This past Sunday, there was a new church plant launched here in London. They are called The Sunday Assembly. They gather on Sunday mornings to hear announcements, sing, hear readings, and hear a sermon. This sounds fairly normal, but this church is an atheist church. The sermon is given by a stand-up comedian, not a pastor. The goal of the gathering is to create a community built around like-minded people being kind towards and helping one another. The space where they are meeting is even an old church (left). So what makes a church?
- Do they have a building? ✓
- Do they meet on Sundays? ✓
- Is there a sermon?* ✓
- Is there singing? ✓
- Do they have leaders? ✓
- Do the people having something in common? ✓
The Bible defines the church as a New Humanity. People who were spiritually dead and have been made alive by the Holy Spirit who share life together, giving of each other in joyful sacrifice for the glory of God. It is a community that worships Christ. Our goodness as Christians doesn’t spring forth from our desire to do good, because even our good desires are often tainted by selfish ambitions. Rather, the true church responds to God’s life-imparting grace. His goodness works through the lives of his people. The community we have as the church is the partnership (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit. The Living God himself, indwells us and expresses his character through us towards one another. Christian community is a manifestation of God as we are a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:22). So often as churches, we can allow our focus to fall on that which even an atheist can replicate (mere forms and symbols without the life-blood and purpose of them). But what truly makes us distinct is that we are a redeemed community who respond to the work of God in our lives through the means of God’s Word, God’s people, service, evangelism, and prayer (On that note, it is interesting that an atheist church cannot incorporate prayer into their church service).
This is a good reminder for us as pastors to emphasize those things that are distinctly Christian in our churches. That distinction is the life that flows from the Son. Without the life of Christ, all that can be had is a form of godliness, rejecting its power (2 Tim 3:5).
*Another worthwhile topic would be ‘what makes a sermon a sermon?’. Is it simply giving a ‘talk’ (a term many Brits use), or is it prophetically speaking forth the oracles of God’s life-giving word?