The struggles of church without God

In general in western nations a loss of faith has been matched by a rise in loneliness. People noticed the loss of faith first and mostly weren’t in the slightest bit bothered by it. The implications of loneliness on the other hand has people, rightly, very concerned.

In discussing this last year I mentioned the rise of secular congregations that had, in part, a desire to build community for the faithless.

I’ve never been to a Sunday Assembly but I’m generally positive about them. Why do I quite like what The Sunday Assembly are saying? Because it’s offering me much of what I love about the church – friendships, helping people, wonder, gratitude. These agnostics and atheists are being very up front. They realised their lives were missing something and saw that the church had a lot going for it and are quite openly stealing the bits they like. They’re being true to their convictions and see the solutions as achievable without any recourse to a deity.

My guess is that the human propensity to be independent, selfish, greedy, controlling, lazy or malicious will infect those noble attempts as much as it has the church.

It turns out I was right. With the emphasis on the independent & possibly lazy. In a fascinating article in The Atlantic Faith Hill writes,

If the sudden emergence of secular communities speaks to a desire for human connection and a deeper sense of meaning, their subsequent decline shows the difficulty of making people feel part of something bigger than themselves. One thing has become clear: The yearning for belonging is not enough, in itself, to create a sense of home.

The numbers were never actually all that impressive (there are lots of churches in the US that are bigger than this whole movement) but the decline has been sharp & swift.

Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years—from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. The number of chapters is down from 70 three years ago to about 40 this year.

In terms of response to this I’d point you towards two and both are instructive for the church. One by Giles Fraser and the other by Stephen McAlpine.

First McAlpine:

Think about it.  Who are the biggest threat to the existence of your church community?  The community members themselves.  And that’s what we have in common with all communities.  And that’s just in the central meeting!  We do gatherings with each other the rest of the week with all sorts of diverse people from church.  How do we stop that tearing itself apart?

It’s at this point, however, the church of Jesus Christ has a distinct advantage over Jesus-less ekklesia.  When communities fall into strive and unforgiveness, how is that resolved?  When Christ’s church is unforgiving we read the command “Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  How do Christless churches leverage forgiveness.  Where, or Who, is their lodestar?

And love?  Today love is love is love is love ad infinitum!  But how does that stack up with “This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and gave His Son as a propitiation for our sins.”

And never mind inside a church meeting, what about the rest of the week?  What would compel us to bear someone else’s burdens better than the reality that in so doing we “fulfil the law of Christ”?

And the list goes on.  It turns out that the centre of the community has to be strong enough to keep it together, and healthy enough to keep it a safe place to be.  Jesus ticks all those boxes in the most transcendent way possible.

Fraser picks up the baton and unpacks the root of forgiveness & love.

It’s all very well celebrating the best of the world. But what about the worst. The real challenge for a God-less church is how it deals with the problem of evil. On one level, of course, they can do this just as easily as traditional churches. When something terrible occurs in the world, the Assemblies can of course analyse its causes, commit to making the world a better place, and take a collection to relieve the suffering of those affected.

But there’s another sort of evil: the darkness within. How do they address that? My acid test, then, for a godless church is this: how would they tackle the funeral of a paedophile? Or: what do they say at the eulogy for a racist?

In church we can say: “Lord, have mercy” and “Father, forgive”. But what is the atheistic equivalent? At the heart of the godless funeral – longer established than the Sunday Assemblies – there is commonly a celebration of the good qualities of the deceased: what they achieved, how much they were loved and admired and so on. But what if that person were an out-and-out rotter, someone about whom very little good could be said? What then?

Here lies the problem at the heart of the godless movement. Belief is not really about being good and celebrating life and wonder. More importantly, it is about being saved. That is, it is a way of addressing some inherent brokenness about human beings, a brokenness that we are unable to fix by ourselves. The traditionally Christian way of describing all this is original sin – a term that has been overly associated with sex, but is better understood as a meditation on human failure and inadequacy.

I would expect that various chapters of organisations like The Sunday Assembly may prove to be quite resilient but whether it will survive the acid test of being generational I doubt. And in the ebb and flow of faith, in the West faith may once again begin to flow.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.