A godless congregation (Tim Nash)

Tim Nash wonders what makes Christian church different to atheist church.

It's interesting that England used to be a Christian country, in some senses at least, but is now one of the world's most secular nations. It's also home to a new atheist church. In January, two comedians launched The Sunday Assembly (sundayassembly.com) – a church that 'never mentions God'.

No joke.

Each week, about 300 atheists meet in London to sing, listen to talks, plan missions and enjoy a sense of community. And it's spreading, with atheist churches springing up in cities around the UK, the US and Australia. As one of the founders said, 'We've inadvertently sparked a global movement!' I wonder if this godless congregation – which is how The Sunday Assembly refers to itself – stands as a prophetic warning to the church.

So I went to one of their services and interviewed one of the founders for Nomad Podcast (listen to the interview at nomadpodcast.co.uk).

My first impression was that The Sunday Assembly does indeed feel like a church. As we walked in, people were mingling. The leader was greeting people at the door and the band was setting up. The only difference at this point was that the faithful were filling the seats from the front (in my church experience, they usually fill up from the back!).

When things got started, all the traditional elements of a service were evident – singing, 'sermon', notices, reflections and encouragement to join small groups and mission events. This call to mission provided one of the few references to church, when the leader challenged the congregation to 'try and outdo the church at doing good'. There was even communion. Well, sort of – this month's guest speaker was a wine expert, who passed around a glass of red for people to share.

We noticed only two striking differences to a Christian church. First, the service was a lot funnier (it's led by two comedians). And second, there were no references to God or Jesus.

I found this challenging. Just how different is what we're doing in our Christian churches from what they're doing in their atheist church? On the surface, the only difference is language. We talk about Jesus, they don't. But actually, how significant is this?

It reminded me of what Paul said to the followers of Jesus in Corinth: 'I didn't come to you with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power' (1 Corinthians 2.4).

Surely our faith is more than just words. Surely it is more than language that separates us from the atheists. Paul went on to say that when people who aren't followers of Jesus come into a Christian gathering they will 'fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"' (1 Corinthians 14.25).

So I don't think the primary difference between us and the atheists is language. It has to be the presence of Jesus. Without the radically transforming presence of Jesus in our gatherings, are we not, for all intents and purposes, just another atheist church?


Tim Nash is a pioneer minister with the Methodist Church's VentureFX pioneering ministries scheme. He, and his wife Hannah, have been developing a community called Garden-City for the past 18 months.

I started with VentureFX in September 2011 and am based in Sherwood, just north of Nottingham city centre. The first few months were a frustrating time as I was keen to do something; an event, a project, anything! Instead we sensed God calling us to let go of all our ideas, agendas and dreams and pray and discern what he was already doing in the area. So we prayer walked (and cycled) every street in the area a number of times, keeping our eyes and ears open to what God might be up to.

We slowly began to develop a picture of a place that was very open to spirituality, but one that at the same time was very suspicious of anything formal, organised, and in particular anything that appeared religious.

We then began to sense God giving us a way into this community. We felt God telling us to 'love your neighbour'. This took us by surprise a bit as it seemed so obvious, but we came to appreciate that there was something inauthentic about going out and about 'doing' mission in the area if we didn't even know the people we lived next door to. As a result we began to organise street parties and house parties for Christmas, Easter, the Jubilee or anything other excuse we could come up with. Then slowly we began to invite people round to explore spirituality in informal and creative ways.

Garden-City - Christmas

Another thing we sensed quite strongly was the need to embody the gospel. Again we knew we were meant to do this, but we began to realise that in order to do this authentically we needed to open up our lives to the people around us. Although by nature, me and my wife are quite introverted and like our own space, we began to open ourselves up by making sure that at least three or four times a week we'd eat with other people, invite people to join us on holidays, invite people round for Christmas or to simply join in with whatever we were doing. We also learnt the importance of not trying to put a gloss on our lives, but to allow people to be a part of our struggles; our mourning as well as our celebrations. That's when people really seemed to be looking at what difference our faith made.

We also came to realise that in our particular context what we offered people needed to be experiential. As I spoke to people involved in the New Spiritualities, it was clear they were involved because of a spiritual encounter of some sort. I also met a number of people who had left the church to explore the New Spiritualities because they hadn't found a sense of an authentic, experiential spiritual journey in the church. So we began to create spaces for people to experience Jesus, regularly putting on creative, meditative evenings in our home, community centre and the pub. We've seen God use these spaces to touch people in really deep ways, even if their initial experience wasn't a positive one.

At one of our gatherings, for example, we took a small group of people through a guided meditation that ended by encouraging them to engage in a conversation with Jesus. One man, who had been brought along by his partner, began to experience a deep sense of darkness and fear. Rather than putting him off, however, this encounter with (what he described as) evil convinced him there must be something good and loving out there. All his previous intellectual objections to the faith disappeared and he began to pursue Jesus. We recently baptised him – just four months after that initial encounter.

Garden-City - retreat

We also quickly realised that we had to offer an holistic faith. Any hint of a sacred/secular divide was a big turn off for people. As we reflected on this we felt God draw our attention to Jesus's summary of the law as a framework for our faith journey – to love God (Father, Son and Spirit), to love ourselves (mind, body and spirit) and to love our neighbour (humans, animals and the Earth).

One of the many ways we've gone about expressing this is through sharing an allotment. Every weekend a group of us can be found there digging, weeding and planting, as we explore what it means to live more in tune with the seasons. The local allotment association has been so impressed with what we've been up to they're allowing us to turn another plot into a community garden to create a sense of community among the other allotment holders.

This journey has led to the formation of a community called Garden-City. We chose the name because humanity is said to have originated in a garden (Eden) and will find its fulfilment in a city (the New Jerusalem). We live in the 'in-between' time, the hyphen of Garden-City. It also seemed quite apt as our community lives in a city but we spent a lot of our free time in our garden/allotment.

There are 15 of us, plus children (and a small group of people still on the fringes checking us out). Although we're increasingly exploring the idea of mission as a community, our present growth seems to be happening through 'attractive discipleship', as people in our social networks show an interest in the lifestyle we're committing ourselves to.

We recently celebrated Garden-City's first birthday by going on a retreat for the day. To help us reflect on the journey we'd been on we made a timeline on which everyone wrote something about what being part of the community has meant to them. One of the main themes that emerged was people's thankfulness for the sense of family they've found in Garden-City. That was a sign to me that we are seeing a 'church' emerge – a Jesus-centred, spiritual family.

Garden-City - meal

Although relationships are at the heart of Garden-City, a pattern of gatherings has emerged to help us on our discipleship journey.

On the first Monday of the month we all meet together in a pub function room to explore the life of Jesus. This is a very informal, discussion-based evening, where we look at an aspect of Jesus's life, and then commit ourselves to living it.

On the second Monday we meet in groups of twos or threes. This is where we get deeper into each other's lives, and hold each other accountable to loving God, loving ourselves and loving our neighbours.

On the third Monday we're all together again in the pub function room where we explore creative prayer and meditation. We've found this to be a good place to bring new people who are interested in exploring spirituality.

On the fourth Monday we meet in two groups to simply catch up, share how our journey is going, or to go deeper into any issues that have emerged at the previous gatherings.

We also all meet together one Sunday afternoon a month to share a meal.

What really strikes me as I look back over the last 18 months is that it is Jesus who is building this church. All we've done is commit ourselves to prayer and to giving ourselves to the people we've come into contact with, and sharing with them what Jesus has done for us. Out of this, Garden-City has emerged. That's not to say it hasn't been really hard work or that everything has been easy, we've certainly had our challenges, but there has been a very real sense that Jesus is going ahead of us, and we're simply trying to keep up!