Photo credit: Jae C. Hong, AP, via USA Today

Photo credit: Jae C. Hong, AP, via USA Today

Saw this article over the weekend in USA Today. The AP reports that “dozens of gatherings” of atheists are popping up across the U.S. after gaining ground in Britain. Here’s a clip:

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection and an “inspirational talk, ” and some stand-up comedy by Jones, the movement’s co-founder.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

At the end, volunteers passed cardboard boxes for donations as attendees mingled over coffee and pastries and children played on the floor.

I’m baffled by this. Truly baffled. I think back over forty years plus nine months of my own church experience. I can probably count on two hands and two feet (and have a toe or two left over) the number of times I’ve not been at church on a Sunday. Whether I was always there for the right reasons or not, I was always there.

But to gather just for the purpose of gathering is curious to me. I’ll be honest: if I were not a person of faith, I could think of plenty of other things I’d rather do on the weekend: sleep in. Grab breakfast with friends. Sleep in. Get all introverted and read. Did I mention sleeping in?

Way way down on the bottom of my list would be to show up to a large event with a bunch of strangers, sing some songs, and put money in a box.

To have a service when there’s no One you’re serving…well, that would be like inviting friends over for a movie night, but staring at a blank wall. The concept is good, but the execution is empty.

I don’t come to church because I get to sing, or talk to strangers, or have one more thing on my calendar. As a matter of fact, as one who’s more of an introvert, those things make the weekend a challenge for me. No, I sing and talk to strangers and schedule “church” because of the One the church is built upon. It’s the life of Jesus that informs my church life.

The point of church has never been to simply sing or gather or give. Yes, those things are a part of it. But the point of church is to point to Jesus. And without Jesus as the center, without someone who serves as the recipient of what we do, I remain…baffled.

My goal is not to bash atheists who gather corporately. I’m not out to question the sincerity of people who probably sound really good when they sing “Here Comes the Sun.” (As a matter of fact, if you attend one of these gatherings and happened to stumble across this post, I would genuinely love to have a dialogue with you so that I can learn from you.)

But here’s what I gleaned from the article: even people who don’t believe in God believe in relationships. According to Sanderson Jones, one of the co-founders of the movement:

“…it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in. If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. 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?”

That, I understand. That’s where Jones nails it. People are looking for community. We’re hard-wired for relationships. And that’s why our churches must be places where people can connect, can get to know one another, can serve each other and live beyond themselves.

That’s why we have to plan the weekend experience with both believer and unbeliever in mind. Whether someone is a disciple or disillusioned, sold out or skeptic, apologist or atheist, we have the responsibility to plan for people who are like us, not like us, and don’t like us. We have the mandate to think outside the walls when it comes to people who wander inside our walls. We have to meet people where they are, not where we think they ought to be.

But as we do it, we must think bigger than corporate singing or generous giving. We must go beyond an inspirational sermon or strong relationships. All of those things should be present, but all should be a catalyst for something more. Sermons and singing and giving and relating has to point somewhere. It can’t be an end in itself.

It has to point to Jesus.

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