What the church has that the Sunday Assembly doesn’t

What, no cassock?

The Sunday Assembly—an atheist, churchlike organization based in London—has received a bit of press lately, first in the Economist and then on the BBC.

On the one hand, I think the apparent success of the Sunday Assembly points to the deeply felt need in the Euro-Atlantic world for community and togetherness. So much of our lives is pulling us apart these days (or bringing us together in unhelpful ways) that I think lots of people are looking for a safe place simply to be with one another. If, for one reason or another, they can’t find it in church, they might look for something like the Sunday Assembly. That they have to look to the Sunday Assembly for this is an indictment of the church, not a critique of the Sunday Assembly.

But as I was listening to the BBC story—lots of upbeat, encouraging chatter, like “who’s ready for another song?”—I could think only of one thing: my many years as a summer camp counselor. In that line of work, the keys to success are enthusiasm and energy—the more the better. I have convinced scores of children to sing inane songs by acting like it was the most wonderful, best, coolest thing ever—my enthusiasm led to my success. The way these Sunday Assembly folks were whipping up their congregation was, I thought, more than a little similar.

But there are problems in this world—illness, addiction, death—to which more enthusiasm is not the answer. The Christian tradition, however, addresses these issues by speaking of sin, grace, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and so on. I hope people go to church when they are feeling good about life. But it is when people are struggling with life that they should feel especially welcome. Church is the place you go when things aren’t working out. (That it is not always seen this way is another indictment of the church.) It is hard to see how a new widower grieving the loss of his wife would find comfort or solace in singing “Celebration” but hopefully in the celebration of the Eucharist he finds the reminder of Christ’s ultimate triumph over death. And even my energy and enthusiasm as a camp counselor could give way to pastoral attention when the situation called for it.

(I grant that my knowledge of the Sunday Assembly is limited and perhaps they have ways of addressing these concerns I do not know about. Still, it’s hard to see a moment of silence compares to the triumphant victory of Christ.)

Church people don’t always like to admit this, but churches exist in a competitive marketplace—whether it is the Sunday Assembly, soccer games, or simply morning television, there are lots of other activities out there competing for people’s attention. But one thing about competition is that it can force organizations to refocus on their core competencies, their competitive advantage.

I wonder if the Sunday Assembly can help churches return to the central themes and traditions that have carried it the past 2000 years.