The atheist church challenge

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A church for atheists, launched in London in January 2013, now claims to have 40 congregations across the world. Called Sunday Assembly, its growth was dramatic after its “40 Dates and 40 Nights: The Roadshow” in October and November. The roadshow was also referred to as a “global missionary tour” or “global mega launch party” and included Australia.

Sunday Assembly began in a deconsecrated church as the brainchild of two comedians: Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. But this is no joke.

A church cannot be a church without Jesus. You can call it a club or an assembly, but it isn't church.

Their website lists: “Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfil their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.” 

Jones says, “Sunday Assembly has been called the atheist church, but we prefer to think of it as all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome songs.”1 No religion. No God. No Jesus. One respondent on their website suggests it’s “like church without the guilt”.

Writer Katie Englehart visited the London site in April and reported that it “had a wayward, whimsical feel. At a table by the door, ladies served homemade cakes and tea. The house band played Cat Stevens. Our ‘priest’ wore pink skinny jeans. Many attendees were modish 20-somethings, and pretty obviously hung-over.”2 

The “liturgy” is based on the Church of England approach, which helps make it recognisable to those who attend. The sermon is replaced by a secular, sermon-like talk. For the Melbourne event, comedian Catherine Deveny (why so many comedians?) spoke about Winston Churchill’s challenge, “If you are going through hell, keep going”.3 

The assembly recognises the significant advantages of gathering for church regularly. It builds a sense of belonging and community; it challenges people to improve themselves; and, together, church people can have a significant impact in their community for good. 

What we churchgoers tend to forget is that we have something quite special in our weekly gatherings. It’s something that’s admired by those who don’t experience it. For Evans, who stopped believing in God at 17, it wasn’t God she missed, but the church.

Will Sunday Assembly last? The fact that they meet only monthly will probably work against them. The response, despite the roadshow, has so far been muted. And there are signs that there isn’t the kind of commitment they were hoping for. They’d set a 500,000 pound ($A928,000) fund-raising target and received only 36,000 pounds ($A67,000).

But there’s a far bigger problem. A church cannot be a church without Jesus. You can call it a club or an assembly, but it isn’t church. Paul the apostle defines the church as a body with Jesus as the Head. Jesus is vital and central.

The Bible Society’s Sophie Timothy said she had a good time attending the Melbourne Assembly, but suspected that the group would not be as sustainable as religious churches have been. “The Christian church is a local expression of the body of Christ,” she said, “not just a bunch of people with similar ideas.”4 

The Sunday Assembly’s “atheist church” experiment is a reminder and a warning that the church is only made “full and complete” in Jesus (Ephesians 1:23, NLT).        

1. www.abc.net.au/news/2013-11-09/church-for-atheists-comes-to-australia/5080996

2. www.alternet.org/belief/atheism-starts-its-own-megachurch-it-religion-now

3. www.crikey.com.au/2013/07/09/godless-congregation-coming-to-the-city-of-churches/

4. Ibid.
 


Pastor Bruce Manners is senior pastor of Lilydale church, Victoria.