Friday, January 31, 2014

Thanks, Atheists!

This post comes from colleague Linda Thurston originally posted on her blog January 24, 2014 you can find this and her other posts here

I recently read an obituary for a wonderful, faithful woman. It spoke of her love for her family and detailed her work with a variety of community organizations; it outlined her volunteer commitments and the career she made working on behalf of the disadvantaged. But for the mention of Vacation Bible School and other church commitments and the fact that her husband was a minister, however, a reader might never have guessed that her life of service derived from her faith in Jesus. There was no mention of God or Jesus anywhere in the obituary – not even a God-invoking euphemism for death or a mention of Jesus among the things that she loved.

This struck me because I’ve been thinking lately about how we Christians talk (or don’t talk) about God.

Perhaps you’ve heard about this new movement out of the UK called Sunday Assembly, which one of its founders described as, “all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs.”

As a recent NPR story put it, “There’s little God talk at Sunday Assembly.”

The movement’s website puts it this way: “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.” 

The oxymoron-ish idea of a “godless congregation” and the photos of earnest non-worshippers, singing Rolling Stones tunes together hands in the air, make Sunday Assembly seem ripe for ridicule. News of a recent schism in the New York assembly will, no doubt, only increase the urge for parody among believers and non-believers alike. (See, it really is just like church!!)

 But I’m not interested in making fun of Sunday Assembly. Rather, I’d like to thank them for the opportunity to open some conversation about what it means to be church. You see, it seems like these atheists have a better understanding of what church is about than some church people I know.

One of the founders of Sunday Assembly started the movement because she wondered, “is it possible to have all the wonderful things that church does, like create community and help others and encourage thinking about the world, yourself and improvement, but without the God bit?”

 One commentator described what those attracted to the movement like about church – “”They miss the community, they miss the music, they miss the multi-generational coming together with people that you might not otherwise be hanging out with.”

 So often, when church people talk about why they go to church or what they love about their particular congregation, it is these things that they talk about – the music and the community and the opportunities to help others. At least in the Protestant mainline where I hang out, people seem much less likely to mention God or Jesus.

Now it could be that for many people church really is about all these other things more than “the God bit,” and perhaps these folks really would be just as happy at a Sunday Assembly as at their local Christian church. But it could also be that we leaders of the church haven’t done a very good job with the God-talk – both talking the talk ourselves and teaching and equipping people in our congregations to talk it.

When we don’t do the God-talk, to the outside world many of our congregations seem indistinguishable from other local community organizations that help people “live better, help often, or wonder more.” How is the church different from the Kiwanis or the Girl Scouts or even a health club that collects toys for impoverished kids at Christmas?

The folks at Sunday Assembly, at least, understand what makes church different from all these other organizations including their own. It’s not the ethical teaching; it’s not the service to our neighbors; it’s not the pastoral care; it’s not even the collective singing or the intergenerational fellowship (although these are harder and harder to find in our society). It’s the God-talk. Period.

While sometimes the problem may be that we’re simply lacking any God-talk at all, sometimes the problem is that the God-talk in various congregations doesn’t sound like very good news. Our God-talk should be the “best bit about church,” the most “wonderful thing that church does.” 

 The church exists to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ, to “preach the damn Gospel” in the immortal words of Dr. Timothy Wengert, to tell people that God knows them and loves them anyway, that they are beloved children of God, created with meaning and purpose and called to help do God’s work in the world.

This is what makes us distinctive. This is what we have to offer the world. When our singing and our potlucks and our good deeds overshadow our God-talk, then we stop being the church and just become one more Sunday Assembly. So thanks, atheists and other non-believers for this important reminder of what makes the church the church.

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