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.

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