What Happens at an Atheist Church?

david normanDavid Norman is currently pursuing an M.Div. at Southwestern Seminary and has served in ministry for over 12 years. He thinks Jesus is enough, reading heavy books covered in dust is awesome, and the church is still the hope of the world.  He blogs at www.davidnormanblog.com and tweets (twits? twitters?) from @david_norman.

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worship

A recent BBC News Magazine article asked, “What happens at an atheist church?”:

The theme of the morning is “wonder” – a reaction, explains Jones, to criticism that atheists lack a sense of it.

So we bow our heads for two minutes of contemplation about the miracle of life and, in his closing sermon, Jones speaks about how the death of his mother influenced his own spiritual journey and determination to get the most out of every second, aware that life is all too brief and nothing comes after it.

The audience – overwhelmingly young, white and middle class – appear excited to be part of something new and speak of the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith. Few actively identify themselves as atheists.

“It’s a nice excuse to get together and have a bit of a community spirit but without the religion aspect,” says Jess Bonham, a photographer.

“It’s not a church, it’s a congregation of unreligious people.”

Misapplied Worship

God has created within the human heart the need to worship. We have been created with the inward desire to give ourselves to something greater – something beyond ourselves. Because Christ alone fills the void, whenever we refuse to bow our knee to God, we find ourselves on a perpetual search for something else to worship. An “atheist church” stands as a modern-day evidence of this truth by providing an avenue for worship while denying the only person truly worthy of worship.

More interesting is that the article notes that the atheist congregation spends time contemplating the miracle of life. This in itself is a fascinating discovery. Atheism, as a worldview, is not a specific denial of the Judeo-Christian God, but of the supernatural in general. It is a thoroughly naturalist anti-religion that scoffs at the notion of the miraculous. One wonders, then, how they can both contemplate the miracle of life, and yet be so deeply tied to the refusal to believe in the supernatural and manage not to see any discontinuity of thought?

The article itself references ten virtues, or commandments, that have been written for the faithless. The list can be found here. None of the virtues are evil, in fact they promote such things as politeness, sacrifice, and forgiveness. But in the absence of the Divine, these virtues are nonsensical. If there is no Creator, no afterlife or eternal life, no judgment, no reckoning – if this life truly is all that there is – virtues such as sacrifice and politeness are pithy ideals that hinder one from making the most of every moment.

The argument could be made that the desire to live in such a manner – “to flex our ethical muscles,” as the author put it – testifies to an innate knowledge that a life spent hedonistically seeking pleasure and gain at the expense of others is objectively wrong. In fact, every practice of this atheist church, including its very existence, testifies to the vain attempt to replace a life devoted to the Sovereign God with something – anything – else.

This same article claims that England and Wales are now the most unreligious nations in the Western world. What was once the missionary-sending “hub” that sent such men into world as Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor is now hard soil – desperately in need of laborers of the gospel. The streets that once thundered with the preaching of Spurgeon, Morgan, Stott, and Lloyd-Jones have now become full of men and women who have never heard the gospel. May God raise up thousands of missionaries to carry it back into these nations.

Redeeming “Church”

The last line in the quote above sounds eerily familiar to quotes used by many contemporary churches. In effort to distance themselves from what the culture may perceive to be dry, dusty, lifeless “church,” it has become common to use another term. We call them fellowships, communities, even bodies – anything, it seems, to avoid the use of a term that carries such historical baggage as “church.”

Perhaps we’d do well to return to using the term, “church.” After all, it is Christ’s church that Jesus bled for, died for, promised to build, and calls His bride. The church is the only institution that God promised to sustain eternally. Of course, using those other terms doesn’t abdicate a congregation’s place in the universal church. The Reformers were quick to acknowledge that the church existed wherever the Word was rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered. But the solution to the growing dissonance between what the church was established to be and the current perception of the church cannot be solved by merely opting to use another descriptor.

Instead, we must redeem even the word “church” by repenting of our failure to sail between the Charybdis of absorbing the values of our culture and the Scylla of creating an artificial Christianese counter-culture. We must, instead, live as pilgrims – citizens of another Kingdom – in this world, wholly committed to the God whose gospel we proclaim. Then we are more than a fellowship, more than a congregation, an experience or a community – we are an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are the church.

May God bring us to such repentance for His glory.

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