The Daily Beast recently ran an article concerning a movement of “atheist churches” that began in North London just over a year ago. The attempt to establish a “religion-free church” has expanded rapidly and there are talks of opening almost 400 atheist churches on five continents within the next few years.
According to the article, it’s possible that an outsider might find it difficult to tell the difference between the average Christian church and many of these assemblies sprouting up all over the world. “Their gatherings resemble traditional church services,” writes Nico Hines of TDB, “(there’s) singing, lessons and the chance to interact with members of the community. The only thing missing is God.”
So how could this possibly bring me hope? How could this news of self-proclaimed godless masses possibly strike anything but pain and or frustration to the heart of a dedicated Christian?
For years, Christian churches have been critiqued for both their theology and their mode of practice. The trend of the past fifty years, particularly within Western Christendom, has been for Christian churches to defy the “traditional” church structure of past ages and instead adapt to cultural changes, one centered not on the community but the individual. Salvation, many members of the millennial generation would argue, does not exist in the structural format of a church but rather is to be found solely within individualized personal experiences.
Such has, in fact, been the message of many modern and post-modern theologians. Communities that once evolved around the structure provided by a church (however mutated or corrupted a structure it might have been) have disintegrated into personalized spheres where the spiritual needs and wants of the individual are held above the community. The notion of a church being the hub of community and the heartbeat of culture has disintegrated into individualized perceptions of religious matter.
And the Church has struggled desperately to adapt. It is with a bitter sense of irony that most Christians have to admit the differences between an atheist church service and those conducted by many mainline religious establishments might not be all that different. We probably sing different songs, clap to a different tune and hear a message that encourages us in a different direction. But on a practical and, sometimes spiritual level, God, for all intents and purposes, has been left out of much of our religion because the only god we truly serve is the one we make in our own isolated images. Any self-critical Western Christian must at some point ask themselves if they are worshiping god or just a grandeur more powerful version of themselves projected upon the throne.
Yet, according to the article, there is now a group of people who professedly do not believe in god and yet are coming together for the purpose of a communal expression.
And there en lies my hope. The heartbeat of a community is the narrative it attaches to itself. This has always been the case; throughout history nation states, religious movements, sects, people groups, sub-cultures and the likes have all, at their core, been based on a defining narrative, the stories they tell.
What culture lost with the rejection of corporate religion and denial of a communal meta-narrative could be returning with the realization that such narratives are necessary to our existence as humans. The movement of people across the globe voluntarily meeting and celebrating the community of which they all play a small role is rich soil for Christianity. In initiating godless churches, atheism is paving the way for God-filled churches to enter, albeit somewhat unconventionally, but also not entirely foreign to anything the church has witness before. For godless churches are worshipping something, certainly not the Christian god, but they’re worshipping something and that’s a start. For years atheism has claimed to worship no god, but the very act of celebrating a central narrative and community illustrates a desire to be part of something outside of themselves. This is the first step from rebellion to worship: putting the apple down and admiring the beauty of the tree. The rest can follow.
In starting “godless churches” the leaders of an emerging movement have written a story and left blank the names. So the question becomes: will Christians take the opportunity to fill in those names? Will we take the opportunity to embrace a movement and seek innovative ways to interact with those of differing beliefs in the hope of pointing out how the narrative which defines us is also defining them?
It should not surprise anyone that this atheistic church could not be started without at least a few of the members being adamantly informed that they were “going to hell”. This represents another pathetic approach to an emerging movement by Christians.
Instead of repeating our pattern of over-reacting with a defensive posture, we need to step back and take a moment to see the work of God that is taking place despite ourselves. What we also need, desperately, is to acknowledge the fact that the narrative of God’s grace will play itself out despite us and it is with humility that we have even been assigned a role.
Once we’ve prostrated ourselves with such humility, I would suggest that we visit some of these new churches, take part in the community they are attempting to foster. They are, after all, springing up in towns where Christian churches sit empty and abandoned. “We could,” one of the founders said, “have a profound impact”.
Where will Christians be while this impact is being made? Will we be on the outside, calling down brimstone and fire, hurtling insults at our “enemies”, sitting with our head in our hands looking at our empty pews while the godless church next door pumps out the melody of life in community? Or will we take the chance to engage with this trend in culture, enter into these institutions, shake their hands, hear their stories, seek to be in the world though not of it and in doing so provide ourselves the platform to share our story?
I see a valuable opportunity here that could easily be wasted. Post-modernity caught Christianity off-guard; we still don’t know how to react. But what I see within movements like these is a hint that the individualism of the era may refute itself. We have a chance to stop fighting yesterday’s battles and instead focus on the landscape of the next ten years.
It would seem that this landscape might include a few godless worship services. How will we bring our story, the story, into them?