On the surface, they looked a lot like any other churches, but with an atheistic twist: ‘Meetings involved “sermons” from scientists, artists, and academics; members sang pop songs together and snapped their fingers to poetry readings. Old-timers chatted by the snack table and invited newbies to meals outside the group.’
This was the explosively successful Sunday Assembly movement that began in London in 2013, and spread rapidly from there. Spearheaded by two comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the idea seemed to strike a nerve for those who had grown up in church, but lost their faith. They wanted the experience of togetherness without the accompanying doctrine. There was a sadness for something lost at the heart of our culture in the absence of religion, and this seemed like a viable alternative.
The movement grew rapidly and peaked early, but is now in a steady state of decline, with global attendance dropping from 5,000 per month in 2016 to 3,500 per month in 2018.
Why this dramatic drop in attendance? The fundamental answer seems to be the lack of a coherent binding force beyond the desire for community. Faith Hill, writing for the Atlantic about this decline, quotes one researcher as follows: ‘Being uninterested in something [i.e. religion] is about the least effective social glue, the dullest possible mobilising cry, the weakest affinity principle, that one can imagine.’
So, what does bind groups together over the long haul? Apparently, it’s vital to have the element of ‘sacrality’ that calls for ‘challenging rituals and taxing rules’. In other words, there needs to be a transcendent and compelling system of truth that calls for a deep and wholehearted commitment.
The funny thing is that Christians could have warned them it wouldn’t work, because they’ve tried this before. Many times.
If you want to know why churches are mainly empty across the UK it is for precisely this reason: that God was effectively removed from much of Christianity in Britain more than a hundred years ago. Back in the 1800s many churches and denominations began to feel embarrassed about the more supernatural claims of the Christian faith (for example, that Jesus rose from the dead) and about the Bible itself. Preachers began to espouse humanism from their pulpits, majoring on themes like the brotherhood of man. While some of the language of God remained (especially in the hymns), belief in God was fading away, led by the very men who were at the helm of those denominations and churches. These churches were like drag queens dressed up in the trappings of religion, with all the smells and bells and lashings of makeup, but any observer could tell that the religious garb was superficial. Underneath was a hairy atheist, balls and all.
To this day, you can walk into one of the nearly empty churches of the main denominations – Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed – and you’ll discover what I’m talking about: mostly, they don’t preach the same message you find in the Bible of God’s wrath against sin, and his peace deal brokered through the blood of his Son, Jesus. Instead, they preach a neutered and secularised version of Christianity, much more tame, and much more lame. They’re identifiable by their language of inclusion, their endorsement of all lifestyles, and their passionate embrace of all religions as essentially the same. But this is not Christianity, it’s just atheistic humanism with an organ and a few candles. They act as mere mirrors to the culture at large and so render themselves completely pointless, and devoid of interest. Their main message is about being nice, the very thing Jesus was emphatically not.
It may seem odd that I, a church pastor, would be so scathing of so much Christian practice in the UK. I suppose it’s because I simply don’t see the point of going through the motions of religious devotion when you decided a long time ago that you would bend that religion to conform to modern sensibilities, rather than bending your life to conform to God’s will. The Bible teaches that man is made in the image of God; and yet here we are, trying to mold a god in the image of ourselves. The proof of the futility of all this is the fact that most of these churches are in terminal decline, at least the ones that are not already dead.
That is not the entire picture, of course. There are thousands of churches (within and without those denominations) that have resisted this trend and preach a full-blooded version of the Christian faith, with a living God who is a Sovereign Judge who invites us to experience his forgiveness. Those churches tend to be full because they offer something the world and secular humanism isn’t offering: the power of God.
My own experience of starting a church has been proof of the irreducible importance of the Christian message, the gospel. If you remove parts in some attempt to make it more acceptable the whole thing begins to crumble. But when you confront people with a true version of the message Christ preached, in all its offensiveness and glory, people’s lives are dramatically impacted for good. The success we have seen in growing a church of (almost entirely) millennials in the heart of London has had nothing to do with any talent I possess, and everything to do with the yearning ache in all of us for genuine hope in a broken world.
I can understand the urge to keep the form of church gatherings, even when the message has been completely excised (as in the case of the atheistic churches), or transformed beyond recognition (as in the case of so many established churches across the UK). The idea of church has a lot going for it. But in the end, such experiments are always going to fail because the real power in Christianity has never been the form, but the message.