Upon initial glance, the media coverage for the U.K. based Sunday Assembly veers toward the hyperbolic with media outlets classifying this “atheist church” as a “megachurch” with its London congregation averaging 600 to 700 attendees. (According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the term megachurch generally refers to a congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more.) The Daily Beast may not be factually accurate when they designate Sunday Assembly as “the fastest growing church.”
Yet this media hype points to a cultural shift documented by Pew Research where one out of five people in the United States now classify their religious affiliation as “none.”
Gretta Vosper, an out atheist who is found founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity and a minister of West Hill Church in Toronto, places this surge of interest in Sunday Assembly within the larger cultural shift she’s observed transpiring more liberal congregations.
“Many people think that those who are interested in being part of an atheist church are religion haters –people who just want to express their anger toward traditional religion and the lies they believe they were told,” Vosper says. But they aren’t the people we’re seeing at West Hill. The people who are really looking for what we have to offer –a church that never uses the word “God,” talks about Jesus, or reads from the Bible –are those who want to be in a community that will inspire them to love, not hate. They want to be good, to live compassionately in a challenging and often hostile world. They want their children to grow up within a community that cares for them and will help them develop a positive value system by which to live. They want to change the world and make it better. Those are the kind of people we see in the pews at West Hill.”
Though Vosper, along with the Sunday Assembly co-founders Pippa Evans, and Sanderson Jones consider themselves to be atheists, they craft services designed to attract anyone looking to explore how they can live a life of meaning regardless of that person’s particular religious beliefs. Hence, though media outlets focus on the “atheistic” element of these churches, these leaders choose to deliver an inspirational message rather than proclaim an anti-God talk. When describing the ethos of Sunday Assembly, Jones paints with a broad brush. “I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious.”
While Jones leads a more rockstar-studded show than the more traditional services Vosper conducts, she views his work within the context of a growing group of godless congregations such as those founded by Mike Aus, Jerry DeWitt, and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Within these communities, one finds seekers looking to explore what it means to live a life of meaning that seeks to build right relationships with each other without any reference to God.
In my coverage of global emerging church, I observed a similar phenomenon transpiring in Christian circles. While the media continues to focus their attention on publisher driven Christian hipster author/speaker shows, this coverage obscures the transformative work done at the margins by collectives like the Portland based The Bridge and Portland Abbey. These grassroots groups create spaces that allow people to embrace the mystery of life through the arts in whatever ways speak to them.
Ryan Bell, Founder and Director, Communitas Congregations, expounds on this shift away from God-talk within some Christian settings. “I’m seeing an interest in developing a congregation that, in its liturgy and ministry in its neighborhood, approaches the mystery with humility. Whether you call that mystery God, or god, or life and the universe, the important thing is to recognize that dogma–the insistence that I and my group have defined the mystery perfectly, or at least sufficiently to demand others believe it in order to be in the group–is problematic.”
So what might happen if we turn off the white noise from the media determined to label every spiritual movement a fad albeit “atheist church” or “hipster Christianity” and tune in to what’s actually happening on the ground? Stay tuned.
Image courtesy of Fibonacci Blue.