Monday, January 06, 2014

Advice for Atheist Churches

A friend pointed out an article over at the CNN Religion Blog about Atheist Churches... and of course, their almost immediate fracture after seeking to spread. 

A brief excerpt from the article: 
In October, three former members of Sunday Assembly NYC announced the formation of a breakaway group called Godless Revival.
“The Sunday Assembly,” wrote Godless Revival founder Lee Moore in a scathing blog post, “has a problem with atheism.”
Moore alleges that, among other things, Jones advised the NYC group to “boycott the word atheism” and “not to have speakers from the atheist community.” It also wanted the New York branch to host Assembly services in a churchlike setting, instead of the Manhattan dive bar where it was launched.
Jones denies ordering the NYC chapter to do away with the word “atheism,” but acknowledges telling the group “not to cater solely to atheists.” He also said he advised them to leave the dive bar “where women wore bikinis,” in favor of a more family-friendly venue.
The squabbles led to a tiff and finally a schism between two factions within Sunday Assembly NYC. Jones reportedly told Moore that his faction was no longer welcome in the Sunday Assembly movement.
The split seems to be fueled by a fundamental disagreement in organization and purpose. The emergence of atheism into a more accepted existence has shown that Atheism is not in fact monolithic. With even fewer doctrinal guardians than American mainline protestants, these atheist assemblies now have to figure out who they are when engaging the larger community. 
In the midst of this discussion, I cannot help but see similarities from the early church. One of the questions Engelhart asks in the blog is if disbelief is enough to hold the Atheist Churches together. I say "No." Why? Because belief was not enough to keep the Christian Church together. I suppose it is more accurate to say that "Belief in belief" is not enough, borrowing from Stanley Hauerwas' comments that American religion is about belief in belief. (See this 2010 article in the Guardian as an example)  While the early church lived in the Roman Empire, an illegal religion sometimes persecuted harshly, the  early church could live with any profession of "Jesus is Lord!" Once they were legitimized by Constantine, the cracks in the belief began to show. Belief was not enough to hold them together. Schism and heresy began to split the Christian Church apart as leaders began to hash out what they believed about this Jesus guy and why he mattered. Throughout the history of the Christian Church, the followers of Jesus have shown with increasingly regularity that we are far more comfortable perpetrating the brokenness, sometimes over substantial matters like fundamental questions of who Jesus is, and more often over irrelevant questions like the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. What ultimately keeps the Christian Church together is Jesus, that resurrected God-Man who still shows up in our gatherings, even when we get him all wrong. He shows up in Word and Sacrament and in our life together so we can practice the grace he gives us. Belief alone leaves us Christians fractured still. It is no small miracle that any Christian Church has survived for two millennia. In the same way, I do not believe disbelief (or maybe disbelief in belief?) will hold the Atheist Church together. they will need something more.
But a bigger issue came to mind as I read the article. The Atheist Church is copying the model of the Christian Church, a model many Christian Church leaders are wrestling with because it seems outdated. The gathering to listen to people talk about stuff might be interesting (might not since not every sermon in a Christian Church is necessarily interesting to everyone), but one of the things that the Christian Church is facing, is how to engage people in those moments. And many religious leaders are altering the way the Christian Church deals with that time. We no longer live in a period where people will sit for the "Tell me" but are looking for "Show me." Don't just talk about praying. Pray. That time is being opened up for something more participatory and experiential. 
The Atheist Church needs to discern questions of identity, meaning and purpose. And they should not just duplicate the model of the Christian Church. Be true to what you believe and live into that. Make your gatherings reflect that. Even Engelhart recognizes something is amiss in this new Atheist Church movement. She wrote: 
Instead of a thoughtful sermon, I got a five-minute Wikipedia-esque lecture on the history of particle physics.
Instead of receiving self-improvement nudges or engaging in conversation with strangers, I watched the founders fret (a lot) over technical glitches with the web streaming, talk about how hard they had worked to pull the service off, and try to sell me Sunday Assembly swag.
What’s more, instead of just hop, skipping and jumping over to a local venue, as I once did, I now had to brave the tube and traverse the city.
Perhaps something was lost. in the move to a larger, organized effort. At a time when people are decrying organized religion, perhaps organized atheism is not any better. 
Why do I care though?  Why am I bothering to offer advice to atheists? Most likely because I believe the God I follow in Jesus is not the sort who observes boundaries. He doesn't just stick with his own people. He is out there. And if the Atheist Church has anything good to offer the world, it will be because Jesus is there since nothing good can come apart from him. And maybe, we in the Christian Church might learn something more about what Jesus is up to in the process. 

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