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Why Go to Church? (January 5, 2018)

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Have you heard about the atheist church? The formal name is “Sunday Assembly”. It was begun in 2013 by a couple of standup comedians in North London, England, who decided they wanted to do “something like church, but without God.” The purpose of the Sunday Assembly is so that non–religious people who want a similar communal experience to a religious church can gather.

The movement has taken off. There are similar gatherings all around the world, including Calgary, Halifax, Toronto, Vancouver and other Canadians cities. People gather together because they long for a sense of community and guidance which comes from being part of a church.

Korey Peters was an organizing force behind The Calgary Secular Church. In an interview with HuffPost, he said, “I began to miss the church experience, and I thought, ‘Oh it would be a good idea to have a church for the non–religious.’” And so they began to meet.

Groups meet in pastry shops, coffee bars, theatres—wherever they can find a welcoming space. They sing songs which affirm the power of life. They read from various readings which are also life–affirming. There are moments of silence for contemplation. They explore different themes about the miracle of life, or the power of compassion, or the wonder of the world in which we live. They promote virtues such as resilience and humour.

The mantra of the Sunday Assembly in north London is “live better, help often, wonder more.” Since they started five or so years ago, the movement is growing. The really interesting thing it, however, is to see where new Sunday Assemblies are forming. They are all, with one exception, to be found in the western world—western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The exception is Cape Town, South Africa.

What this suggests to me is that people who live in places which are well–developed are more likely to jettison any religious beliefs. They still hunger for community, an opportunity to gather with others and be inspired. They still need to celebrate, and to wonder. But the answers of traditional religion no longer make sense to them.

All of this got me to thinking.

Most people who go to church do so because they subscribe to the beliefs of that church. I, for example, go because of my trust in God, who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

But at the same time, many people who go to church generally accept the doctrine of the church they attend, but don’t necessarily believe it all. Some of them, for example, recite the Creed with their fingers crossed. I myself recite the Creed, and while I have problems with almost every phrase in the Creed, I still want to belong to a community which accepts this way of formulating our Christian faith.

But what about people who can’t believe what any of the churches out there teach? There are increasing numbers of them, mostly because there is no longer any social pressure to be part of a church. There were always atheists … but these days, it’s ok to be one. No one looks at you sideways if you don’t go to church. In fact, they might look at you sideways if you DO go.

But how can you meet basic human needs for community which the church used to fulfill? Where else can you gather these days to talk about virtue, about doing good, about being good?

Where else can you gather these days to form community? I wrote a few months ago about Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists, in which he names community as the most important element of religious life which the church used to mediate, but no longer does for many people. Where else do you gather with people who share different views of life, and yet form a community which is able to celebrate together, which gathers precisely to wonder at the presence of mystery in human life?

Where else do you gather with people who are different than you are, and who end up becoming friends simply by the act of gathering? Where else do you spend time in your life meeting with different folks who challenge your way of thinking and help you to view life from another perspective?

Where else do you build some space in your life for contemplation and silence, where you can retreat for an hour from the noise and busy pace of this life. Where else can you build in some time for peace and reflection?

Where else are you supported by people who love you and care for you, with whom you can share your sadness and your joys?

Some churches insist that you must believe as they do in order to belong. At Christ Church, however, we welcome you as someone who belongs first. If you come to believe as we do, wonderful! If you never come to believe as we do, that is also wonderful! You belong. You are part of a community of healing and grace.

Let me invite you to check us out. There is a church in town which advertises that if you want reverence, go somewhere else. They offer informality and celebration. At Christ Church, we offer both reverence and celebration.

Check us out at Christ Church … and then come meet us. We work hard at building a community of grace.