I recently read about an atheist who visited three London churches in 2015. He provided some surprising praise of churches, from which Christians can learn. Primarily, unlike in the past where atheists or Deists valued the church mainly for its moral instruction, his views suggest that what is much more important to unbelievers today is acceptance and inclusion. Most people simply want a place to belong. Sadly, this is an area where many churches most often fail. Yet he also felt that mystical experiences and modern technology help to draw people.
Sanderson Jones is a former stand-up comedian who led the Sunday Assembly Community Center, which some call the “atheist church.” In essence, it is a Sunday morning church experience for people who don’t believe but want the socialization and community that churches provide believers. They include music, talk, and an offering that supports charity. Invited to visit a friend’s church in 2015, Jones ended up visiting three London churches: St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Holloway, Hillsong, and St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Bryanston Square. He may have been shopping around for ideas, or perhaps he was merely curious. Regardless, he came away with high praise for the churches he visited. Although he did not believe in the teachings of the church, he commented on areas he could agree with rather than being cynical. His comments reveal, not only what he thinks churches are doing right, but also what most draws people to believe.
The biggest attraction for Jones was the welcoming environment. He believed being welcomed at the door and invited to coffee were extremely important and done right in the churches he visited. “It’s the most basic things which you’ll take for granted in Churchland, which are in fact really powerful,” he said. It is this element that so many churches continue to struggle, despite the urging of Christ to love our neighbors. Some do not reach out to any visitors other than having them fill out a card to receive a letter or call at a later time. I’ve been to services where no one spoke to me other than the ushers as everyone around me flitted towards their friends. I’ve also been to churches where people spoke to everyone, asked them to get a cup of coffee or to meals later, and spoke to them during breaks. In many cases, it’s often the difference between visitors returning or never coming again. If the church cannot provide simple kindness and decency, it’s going to have a hard time getting people to come regularly, let alone participate in activities.
Jones also commented on being invited to take communion and to receive prayer despite not believing. Of course, many churches take the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper more seriously than others, with some believing that taking it without belief condemns people to hell, and so restrict access. Jones, however, was surprised that he was allowed to do so at the churches he attended. He found the experience “genuinely moving.” He described himself as a “mystical atheist” who looks for experiences that help people feel connected. He made similar comments about receiving prayer for healing. Although he did not believe in prayer, he thought the encouragement he received well worth the experience. “It’s really emotional…it’s going to have a powerful psychological effect.” Many churches have lost the sense of wonder that the Lord’s Supper or individual prayer brings. They’ve become social clubs or doctrinal schools rather than helping people to encounter God. Although Jones denied the presence of God, it is interesting that this was one of the things that most drew him. When God is present, people will come whether they believe or not.
Finally, Jones had a lot to say about the presentation. As someone who understood mass media, he found the service at Hillsong particularly appealing as people entered into ecstatic worship. The music was modern and high-tech, there were videos at the beginning, and the sermon was well-prepared, funny, and well-executed. While some churches reject such presentation as manipulative, he observed that people were merely putting their creativity into God. The energy was particularly appealing. “I just love it. I feel so excited to be alive,” which he believed led people to be more contemplative. Of course, we should always be wary that people are being manipulative, especially when they are asking for money or leading others to believe something. It’s always better to let God do the talking than trying to make things happen with slick speeches and fancy music. Yet providing a modern presentation can also help those raised in the video culture receive information they would otherwise reject with dry sermons, boring music, and uninspiring services. If people can use their skills to make their church more inviting, more power to them.
Of course, there are many issues that Jones did not discuss. As someone who does not believe in God, he did not address issues related to theology, faith in God, or spiritual experience. These are the most important elements of church experience, but one cannot expect an unbeliever to feel they are important. Yet his other observations are valid. The church ought to be more welcoming. It ought to embrace wonder and emotional support. It ought to try to make services inviting. If we want to see more people come to faith, we must reach out to the unbelieving. Jones’ comments are a beginning.
© 2022 J.D. Manders