Sanderson Jones, a former stand-up comedian who leads the Sunday Assembly – also known as the 'atheist church' – spent Sunday attending three London churches and tweeting about his experience.
What started as a visit to his friend Dave Tomlison's church became an impromptu tour of London Christianity. The three churches he visited were St Luke's, Holloway, where Tomlinson (author of 'How to be a Bad Christian') is vicar, Hillsong in central London, and St Mary's Bryanston Square.
Contrary to popular belief, Jones said he found them welcoming places, and said churches should realise that there is much they are doing well.
"I think churches should recognise that they are already doing so much right," Jones says, referring to the idea of having people welcoming on the front door, and people knowing where and when to set up for coffee after church. "I went to the American Humanist Association and they had a special lecture on why it's important to be welcoming. It's just the most basic things which you'll take for granted in Churchland, which are in fact really powerful."
Jones was there partly on a reconnaissance mission – always eager to pick up ideas for the Sunday Assembly, which is essentially church for people who don't do God.
“@NeilDenham1978: Checking out the competition?” Learning from the pros.— Sanderson Jones (@sandersonjones) March 29, 2015
Sunday Assembly communities are non-religious groups that meet in town halls and schools on a Sunday morning. There is music, a thoughtful talk and an offering is taken. They serve coffee after the 'service'. The motto is "live better, help often, wonder more". The concept has proved hugely popular, with offshoots launched around the UK, as well as the US and Australia since Jones and fellow comedian Pippa Evans started the first one in London in 2013.
Without God at the centre of his experience, of course, Jones' observations are focused on practice and procedure. Despite this, on his church tour yesterday he had some interesting thoughts about Communion.
Jones was keen to take Communion at St Luke' s but wasn't sure he'd be allowed, or welcomed to do so, being a well-known atheist. But he says he was "moved" by the welcome he was given.
"Dave said it was for anyone... It was something that I was thinking about whether I would be welcome and included, and found it genuinely moving. It was really great that that happened. Finding those moments of making sure that people feel included is really important."
But beyond that, he is intrigued by the spiritual experience Communion offers.
"It's an idea that you can taste," says Jones. "I have some imagination, so this idea of grace and forgiveness... suddenly that idea of the divine is in your mouth. What a concept! It gets stuck in your teeth. It's something which is really interesting for me – what can I learn from that? How can you give people an experience?"
Reflecting on the more contemporary form of spiritual experience on offer at Hillsong, Jones was suitably impressed by the church's high-tech approach to worshipping God.
The sound design and visuals teams at Hillsong rock. They LOVE a montage.— Sanderson Jones (@sandersonjones) March 29, 2015
THEY HAVE AN APP! #AtheistAtHillsong— Sanderson Jones (@sandersonjones) March 29, 2015
"Hillsong is just so great," he says. "As someone who has a bit of a show background – the production values are amazing. Even the montage video at the beginning was really good. The songs. There was even a mash-up. What? There was moshing. There were people jumping up and down. Wow.
"I just love it. I feel so excited to be alive. It's the sort of thing that if you were to contemplate – you know, contemplating death – it becomes a transcendental experience."
Rather than being cynical about the style and expertise involved, he seems to recognise it as people putting their investment and creativity into the thing they love the most – God.
"They have found a way of talking about Jesus in a way that is so exciting and gets a tonne of people involved that might not otherwise be involved."
Speaking of the music playing when the preacher was speaking – something that some would worry was manipulative – Jones seems surprisingly relaxed about the idea. He says the creative arts use music all the time to get their point across, and thought it was appropriate for churches to do the same.
"If you want to talk about something important, obviously you're going to use all the tools and techniques. People will crack jokes. Is it unethical to make a joke because a joke releases dopamine and then you go and make them learn about something?
"You could see why some people would be concerned about it. But I also think if someone is doing the same thing artistically that these guys are doing about the thing they think is most important in life, I think that's fine."
The preacher came on and did the intro while the band was playing. Consider that idea nicked. #AtheistAtHillsong— Sanderson Jones (@sandersonjones) March 29, 2015
Jones also says that while the Sunday Assembly had done well to create a fun atmosphere and "buzz", the service at St Mary's provided space for the reflective side of life, something that he thinks is under-valued by our society. He describes himself as a 'mystical atheist', interested in the way Christian mystics describe their relationship with God.
"I think in the secular world we're really bad at helping people have an encounter with the part which is in them which feels divine," he says. "I think it's amazing that humans can feel that because I think it's our wonderful biology."
Jones was prayed for at St Mary's for the first time. "It was pretty intense. You get the hand on the shoulder and they're saying nice things and it was really emotional," he says.
That too Jones saw as a learning opportunity for the more experiential side of the Sunday Assembly.
"Of course we'll probably have to lose the word 'prayer'," he jokes. "But the technique is putting a hand on the shoulder, whispering some words and saying nice things... it's going to have a powerful psychological effect.
"I think it's just amazing that humans can feel these things," he adds.
Speaking of the other things he'll learn from his day, he says: "The preacher at Hillsong was really great. I'm not going to be able to be as young and good looking and trendy as him – it would take a miracle. But he was really well prepared and funny, and had good rhythms... 'Don't focus on your behaviour, focus on the saviour' [Jones says in an Australian accent]... it's nice."
My day of churches ended speaking to a man who will exorcise a house on Tuesday. A man who has seen The Enemy. #AtheistInChurch signing off— Sanderson Jones (@sandersonjones) March 29, 2015