When Atheists Have Church Too

File this reflection under the category –
“You know you live in a post-Christian culture when…”

A friend sent me this article Monday:

(David Thier, “In the Bible Belt, Offering Atheists a Spiritual Home,” [New York: New York Times, June 23, 2013] Online Available:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/us/in-the-bible-belt-offering-atheists-a-spiritual-home.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130624&_r=1&1 .)

I think this article outlines exactly the environment in which the church finds itself today in America. People have a longing for something beyond themselves – but don’t think the church has anything to offer in pursuing it. In fact, I would contend that many people hold churches responsible as holding back their spirituality.

Monday afternoon someone else linked a second article to me after I posted the original on a Facebook group for clergy.

(Brian Wheeler, “What Happens at an Atheist Church?” [London: BBC News Magazine, February 4, 2013]. Online Available:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21319945 . Take a couple of minutes and watch the video attached to the article.)

Then I received a third one Monday evening:

(Dan Mercia, “Church without God – By Design,” [Atlanta: CNN Belief Blog, June 22, 2013]. Online Available:
http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/22/church-without-god-by-design/ .)

atheist.fan.clubThree major cities – New York, London, Boston. Holding church without God. The atheists I know would never go for this idea – even though they don’t believe in God, I don’t think any of them have a problem with “God” per se – they have a strong affinity for free speech and the right to belief (or not believe) whatever people want to believe. Their concerns are with churches, especially in your face kind of churches that smirk at science, judge others fiercely and try to ram their religion down other people’s throats. Truth be told – I have a problem with people like this too. Why would people want to replicate the experience of church – if church is the problem?

How did we get here?

Christian history is long and complex filling twenty centuries. For the sake of this reflection, we start at the Cold War. America’s cultural response to the Soviet Union and communist bloc was religious involvement. It was during this period that most Mainline Protestant groups (including Lutherans) reached their zenith of influence and numerical membership. The period of the 1960s – 2000s, saw tremendous cultural change, which started a steady decline among active participants. In addition to social change the other key factors for Mainline Protestants are the drop in numbers of children among families, increasing mobility of people across the country (most congregations are designed around stable, multigenerational communities), and the decrease in immigrants of similar faith backgrounds.

As far as recent history is concerned, Diana Butler Bass suggests five crises contributing to what she calls the “participation crash”* of the early 21st century. I heard her speak on these categories in January, 2012 at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. At the time I thought they were a bit simplistic, but a year and a half later of watching and listening to people – I’m finding her insights helpful to people’s reactions. Here they are:


9/11 Crisis – The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 brought the perception in American culture that people from the middle east were terrorists, regardless of who they actually are. Muslims are seen as highly suspect, but the perception has grown to include that all religious people (whatever faith they profess) are out to kill those who are different from them in the name of God. Vigilance to stand against a few extremists, means suspicious of all.

Roman Catholic Crisis – The ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal that went public in 2002 brought with it mistrust of clergy and the perception that religious people hurt children.

Mainline Protestant Crisis – The election of an openly gay Episcopal bishop in 2003 and the debate over human sexuality in most Mainline Protestant Denominations created the impression that churches not only fight all the time but are also out of touch with 21st century life.

Evangelical Crisis – The Christian right triumphed with the 2004 election, but led to a downward spiral. “In their recent book, American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell cautiously suggest that the real victory of the religious right has been alienate an entire generation of young people…In 1985, 26% of young adults under twenty-nine claimed to be evangelicals; that number now hovers around 15%, while the number of ‘nones’ (those with no religious affiliation) under twenty-nine has risen from 12% to nearly 30%. Indeed, most evangelical loss stems from the defection of young people, who increasingly identify Christianity (not just evangelical religion but Christianity as a whole) as antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, out of touch with reality, overly politicized, insensitive and dull. ”#

The Great ‘Religious’ Recession Crisis – prior to 2000, American religion went through a period of optimism, growth, and wealth. The events of the prior four factors turned the cultural mood from confidence to suspicion. “When the economic recession hit in 2007, religious institutions were already struggling under the weight of the psychological, spiritual, and moral shocks that were already pressing their communities. Although political leaders looked to faith-based organizations to help alleviate the suffering of the poor and unemployed when the stock and housing markets collapsed, churches were already woefully short on resources. The economic recession arrived at the moment when churches and denominations were already in religious recession…The economic crisis did not drive people to religion; instead, it drove religion further into irrelevance.” >

So where are we now…and what do we do?

atheist.pamphletThose are the $10 million questions, aren’t they? The church has a decade long credibility gap, amidst other cultural factors that have led to our marginalization. I also understand how difficult it is for us to feel comfortable sharing our faith, inviting others to church, or considering ourselves effective “witnesses.” Like my calm, level headed, atheist friends and family members – we love free speech, religious freedom, don’t want to impose our beliefs on others, think obnoxious religious people are obnoxious too, and we don’t like that they tend to represent all religious people, including good Lutherans like myself. At the same time we long for vibrancy in our community, we want to see our church grow and flourish, we want to be warm, welcoming, hospitable, caring people – that live out our faith, and effectively make a difference in the world. Yet we often end up on the sidelines, unsure what to do.

What can we do that is neither obnoxious nor passive?
We should reconsider our starting point.

In her book, Bass explores three categories religious communities have used to incorporate new people into the community, nurture children in their faith development, and cultivate the community’s sense of identity and mission. These categories are behaving, believing and belonging. Traditionally speaking, many congregations operate this way – they teach an ethical and moral faith perspective, they teach doctrine and their denominational perspective, and once people are formed into these behaviors and ideas they belong to the group. Bass suggests flipping this paradigm upside down – to welcome and encourage belonging to the group; to welcome and foster questions and discernment around theological understanding using the tools and resources of doctrine and our denominational heritage; while partnering with participants in their own transformation of the way we live, treat one another and see the world. The first trajectory is cognitive – it is giving mental assent to what is being taught in order to belong. The second trajectory is active – it invites activity as people are invited into a deeper understanding within the community that accepts them and draws them into ministry.

Allow me to explore these three categories a little more…


A recent Gallup Poll revealed that 96% of young people between the ages of 13-17 identify that they believe in God. In a list of six values – Religious faith ranked last, behind responsibility, self-respect, obedience, honesty and independence.< I believe this to be an indicator that both young people and their families are asking questions of faith, identity, and meaning but are not looking to churches to help them navigate those questions. It seems to me people tend more to be agnostics than atheists.  I’ve had conversations with people that say one way or another, “I believe in God. I pray. I even read the Bible once and a while, but I don’t need church.” People have dropped out of church or simply see it as irrelevent. But we still have a deep need for community. Especially in an age where we are more digitally connected with others than those whom we live with or with our next door neighbors and wider community it is an essential part of life many people are missing. I have been asked, “Why would someone join or want be part of a church?” My answer is usually, “to belong.” We can best sort out life and faith together. We all need a place to land. We need a place not just to discern our spirituality with others, but also we need friends, connections, people we can trust and rely on in a time of crisis, multiple generations of people we can learn from, engage, and teach. agnostic-2We need community to feel engaged in the world, while also feeling safe from the world.  We used to group ourselves in clans, tribes, extended families and churches to engage these primary human needs. Now we are all running around in a hundred different directions, disconnected from others while plugged into our electronic devices. It is no wonder why we feel so fragmented, and why people feel so alone. So why shouldn’t atheists want to get together and for a community? Genuine community is a missing part of our society. We can offer that kind of community. Yet I think we offer more than a secular group can.


atheist.hatsChurches offer more than just a club membership. There is something that happens at church that sets us apart from other opt-in volunteer organizations. We are the body of Christ. This gives us a distinct starting place to see the rest of the world. We see ourselves not only as belonging to each other, but also to Jesus as we engage the scriptures, participate in the sacraments, pray together and for one another, serving alongside one another. We are part of God’s restoration project, by becoming the very thing we eat and drink – the body of Christ. We are the risen Christ, part of the unfolding kingdom of God, sharing good news to a world that feels like it is only falling apart. Faith finds meaning in belonging. Together in Christ, we are a set-apart body for the sake of the world.

Behaving (and Becoming)

In former times churches used to pronounce official ways to behave and spoke with an authority that people responded to in kind (even if they disagreed with it). Now the church (and all communities of faith) live on the margins, and are dismissed almost immediately when it is perceived that in judgment we speak for the whole of society. In former times it was important to us to distinguish ourselves from others. It is now commonplace to live in multiethnic, multi-religious communities, even within our own families. Our belief is personal, but so is our engagement with others with different belief systems. In a world that is used to condemnation and violence – our witness as the body of Christ must be one of welcome, invitation, mutual respect, listening, engagement, humility, reconciliationfriend, and finding commonality in our humanity – even with atheists. They too have much to offer and learn from in the complicated and intertwined world in which we live. We live in a time of great individualism and distrust of others. Our greatest value must become transformation as Good News begins to take hold of us.  People are watching. What will they see? We have a saying at our house – “to make a friend you have to be a friend.” This is how the church must behave; this is what we are called to become – a friend – to whoever needs one. Only there, will people be open to see the new life in which we live.

Going to Atheist Sunday School

A few years ago there was an article in Time Magazine about Atheist Sunday School.^ The idea was similar to Atheist Church – provide a space to be together, reinforce worldview and share common values. (Notice the similarity to Bass’ ‘belonging, believing, behaving’ trio.) The Atheist Sunday School started because some parents wanted to teach their children how to navigate the complicated and troubled world. Rather than being dismissive or adversarial…We can help with that.

Why do we start?

It starts with considering these questions:

-Do we gather just to enact ancient rituals disconnected from this world, tell antiquated stories without connecting them to our own story, share some food and drinks and time together but see no implication for the rest of our week? 


church.come.and.rest-Do we gather to help each other navigate a complicated and troubled world, and know we navigate it better together?

-Do we believe God is present in our lives and community, and we enter the mystery as God’s story becomes our story as we navigate this complicated and troubled world?

-Do we attempt to navigate this complicated and troubled world because we have good news, living water, and the bread of life to share (even when we are not sure how)?

We live in a post-Christian culture. Once we understand who we are – we can start to engage the people in it.  It starts here. Now. With us.

Pastor Geoff


Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)



* Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. [New York: Harper One, 2012], pp. 77-83.

# Book sited: Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), pp. 120-33, 401-418.  Bass also references in this section: David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), pp. 28ff. (Bass, Christianity After Religion, pp. 80-81.)

> Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 82.

< “Survey of Americans – Young People aged 13-17 years-old.” Statistical Bulletin. (George H. Gallup International Institute, July 2012).

^ Jeninne Lee, “Sunday School for Atheists,” (New York: Time Magazine, November 21, 2007). Online Available: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1686828,00.html.


About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Change Proponent, Goofball, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
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