[This posting was created last fall at a blog page I’ve recently discontinued. It was written while I was active in the founding of Sunday Assembly Chicago. I later withdrew from the local effort, though I am still optimistic about the larger mission of creating inclusive community. A follow-up to this posting will be posted tomorrow.]
So, I’ve become involved with local efforts to create a Sunday Assembly in the city of Chicago. Due to a well-publicized outreach campaign, Sunday Assemblies are forming now in many US cities. This growth spurt has prompted a wide variety of internet buzz that criticizes the very idea by both Atheists and Christians. This blog post will offer a response to one of the Christian responses. First of all, Stephen McAlpine’s blog offered the following tongue-in-cheek bullet point list of advice for us.
Dear Atheist Church Planter
Welcome to the world of church planting. When we at Christian Church Planters Inc heard that you were getting on board the church planting train we decided to offer you some useful tips. After all, we’ve been doing this for some 2000 years and we’ve grown from a bunch of people in a room, to billions of people, millions of churches, and a way of understanding the world that has gone global. So, we offer our services from a position of actually knowing what we are talking about.
I composed the following response:
As an organizer for Sunday Assembly in Chicago, I thought I’d respond to your comments. First of all, you write of “our belief in a personal, all-powerful and revelatory deity, and your abhorrence of this perspective” and that “the idea of a god angers you.” I’m not sure which atheists you’ve been speaking with, but most do not “abhor” theism, rather, most of us simply lack theism. We have little reason to believe an invisible conscious being who intervenes in physical reality exists. No abhorrence or anger, just reasonable skepticism about extraordinary claims.
1) You also write: “With literally millions of people living as practical atheists, regardless of what they claim to believe, your problem will be to convince them that they need to add an event into their lives that makes no difference to their current way of life, and which may even suck up more of their precious time, for no palpable benefit.”
SA’s target audience is all open-minded people who wish to celebrate this one life that we all know we have. We’ve been surprisingly popular in London, New York, and Los Angeles to name only three locations with growing SA’s. Many atheists do feel isolated in the mass theism of our society, and SA offers them a place where they do not have censor their convictions to avoid being attacked by theists. In fact, most of us do have several experiences of being so attacked, so perhaps it is theists who have a problem with abhorrence and anger towards OUR viewpoint?
2) You again offer: “How how are you going to keep your crowd? How are you going to motivate them to belong? Through a series of trial and error we have found that grace is a fantastic motivator. Now there are plenty of churches that attempt to motivate through guilt….”
Our motivator is summarized as “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” We don’t guilt people about anything, just invite them to a participatory community that is just getting started, but through which we intend to provide a positive environment for the growth of human contentment.
3) Further, “Community is an abstract ideal without a centripetal force drawing it together. Some churches have attempted to do this in the past, leaving Jesus and his gospel out of the picture, and creating what we call, “Donut Theology” – a way of doing church with a hole in the middle.”
I am not so sure that community is only possible when focused around a charismatic personality who is elevated to divine status. Atheists are quite diverse and generally intellectually curious. We want to learn new things and embrace the evolution of culture and progressive trends of society. We don’t look backwards to any great figure, but forward towards the possibility of an abundant prosperous future for all of humanity and the other species with which we share this planet.
4) Next to last: “We have found that the most effective way to resolve conflict is to point people to Jesus and his loving, serving, humble, sacrificial death on the cross on behalf of those who not only didn’t love him, but actively hated him. We have seen sworn enemies embrace on the basis of this truth, so it’s an effective strategy.”
I guess the fact that Christians are divided into thousands of sects proves that Jesus can reconcile sinners into unity? That’s a sarcastic question, of course, meant with a bit of levity, but also serious. How can Christians preach to atheists conflict resolution? Even the most peaceful Christians like the Quakers have recently gotten into huge fights over same-sex marriage (http://www.friendsjournal.org/thomas-hamm-on-division-in-indiana/). I think SA will have to look elsewhere for guidance, thank you very much.
5) Finally: “Avoid the Christian Bookshop Bargain Bin. Just a final note, the 90s are not coming back. Having seen your church planting efforts so far, there is a strong impression at Christian Church Planters Inc that you are utilising our older material because it is cost effective. We suggest you update your reading list and avoid books with pastel coloured covers.”
I can only assume that this last comment is meant as an inside joke. I can’t make sense of it. SA has no book bins at all.
Thank you for your effort at both humorous ribbing and backhanded evangelizing.