QUESTION: What do you think someone might get out of attending your church? Do you see it as a case where someone who has some light or latent belief in God might be moved to rejoin a congregation? Or do you think an atheist might be converted? Or not converted but moved in some way to attend your church? And if it’s the latter, what would an atheist who remains an atheist get out of your church?
ANSWER: I think someone attending my church, no matter what their theology is, would get an opportunity to serve their community in various ways. For example, Kate put together a group of people that knits shawls for children at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, once a month we feed homeless people, we have resettled refugee families, we occasionally have trips to fill water tanks to save those crossing the desert who would otherwise die, and of course, we have many opportunities for directed contributions wherein virtually 100% of the donation reaches the needy.
Any of these things are available elsewhere, I suppose. But this is all in one place. It is very accessible. There are a variety of opportunities. Oh yeah, and if you have a new idea–go for it. A woman in our church recently started collecting sample bags that you get when you buy make-up. She takes them to women’s shelters a couple of times a year. It helps the women if they need to go on a job interview, and at Christmas it is nice for the women, as well as the children, to get a little gift.
I think someone attending my church, no matter what their theology is, could develop their inner self. For example, one of the advantages of intercessory prayer that we came across when investigating it earlier was developing our sense of empathy. Likewise, our service offers individuals a chance to quietly reflect on the week. Sermons often focus on how to be better people, rather than on abstract theological ideas. Obviously, you can be quiet by yourself; you can discuss how to be a better person with your friends and loved ones. However, like going to Weight Watchers, or AA, or a college class on literature there are real benefits to exploring these topics intentionally.
I think the first two categories would be every bit as valuable to a committed atheist as to anyone. However, someone who has some light or latent belief in God could develop their beliefs about God & faith. Our slogan is “where questions are as important as answers.” That attitude of encouraging questioning is in every level of faith development classes. So, for the little kids in my classes I ask questions like, “What do you think, is Jacob a good guy or a bad guy?” Then poll the kids and get different answers and ask them why they think that. For the junior high and high school students we do a great job of encouraging conversation about how faith affects their lives (but frankly I think many churches do a good job of this). The big difference is that in our adult Sunday school classes conversations have included exploration of bodily resurrection (with a number of folks being on both sides of the issue); does God evolve and change over time; defining sacred; etc. Big, challenging questions. People often remark at how great it is to be able to openly question things.
Now, I think many atheist would find this conversations riveting. But for those who feel like they believe in something spiritual but have rejected organized religion as having answers for them, would be surprised by the breadth of inquiry that goes on at Chalice.