On a recent commute in I had the pleasure to listen to the recent BBC feature on the Sunday Assembly ‘Swapping Psalms for Pop Songs‘. The Sunday Assembly is a relatively recent phenomenon which originated as an ‘Atheist Church’ where individuals; get together, sing songs, listen to several readings and hear an inspirational talk. The idea is that it’s intended to be a collective affirmation of life that occurs under the motto ‘Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More’. They also run soup kitchens, food banks and offer their time to local authorities and the NHS in a voluntary capacity. They’ve since dispensed with the idea of an ‘Atheist Church’ and prefer the word ‘Secular’ in place of ‘Atheist’ which I think is a fairly damning indicator of the supposedly neutral loading that the word secular is meant to convey. It’s fairly obvious from the outset that its riffing on the contemporary Evangelical church service but without the spirituality or any mention of God in any sense.
The movement isn’t without controversy both within Atheist circles and a healthy number of Christians levelling their collective guns at the movement. The thing that stood out to me however is the degree to which the format of the Sunday Assembly mirrored so closely our current Evangelical arrangement in the UK. The removal of any reference to the supernatural is obviously a glaring omission but with consideration of the form, their isn’t an overall difference. The function differs quite significantly but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the well known Marshall McLuhan quote “the medium is the message”. The medium of the Sunday Assembly is community, celebration and being part of something bigger than oneself, a ‘movement’. At a purely mechanistic functional perspective in what way does the Church differ? Or if it doesn’t how should it? It promotes a narrative that seeks to address and alleviate some of the fundamental existential questions we are all faced with today, in an approach that isn’t all too different in how things like the Alpha course market themselves. The Assembly differs in that its much more pragmatic and grounded in celebrating the every day.
One thing the documentary touched on was that whilst a significant proportion of individuals don’t subscribe to a particular religion in the UK. Only a minority of these are Atheists and the rise of something like the Sunday Assembly is that their exists a niche in the ‘market’ for these people who may be an Atheist, but probably aren’t and just don’t subscribe to a recognised, structured faith. Offering something that follows the form of a typical church gathering helps bridge the gap for a lot of people during the massive social shift in recent generations from being a majority Christian nation, to a majority Secular nation and many people still have in their collective memories some form of Church that appeals to a part of them. How long something like the Sunday Assembly endures will be interesting to see, as its appeal so far seems largely limited to WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) nations (England, N America, Australia, Germany etc). Perhaps over successive generations as people lose the exposure to church that previous generations had, the appeal of things like the Assembly will wain.
The Sunday Assembly also provides a new avenue for people to engage with something like a church service but take what they want and leave the rest behind, in the past we would call this nominalism. As church numbers continue to decline these people who, in previous generations, might of made up the broader body of a church but not engaged in any significant way find an appeal in something less demanding or exacting in its requirements to hold to a particular set of doctrinal views. This also means that those who still attend church, on average are expected to be more committed and more overtly religious than previous generations. The problem with this is if our church services begin to look increasingly like Sunday Assembly gatherings then any point of distinction to the outsider is diminished to the point of insignificance. We become increasingly willing to place less emphasise on doctrine, reduce our message to the lowest common denominator, tone down accountability and find ways for people to reduce the amount of ‘overhead’ engaging with a church might add to someones already busy life. If we just try to appeal to those who are nominally inclined towards the faith, its the faith, not the nominalism of the person in question that will suffer.
Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution…Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.
I remember a discussion with a Chaplain where he compared the role of the Church to that of a Hospital. Today however, he continued, the Church more closely resembles a Health Spa. This is just anecdote, but their is a degree to which I’m reminded of this when I think about the Sunday Assembly and its appeal. Partly because it comes across as being rooted in a belief that people are fundamentally good. All we need is to help one another to be better and ultimately feel better about ourselves. A Hospital by comparison, doesn’t believe people are evil or poorly made, it is grounded in the view that people need healing. Their is something that needs addressing not just in people but all the world, and this should be the position of the church. It isn’t a quick fix and it isn’t about making us feel better but doing the right thing in response to God’s love.
I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
People are really very busy today, and people are distrustful of large narratives that will inevitably place expectations on their lives. This doesn’t mean therefore that we simply avoid such things. We seek out those people who see through the pretence of whats going on today and offer them the Gospel unashamedly. We work out what it means together and with the help of those who went before us. It’s demanding, it’s tough and it isn’t really all that seeker friendly, but it is relatively simple. We shouldn’t dismiss the Sunday Assembly out of hand but acknowledge the good things it does. Yet more so we should acknowledge that the Church is much more than a mere Assembly and get to grips with what that means for us today.