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I visited London's 'atheist church' and HTB church. They've more in common than you'd expect

During a sabbatical Revd Canon Dr Tim Bull visited the atheist Sunday Assembly and Holy Trinity Brompton. It’s the similarities that he found most interesting…

Over the summer I was blessed with the opportunity of taking three months of extended study leave, sometimes called a ‘sabbatical’. I did a number of wonderful and memorable things, but among them, one particular Sunday stands out. As a Church of England clergyman I don’t often get to worship at other churches to see how they ‘do’ worship, so this was a good opportunity to see what was out there.

On this particular Sunday, though, I had decided to go somewhere rather different in the morning: The Sunday Assembly. This secular gathering was set up in 2013 by two comedians – Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans – who wanted to do something like church, but without God. Then in the evening I attended a service at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). What struck me was how similar these gatherings were.

Both were attended by a crowd of fashionable-looking young adults, mainly in their twenties and thirties. Although the sizes of the venues differed – HTB was bigger – both were nearly full. The form of the gathering was also very comparable. Both had a variety of notices and announcements, a collection taken during the ‘service’, tea and coffee for those attending, and ‘welcome’ information was available for newcomers. However, the parallels went deeper, too.

At the two events the music was led by a rock-style band on a stage at the front, words were projected onto a screen and the gathered throng sang with their arms in the air. There was more swaying and arm-waving at The Sunday Assembly and we sang songs by Taylor Swift, Rhianna and Tina Turner. (I decided that ‘Simply the best’ was really quite a good worship song!) In both the morning and evening there was a reading and a motivational talk.

Despite the apparently secular nature of The Sunday Assembly, there were several things that struck me as having more than a surface similarity to Christian faith. Intriguingly, The Sunday Assembly had a time of prayer, although it was called the weekly ‘Moment of Reflection’ and we all kept quiet for sixty seconds. More surprisingly, it was only at The Sunday Assembly that we had a testimony, as Siobhan told us about a time when she had tried her best.

Another parallel came in the short inspirational videos at both gatherings, encouraging participants to sign up to a life-transforming course. At one this was Alpha and at the other a weekend away entitled: Retreat to the Future. The word ‘retreat’ in itself prompted me to reflect on the Christian idea of a retreat: getting away from it all to seek God. As we heard about Retreat to the Future, an orange-clad Sanderson started by telling us that: “at Sunday Assembly we are obsessed with helping you live your life as fully as possible”. There seemed to be distinct echoes of John 10.10 there: Jesus saying that he had come to bring “life in all its fullness”. As the video continued, a former participant spoke to the camera: “I guess I would describe it as Tough Mudder for the soul”. Now there was an interesting thing: an avowedly secular organisation speaking about the existence of the soul. It seemed that it was impossible to escape from Christian – or at least metaphysical – beliefs.

So what did I make of these remarkable parallels? First, I was fascinated by the simple fact that gatherings like The Sunday Assembly had begun at all. In a society that is increasingly distancing itself from religion, it is clear that people are still spiritually hungry. They want opportunities to connect with others, to hear inspiring words and to have lives that are enriched by ‘moments of reflection’, testimonies, retreats and an acknowledgement that they are beings with souls.

I also came away with reflections on Christian worship. On the one hand, that the form of Church worship really does seem to matter. If young adults are attracted by an ‘HTB-style’ gathering, then maybe that’s precisely what we should be offering. But then I wondered whether the exact opposite might be true. Perhaps the form of worship doesn’t matter. If what we do in church on a Sunday can be adopted wholescale by a secular organisation, should we worry so much about getting the shape of our worship right?

That led me to my final thought. This style of Christian worship may be easy to replicate, but one thing can’t be copied – the good news at the heart of Christian faith. I must admit to finding The Sunday Assembly enjoyable, friendly and fun. But at its heart I found a gaping hole where God should have been. If our churches are to be truly attractive, then what we need isn’t simply a friendly welcome, well-performed contemporary music and an inspirational weekend away. What we need is for our worship – whatever its style – to draw people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

Tim Bull is an Anglican Priest serving as a Canon of St Albans Cathedral and as the Director of Ministry for the diocese of St Albans, which covers Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. 

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