The BBC have issued this report on the new phenomenon in London called the Sunday Assembly. Although attendees may cringe at the description, it is being widely branded as the “Atheist Church”- and you can see why. It meets in a disused church building, and looking at the photograph it looks like a regular modern service: architecture, band, powerpoint, casually-dressed preacher.
Everything seems to be familiar to those of us acquainted with the contemporary evangelical church. True, the screen is showing an equation from particle physics- but having seen my good friend Steve Stockman and some of the amazingly creative services he presides over at Fitzroy Presbyterian, even that doesn’t seem strange.
So, what does the Assembly offer? Stevie Wonder instead of Charles Wesley, Alice in Wonderland instead of Philippians, lectures instead of sermons (is there a difference sometimes?), substitute priests, ten ethical guidelines instead of commandments, even a photograph of celebrity scientist Brian Cox peering down on the faithful like a modernist Icon instead of Christ and the Apostles. Even without the architectural backdrop, this is indeed totally derivative. Don’t be fooled, this is a religion.
On one level it’s not surprising at all. This is another example of the image of God within us, the rumours of glory, the need for wonder, the quest for transcendence, call it what you will. The desire to have order and meaning and some code of ethics and morality, but without an agreed – or logically coherent – foundation from which to begin.
But on another level, it acts as a warning. How many of our churches, no matter how theatrically “high” in liturgy or orthodoxy; or creatively artistic or musically contemporary, or technologically hip, are significantly different from the Sunday Assembly? We may be annoyed at the Atheist Church for stealing the patent and just changing the names, and the focus of worship, but is our “product” (and I use the word deliberately) so shallow that that is indeed all they need to do to produce the same effect? Some of those interviewed effectively said “this is what I missed since leaving the church.” It is interesting that the BBC journalist made a social commentary on the demographics of the Assembly that could be made of a number of contemporary churches: “overwhelmingly young, white and middle-class”.
I often remind church-going parents (of the “don’t do anything too religious or my kids won’t come” variety) that our youth programs cannot merely be recreational or entertaining because, at the end of the day, if that is our business we are never going to match the competition who do all of that much better than we do. We need to major on what the church can offer that no-one else can: the liberating truth of the Gospel of grace that changes lives and communities. Let that inspire them. Similarly, what makes church? A nice welcome, good ambience, beautiful architecture, music that “moves me”, inspiring speaker, fellowship? If that’s it, we have serious competition in the likes of the Sunday Assembly, and they probably do it better! But what we do have is a message of hope and grace that stands in sharp contrast to the non-message of contemporary atheism, but which also needs to be radically different from the spirit of the age which one commentator has described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (Be Nice, Feel Good, Construct a God who makes no demands on you). It is an uncomfortable message. Uncomfortable because He does demand something of us; uncomfortable because He asks us to change. But it is the very disconcerting power of that message that millions respond to and rise to.
So, I don’t think we need fear. After the novelty has worn off, the Assembly will face the same problems as liberal churches and nominalism has faced for decades; people will drift if there is nothing supernatural to keep them there, if there is no transforming message. If the Assembly’s message is true (and make no mistake, they want you to believe it IS true) that “life is all too brief and nothing comes after it,” then I can think of better things to do on a Sunday night than sit and get excited about particle physics.
Yes, there’s enough here to remind us that our message has to be nothing less, but so much more, than their “live better, help often, wonder more”; and our churches nothing less, but so much more, than a gathering of the likeminded enjoying good music, stimulating talks and a bit of craic with a few friends. Something that Steve and the guys at Fitzroy, to name just one group, are seeking to model.