To some it smacks of the ultimate oxymoron. For others it may be an attempt to adapt what draws strength from religious gatherings for those who choose for their faith not to go beyond themselves.
They’ve been dubbed “atheist megachurches” by detractors, and that’s all right with some of their supporters. The movement’s official name is “Sunday Assembly,” located mostly in big cities where non-believers gather to celebrate, well, what are they celebrating anyway?
Churches have been the core of Christian community since their founder walked the Earth some two millennia ago. For some non-believers, such as Sunday Assembly founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the attraction of many religious gatherings to foster community through fellowship, music and the spoken word is a powerful motivating factor. Trouble is, they can’t swallow the notion of devotion to a higher power.
Admittedly, some in the religious community haven’t done themselves any favor with systematic avoidance of enjoyable experiences. I can recall numerous times where crowds gathered in churches for special musical or dramatic productions only to have the pastor intone in his introduction, “We are not here to be entertained.” Really?
“If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad,” Jones was quoted. “It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people – and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”
Obviously the part that points us to resources that stem from faith in an omnipotent Creator from whom all blessings flow.
Calling these gatherings “megachurches,” though, may be premature. A few hundred people gathering in an auditorium in the name of atheism falls far short of the thousands who regularly flock to hear such names as Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, David Jeremiah and Jonathan Falwell, not to mention the huge crowds that filled stadiums for years to hear evangelist Billy Graham, who recently observed his 95th birthday.
At the first Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles, attendees had a hand-clapping good time singing songs such as “Lean on Me,” obviously aimed at each other rather than the emphasis the song has had when sung in a gospel context. They even took up a collection, in this case to help perpetuate their bright idea rather than, in religious lingo, to spread the gospel.
But where do they go from here? What unites them other than a rejection of all things spiritual? Building community on a negative seems rather self-destructive. And there isn’t even a goal of eternal life lurking in the far off sweet forever.
What, pray tell (oops, better cancel that last phrase), is enough to get the non-religious out of bed on a Sunday morning, other than the NFL or NASCAR?
Maybe Luke Skywalker, the only begotten son of Darth Vader.
Or more likely Yoda it would be.
May the farce, uh force, be with you.
And also with you.
Jim Bailey’s column appears on Thursday. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.