The Atheist Church

A scene from a typical service at The Sunday Assembly in London

This morning I read a short article in the Spring 2013 issue of Leadership Journal entitled “Learning from London’s Atheist Church.” Apparently two atheist British comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, have started the atheist equivalent of a church, called The Sunday Assembly.

They meet in a “deconsecrated” church building. On their opening day they expected around 20 people and got 200 instead. They grew to 300 the following month.

Here’s a short description of what an average service looks like:

[It] looks a lot like the Christian churches around the corner–just without God. After welcomes and announcements, the congregation sings along to hits by Queen and Stevie Wonder with a live band, a message is brought by a guest speaker, and readings are shared.

When asked if their services were merely a parody or mockery of organized religion, Evans’ response was pretty enlightening: “The point isn’t to put down other religions; it’s to say we don’t have faith, but what do we have?” The article goes on to ask this provocative question: “What does a church have when God’s not there anymore?

Evans says that the central message of the atheist church is that they want their congregation to “live better, help often, and wonder more.” Here’s how the folks at Leadership Journal summarized what we can learn from all of this:

  • No atter their faith or lack thereof, people deeply long for communal gathering and connection.
  • People want opportunities to connect with a purpose bigger than themselves. “Life,” “help,” and “wonder” are Christian values as well.
  • Never underestimate the power of an old idea with a fresh expression and energetic execution.

I agree with the above bullet points, but I also think they missed something. I couldn’t shake the eerie sense that the central message of the atheist church sounds an awful lot like the driving impetus behind much of what you hear at evangelical conferences designed for church leaders. Living better, helping often, and keeping a sense of wonder are great things, but they can be pursued apart from God as is clearly being demonstrated in London. This should be a clarion call to the church that the only truly distinctive thing we have is Jesus Christ.

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