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Church Minus God: When “church” isn’t Church

Oasis Community is a happening place.  Since its launch in 2012, it has grown and has open new sites in seven U.S. cities and in Toronto with many more sites set to open this year. Oasis Community meets each Sunday and offers great music, activities for children and youth, a time for testimonies and community sharing, with plenty of opportunities for outreach to the community throughout the week like serving at the local food bank or raking leaves for neighbors.

It’s a GREAT church.
Only it’s NOT a church.

I mean, it looks like a church. It acts like a church. The name is even the same as a church I have visited.

But…it’s not a church.

It’s actually a gathering place for “humanists, agnostics, atheists, self-identified freethinkers, and even questioning theists.”  It was started by a former pastor who has rejected his faith and became a “None” but missed the “social benefits of organized religious life.”  So, the solution?  Simply start a church, without, you know… God.  As Oasis Community board member Joshua Hyde shares, “Over thousands of years, religious groups have figured out a good format that helps keep people coming back, interested, and meeting new people…It’s a format that’s independent of the material that being presented.” (Source: The Atlantic, 9/16)

This isn’t just a ridiculous story. No, this is a real thing. Oasis Community exists and it is growing. It’s “atheist church.”

But how can that be?

Isn’t the Church the body of Christ? Isn’t God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit intrinsic to the very institution that is.. church?

Well, is it?  I had to take a step back and really consider this.

If we took God away from our church, my church, could our Sunday morning still flow, go right along as normal, without skipping a beat? What about our outreach to the community?  Our Sunday School classes? Our Wednesday night programming?

farbenspiel-174873_1920I know, that kinda stings.  When I first read about Oasis Community, I wanted to get angry and defensive.  I wanted to say, “But there’s more to church than that. People don’t stay because of programming!  They stay because of Jesus.

But, the truth is, our churches are losing people and when asked why they leave, a lot of them leave because they don’t feel like they belong; they don’t feel a part of the community.  When asked about their faith, many will say they never really had any or that their life experience doesn’t mesh with what they learn in church.

I think it begs the question, “What makes the Church…church?”

The truth is there are some things that simply cannot be without the presence of God in the midst of the church.  And these are the things that from the very beginning of what we call “church” defined us and identified us as Christ followers.

These things you will not find in Oasis Community, because they are not “independent of the material being presented,” rather these things require not only the belief in God, but an interaction with Him; a very real communion with God and man, which is where I begin.

  1. Communion

Communion is where we as believers gather around the bread and the wine (or the cracker and the juice depending on your tradition) and literally communion with God. We remember the death of Jesus Christ, in very real and tangible ways. We know that where two or three or gathered in His name, He is with us and therefore, we know that His presence is with us at communion. This practice is not an empty ritual. It is where Christ meets us and we come to Him.

Recently a friend of mine with a very wise 7 year old shared that her daughter had said this to her:

“I was thinking today about communion. It should be celebrated often because it reminds us we all drink from the same cup and eat of the same loaf of bread. I think we need to be reminded more than once in a while that we all need to come together and come to Jesus. Plus, it tastes yummy.”

I heartily agree!

2. Baptism

In baptism, “buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). Wow, think about that. We are participating in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in such a way that the idea is presented to us as a “we too” moment. We too, like Christ, get to live in new life. We too, like Christ, experience resurrection. This is unmistakably a time in the life of the Church that we cannot experience without His very presence.

3. Worship in Spirit and in Truth

When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, He told her a time was coming where He would be worshiped across the whole world and because “God is Spirit, and His worshipers must worship in Spirit and in Truth” (Jn. 4:24). It’s not about the music, though I concede that we have at times given that impression to those who look at us. It’s not about the music, the hymn or the chorus or the latest hit on the radio. It’s about worshiping in Spirit (as in the Holy Spirit) and in Truth (as in Christ – the Way, the Truth, and the Life). Worship simply cannot take place without the presence of God in our midst. Music? Sure. Worship? No. 

4. Prayer

What do we teach children that prayer is? Talking to God. Prayer simply cannot be without God. I love the Lord’s Prayer because in it, we see the whole Trinity – the Father that is in heaven, the Son who is completing His will on earth as it is in heaven, and the Spirit who is leading us not into temptation but delivering us from evil. God is woven into prayer. But I do think it is fair to ask…how much are we praying?  Would there be a gap, a wide enough gap, in our monthly calendar of activities or weekly order of service that filling it would be difficult?

I know there are more. Many more. Things that reach beyond our programming and into our hearts. Things that cannot be duplicated or copied without the presence of God in His fullness.

And that is why for thousands of years the Church, not “church”, has continued to grow. That is why we continue to go each week and seek and worship and pray.

As we raise the next generation to know and love Christ, my prayer is that they always know the difference between our building and the programming that takes place there and the Church and the transforming work of God that takes place there.

There cannot be an atheist church – the Church IS the Body of Christ. 

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About the author 


Refocus Ministry was started by Christina Embree, wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and family minister at Nicholasville UMC. She is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. Currently studying Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family,  Seedbed, and

1 Comment

  • ptbump
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    GREAT POST!! spot on!!! I would add that we need to always remind ourselves that WE are the CHURCH. As a child of God we become part of the body of Christ and part of the Church, your four things remind us of that.

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