My news-feed has seen a steady stream of articles about the new trend of ‘atheist churches’ racing by this past week. Much of it seems to revolve around a successful publicity tour by British comedy duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who are currently:
on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the U.S. and Australia to drum up donations and help launch new Sunday Assemblies.
It is an impressive campaign. From LA to NY to Nashville and back to San Diego they are taking their roadshow in a revival style to rally the non-religious. It’s a fascinating attempt. Even if it turns out to be (historically speaking) not much more than a publicity stunt, it is an indicator of something larger.
Many are fond of quoting the statistics:
“The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last year that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.”
Others attempt to qualify and quantify those findings with categorical inconsistencies and clear definition problems*. Still, there is clearly some merit to considering the cultural shift.
The question has to be asked: Are these atheist churches a blip or a significant trend?
I think the answer is multifaceted. It is clearly more than a blip and is probably more like an outlier for what will eventually manifest. There is a clear challenge to this type of organization – their attempt to raise $800,000 has only resulted in $50,000 so far. One-night events are fun and exciting… sustaining that kind of energy is a different animal.
Which begs the question, “why would anyone give to, participate, or get excited about something based on what isn’t?”
Here is the thing though … this is more than just a novelty. The foundations (I use that word intentionally) that we used to be able to count on are eroding. There is no doubt that the old buildings (and the institutions that occupy them) are in danger.
This matters to me. I wrote an essay more than 15 years ago (on a note-pad thank you very much) about the form of the church. As a young pastor I saw the oddity of what we did and how easily most of what we do could be imitated or replaced.
Let me say that again:
most of what we do as the church could easily be imitated or replaced.
Unfortunately that is the problem with having a successful form. Of course there are always a dedicated minority who is really invested in worship music, liturgy and proclamation. A cynic might say that most people, however, will sing just about any lyrics** that are thrown up on the screen and from the sermon they really just want some help being better people.
I have held for a long time that technically you could cobble together nearly every element that you get from church by intentionally seeking out a collection of experiences:
- concert (group singing)
- dinner/drink with friends (communion)
- self-help seminar (information/inspiration)
- AA meeting (accountability/confession)
- work & give to a charity (contribution/conscience)
Which leaves only two things left to be said!
1. The beauty of the church is that you find all of those things in one place. That is the nearly miraculous thing about that list. It takes so much work to imitate and replicate what is all available in the community of saints.
2. The importance of the word ‘nearly’ . Even with the 5 elements that I suggested, for the believer there is still something missing: the transcendent.
In conclusion, while I see the merit and appeal of ‘atheist assemblies’ as a public announcement and maybe even protest, I am not sure that they are sustainable. What I am more concern with is that Christian churches of every stripe use the opportunity to evaluate what it is that we bring to the lives of people that they can not get anywhere else. I would argue that this is a gospel issue.
* The article is clear that “Pew researchers stressed, however, that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.”
** just look at the huge success of the CCM worship song “Like A Lion” last year