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.

Preaching and God’s Timing

PodiumRecently a friend who relocated to another city let me know that one of the big reasons she decided to stay at her current church is that for the first several weeks she attended that church, every sermon the pastor preached spoke directly to where her heart was.

I think we pastors can put too much emphasis on the quality of our verbal communication but sometimes what it boils down to is that God has been preparing someone’s heart and life to hear the words he gives us to preach. On any given Sunday I have no idea how someone is going to receive the sermon God’s given me to deliver, but I know that God has often orchestrated a happy collision between a person’s spiritual needs and the message that is scheduled for that day. Sometimes a visitor from out of town just passing through, who found us via a Google search, will tell me that their coming to our church was a divine appointment.

Reflections like this remind me not to put so much stock on the delivery of the message. The real emphasis needs to go into praying up every sermon, entrusting what happens to God’s orchestration, not my communication skills or verbal persuasiveness. In fact, it has been my experience that a hungry and open heart will forgive lackluster communication if what is spoken is what God wants that heart to hear.

I Asked My Parents

My wife and I have been wrestling through a major decision, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I have been at a total loss as to what the best decision is. Over the couple weeks I have wavered between two extremes regarding this decision and my wife and I couldn’t come to a stable and lasting consensus. Just when we thought we’d reached a decision, one of us would have a moment of serious doubt.

This has been a really frustrating experience for me because I usually make decisions very quickly. I knew we needed some outside guidance but I wasn’t sure who to ask. Then it occurred to me that I could ask my parents. I know that doesn’t sound like an appealing option for many people out there who have had strained relationships with their parents. But God have me the gift of two wonderful parents whose opinions I deeply trust and respect. Though I’m in my mid-40’s, it was SUCH a great comfort to be able to go to my parents and ask for their advice and prayers.

After about an hour of really great conversation, laying out all the details of our decision and why we felt stuck, my parents gently gave me some guidance that unraveled all the tension that had been building up over the last couple of weeks. This deep openness I feel toward my parents is the product of a lifetime of seeing their character on display and proving again and again that they are worthy of my trust and respect.

As I drove home from their house I kept praying that my wife and I would be parents who would make daily investments in our children’s lives and live in such a way that no matter how old they get or how far apart we end up living, they would always feel like they could turn to us for prayer support and wise counsel.

As a pastor I see almost everyday the impact that parents have on people. I think that impact is lifelong and reaches to a depth that few other influences can. We may not all have been given the gift of great parents, but for those of us who are parents ourselves, let’s ask God to help us get it right and be a blessing to our children.

The Jevons Paradox

Recently I read an article in WIRED magazine by Clive Thompson entitled Unsaving the Planet. In it he described what some refer to as the Jevons Paradox:

…in 1865, British economist William Stanley Jevons offered a skeptical take on efficiency. In The Coal Question, he wrote that energy-efficient technology has a backlash effect. By increasing efficiency we make energy cheaper, thus spurring people to use more of it. As Jevons pointed out, when steam engines became more efficient, the consumption of coal (for steam production) didn’t decrease — it expanded, because steam engines became cheaper to run and thus attractive for more and more things. – WIRED March 2012, p.42

That says a lot about human nature, I think. When we gain an efficiency because something becomes easier or cheaper, we don’t capitalize on those savings by becoming more frugal. Instead we take advantage of those efficiencies by increasing our consumption, coming to rely more and more on the cheap and readily available resources.

I think that has implications for ministry as well. Here’s a little parable I’ve been sharing with some fellow pastors lately in conversation. Imagine that a city has a problem with cigarette butts littering the sidewalks. The mayor, seeing this problem, hires a part-time street cleaner to pick up the butts, hoping that the sight of clean sidewalks will encourage his citizens to keep the streets clean. However, his move has the opposite effect. Seeing that someone else has cleaned up their discarded butts, they no longer bother to seek out an ashtray or garbage can and now causally flip their butts onto the ground knowing they’ll be picked up by someone else. Seeing the increased litter on the sidewalks, the mayor decides to bring the street cleaner on full-time. And the vicious cycle continues as people litter even more because it has become a consequence-free transgression.

Too often our first response as ministry leaders is to fill an observed gap by increasing programming or staff. We reason that if we plug the hole with a dedicated person, other stakeholders will join the effort as partners. However, usually the opposite happens. When people see that someone else is willing to do what they bear the primary responsibility for doing, human nature will usually drive them to readily hand off that responsibility.

This is especially visible in the area of children’s and youth ministry. I believe that the primary privilege and responsibility for children’s faith belongs to the parents (if they are Christians). A church’s ministries to children and youth should be seen as partnering with the parents and not the other way around. After all, the church has them for a couple hours while the parents have them all week long. We need to remember that parents come first so that our attempts to enrich our kids’ lives don’t end up weakening them.

Wisdom vs. Guidance

I was leafing through an old notebook where I’d taken notes on various things during 2003. I came across notes from a talk that my brother Steve gave at an overnight event for our young adult group back in December of 2003. I thought some of the insights he had were worth sharing so I’ll paraphrase some of his key points here.

The danger of depending too much on explicit divine guidance for every choice is that we can fail to take responsibility for the choices we make, saying in our hearts, “It’s not my fault. That’s what God wanted me to do.”

There’s a point in our lives when we start making wise choices for ourselves and are not paralyzed until we hear a voice from heaven giving us play-by-play guidance for every choice we have to make. The choices we make in life are a reflection of our character and God will hold us accountable for those choices.

Consider how a 3-year old knows the will of her father. He gives her clear dos and don’ts. He intervenes when she’s endangering herself. He may give her a smack on the hand to tell her to stop doing something. Now consider how a 16-year old knows the will of her father. She’s in a parked car and a boy is making moves on her. Daddy is not in the car with her, but a voice inside her tells her this is wrong and she stops him. That girl has a more profound grip on her father’s will because she has internalized his values.

Faith, Goodbyes, and Terror Alerts

I am going to board a predawn flight this Saturday to Uganda and I’ve been totally absorbed with preparations for this trip. This morning one of the other pastors on our staff sent me the following clip from a Yahoo! News article:

Uganda on terror alert, 1 year after last attack

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP)  Ugandan police are issuing a terror alert, days befoore the one-year anniversary of the East African nation’s worst terror attack. Police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba says police have learned of “credible fresh terror threats” from Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group. She says police fear an attack between Thursday and next Tuesday. She urged citizens to be vigilant.

Al-Shabab, Somalia’s most dangerous militant group, whichh has ties to al-Qaida cclaimed responsibility for the double suicide bomb attack in Uganda’s capital in last July during the World Cup final. The blasts killed 76 people. Uganda is a major contributor to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which supports Somalia’s weak government in its fight against al-Shabab.

I shared this concern with my family at the dinner table to ask them to pray for me. My children immediately asked me with worry on their faces why I still had to go, and couldn’t I just stay home? I reminded them that risk is sometimes part of following God, and I sensed in my heart that I had accepted the risk.

Yet as I make final preparations and put my kids to bed, I can’t help wanting to savor each moment. I suppose even walking out the door each morning to go to work could be my last goodbye, so I’m trying to prepare for my departure with a bit more sobriety this time in light of the news.

I’m not trying to be overly dramatic here. It’s just that early on in my marriage I used to say to Jeannie as I was leaving for work that I wanted a proper goodbye because you never know if it might be our last. She thought that was weird and morbid but I think I need to return to that real sense that my life is in God’s hands each day and every goodbye really could be the last one.

If you think of it could you pray for me and the others I’ll be traveling with in Uganda?

Thinking About the Lord’s Prayer

I was thinking this morning about the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. In giving this prayer Jesus was teaching his friends (and us) how to pray, and that’s how I’ve always preached this text in the past. But this must also be how he himself prayed regularly. The Lord’s Prayer is probably a good summary of the prayer life of Jesus.

With that in mind, when he prays, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” he isn’t just praying that God will step into our world and intervene supernaturally, but that he would also conform us to be a part of answering that prayer. For Jesus that prayer cost him everything. In Gethsemane he said in an intense moment of prayer, anticipating the crucifixion to come, “Yet not my will but yours be done.”

The example of Jesus reminds me to pray in such a way that I’m not only asking God to conform the world to his will but my own heart as well.

What About Andrew?

Recently I read Matthew 4:18-22 where Jesus calls two sets of brothers (Peter/Andrew and James/John) to be among his first followers. Throughout the Gospels, three of these guys (Peter, James, and John) play a significant role as Jesus’ inner circle. It was these three who were up on the mountain with Jesus at his transfiguration (Matt. 17). He took them on special assignments without the others (Mark 5:37). These three were closer to him than the others in Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). And on and on it goes.

So the question that’s been on my mind is, “What about Andrew?” What was it like to be the one brother left out of this inner circle? After all, it had been Andrew who’d introduced Peter to Jesus in the first place (John 1:41).

I ask this not to question Jesus’ fairness or anything like that. I trust that Jesus had his reasons for doing things as he did. But I marvel that Andrew, despite being the odd man out in this foursome, found such security in Christ that it never really seemed to bother him that much.

There is every indication that Andrew continued to be a faithful disciple, and after Jesus’ ascension he went on to preach throughout Europe and Eurasia. According to certain tradition he was crucified on an X-shaped cross (now known as St. Andrew’s Cross) because he deemed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.

I am so grateful that in Christ we can see an end to jockeying for position or finding our worth in our place in the pecking order. To follow Jesus and be loved by him is enough. Andrew’s life and even death remind me of that.

The Goofiness of God

Recently 3 of my 4 kids attended a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. The older two were just tagging along. Evidently they took a whole bunch of photos in this machine that converts your photo into a stylized pencil sketch. I was flipping through this stack of 8 of these pictures and the last 3 cracked me up. Have a look…

When my wife Jeannie and I looked at these together, we knew exactly where they get this goofy side from – me. No one coached them – they are weird all by themselves. It’s in their very nature.

So I got to wondering, if they get it from me, where do I get it from? Of course I can say I get it from my dad, and to some degree I do – though you’d have to know my dad for years before he’ll show you that side of himself.

But ultimately where does humanity get our levity from? Why do we love to laugh? Why do absurd things make us chuckle? Why do we delight ourselves in things that don’t have a point or serve some functional purpose? I believe with all my heart that it is a reflection of God.

Granted, we can take levity too far and venture into the realm of crass and destructive expressions. But I don’t think Jesus was a stiff. I think he knew how to laugh. I believe he cracked jokes.

Jesus had three years on earth to establish an earthly ministry that would endure until today, yet I believe that he took some of that precious limited time to just delight in being alive. I don’t think levity in any way detracts from the serious business of life that all of us must engage in each day. I think laughter and even sillyness are lubricants for the soul.

One of the things I love about working with our church staff is that from time to time (don’t worry, it’s all done in moderation), we can send each other a funny clip from Youtube that causes an eruption of laughter. Have you laughed today? If it’s been a long time since you’ve burst out in a deep “who-cares-what-I-look-like” belly laugh, you’re missing out on the full picture of life as God intended it.

Propagating Error

I saw an interesting thing on Ron Edmonson’s blog today where he lists the 6 most misquoted movie lines. It was funny because I’ve personally misquoted a number of those lines, each time being absolutely convinced that it sounded right. I never really went back to the movies to confirm because it was close enough to what I thought was right that i just went with it.

Perhaps most surprising was that the line “Beam me up, Scotty” was never used in any Star Trek tv episode or motion picture! Yet is is a line that even non-Trekkies recognize and associate with the franchise.

I remember putting together this quiz for my students when I was a youth pastor in Philadelphia, where i put a bunch of quotes on the page and asked them to identify whether each was from the Bible or Shakespeare. To further fool them I put some lines in that were from neither source but many of them swore that lines like, “God helps those who help themselves” was from the BIble. I guess to them it just sounded right…sounded biblical.

Paul commended the Bereans in Acts 17:11 because (according to the NLT), “They searched the Scriptures day after day to check up on Paul and Silas, to see if they were really teaching the truth.” Misquoting a movie line does not carry any serious consequences, but each time we say something that “sounds” biblical but is even a little off, we are propagating an error that  can have serious negative impact on people’s lives.