Playing church


I read recently that atheists are forming churches. The Washington Post wasn't that blunt, describing "nonreligious humanists" in "congregations" seeking "values" and "rituals." In other words, atheists playing church. We might diverge onto a fruitless lane where the meanings of terms like "atheist" and "agnostic" and "indifferent" are parsed, but grant me the liberty of the long view here-once you are dead, you were either for or against God. Anyone who disagrees is invited to prove me wrong on the other side.

The Post reporter quoted a masters of divinity student as well as the chaplain of Harvard University, neither of whom evinces a belief in God, which makes one wonder whether they have made very poor career choices. Then again, perhaps all this God business isn't essential to church any more. A great many parents, in particular, yearn for guidance, help, and even the celebration of rituals as they raise their children. They want, in other words, many of the things we associate with a Christian church, just without the dogma.

What grieves me is that there are professing Christian churches that err in the other-equally unrighteous-direction. I think of my close friend Ben (his and the names that follow are pseudonyms), a young man who in the midst of depression and near divorce got virtually no help from his large North Carolina church, despite repeated pleas for counsel and support. The men's groups were too busy with their books and their breakfasts, the pastor too embittered from his own divorce.

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I think as well of our family friend Amanda, whose husband was recently imprisoned for molesting several of their six children. They've lost their home and many of their possessions because she has been a homeschooling mom and hence has no income. Some of her friends and family have helped, but her large Texas church has been entirely absent. None of their staff of supposed professionals knows quite what to do about her. Writing a check for the mortgage, apparently, never occurred to them.

It reminds me of something my own pastor said when a family in our church had their only car break down. "Our instinct is to say a prayer that their car will be fixed, but we are the body, so let's get it fixed." We took up a collection right there on the spot.

When I first became a Christian and would hear stories like Ben's and Amanda's, they shocked me, perhaps because our own church took care of our every need as our daughter was dying. I thought every church was like our own. Over time I've learned different.

Amanda stayed with us recently, and so she was on my mind as I read the story in the Post about atheists trying to form communities of good works. Here we have a tragic juxtaposition. One group-the humanist "church"-practices works without faith. Amanda's church and Ben's church and too many others profess faith while doing only the "safe" works-writing checks to established causes, reading the approved books, singing praise songs on Sunday mornings.

Whose souls are more in jeopardy? The humanist thirsting for God may one day find the living Well. But what of the self-satisfied Christian who ignores the wounded in his own congregation? By faith we are saved, yes, but faith without works is dead. Who will break open the whitewashed tomb?

Lord have mercy on all we who mumble prayers without lifting a finger.


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