There’s a new church movement you may not have heard about, but it’s growing by leaps and bounds. It’s called the Sunday Assembly. It started less than two years ago in England and now has more than 60 congregations around the world. Twenty-five more congregations are expected to launch by early 2015. The Sunday Assembly is growing especially quickly in the United States, where congregations have formed in 17 cities.
At a Sunday Assembly, church members come together to sing songs, hear a speaker and reflect on their lives. Outside of church, they have small groups, book clubs, a choir, peer-to-peer support and a variety of opportunities to volunteer. Their motto is “Live better, help often and wonder more.”
So what’s unique about this rapidly growing church?
Most of the congregants don’t believe in God. It’s a church for atheists.
What is an Atheist Church?
The Sunday Assembly was started by two comedians named Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones who liked the idea of a church without God. Pippa is an ex-Christian who found she missed church elements like “community, volunteering, and music,” but didn’t miss God. Sanderson had noticed the joy at Christmas created by caroling and wondered if it was possible to harness those warm feelings and just celebrate the fact we’re alive.
When Evans and Jones launched the Sunday Assembly, they promoted it using the (appropriate) phrase “atheist church.” However, they now avoid the atheist description and promote the Sunday Assembly as a group “celebrating life.” A New York congregation actually broke off from the group earlier this year because they wanted to focus more on celebrating godlessness than celebrating life.
True to this rebranding effort, the “Frequently Asked Questions” page on the Sunday Assembly’s website attempts to distance the organization from a strict atheist association. In response to the question, “Is Sunday Assembly exclusively for atheists?” they say, “Absolutely not. We say in the Charter that we don’t do supernatural but we won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do. One of the unique things about Sunday Assembly is that it is radically inclusive–allowing us to celebrate life together, regardless of what we believe in.” They go on in other answers to discourage using their group as a vehicle for presenting atheist philosophy or for telling others that they’re wrong for what they believe.
Irony lurks below the surface of this shallow inclusiveness. The first item on their public charter says, “We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.” Make no mistake: this isn’t just a secular gathering where no claims are being made about God one way or another. The Sunday Assembly is built on explicitly atheist assertions. And people are loving it.
A Very Important Lesson for Christian Parents
I’m fascinated by this rise of atheist churches, and I think there is a very important lesson Christian parents can take from it:
We have to make sure our kids are attracted to Jesus and not just the church.
Humans are built for relationships. We desire community; we desire to help others; we desire to live a “good” life and find meaning in what we do–all things that can be found in church. Christians believe that these desires are given to every person by God. That means church is a place that can fill a God-given need for our kids whether they believe in Him or not.
The risk is that they’ll mistake that partial fulfillment for the sum of everything they spiritually need.
Bart Campolo, son of well-known Christian pastor and speaker Tony Campolo, made the news last month because of his deconversion from Christianity. In an interview, he described how as a teenager he was drawn by the sense of community and “the common commitment to love people, promote justice, and transform the world.” He commented, “All the dogma and the death and resurrection of Jesus stuff was not the attraction.”
Church – not Jesus – was the attraction.
How can you know if your kids are attracted to Jesus or just the church? Look at their spiritual development outside of church:
- Do they show an interest in reading and understanding the Bible, or just an interest in good values and community service?
- Do they initiate conversations about faith and ask thoughtful questions?
- Do they demonstrate a desire to discern what God wants for their life?
- Do they pray? (If you don’t know, ask!)
There are certainly a lot of kids kicking and screaming all the way to church each week. That’s a whole other problem. But let’s be sure to not assume a happy church-goer is also a Jesus-lover. As the Sunday Assembly has shown us, a lot of people are happy to do church without God.
What kind of “relationship” do your kids have with your church? Have you ever considered if it’s a Jesus-centered relationship? I’d love to hear your thoughts!