This morning a friend of mine emailed me a news article from the Associated Press entitled, “Atheist ‘Mega-Churches’ Take Root Across US, World.” Needless to say the headlined grabbed my attention. As the title suggests, this article chronicles the rise of “Atheist Mega-Churches.” Yes… That’s not a typo. Author Gillian Flaccus writes:
“Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the U.S. and Australia – with more to come – after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year.”
One of the more interesting parts of the article is when Flaccus profiles the founders of this new movement: Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans (Pictured Below. Why can’t I grow a beard like that!?!). Contrary to what one might think they’re not doing this to bash believers, but rather they wish, “to find a new way to meet likeminded people, engage in the community and make their presence more visible in a landscape dominated by faith.” Even more fascinating (and telling) is the way Jones got his first nudge to undertake this movement. While leaving a Christmas carol concert six years ago Jones mused:
“There was so much about it that I loved, but it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in… If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people – and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”
It was while reading this quote that something hit me: Jones and Evans don’t need to start an Atheist Mega-Church movement to be engaged in this kind of community; all they really have to do is attend any church that claims to be “relevant.” This thought became all the more poignant later in the article when Flaccus described the Sunday gathering motto: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” Here again, no Atheist Mega-Church is needed to receive this message; just go to the Mega-Church down the street. In fact, western Christianity is way ahead of atheists when it comes to this kind of “church.”
In his engaging and prophetic book, “Christless Christianity,” Michel Horton lays out the argument that the regular diet of American Christianity is simply “do more, try harder.” He writes:
“My concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for ‘relevant’ quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worship, and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all that we can be.”
Simply put, for the sake of relevance, much of western Christianity not only mirrors the world in its message, but is actually way ahead of it as Flaccus’ article shows. Horton continues:
“Reduce Christianity to good advice and it blends perfectly with the culture of life coaching. It might seem relevant, but it but it is actually lost in the marketplace of moralistic therapies. When we pitch Christianity as the best method of person improvement… non-Christians can legitimately demand of us, ‘What right do you have to say that yours is the only source of happiness, meaning, exciting experiences, and moral betterment?‘ Jesus is clearly not the only effective way to a better life or to being a better me. One can lose weight, stop smoking, improve one’s marriage, and become a nicer person without Jesus.”
It’s quite telling that Horton’s “non-Christian objection” is almost stated verbatim in Flaccus’ article. For example, one atheist is quoted as saying:
“In the U.S., there’s a little bit of a feeling that if you’re not religious, you’re not patriotic. I think a lot of secular people say, `Hey, wait a minute. We are charitable, we are good people, we’re good parents and we are just as good citizens as you and we’re going to start a church to prove it…”
If Christianity is about being a good, charitable, and loving person; then this atheist is spot on. The fact that this is the message he/she is receiving from the Christian church is sad to say the least.
For me this is just another reason why the church needs to be Gospel centered to the core. Because ultimately that’s what makes it unique. Several weeks ago, in the Washington Post, Tullain Tchividjian wrote:
“The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior. When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home?”
To this I would add the phenomenon that is Atheists Mega-Churches. When Sunday mornings become a venue primarily for relevance, life coaching, financial well being, etc. who can blame atheists for creating their own venue for such talks. In fact, they can probably do it better than us anyways.
What Atheist Mega-Churches can’t do is proclaim the message that the church was given and often hides and obscures for the sake of relevance. It’s the gospel story of a Creator who, although rejected by those he created in his image, rescued them through the death and resurrection of his Son. As Tullian writes in his Washington Post article:
“It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.
Grace and rest and absolution–with no new strings or anxieties attached–now that would be a change in substance.“
Micheal Horton, “Christless Christianity”
Tullian Tchividjian, “The Missing Message in Today’s Church’s” Washington Post Article, “Church, We Have a Problem” Gospel Coalition Blog, & “One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World“