Yesterday, Julia Speck recapped the inaugural service of the Los Angeles Sunday Assembly, a godless congregation committed to helping people “live better, help often, and wonder more.”
Many will be challenged by the existence of such a congregation. There will be fear, perhaps, that a struggling Christian congregation’s building will soon house one of the many Sunday Assembly congregations coming to a city near you. There will undoubtedly be frustration expressed at a godless community taking cues from the sacred liturgies of Christian history, playing off of our orders of service to serve and further the cause of atheism and humanism.
While I was not present for the Sunday Assembly’s public launch in Hollywood this past week, I was present with the congregation I pastor just a few miles away. From the sound of it, I think the Sunday Assembly could be a gift to my church and the churches in my neighborhood for a few reasons.
First, there are societal issues that people of any or no faith can work together overcome. If the Sunday Assembly can funnel people into work that sustains and furthers the development of neighborhoods and community life in our city, I can celebrate this as I pray “Your kingdom come” in Hollywood.
I welcome anyone who is interested in making a positive change in the very real issues my neighbors and I face every day – joblessness, housing issues, unsafe streets, lack of green space, loneliness, etc. My church community already partners with a number of organizations to work towards a better quality of life for all in our diverse neighborhood – and there’s always room for more voices, hearts, and hands – atheist, orthodox, Buddhist, or otherwise.
Second, the so-called “New Atheists” have not only moved into the bookstores, they’ve moved into our neighborhoods. The world is changing, our society’s engagement with matters of faith is changing, and our neighbors are changing. We’ve entered an age where, for growing segments of the population, a filled church pew is more likely to be found in a trendy coffee shop than in a cathedral.
Having a Sunday Assembly in the neighborhood is an excellent chance to know and love the increasing number of “godless” neighbors we have – not, as Wendell Berry has quipped, the neighbors you pick out (most often those who are “like us,” especially in matters of faith and worldview), but the post-Christian neighbors you actually have.
Finally, if the medium is the message, then the Sunday Assembly is a great reminder that we need to continually ask what message we are sending. Coffee, community, singing, and a good turn of phrase can and will attract people to your gathering – Christian, atheist, or otherwise.
If the Sunday Assembly can successfully take a standard Christian order of service, tweak and modify the language a bit, and satisfy the felt needs and longings of humanity, perhaps this is a clarion call to the church to find more imaginative and creative ways to be the church in our neighborhoods. We cannot simply be an insider’s social club performing empty rituals and a plethora of God-language. We need to find new and innovate ways to bring and be living, breathing good news in our neighborhoods. We need to find ways to join Jesus (and, coincidentally, our atheist neighbors!) in combatting our own deeply-ingrained religiosity in order to further the radical message of grace and life found in God’s reign via the way of the cross.