By Kyle Beshears
Last month I stumbled upon an article about an atheistic “church service” in London. I didn’t even read the whole thing before I decided I had to go.
The Sunday Assembly, as the group is called, meets once a month at The Nave in North London for “anybody searching for a sense of community, to meet and ‘turn good intentions into action.’”
It is, all things considered, an atheistic church.
Yes. A church for atheists.
This morning I woke up, sacrificed hearing Os Guinness speak at my own church, and ventured down to Islington with my wife who is used to being dragged to peculiar things like this by now.
We showed up 40 minutes early, but weren’t the first ones there.
In typical British fashion, we all politely “queued up” as we waited for the doors to open. The press was there catching interviews. (They also recorded the entire service along with the attendees to a point that it made it uncomfortable).
In fact, I’ll probably end up in The Guardian or The Independent. I can see it now: Local Atheist Londoner Worships at The Sunday Assembly.
You can’t trust everything you read in the news.
Once the doors opened, the church filled up fast. In fact, by the time the service started there was standing room only. There had to have been about 200+ in a church meant to comfortably hold 150.
After snagging two great seats, I surreptitiously wandered around taking photos of the event. I was, after all, running a clandestine intel-gathering mission behind enemy lines. In just three months, I’ll be joining the staff of a church. Before then, however… game on. (Sarcasm, for those who don’t know me.)
To be honest, I was taken aback by how many people showed up. Church planters dream of a second-ever service this full, and here I was in the midst of atheists, humanists, and agnostics who were all anticipating something new, something fresh, something exciting for their movement.
Once 11:00 came the service kicked off with the band.
Yes. There was an atheistic church band. (Bet you never thought you’d read that in your life.) It was led by comedian Pippa Evans.
Once the band had captured our attention, the “pastor” figure of this service exploded onto the stage. And he was hilarious.
Rightfully so, as the entire service was led by British comedian Sanderson Jones. Jones kicked the service off by warmly welcoming everyone and offering an amusing story of how he had learned that it was actually fellow atheists, not Christians as he had expected, who vocally disapproved of The Sunday Assembly.
He displayed a screenshot of his twitter feed from one disgruntled atheist who claimed that the term “church” to all atheists is like the term “concentration camp” to all Jews. Jones made short work of the mystery atheist – it was pretty funny.
After his introduction, we sang a Queen song as the service moved along.
ONE IN A BILLION
After some singing, the service shifted to the talk.
It was given by the (wonderfully articulate and intelligent) guest speaker, Harry Cliff – a researcher at the University of Cambridge and super particle physicist from CERN. Cliff delivered a great talk, which I believe ironically pointed to the very God of creation that the church was disavowing.
His talk, entitled “It’s a Wonder We’re All Here” in keeping with the theme of “wonder,” centered around the seeming impossibility of all matter (and consequently us) of existing at all. Why are we all here to wonder why we’re all here in the first place?
As Cliff explained, according to a theory from physicist Paul Dirac, nothing should exist. The stars, the planets, us, all matter… none of it should exist. But it does. So why?
The answer is found in anti-matter. ”Whenever you create a particle of anti-matter,” Cliff explained, “you also have to create a particle of matter.” Likewise, whenever matter and anti-matter meet, they annihilate each other, a la the spectacular climax to Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons.
Couple this with the theory of the Big Bang, when energy was converted into matter, and the symmetry of one particle of anti-matter to one particle of matter should have made everything disappear. What should have happened after the Big Bang is not the universe we know today, but rather a cold, empty universe of nothing. No stars, no galaxies, no us, no nothing.
But, again, here we are. So, what happened?
Cliff, in his own words, explained what happened.
“At the Big Bang, matter and anti-matter annihilate each other producing particles of light so every billion particles of light corresponds to one of those annihilations. So everything in the universe is just one-billionth of what was originally there – we are just a tiny leftover of what was there at the beginning of the universe.
All of that is enough to create all the galaxies, all the stars, all the stuff of you and me. So we are basically talking of absolute, tiny asymmetry of matter and anti-matter that allowed us to exist. In fact, if the asymmetry hadn’t been there, we would live in a completely empty universe.”
“So,” I thought to myself, “at the creation of the universe from nothing there was an inconceivable amount of light followed by the most improbable conditions that allowed for the entire universe to exist.”
I couldn’t hold back a huge smile.
Why? Because Cliff’s talk sounded an awful lot like this:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form and void…
and God said, ‘Let there be light.’”
Here we were at an atheistic church service being delivered evidences of both God’s existence (the improbability of asymmetry at the Big Bang) and the Bible’s trustworthiness (the fact that God’s first creative act was light).
Although, I doubt anyone else in the church shared my sentiment.
My only complaint about Cliff’s talk was that he never discussed the obvious question of how the most improbable condition was probable in the first place. What made the asymmetry, well, asymmetrical? He essentially sidestepped the chicken-or-the-egg issue with the Big Bang.
Perhaps it’s because there needed to be an intelligence behind the asymmetry of matter and anti-matter in order to bring about the creation of the universe in the most explosive display of light in the universe’s entire existence.
The answer is clear – God caused the conditions for the asymmetry. Furthermore, an ancient culture of divinly-inspired Jews nailed it on describing the event. If you’re not looking at this data from a theistic perspective, the obvious will always evade you.
But, hey. That’s just me.
“I WANTED MUSIC AND COMMUNITY AGAIN”
Throughout the service, I began to notice a consistent theme with almost everyone we spoke with, overheard, or witnessed in the service – everyone missed the music and community of their childhood experiences in church and want to bring it back into their lives.
I feel comfortable saying that many of the atheists in attendance were there precisely because they missed the community and songs of church.
The leader, Jones, mentioned that he missed the community and songs that his childhood church had given him. The woman seated behind us made a similar claim. Another woman, I overheard, said she missed singing songs and being with other people.
“When I was a kid, at church there was always music and other people. I wanted music and community again,” she said in a conversation with a fellow atheist.
It seemed that most people were there for those very reasons – community and singing. Or, what we Christians like to call, fellowship and worship.
People missed the fellowship and worship they left behind in their childhood churches, but have since yearned for a return to them.
The more I came to realize this point, the more obvious it became – all of these people, made in God’s image, are simply trying to fill the void of their design and purpose without actually knowing how.
Every human is created in the image of a triune God (community) who designed us to worship. That doesn’t go away simply because you don’t believe in Him.
Deep down in every human being, we yearn to be in community and fellowship, just like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have enjoyed for eternity.
Deep down in every human being, we are compelled to worship, because it’s what we were created to do.
Just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean that all goes away. And today only drove that point home for me. It’s doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God, every human being still desires community and wants to worship. Where we find our community and what we worship, however, is what will eventually define our joy, lives, and destinies.
Everyone at The Sunday Assembly seemed to believe that by adding community once a month and singing random songs, they will fill that nagging void in their life.
The more I though about this, the more I wanted to stand on my chair and yell “You’re missing the point! It’s not enough!” But, perhaps the unusually large amount of cameras and journalists stopped me in my tracks. After all, I didn’t want to be that guy.
It doesn’t matter how many songs you sing or how many people you hang out with – if it’s not centered around Jesus (the true reason for church in the first place) it’s never going to be enough.
The Sunday Assembly was gathered today in celebration of life, but not the life.
The Sunday Assembly attempted to instill wonder, but without the God of Wonder behind it.
The Sunday Assembly tried to experience a spirit in singing, but without the Holy Spirit of a good, perfect, and loving God.
They are missing the point entirely.
Church isn’t about music, it isn’t about making people feel happy, and it isn’t about instilling wonder. Church isn’t even about getting together in community to get your felt needs met.
Church is about Jesus.
Because we were designed to worship and to live in community, we do get some felt needs met at church, but it’s not the entire focus or purpose of church. The entire focus and purpose of church should be Jesus.
Until the good people of The Sunday Assembly understand this simple truth, they will never fill that missing void of worshipping Jesus in the community of imperfect yet redeemed people, no matter how many songs they sing, guest speakers they have, or good works they promote.
THE “REAL CHURCH” NEXT DOOR
Next to The Nave was a small (in comparison, tiny) chapel annex that was housing an African worship service. While we were first “queuing up” to get in The Nave, a woman dressed in Sunday’s best squeezed her way past us. ”Excuse me,” she politely asked for a clearing to walk through. Two women behind us giggled as one muttered, “I bet she’s going to real church.”
The real church service started before The Sunday Assembly and was still running after our service had ended. I snuck into the back of the chapel annex to hear the prayer that the pastor of this tiny church offered his congregation in the shadow of their new atheist neighbors next door.
His voice filled the room.
“We love you Jesus,” he said with a thick African accent. “We love you so much and want other’s to know you, so they can experience your love and, in return, love you simply for who you are and what you’ve done for us.”
“Amen,” I thought to myself. That was the most encouraging thing I had heard all day.
A group of people, most of whom were down-and-out, gathered together in community to worship Jesus in song and prayer. No media attention, no comedian-led entertainment, no high-profile speaker.
Just a few Jesus people getting together to worship, fellowship, and pray on a Sunday morning.
Now that’s church.
UPDATE: The Guardian did a piece on this service. In it, an interesting quote;
“‘I feel sorry for the church next door, waiting for their three people to trickle in,’” says Nick Julius, glancing at the small adjacent hall that will shortly be hosting its own gathering.”
Don’t feel sorry for them, Nick. They were the ones attending church this morning.
Also, check out BBC’s piece on the service.
Kyle Beshears is from Cambridge, England, author of Robot Jesus and Three Other Jesuses You Never Knew and blogs at Dear Ephesus on church issues and apologetics.