Why Secular Church Started So Well, but Finished So Poorly (and Quickly)

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We’ve all heard over the past few years of the move among Nones to start something like church, with all the bells and whistles, talks and coffee, singing and platforms.  Something like church but with one small variable – no Jesus.

They began to meet in buildings across all the funky cities in the world and things blossomed quickly.  They gathered to hear inspiring talks and sing anthems such as “Livin’ on a Prayer” (no, seriously!), and fill the void that church once filled before things got seriously secular.

Proof if you need it that it’s not really the case that they love Jesus but hate the church, it’s more the other way around!

We’ve all heard how that worked out too.   Things declined quite quickly, despite only being a seven year project so far.  It’s as if these secular churches compressed the life cycle of an entire church movement, birth through to death, in a petri-dish experiment, even at the time that the Nones are increasing in number.

And now there’s a great article exploring the psychology behind what went wrong in the latest copy of The Atlantic.  You can read the whole piece by Faith Hill here.

It’s interesting that of the groups to survive, it’s those that were built around ex-religious people who replaced love for Jesus and the church with distrust/dislike of Jesus and the church, that have survived.  In other words, communities need to have a centre, even if it’s a negative one.  As it turns out the desire for community itself is not strong enough to hold the community together.

Which kinda reminds us as Christians that community is not the goal of the gospel, but the fruit of the gospel. As Hill states in the article:

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.

And it’s not that the non-religious are any lazier than the average church attendee.  They did their fair share of chair-stacking, event organisation, roster-writing, and goodness knows what else goes in to creating a weekly meeting for the (un)faithful.  But at the core, that’s not enough, as Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at Pew Research Center, observed:

 On what basis would you pull them together? Being uninterested in something is about the least effective social glue, the dullest possible mobilizing cry, the weakest affinity principle, that one can imagine.

But here’s what’s really interesting, and it’s a reminder to us as pastors and church leaders lest we forget; the key to church appears to be that it offers something transcendent.

Anthropologist Richard Sosis, who studies the history of religious communes is quoted in the article as saying that without it, transcendence, there is little meaningful reason to meet:

… there has to be a sense of transcendence … Transcendence is what gives the community a higher level of meaning than going to Johnny’s Little League game.

Okay, okay, Johnny’s Little League game may occasionally be more exciting than church can be, no argument there, but what it offers is an immanence that ultimately dissipates the moment one leaves the playing field.  As Hill observes:

It might mean that ideals they already espouse—such as helping others, or finding wonder in nature—get elevated to a sacred level. The irony is that to get away from religion, they may need to re-create it.

But we knew that already, didn’t we? Those of us who have read Charles Taylor.  We knew that the secular frame needs to have a story bigger than itself in order to sustain itself.  And we knew from listening ad infinitum to that David Foster Wallace talk, that there is no such thing as an atheist and that we all worship.

And it takes a lot of hard work, money, time, effort and emotional smoke and mirrors to make the non-transcendent even look vaguely transcendent. It’s a task that would tax the Wizard of Oz.  And then once you turn your back the whole thing can easily collapse into immanence again.  I mean, whose got the time and energy for that?  Not the Nones, if the evidence of their numerical collapse in a few short years is any indication.

Of course there’s more than just transcendence.  Or to put it another way, transcendence needs to look like something if a community is going to survive the biggest threat to its existence- its members.

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.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, our eschatology and hope draws us, keeps us gathering.  Hebrews is instructive here: “Do not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”   It’s not simply that we’re gathering around something that will transcend, it’s that we’re meeting in anticipation of something – of Someone – who will descend!  Our hope is not otherworldly transcendence, but a this-worldly descending by King Jesus.

Faith Hill writes in The Atlantic:

Some leaders of Sunday Assembly and Oasis told me they’re trying to make those weekly meetings so interesting, so entertaining, so powerful that people will keep showing up.

To which I might say “Ouch, that sounds scarily familiar.”  Perhaps it’s better to offer our people the one thing that differentiates us – the one Person who, as Ephesians tells us, contains all of God’s unsearchable riches – Jesus himself.  I don’t think we’re good enough to do interesting, entertaining and powerful in such a way to draw people and make them stick.

The mystery product of God made known!  I know that there are many times I don’t want to gather in community with God’s people because the event itself is not particularly interesting, certainly not entertaining and definitely feels on the weaker side of powerful.  But because Jesus is there it changes everything and that makes it worth showing up.

Maybe the Secular Church will rise again as the number of Nones increases further.  Maybe not.  But without Jesus at the centre, it will struggle to last another decade, never mind two millennia.