong? Although this form of gathering has many similarities with contemporary, evangelical church, the substance is very different!

Christianity Magazine focuses on long-term sustainability and the issue of pastoral care:

" 'Because the Christian story talks about the goodness of creation but also sin and redemption' says Tomlin, 'it means that the Christian can deal with the messiness of life, despair, failure and disappointment - all put in the context of hope. I wonder what it would be like going to [The Sunday Assembly] with real, hard, long-term problems and whether they have the resources to manage that, effecting real personal change" (Christianity Magazine, p.31. July 2013 issue)

This is an important question. Christianity allows God to transform and heal from within, not relying on self will alone. Giving the power of the Holy Spirit a change to work and change the individual with God's love and healing. Will the atheist church be able to help people in real need get free from addictions, self-loathing, deep depression, anxiety attacks etc.? My guess will be - no. Based on experience, self-will alone is not enough to produce truly lasting change and freedom - only the power of God can do that.

What I want to focus on is form over substance. If a godless congregation can carry the same (or very similar) form and structure of a church service - what can we learn? I think this will help us refocus upon what we do in church and why we do it. Is the form and structure an empty godless shell (which people will clearly enjoy as we can see), or is what we do carrying the life-transforming power and presence of God? Are we slipping in to focussing on the religion and ritual of what we do (the order of the songs etc.) or are we allowing what we do to flow out of a life of praise, worship and obedience to God? Do the songs we sing, the instruments we play, the video clips we use, the lighting sets we create, the sermons we preach connect people to the power of God, carry the weight of the Holy Spirit and lead people into a deeper relationship with Jesus, or not?

These are important questions that we need to keep on considering and addressing. We need to carry the authentic spiritual power of God in all that we do otherwise we could fall into the trap of celebrating the form of what we do over the substance. A church that is an empty shell, lacking spiritual authority and power. A nice place to go, but without God.

So do I feel threatened by the start of an atheist church and its rapid expansion? Absolutely not! God is in control - if He is for us, who can be against us?

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