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My questions about atheist churches

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Amy Davis Roth's homemade ceramic line called Surlyramics is shown during The Amazing Meeting convention at the Southpoint Hotel-Casino on Friday July 13, 2012, in Las Vegas (Credit: RNS / Ronda Churchill)

You probably attended church services yesterday.  It’s possible that an atheist you know did as well, in a way.  The rise of “atheist churches” is an oxymoronic fact in our culture.

One of the fastest-growing is in London.  Its leader asks, “Why is it that people who are atheists get married in a church?”  He then answers his question: “There is just something about these places, it’s a place of worship, where people have gone for more than 400 years and it’s the sort of place where your heart can rise up to those inspired things which is great.”  Here’s my question: What “inspired things” can their hearts “rise up to” if the God who inspired them doesn’t exist?

We might expect “atheist churches” in England, where Christianity has been in decline for decades.  But what about Houston, Texas, my hometown and arguably the “buckle of the Bible belt”?  A group called Houston Oasis describes itself as “a community grounded in reason, celebrating the human experience.”  The group was founded by Mike Aus, a onetime Lutheran pastor who is now an atheist.  He states, “We are open to any message about life as long as no dogmatic claims are made.”  However, Houston Oasis’s website makes six such dogmatic claims.  The first: “People are more important than beliefs.”  Is this a belief?

Dallas is home to several such “churches” as well.  One seeks “to offer atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and freethinkers all the educational, inspirational, and social and emotional benefits of traditional faith-based churches” but without God.  However, if there is no God, the “benefits” offered by “traditional faith-based churches” would be based on a lie.  If so, how can they be “benefits”?

My last question is really the most important: What can Christians learn from the growth of atheist churches?

A pastor in New Jersey offers this answer: “The church has lost touch.  We have been dealing with the politics of God in churches [so much] that we forget to really allow people to have an experience with God.  Once you have a true experience with God, you do not want to leave his presence.  We have done a poor job of welcoming his presence into church.”

Do you agree?  When you attended worship yesterday, did you encounter God?  Theologian Rudolf Otto coined my favorite description of the Almighty: the “mysterium tremendum.” Read those words out loud to yourself, slowly.  Sense their gravity and mystery.  Every person in Scripture who genuinely encounters God is transformed by the experience, from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5, “Woe to me!”) to Peter (Luke 5:8, “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!”) to John on Patmos (Revelation 1:17, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead”).

When last were you awed by God?