A Godless Congregation
Tim Nash and his wife, Hannah, live in Nottingham, England, and are church planters for the Methodist Church. They started a Jesus-centered community called Garden-City, which is becoming a wonderful spiritual family for young followers of Jesus and spiritual seekers. For the last few years Tim has also been producing Nomad Podcast, a podcast that interviews leading thinkers and practitioners from around the world, to help us all explore a Jesus-centered, missional lifestyle. They had Greg on the show a few years ago, and they interviewed him again a couple of weeks ago (although that one won’t go online for a few months).
Here’s a piece Tim wrote after a recent visit to an atheist church.
It’s interesting that England used to be a Christian country, in some senses at least, but is now one of the world’s most secular nations. It’s also home to a new atheist church. In January, two comedians launched The Sunday Assembly — a church that “never mentions God”. No joke. Each week, about 300 atheists meet in London to sing, listen to talks, plan missions and enjoy a sense of community. And it’s spreading, with atheist churches springing up in cities around the UK, the US and Australia. As one of the founders said: “We’ve inadvertently sparked a global movement!” I wonder if this godless congregation — which is how The Sunday Assembly refers to itself — stands as a prophetic warning to the church.
So I went to one of their services and interviewed one of the founders for Nomad Podcast.
My first impression was that The Sunday Assembly does indeed feel like a church. As we walked in, people were mingling. The leader was greeting people at the door. And the band was setting up. The only difference at this point was that the faithful were filling the seats from the front (in my church experience, they usually fill up from the back!). When things got started, all the traditional elements of a service were evident — singing, sermon, notices, reflections and encouragement to join small groups and mission events. This call to mission provided one of the few references to church, when the leader challenged the congregation to “try and outdo the church at doing good”. There was even communion. Well, sort of — this month’s guest speaker was a wine expert, who passed around a glass of red for people to share.
We noticed only two striking differences to a Christian church. First, the service was a lot funnier (it’s led by two comedians). And second, there were no references to God or Jesus.
I found this challenging. Just how different is what we’re doing in our Christian churches from what they’re doing in their atheist church? On the surface, the only difference is language. We talk about Jesus, they don’t. But actually, how significant is this?
It reminded me of what Paul said to the followers of Jesus in Corinth: “I didn’t come to you with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
Surely our faith is more than just words. Surely it is more than language that separates us from the atheists. Paul went on to say that when people who aren’t followers of Jesus come into a Christian gathering they will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!'” (1 Cor. 14:25).
So I don’t think the primary difference between us and the atheists is language. It has to be the presence of Jesus. Without the radically transforming presence of Jesus in our gatherings, are we not, for all intents and purposes, just another atheist church?