Over the course of thousands of years, churches have evolved from fiercely hyper-religious institutions to far more relaxed and noticeably more liberal entities. In recent years, this trend has birthed even more forward-thinking congregations of people who, in some cases, do not force you to identify with a particular religion at all.
Tree of Life Church and The Sunday Assembly, two dynamic new units based out of London, are the most notable examples of these types of groups.
Pastor Benjamin Conway runs Tree of Life Church, and he believes that its success can be attributed to two very simple things. First and foremost, although he preaches Christian ideals, his congregation doesn’t turn anyone away – regardless of their faith. Two, he pays close attention to the needs of his congregation and does whatever he can to best meet those needs.
Many would argue that Benjamin Conway and others of his ilk are laying out a blueprint for future groups.
“A lot of people in churches do not realize how those churches started,” Conway explains. “New groups start, because the old groups fossilize very easily, and new groups start because it is easier to do so in a church instead of trying to change an old church into something new. So things have really changed. 1998 was a turning point for me because I remember speaking with two young lads and they did not know the Easter story. So people do not realize what Christianity is all about anymore.”
Conway says that the real reason they’re doing what they’re doing is to help the people. Already with three branches around the UK, the Tree of Life Network hopes to expand with five more churches by 2017. Their goal is to make it so that no one will ever have to drive more than one hour to be part of a church that is “full of the Word, full of the Spirit, full of love, and full of the nations.”
“I did not think London needed just another church, there are churches everywhere,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that this church was built on acceptance, grace, and we also wanted to make sure that people felt like they were being built up and not exploited, so we kept going on the basis that we knew we were helping people and encouraging people.”
There are churches everywhere – the UK alone is home to around 47,000 of them. According to the latest census, however, the number of nonreligious people in England and Wales has increased by more than six million since 2001 to 14.1 million. This may be part of what inspired Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans to create an “atheist church,” more formally known as The Sunday Assembly.
Launched in January 2013, The Sunday Assembly fosters community spirit and encourages making the most of your life without the religious aspect. At one Assembly meeting, for instance, the congregation sang Stevie Wonder songs and bowed their heads to “contemplate the miracle of life.”
The Assembly has an established list of virtues and a mantra – “live better, help often, wonder more" – that is fairly similar to the Tree of Life Church’s, which loves to see its members minister into “signs and wonders, perfect peace and being able to walk in their destiny.”
It is clear that both organizations were created to meet the needs of the vastly changed culture they are currently operating in.
“People often times do things because that’s the way they’ve always done things," Conway mused. "We decided that every generation needs to have a church that is new, and is fresh, and does things for all the right reasons, a church that is doing things on purpose rather than just because that’s the way it’s always been done.”
In a roundabout way, Conway even agreed that his church related to the atheist church movement.
“We are a non-denominational church, but we do preach religion,” he says. “We do not have expectations to your behavior and we will never shun you if you do not behave a certain way based on your religion. What we’ve ultimately done is taken that straight jacket off of religion.”
Will the Tree of Life Church and The Sunday Assembly ultimately expose a new generation to the morals, togetherness, and respect traditionally associated with faith-based organizations? Perhaps it's too soon to say, but the early returns are promising.