I’ve long been a proponent of the benefits of a church community. Nowhere else can you receive identity, support, encouragement, and companionship on the journey of life. Those who gather in the name of Jesus, regardless of belief about him, are influenced by him. Therefore, I’ve said and written, as we follow him and are changed by him, we reflect the kingdom forgiveness, grace, compassion, and justice he brought into this world.
So we teach/learn, pray, sing, hang out, and serve–all in the name of Christ. We’ve got the corner on that stuff. These activities reflect our Christianity and discipleship to a world that needs to see it, hear it, experience it. Recognizing this, we can be somewhat comfortable in our attempts to follow Jesus into the world. Our identity as Christians is clarified, honed, and practiced “in church,” and then lived “in the world.”
All this unique to us, the church.
Until now. A recent movement with its genesis in the UK is Atheist Mega-churches. These weekly gatherings are gaining ground in the US, and provide a communal, supportive, beneficial gathering with music, inspiring speakers, and more. All without God or religion. And it seems to be catching on.
And I wonder, for many of today’s church-goers, if this could be just what we’re looking for. All the benefits of church and religion without all the problematic things like “Jesus” getting in the way. No, I’m serious about this.
Let’s face it, the biggest problem for the church is Jesus. Not only are there all the difficult demands like “love your enemies,” and “give to everyone who asks,” which most Christians conveniently opt out of, but there’s the whole divinity/resurrection thing. Not to mention bloody internal battles about such basics as baptism, Holy Communion, the Bible, worship, and ordination.
Many Christians, with nowhere else to go, endure the difficulties of arguing about Jesus and church doctrine. They put up with the inconvenience of feeling guilty about not being generous enough, holding grudges against evil-doers, questioning their faith, and inadequate biblical interpretation. They also are forced to put up with hypocricy, self-righteousness, and power struggles that pervade the local church. All this for the sake of being part of a church community. Apparently, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for many, as churches continue to permeate the American landscape.
The atheists have provided a solution for many. Individual beliefs don’t matter, doctrine doesn’t enter in, and there are no difficult mandates regarding accountability of behavior. If you are confused about whether the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus, represents the presence of Christ, or somewhere in between, the atheist churches welcome you. If you disagree about your church’s stand on homosexuality, the atheist churches probably don’t care. If Jesus’ concern for the poor and the marginalized cause you too much discomfort, the atheist churches aren’t likely to hold you to an impossible standard of generosity.
So I say, go get ’em, atheists! For all those in Christian churches who have difficulty with Jesus, thank you for providing us with a community, a sense of unemcumbered belonging, and freedom to feel like church without the difficulties. You are the new American Civil Religion, where we can maintain our individual preferences without having to be challenged by a mysterious higher authority. You allow us to make sense of the world on our own terms without concern over ancient doctrine or empty faith practices. We can follow our own agendas, free from guilt, compromise, or accountability. Community without the cross. Encouragement without the need for forgiveness. An inspiring presentation without preaching. Great music without praise.
I’m not kidding when I say it sounds like what many current church-goers are wanting. Thank you, atheist churches, for giving us a viable community experience with the ability to opt out of Jesus–and all the messiness and conflict he brings. There are days when I’d think about being part of you, when being a Christian is just too hard. There are days when I doubt, when I am helpless, when I am frustrated, when I am in dire need of forgiveness. You provide a way out: by side-stepping all that religious piety.
Perhaps I might join you one day. But for now, I guess I’ll stick with the hope recorded by a line of people seeking meaning and purpose for thousands of years. I’ll endure the mystery of contemplating something that is outside my ability to understand. I’ll trust in some mysterious author of ultimate goodness, who steps into my life and my world with mercy and unconditional love. I’ll face the presence of evil with the hope that it is not the final word for the world. I’ll take the grace that comes in the experience of deep-down, soul-wrenching forgiveness. And I’ll do it all as part of a messy, broken, hypocritical, sometimes judgmental community that doesn’t always represent Jesus very well. I guess, when I’m honest with myself, I fit there better.