Churches for atheists has been gaining some traction recently, most recently through the advent (poor word choice – Ed) of The Sunday Assembly in London. You’ve got to hand it to them – at the very time when a prayer/hymn/sermon sandwich is going out the door in church along with half the congregation, along comes an anti-church with the same kit and caboodle. There’s probably even a cup of weak-as-dishwater tea and a stale biscuit at the end. Chutzpah indeed!
Well, strictly speaking, The Sunday Assembly it’s not an anti-church is it? Given the word ekklesia was a borrowed word that simply meant gathering, it may be a case of taking it back. The fact that Christians gathered – a lot – simply meant it took on a sacred meaning. And then too, Stephen talks about “the church in the desert” (Acts 7:38) referring to the rebellious people of God who came up from Egypt. The Sunday Assembly homepage describes itself as “a godless congregation”, so it comes pretty close to what Israel was right throughout the Old Testament. Perhaps they are speaking more than they know.
But what is even more interesting is that the early Christians were known as the atheists who assembled. After all they had no God to speak of, or at least to see, and the Roman authorities were incredibly suspicious of this godless assembly. What could they be up to? All that time together and nothing to show for it!
“Community” and the idea of it has so much traction these days, that it has moved beyond being a buzzword. I drove past a sign advertising a new building development that simply said the word “community” against a backdrop of blurry figures walking down a city street. I must say the image didn’t speak community to me at all, more of isolation – faceless avatars avoiding eye and bodily contact, slumping past each other in a soulless environment. There was a Big Brother element to it (the book not the show people – literary Ed) in which I am being told to that 2 and 2 must make 5, even though in my gut I knew it not to be so.
The problem with the idea of community, however, is that having one is a little like having a miniature pig. Remember the fad that swept Hollywood when everyone just wanted a mini-Babe (The pig variety silly, the need to have a human babe in Hollywood is no passing fad – Ed)? After a while were not so sure what to do with it. I have no hard evidence, but I venture to suggest velvety smooth bacon sandwiches were the offering du jour at many of Hollywood’s sidewalk cafes for some months when the fad wore off (that and chihuahua overcoats – Ed). Unless there is a good reason for community, then in and of itself it will either fade or sour.
Of course the church has rekindled its enthusiasm for the whole community idea too. After all, if the church can’t set the agenda why shouldn’t it follow it (Why not indeed – Ed)? So there are a whole heaps of books at Christian Kmart dealing with the very idea of community and how it is supposed to happen in church. The theology of community has come to the surface again and ministers are preaching about it, lecturers are lecturing about it, and PhD-ers are PhD-ing about it in quiet solitude. The truth is, however, that the church has always been about community, not least of all because, as we read the Bible story, we see that God Himself is in Community – from eternity – and calls us into community with himself and with each other. God is a gathering God – that’s the way he rolls.
Of course this begs the question: If in the Christian experience God is the gathering God, then can true community be found outside of God, and gathered around something else? I have no doubt it can be a good gathering, but insofar as God has so designed human community that he is at the centre of it, what happens when we replace God with something else? Can The Sunday Assembly be what it claims to be: a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more (bold type theirs). Many communities offer the same. The Nazis did. Fight Club did (in its own unique way), and so did the vigilante group in that fine piece of literature The Queensberry Rule, by David Cornford and, err, Stephen McAlpine. I am intrigued by the image at the top of The Sunday Assembly‘s homepage, in which several baboons are depicted grooming each other: Self interest among those who, after evolving from the primordial soup, have a simple goal of mutual comfort and survival in an otherwise meaningless universe. Ecce Homo indeed.
And what then for those whose lack of middle-class, well educated existence precludes them from evangelical church here in the West, or indeed, evangelical anti-church? Well, there’s always football, or rugby, or violence, or tagging, or LAN groups, or – as I am finding – running. Tribes form around all sorts of things, all sorts of good things, and in these things we reflect something of what our Creator intended us to be like, even if we distort them and never acknowledge Him in the process. Hey, even swingers’ groups celebrate diversity, right? And Pilate and Herod become besties after paying out on Jesus – so something good came out of all that bad, right?
All sorts of things become the god-at-the-centre, so to speak, that draw us together. And with a community becoming more like the one towards which it reaches, the result is truly the mark of the beast – 666 – reaching for what and who God is, but never quite getting there. After all you can never rise above what you worship. You can get friendship with other great people, and that’s a great thing. But there is a hole at the centre of these gatherings – in the end they are donut communities. God offers them worship of the Creator, and they – we – settle for worship of the created thing, even if that created thing is our fallen, finite, rebellious brain.
Of course the really dangerous place to be, as Israel discovered to her horror and cost, is becoming a donut community – being a godless gathering – whilst all the while assuming that the one true God is at the centre. Merrily getting on with all that praise and worship, but God not interested in it. Not that he was never at the literal centre – after all the tent and temple were plonked into their midst – but at the centre of their imaginations, their loves, their goals, their desires? Not as often as they thought, and certainly not as often as they needed.
Now imagine if that ever happened to the church? After all isn’t that what the message to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 is ostensibly about? Imagine if the church spoke the language, sang the songs, even tried to live better, help more and wonder often, but King Jesus and the rule of his Word were no longer the reasons people were coming together. We too could become a godless gathering whilst still using all of the “God words”, a donut community with a donut theology: lots of icing, plenty of sugar and sprinkles, but without the Bread of Life sustaining and feeding his people from the centre.