In 2013, The Sunday Assembly opened their doors for the first time. in the five years since, they have planted congregations in over 70 cities, with an emphasis on justice, social care, and loving community. They meet on Sundays, go on seasonal retreats, sing songs and listen to messages.
The catch? Every member is an atheist.
The organization’s website demonstrates that the movement is spreading like gangrene. What’s scarier to me is that it looks virtually no different than most modern church’s websites. Smiling, interracial congregants make the community seem welcoming and accepting. There appears to be general warmth and acceptance among the crew, and if you went, you’d hear advice for taking your life in the best direction possible and deepening the intimacy of your relationships.
A couple years ago I joined my first dating app: Coffee Meets Bagel. I immediately noticed that a good number of folks on there had selected the religious option of “Spiritual But Not Religious.” I laughed at how ludicrous that option was, because spirituality, by definition, is religious (From the Latin religare, ‘to bind.’ A religious person is one who has bound themselves to their god/s…even if their god looks just like them).
I could go on listing examples of the spiritual climate of our current western culture, but I will stop here and use those two as synecdochical references. The Sunday Assembly shows us several things about humans: We long for community and fellowship with other humans, and when we lack a common ground for gathering (i.e. religion), we create one.
SA also reveals that humans have an innate longing for meaning and purpose. Andy Stanley is the one who pointed out that something’s purpose is not to serve itself, but to serve something or someone else. A purpose, by definition, is bigger than the individual. That’s why the Sunday Assembly has incorporated things like service projects and social justice movements into their mission.
Meanwhile, the option to be Spiritual But Not Religious on a dating app reveals the inverse. It shows that even when someone may not align with a specific religious denomination, there is some sort of longing for the invisible. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that we are built with eternity in our hearts, and those people on the dating app have inadvertently revealed this truth. Even when we try our hardest to be humanistic and religious, we are left with a sense that there is more to the world than what we can see and touch.
Secularism is beginning to show her hand and she’s bluffing.
Mark Sayers defines secularism as a group of people longing for the kingdom without the King. We want the benefits of the kingdom of God (peace, social justice, equality, health, fellowship, acceptance, etc.) without a need for Jesus of Nazareth.
The sad thing is, the more I’ve learned about secularism taking form in the past several decades, the more I realize that the western church has been happy to follow suit, rather than attempting to lead culture away from so-called ‘secular relevance’. The western elite has been preaching a gospel of self-expression and autonomy as the highest good and sadly, the Church has bought this story beginning to end (Have you ever wondered about the origin of the phrase “a personal relationship with Christ”? I can tell you it’s not in the Bible).
Despite the individual-centered nature of the American culture, cracks in the dam are beginning to show. When atheists begin to long for community, justice, spirituality and purpose, they betray their confessed beliefs. Kierkegaard pointed out that the (honest) atheist is given two options in life: Hedonism or suicide. An atheist’s hedonism must be absolute: they must seek their own pleasure at all costs, even the expense of other people. Thus, sex trafficking is one of the highest expressions of hedonistic atheism; you are using other people for your own pleasure. Have you ever wondered why pagan temples often contained orgies with temple prostitutes? The sex industry (pornography included) is the modern form of the pagan temple. Come and worship yourself.
The other alternative is equally meaningful: Kill yourself, because without purpose larger than yourself (or larger than the material world), there is no point in forging ahead one more second. Life is meaningless and it’s better to end it than go on taking advantage of others.
The problem is that humans are born with at least some iota of conscience. And with this conscience comes an awareness that there are invisible forces, where we acknowledge it or not. The Sunday Assembly and the option to be Spiritual But Not Religious, rather than disheartening me, give me hope. Changing culture is like turning a cruise ship: it happens slowly, but everyone is on board and aware of it. These things are signs to me that secularism is starting to reveal their hunger for something more.
How long will it take before the SA congregants recognize that there is still some void in their souls? How long before the material world they see stops satisfying their itch for depth and purpose?
However, the issue does not simply exist outside the walls of the Church. Ask most Christians in America why they should go to church every week, and you’ll probably hear everything covered by the Sunday Assembly. Singing, inspirational messages to stroke our egocentric selves, fellowship, service projects. What is it exactly that sets the Christian church apart from the Sunday Assembly?
When I was in Bible college, a sadly large number of my fellow students opted to stay in their rooms on Sunday mornings and listen to sermons online with their buddies. After all, they had community, teaching, our weekly outreach ministry and singing songs three days a week in chapel. What were they missing?
You can have a lot of things that look like church and even feel like church, but without the presence of Christ in your midst, you’re simply collectively masturbating. If there is no supernatural appearance of Christ (manifest in the bread and the wine, communal prayer and worship, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit), you’re just patting each other on the back and going home. To members of the Sunday Assembly, Jesus seems like someone who interrupts the flow. With Him in the picture, you can’t go on pleasuring yourself, because He demands that your eyes be lifted off from yourself. To the Christian who has aligned her vision with Christ’s, His reign feels like freedom; to the autonomous atheist, His reign looks restrictive.
Only time will tell how long these artificial substitutes will last. Amazingly, The Sunday Assembly is not the first of its kind. Atheistic churches have been launched before and have never lasted longer than one generation. Humans are hungry for eternity. And what is big enough to fill an eternal void? Only the Creator of time and space Himself.
These signs give me hope of revival, and I don’t use that word lightly. Running in charismatic circles for several years made me weary of overusing the word, but looking backward through history, I have found that revivals happened in circumstances where the culture seemed most godless and hopeless. In other words, revival happens when it could only be the work of God moving in the unfolding of human history. Go figure.
Hopeful, we strive toward that end anyway. The best and simplest way to work for revival is through prayer. Join the Church Universal (Visible and Invisible) as we pray that God advances His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Pray that His presence invades our lives and our churches. And lest we forget, pray the earliest of Christian prayers, Maranatha, come swiftly Lord Jesus.
Return our vision to You alone.
**This post originally appeared on Ethan Renoe’s blog: Systems, Part 11: Sex trafficking is the new church