11 January 2013
God-shaped holes and godless churches
London's new atheist church opened the doors to its 250-strong flock last weekend. The brainchild of comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, The Sunday Assembly's mission is to be a community for "anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more".
They are quite clear they want to "enjoy the good stuff about religion", only without the 'God bit'. So the first service included a reading from Teddy Roosevelt's The Man in the Arena speech and renditions of songs including Oasis's Don't Look Back in Anger and Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations.
There are two things that make me uncomfortable about this atheist church. The first is that, honestly, it sounds like … fun. This is exactly my cup of tea: getting to know people, being inspired by great literature, singing some brilliant songs.
This kind of gathering, this ekklesia, scratches an itch which seems present in all of humanity, including atheists. Next month, social enterprise The School of Life is even running a course entitled 'How to fill the God-shaped hole'.
As Alain de Botton writes in Religion for Atheists: "I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist… [But] I recognised that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrims, communal meals and illustrated manuscripts of the faiths." He likes the fruits, but not the roots.
My second concern is that The Sunday Assembly sounds not too dissimilar from … church – the God-believing kind. I know that when I invite friends to church, I play up the 'fun club/community' angle and downplay the 'God bit' because I feel that's easier for them to stomach.
Maybe it's our fault that what our churches are actually all about has been misunderstood.
In this pick-and-choose pluralistic buffet of a society we live in, I can be extremely selective. No-carb meals, gluten-free cake, godless church.
And maybe the 'God bit' is seen as a feature of church to which you can say 'no thanks' if you so wish; the Christian church seen as a preference – a way of doing life together which happens to throw in words like 'God' and 'Jesus' and 'salvation' and 'grace'. But you can take these or leave them.
Sociologist and secularisation expert Peter L. Berger writes: "There is a continuum of values between the churches and the general community. What distinguishes the handling of these values in the churches is mainly the heavier dosage of religious vocabulary involved."
Can that really be what the world thinks is the only difference? The words we use? The G-word?
Our churches are indeed full of the "good stuff" – they are great places to form community, to do good, to share life and to find purpose. But the "good stuff" is a by-product of the radical, life-transforming spirit-filled kingdom of God.
And we need to make clear – and remind ourselves - that the good news of Jesus Christ, the gospel, is that and more than that. It is everything.
I grew up watching Christian children's favourite The Donut Man, who would sing: "Life without Jesus is like a donut… 'Cause there's a hole in the middle of your heart."
I'm sorry, Mr Donut Man, but God is not just something that plugs a hole. Christ didn't come just to fill in life's gaps.
He said: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10)
Our faith isn't just fun, doing good and living in community with a Jesus-cherry on top. Jesus doesn't just fill the God-shaped hole in my life or make me feel good. Christ came for the transformation of the whole of creation. This is about more than me. When even we sometimes fail to think of Christianity in this way, who can blame The Sunday Assembly for seeing the 'God bit' as an optional extra?
Chine Mbubaegbu, editor, Evangelical Alliance