What Christians Can Learn from the “Atheist Megachurch”

This is either the Sunday Assembly, or a really hip Eastern Orthodox congregation

This is either the Sunday Assembly, or a really hip Eastern Orthodox congregation

A few weeks ago, news sources were buzzing over the “atheist megachurch,” the Sunday Assembly. Atheists, agnostics, and other assorted nonbelievers can now gather together every Sunday in major cities like London, New York, and Sydney, hear a humanistic and/or scientific message, and sing some songs. It’s the typical Sunday evangelical church experience, wrapped up in a neat little package, and without all that pesky doctrine.

The media loves this sort of thing because it seems like something that will get people riled up. Militant atheists will be mad that less militant atheists are acting all religiousy, and religious people will no doubt be furious that atheists have dared to steal their idea of getting together and singing. But it takes a lot to harsh my mellow, so I’m not going to get worked up about it, even though atheists and megachurches might be the worst combination of terrible things since Vanilla Ice teamed up with the Insane Clown Posse.

"I've seen miracles in every way, and I see miracles every day" --a speaker at the Sunday Assembly, probably

“I’ve seen miracles in every way, and I see miracles every day.”
–a speaker at the Sunday Assembly, probably

That said, I think there is something we (Christians) can learn from the Sunday Assembly’s existence, because I think it lays bare the main weakness of the “evangelical” wing of Christianity. After all, the Assembly wouldn’t be stealing so many ideas from the typical evangelical megachurch service if evangelical megachurches weren’t making it so easy.

I’m talking, of course, about “seeker-friendly worship,” which has been the goal in most evangelical congregations for several decades now. It means, essentially, doing nothing on Sunday morning that will scare non-Christians away — which in practice means making your worship as un-worship-like as possible. “Contemporary” (read: would have been contemporary 20 years ago) music, a “worship hall” that looks like an auditorium, and no challenging ideas in the sermon. One wonders how the worship of a man who said stuff like “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” can be made un-scary to people, but whatever.

I don't know about you, but I'd show up at 8, grab breakfast, and then come back at 10.

I don’t know about you, but I’d show up at 8, grab breakfast somewhere, and then come back at 10.

The point is, the Church has been acting more like a marketing firm for Jesus — trying to make him as palatable as possible to people who are basically uninterested in him — than like a Church. Each service is an ad for how much better Jesus will make your life rather than a mystical ceremony in which God meets man, sins are forgiven, and the body and blood of the God of the universe are placed in people’s mouths.

The result is worship that looks less like worship and more like a concert followed by a motivational speaker. It’s a format borrowed from the secular world, so none of us should be surprised when the secular world borrows it back.

It’s also fundamentally dishonest, in the same way that ads for domestic beer are. They make something that’s unpleasant, scary, and often miserable (following Christ, drinking domestic beer, either one) look fun and easy. We’re talking about the guy who said, “Take up your cross and follow me” and “You can’t love me unless you hate your parents,” and we’re promising people “Your best purpose-driven life now” (or something like that). You can’t ask people to take on something challenging with a marketing pitch that asks nothing of them.

I love how low this sets the bar. "Bud Light: It's theoretically possible to drink it!"

I love how low this sets the bar. “Bud Light: It’s theoretically possible to drink it!”

It’s easy to look at the Sunday Assembly’s attitude of “Let’s give people only what they really like about Sunday mornings: singing, an inspirational talk, and coffee with friends” and respond with, “Well, that’s a pretty shallow understanding of worship.” But it’s entirely unsurprising to see something like the Sunday Assembly pop up when our worship is pretty shallow to begin with. It’s naïve to try to draw people to the Church by offering things (music, entertainment, food) they can get in better forms elsewhere.

Forgiveness of sins, the cleansing waters of baptism, the body and blood of Christ himself — those things are challenging to “seekers” (and believers) and they should be. They also provide a much more compelling reason to come to Church than “donuts and a rocking band” — at least for those willing to engage in enough “seeking” to understand them.

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I don’t like to brag, but these other posts have gotten literally SEVERAL hits each:

Modesty: Go Ahead and Get Naked, or Better Yet, Don’t

I am an Ass, part II: The Sign of the Cross

Why “Traditional” Music is Actually Contemporary

7 thoughts on “What Christians Can Learn from the “Atheist Megachurch”

  1. Good post as always, Luke.

    Oddly enough, though, the part I found the most intriguing was this:

    I don’t know about you, but I’d show up at 8 [Gregorian Chant Liturgy], grab breakfast somewhere, and then come back at 10 [Hip Hop Praise Jam!].

    Gregorian chant, I get (I’d be there with you, of course). But what is it about a Church geek who digs Gregorian chant that would make him go for a Hip Hop service, or (to put it better, perhaps) what is it about a Hip Hop service that a traditionalist Church geek should be interested in? (Full disclosure: I don’t know the first thing about Hip Hop.)

    Or were you just being totally facetious and I shouldn’t read anything into it at all?

    • The only thing you should read into it is that I dig hip-hop (and I’m particularly a huge Christian hip-hop geek, but don’t tell anyone 🙂 ). I don’t think it’s the best choice for corporate worship by any stretch, but it’d be fun to check out the service at least once.

      But yeah, it was mostly just a joke. A wow-I-have-strange-taste-in-music sort of joke.

  2. This is absolutely spot on. Have you read Tullian Tchividjian’s book ‘Unfashionable’, by any chance? My Dad gave it to me specifically for going away to college, and it hits on a lot of these ideas.

    Thinking about what the Church’s relationship is to culture, I’m always drawn back to John 15:19:

    “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

    The need that we have for Christ is not the same as the need to belong to a community, or be part of some kind of movement; honestly, I think it serves people’s need much better to offer something different and true, rather than something familiar and hollow. I think it’s time a lot of Christians – both the ‘seeker-friendly’ variety and the the loud, angry fundamentalist types – re-examined what it means to be in the world but not of the world.

    Great post!

  3. Great post, Luke.

    Reading this, I actually recalled one of your previous posts, about Millenials leaving the church because I know that many Millenials leave the church because it has never offered them anything church-like. They show up for “a good time” or “a personal relationship,” and well, neither of those comes anywhere close to what Christianity actually is. Then they get to college and realize, hey, there are a million and one ways to have a good feeling, and honestly, if that’s all you’re looking for, all of them are better than the church.

    If I may steal a quote and take it way out of context, a line from rapper Macklemore’s “Neon Cathedral” (a great song, incidentally, highly suggest looking it up) could be applied here: “The liquor store is open later than the churches.”

    I know I’m kind of just retreading what you’ve already said here, so I’ll end there. But first, I have to ask: Did Vanilla Ice and ICP ever really team up, or is that photoshop? (Follow up: if they really teamed up, can you link a brother to a video of that train wreck?)

  4. Pingback: Majestic Protests from a Magisterial Protestant; or, someone needs to harass Don Miller some more, so it might as well be me | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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