Pondering an Atheist Church

A week or two ago, I read an article about an atheist church recently founded in London.  Called Sunday Assembly, they assemble on Sundays for community and enrichment.  Expecting to draw about 20 to their first weekly meeting, the stand-up comic who serves as the emcee (which is to say he’s the atheist pastor, although he prefers to be thought of more like a host than a minister) was blown away when 200 arrived.  Later weeks have seen so many attendees that Sunday Assembly now broadcasts a digital feed to a nearby pub for overflow capacity – which in a sense makes them the first multi-site atheist church (to borrow a little evangelical terminology).

The first article I read about Sunday Assembly organized its report around the question of whether or not atheism is becoming a religion.  It’s a fair question, but the more I read about Sunday Assembly, the more I realized it’s the wrong question.  After reading about Sunday Assembly, the inescapable question that preoccupies my thoughts is this: how did Christianity sink so low that this atheist social meeting seems like a religion?

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Here’s what Sunday Assembly is: a group of people who want community, want to be inspired, and want their lives enriched and who do not believe in God.  In adopting the forms of a church service – they meet in a church, they have a band that leads them in singing familiar songs, they have time for silent reflection, and they have a speaker come to challenge their thinking – they are highlighting a dirty secret about Christian churches today: many of our services wouldn’t change too much if we decided to elide God from the proceedings.  It’s no wonder these atheist decided to see if they could keep the fun parts of church without God; it was only a matter of time.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t one of those posts where the author blasts the entire Church as being completely backwards and wrongheaded.  We should start by pointing out that what the Sunday Assemblers want is what they see us having (sans creator), and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  If we weren’t getting something right as Christians, atheists wouldn’t be recreating our services in our venues on our day.  That they want what we have is to the Church’s credit.

The criticism for the Church – and this has to do primarily with evangelicals and other Protestants – is that what we do have is often incomplete.  Community in our churches shouldn’t be mistakable for community in social clubs; we’re supposed to be actual family, not just friends, and that should feel deeper than and different from the community one finds in any other gathering.  Our sermons shouldn’t seem replaceable by a pep talk or informative lecture intended to stimulate wonder; they’re supposed to unpack wisdom unlike any that comes from men, and they’re supposed to be delivered by family to family.  The difference between Sunday Assembly and your local church should be as stark as the difference between a book club and a family reunion (of a family who actually like each other).  That it’s almost certainly not has less to do with what the Church is doing wrong than it does with what the Church often forgets to do at all.

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Christians are generally pretty clear on the fact that we’re supposed to be a big family, even if that doesn’t at all translate into a familial feeling at many churches.  Even so, I think there’s a related point that we often miss.  In the ancient world – which is to say the world in which the biblical passages calling us all family, like 1 Corinthians 12, were written – big families functioned differently than they do in today’s western world.  Back then, a big family formed a clan or even a tribe.  It became its own people group, just as the big family of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph did over time.  Permit me to suggest that we Christians should function as a people group ourselves.

Political scientists differentiate between states (political entities defined by geographic boundaries and governmental authority) and nations (a people group).  The United States is a state, the Navajo people are a nation.  Turkey is a state, the Kurds are a nation.  Christians, according to this terminology, are supposed to be a nation.

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Some will be tempted to see Sunday Assembly as proof that the Church has failed to put God at the center of what it does.  That this secular church could attempt to provide its parishioners with the full church experience – absent God, of course – isn’t simply a condemnation of the Church’s failure to put Jesus (or “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” to parrot the nebulous cliché ascendant at the seminary in which I studied) at the center of what it’s doing.  To the contrary, I think it’s symptomatic of the fact that the church has failed to put Jesus at the center of something it isn’t doing in the first place; the church has failed to put Jesus at the center of our existence as a nation.  And it’s a failing that has more to do with forgetting to be a nation than it does with our treatment of Jesus.

Yeah, that sounds crazy.  I’m trying too hard, right?  The thing is, evangelicalism in particular – but also Protestantism at large – is basically just a theologically reductionist movement.  We’ve eliminated smells and bells, icons and praying to the saints, and a host of other theological doctrines that we don’t see in scripture.  Just as secularism is defined by how it differentiates itself from the cultural reach of Christianity, Protestantism (and by extension, evangelicalism) is defined by what parts of the broader Christian Church it’s managed to jettison.

Unfortunately, some of what most churches have jettisoned are precisely those patterns of behavior that differentiate Christians as a nation rather than simply a group of hobbyists.  One (but not the only) such rejected tradition is that of the church calendar.

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There is nothing that can orient a person’s behavior and existence at a more fundamental level than that which orients said person’s time.  To arrange one’s life around a particular schedule or calendar of events is to submit one’s life to that schedule or calendar, and once upon a time, all Christians did this.  Now – even in the denominations that keep the church calendar – it’s little more than a Sunday curiosity, and our churches are the poorer for it, not to mention easier to imitate.

Some will object that the church calendar has naught to do with Jesus or the mandates of scripture, and this is why Protestants have largely abandoned it.  Such objections are mistaken.  For one thing, God organized almost all of our world such that there are four seasons in nature (those of you reading from Canada will just have to ask someone what I mean).  For another thing, God institutes a variety of festivals and celebrations for the Jewish people in the Old Testament (even going so far as to specify which month is to start their year in Exodus 12:2); these observances served to organize the Jewish rhythm of life.  Moreover, if we recognize that Jesus never explicitly required Christians to do likewise, we should remember that Jesus’ disciples were uniformly Jewish, and already lived in accordance with the Old Testament rhythm.  If Jesus never commanded that Christians adopt a particular calendar, neither did he abolish the one they already had.  God ordered his people’s time, and it’s a practice that the early church modified and adopted as far back as we’re able to trace it.

For all the ways in which Sunday Assembly imitates church, it seems to me that inventing their own calendar and seasons of the year would probably be a bridge too far for most atheists, if for no other reason than that the creation of an atheist calendar would necessarily be either arbitrary (and thus illogical) or pagan (and thus not truly atheist).  They can copy what we do at church but they wouldn’t be able to copy our nation’s rhythm of life.  At least, they wouldn’t be able to do so if we actually had one.

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Following the church calendar is not a silver bullet to undermine and eliminate atheism, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the only way in which we should change evangelical churches to restore our identity as a Jesus-centered nation.  But I do think that it functions as an inimitable aspect of what it means to be Christian, and it’s a useful spiritual discipline to boot.  So during this Lenten season, spare a thought for the fact that there’s more to the church calendar than simply giving up chocolate for a few weeks a year.  There’s a rhythm of life that could differentiate us as a people from atheist social clubs, if only we’d let it.  Otherwise, some might think the only difference between us is that we sing songs by Charles Wesley and Sunday Assembly sings songs by Oasis.  And you can bet which of those rhythms the world will find more fun.

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