The meeting is on a Sunday within a church building in London, England. There is a small band on the stage leading corporate songs and a presentation screen with lyrics. During the service there is an inspiring talk, a moment of silence and reflection and even an offering. But this is not church as we know it, this is church without God. Since its launch three years ago Sunday Assembly has grown to around 70 hubs all over the world – each running weekly meetings.
This may sound puzzling to Christians or even shocking at first. The Sunday Assembly’s original motif in 2013 of 'atheist church' was designed to do just that and maximise media interest (it worked). The Sunday Assembly (SA) aspiration was – ‘We don't do God or religion but we do 100% celebration of life’. They wanted to provide a place of positive social connection that was fun, aspirational and inspiring.
It's Church - but not as we know it
Typically an SA service will begin by a charismatic leader announcing from the stage, 'Come on everybody, let's celebrate life!' and the band launching into a song like 'Start me up' by the Rolling Stones. There's readings from poems and literature, science talks and personal testimonies of achievement (what’s not to like?).
So people gather, to all intents and purposes, for what has the trappings of a modern, ‘happy clappy, seeker friendly church’ but which deliberately determines not to mention God (reminds me of a few churches I’ve visited to be honest ;-). Sunday Assembly assert that they ‘don’t do the supernatural’ but they won't outlaw attendees from having a belief in the spiritual. In fact, the founder, Mr Jones, goes as far as admitting that he is personally prepared to acknowledge the possibility of something spiritual. But in the meetings this has to be downplayed because any references to the supernatural inevitably lead to grumblings from the ardent atheist attendees. And just like regular church the SA also aspire to be open and all inclusive, unless, according to its co-founder Ms Evans, ‘you think that means you can act like an a**h*** and everybody has to put up with you’.
A social phenomenon which has oiled the wheels of SA in the UK is the increasing public demand for non religious ceremonies. Apparently Humanist organisations have been in touch with them to ask if they would conduct atheist rituals like weddings and naming ceremonies. People without religious affiliations still want to celebrate rites of passage in a meaningful way. This is perhaps most concerning to institutional churches who now make most of their income from selling these services.
Is this a joke?
My very first response when I first heard about the Sunday Assembly was incredulity; is this a joke? An elaborate April fools? It shouldn’t have surprised me with hindsight to discover that it was, after all, founded by a couple of comedians.
In a BBC documentary (which I’ve drawn heavily on for this article) one church leader denounced SA as troubling and innappropriate but another said as far as he was concerned it was all good, what they were doing was (in his words) ‘all Kingdom’. But I’d have to disagree with that. What humanism aspires to is indeed all the benefits of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth – but they evidently want those benefits without the King (you may think I’m being picky here, but I don’t think you can have a Kingdom without a King). History has demonstrated with political experiments like communism that human nature will always show its true colours in the end – especially when God is evicted from society.
So what are we?
One of the most powerful provocations of the Sunday Assembly to us as believers has to be ‘what does church have to offer people then’? Since the Assembly, whatever you might think of them, seem to be doing quite well, (perhaps better, in terms of attendance and local impact), than many genuine churches. Putting it another way, what do the Assembly do that evidently isn’t an essential ingredient then of church life? Off the top of my head... a weekly gathering, greeters, a live band and a presentation screen with lyrics, an inspirational talk, moments of corporate quiet reflection, community engagement, a variety of philanthropic social schemes, encouraging volunteers, free will offerings, funerals, naming ceremonies and wedding rituals... to name just a few.
The only verse in the Bible that overtly states the true purpose of the church is found in Ephesians 3:10.
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.
Putting this in context Paul was basically saying that the church is the way in which God has decided to show off his amazing restoration plan through his son Jesus. Wisdom in a Biblical context is always more than intellectual understanding; it’s about a reverential and relational knowledge of God:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Proverbs 9:10
Jesus came so that we might not only have this true wisdom but also actually demonstrate it to others.
Manifold means multiple or many and so we see that the divinity of Jesus is revealed corporately in all believers by the habitation of the Holy Spirit. So the purpose of the true church is to reveal Jesus (Christ in us, the hope of glory) to the spiritual powers in the heavenly realms.
People of The Way
When Christianity first began it was a radical Jewish sect called ‘The Way’; soon extending to gentiles (since the Holy Spirit didn’t seem to differentiate between them). Believers in Jesus as their Messiah and Saviour got together in each other’s homes as a mutually supportive community, breaking bread and sharing wine together as a symbol of salvation. They also met in community spaces such as Solomon’s Colonnade near the Temple for worship and debate and engaged in good social help programmes such as feeding the poor and caring for widows. However what really characterised these early believers more than any other thing was the fearfully manifest presence and power of God.
Look at men like Stephen and Philip who were like human dynamos of the supernatural with miracles breaking out wherever they went. Acts 6:8 says: Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. And in Acts 8:6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. These guys were waiters serving tables at a Jerusalem soup kitchen, but they were also walking and living in the reality of divine life.
We went to a conference recently hosted by our good friends Justin and Rachel Abraham who head up the Company of Burning Hearts ministry. They are regarded by many, in terms of their mystical theology and wild expressions of worship, as ‘out there’ (even by MorningStar’s standards). However, we regard them as one of the few authentic prophetic voices in the UK today. They are a provocation to many, (including me), pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a Christian. But isn’t this really what the church should be?
After all, the beating heart of the believing community is that the divine has been revealed in human form in order that God might be revealed in all people. Justin has just released his debut book, ‘Beyond Human’ which outlines, in typically uncompromising style, just how fantastical this revelation of the true Christ can be. A people who are described in Scripture as being ‘new creations’, a people no longer limited by the restraints of ‘mere humanity’.
And so in what has been described as the ‘post modern age’ or even the ‘post church age’ could it be that organisations like the Sunday Assembly are a clarion call to abandon seeker friendly church and return to supernatural and risky, even dangerous, church? A people who actually reveal the reality of God in Jesus through the habitation of the Holy Spirit in their lives? A people who walk in the authentic power of the gospel, demonstrating the living power of God wherever they go?
Somebody once said that church should be the gathering that you’re afraid to miss and by the same token afraid to go to for the same reason: because it’s where the awesome power of God manifests! That’s really what the people of our day are hungry to see and experience in us. After all, if you want to sing a few songs and enjoy a few presentations instead, you can always go to Sunday Assembly...
About the author:
Rob Cresswell has been in active church and ministry leadership for over 15 years and is a gifted communicator. Along with his wife Aliss he partners in pioneering ministries which seek to engage with the unchurched and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. He has a heart to help train and equip believers into their callings. He is the author of 'What Next Jesus?' - a survival guide for new Christians.