I grew up in rural Alberta. The sort of community where my mom once had to sit me down and explain that Catholics were real Christians, and that my friends and their parents were mistaken. But, I haven’t been to church since my early teens.
So visiting Southminster-Steinhauer United Church with four other atheists last Sunday was a bit of a shock to the system. When we arrived, Rev. Charles Bidwell sat down with us to answer questions we had about the church and what to expect. The shock started when he mentioned (within hearing distance of other church members) that he considers himself an atheist Christian. And then went on to explain that within the church, Jesus is considered someone who had some useful things to say, and wasn’t related to God (if there is a god) in any way. I expected that it would be one thing to have that conversation in limited company, but that the gathering (service) and the congregants in general would be more traditionally Christian.
During the official gathering—which started with people laughing, greeting each other, and introducing themselves to our group—God was mentioned only briefly, and then only because of the Bible verse used as part of a larger discussion of fear and anxiety. To be honest, there was at least as much time spent in discussion of how billions of years of evolution affected those emotions as well. Overall, the gathering seemed to be put together to remind people of the values they shared (equality, compassion, social justice, etc.) and how to demonstrate them regularly. No one asked God for anything or gave Him credit.
Afterwards, we stayed for coffee and the lunch, and chatted with church-goers. They were uniformly welcoming, and seemed completely unconcerned that I was an atheist. One woman that I spoke to said that she didn’t consider herself a Christian, but attended church for the community and discussion. And then that comment sparked a conversation with the woman beside her about how the church’s openness to questions was something they both appreciated.
In all, it was a fascinating and positive experience. I don’t think I would attend regularly (it is, after all, still church), but if I knew someone who was uncomfortable with Christianity, but couldn’t take the plunge to leaving church, I would feel comfortable recommending Southminster-Steinhauer United.