Atheist Mega-Churches

“Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”

-       Martin Luther, Large Catechism, First Commandment

“During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.” (Read more: Atheists Embrace Mega-church-Style Services | TIME.com http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/11/11/atheists-embrace-megachurch-style-services/#ixzz2kkiqniPd)atheist-megachurches-1

It might sound like your average neo-evangelical mega-church, but this is a portion of an article in a recent Time online discussing the latest phenomena in atheist evangelism known as the Sunday Assembly movement. One of the glaring ironies with this current trend is the fact that aside from a few passing references to the Bible or giving a courtesy nod to the name of Jesus, the atheist mega-church movement might have more in common with mainstream American churches than they realize. Looking at pictures and examining the content of their services, the Sunday Assembly is remarkably similar to what happens at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, TX on any given Sunday. This is why Michael Horton has dubbed the majority of American Christian churches as preaching a “Christ-less Christianity.” Turns out, this fits the creed of the Sunday Assembly as well. According to the founders…

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. We’ve been called the ‘atheist church’ but it’s really all the best bits of church, but with no religion, and super pop tunes.

Our motto: live better, help often and wonder more.
Our mission: to help everyone live this one life as fully as possible.
Our vision: a Sunday Assembly in every town, city and village that wants one. (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/godless-congregations-for-all-the-sunday-assembly-global-platform)

On the surface this all sounds good. Self-empowerment. Helping others. Living better lives. Carpe Diem and all. How should Christians answer this latest fad? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind.

  1. There are no atheists. Luther’s catechisms are helpful here. In the Small Catechism we hear the explanation to the First Commandment: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” As he goes on to explain in more detail in the Large Catechism, a person’s god is whoever or whatever he fears, loves, and trusts in. Some place their trust in a strict materialism and/or naturalism. Others place their trust in reason or blind faith. Along with one’s pet “god” also comes certain philosophical and epistemoligcal assumptions used when approaching questions of ultimate significance.  Bottom line, everyone has a god. The real question is which, if any of these gods, is true? What does the evidence say?
  2. The Mega-Church’s New Clothes. As I mentioned above, the real irony with atheist movements such as Sunday Assembly and others like it, is that so much of what passes for “Christian” in bookstores, on Television, or in the mainstream churches cannot be quickly distinguished from its atheist counterpart. Sadly these days, the church does a good enough job of parodying itself. It might all be funny if it weren’t so deadly and poisonous to the Christian gospel. Furthermore, what does it say about the kinds of Christian churches we have in America when atheist groups such as Sunday Assembly are looking at the popular models for success? It’s rather telling.
  3. What is good? Without am objective, moral absolute it is difficult for anyone to claim that they are living “better” lives or being “good”. What does such a person mean by the words good or bad, right or wrong? Without a transcendent moral law giver the only conclusion is that right and wrong, good and evil, etc. are ultimately determined by the individual or conditioned by culture / society. Either way, it is subjective and unreliable. Just try stealing this person’s lunch money or cutting them off in the freeway. Moral relativism doesn’t work and most people will reflect that inconsistency in the way they live their lives. In other words, without an objective standard life would truly be as the atheists claim, meaningless. And claiming that they know better or have the truth on their side is in itself a claim to objective truth. Question is, does it fit the facts?
  4. It’s an oxymoron. The word “Church” by biblical definition is the gathering of Christ’s people. The Church is never an it. The Church is a she, the bride of Christ. The Church is Christ’s body. The phrase “atheist church” is like “atheist evangelism”, it’s oxymoronic. But then again, that’s all part of the catch-phrase; it’s a marketing ploy. This also helps to reinforce my initial observation: there is no such thing as atheism. Everyone has a god. Everyone has a creed. Everyone worships at a church of some kind, whether you’re in the pews at a church, a stadium or on a golf cart. Everyone believes, teaches, and confesses something. The question is…
  5. Is it true? This is the million-dollar question. Mottos, missions, and visions, are all substitute words for creeds. After all, anything after, “I believe” or “I don’t believe” is a creed; it’s a statement of what that person believes (or doesn’t), teaches, and confesses. It’s one thing to make an assertion. It’s another to back it up with solid evidence, cogent arguments, and facts. Regrettably, facts are lacking on both sides of this issue: from the self-professed, godless Sunday Assembly to a good number of Christian churches. Both atheism and Christianity make certain claims and propositions of truth about man, the world we live in, where this world came from, what happens when we die, etc. These worldviews can and should be tested with reality and facts. And in this regard, Christianity has nothing to fear. All our cards are on the table. If Christ is not raised, our faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15). But if Christ is raised – and there is overwhelming evidence to support that he did die and rise – then the Christian faith is founded on facts. And facts are what this world sorely needs.

For a great outline of worldviews see James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door or the recent book published by Concordia Publishing House, Starting at the End by Brad Alles.

For a couple of good books on defending the Christian faith with facts and evidence from history, check out William Lane Craig’s On Guard and Craig Parton’s Religion on Trial. Both are succinct, informative, and readable.

Pastor Sam Schuldheisz

About Pastor Sam Schuldheisz

Pastor Schuldheisz serves as Pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, CA. He graduated in 2004 from Concordia University Irvine. And he is a 2008 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Pastor Schuldheisz is also blessed in marriage to his wife of 7 years, Natasha. Together they enjoy the blessings of parenthood with their daughter Zoe. And when he’s not writing sermons or changing diapers, he enjoys reading and writing about the works of the Inklings and other belletristic literature, and Christian apologetics. He’s even been known to answer to Pastor Samwise on occasion.

Comments

Atheist Mega-Churches — 5 Comments

  1. Evangelical atheism is ridiculous on its face and only becomes more pathetic upon further examination.

  2. @Jim Hamilton #1

    Hey, at least they’re making an effort, Jim, unlike the Bible-revising Protestant Moribundites (read Episcopalians, UCCers, ELCAnites, et al.).

    The Moribundites have a lot in common with the current atheist evangelism effort known as the Sunday Assembly movement. In fact, the atheists may have taken a few cues from the Moribundites, spiritually feckless as they are.

    According to its founders, “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. We’ve been called the ‘atheist church’ but it’s really all the best bits of church, but with no religion, and super pop tunes.”
    The Moribundites’ response: “We’ll go you one better, atheists. We’ve got everything you have plus God Lite, the veneer without the substance. Better yet, we’ve remade God into our own individual images so that whatever self-indulgent way we want to live, mirabile dictu, God wants it, too.”

    The Sunday Assembly motto: “live better, help often and wonder more.”
    The Moribundites’ response: “We live better since we give only 1 to 2 percent of our incomes to our churches. We help earth-worshiping environmentalists, Palestinians, Planned Parenthood, and any cause approved by Democrats. We wonder why some churchgoers still persist in taking the Bible seriously. Lighten up, people.”

    The Sunday Assembly mission:”to help everyone live this one life as fully as possible.”
    The Moribundites’ response: “We certainly wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about it, but a lot of us think there just might be life after this life. If there is, we’re all going to heaven since our new and improved god is The Great I’m OK, You’re OK, Let’s Not Worry About That ‘Sin’ Thing Anymore.”

    The Sunday Assembly vision: “a Sunday Assembly in every town, city and village that wants one.”
    The Moribundites’ response: “Hmmm, evangelism? Uh, we gave that up years ago. Since every path leads to God, we’d never risk incurring the world’s wrath by promoting religious imperialism.”

  3. @J. Dean #3 Yes, her novel, Wiseblood which was also made into an excellent movie directed by John Huston which gets the novel right. She portrayed the absurdity years ago in this novel. The main character is a young man, Hazel Motes who starts to proclaim in a small city, the Church without Christ, as a street ‘preacher’. Early in the story, Hazel has taken a cab and the cabby insists he’s a preacher and Hazel vehemently says no by insisting “I don’t believe in anything.” The cabby who insists he is a preacher replies, “That’s the trouble with you preachers, You’re all too good to believe in anything.” Later in the novel Hazel remembers a conversation with his mother who is a believer:

    “Jesus died to redeem you,” she said.
    “I never ast him,” he muttered.

    If you have not read O’Connor, esp. her short stories, I am trying to entice you!

    Back to the thread. The reporting of atheist mega-churches is similar to what a Russian Orthodox theologian said of communism: It’s salvation without God. In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis in his sermon The Weight of Glory, preached that nostalgia is an indication we do not belong here though this our home we long for something else something and he did so in a very lyrical passage. He went on to say:

    “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever.”

    The worldlings have been at this for a long time. The atheist ‘churches’ are just a new infestation of the worldliness of the world for over a hundred years and probably dating back to the Enlightenment (sic!). I think the ultimate goal of such is not only doing away with Christ. The Church without Christ is also the church without sinners, that is, lawless and so they say there is no sin, and human nature abhors a vacuum and we will fill it with the gods for our ‘salvation': see Exodus 32.

  4. @Pr. Mark Schroeder #4

    Well said. A thought did occur to me, however:

    When the ridiculousness irrationality of evil presumes to lift its head high for all to see, it is most easily and directly then confronted and deposed. Many of us, for a very long time, have argued that atheism is a religious system, and now that they begin to gather together into broader and more obvious associations, they are easier to show for what they are– the church or religion of self.

    As the orthodox churches have tried for decades to pin the jello of modern evangelical religion to the proverbial wall, often in vain to convince or warn others of its insipid narcissism and self idolatry, the devil’s pride has once again afforded us the opportunity to speak to it directly. As we confront the obvious ridiculousness of atheist religion gathered in mega-church style, we can all the better warn the churches of this self absorbed hedonism in their own ranks.

    Perhaps, with the rise of great and obvious evil, the corresponding rise of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church shall find her feet more confidently on the battlefield, and meet her ancient foe with the overwhelming force of Christ’s Spirit and Word. There is something about the turn of a war, from batting at shadows and innuendo, to full frontal engagement, that causes the steel of a soldier to harden. We serve the Lord of Hosts– and oh, for the day, when we may meet our enemy head on, and he shall be destroyed by the very breath of Christ.

    Oddly enough, the rise of these atheist churches, gives me hope.

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