On Sunday, November 10th, I attended “Sunday Assembly,” a congregation that celebrates life…without any talk of god. Their motto is to live better, help often, and wonder more. Their mission is to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Their vision is a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.
Over 400 people from across Los Angeles joined together in a white-walled auditorium with an American flag to sing, dance, meet one another, be inspired, and share in what it means to be human.
So what does god-less church look like? Here’s how the morning went.
While waiting in line before the doors opened, a man interviewed people about why they were there – why they craved this typed of community as an atheist or humanist. The woman next to me shared, “I have always wanted to be part of a group that wasn’t a religion, and I think this is it.”
As we sat down in our seats and greeted those around us, the young man in front of me said, “Are you guys getting the same vibe I’m getting? The awkwardness of being in a church setting but not really being in church? I always feel so out of place in a church – this is very surreal.” And I couldn’t argue with him – because as a Christian and a regular church-goer, at this point I felt very comfortable and at ease. We were handed bulletins with an order of service as we walked through the door, chairs were lined up in straight rows facing the stage, and music quietly played as we found our seats before the service began. It felt like traditional church.
The whole assembly began with a greeting and a few songs (including the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”). Then the founders of Sunday Assembly, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, came and welcomed us– sharing their vision for these gatherings and communities, why they exist and how they hope this grassroots movement will continue. Ironically, during the introduction, Jones mentioned that one of the producers of the original Sunday Assembly in England had to quit because “seeing a group of people come together like this to celebrate life and do good things in the world renewed her faith in Christianity.”
Next up was a stand-up comedian to tell jokes and share his hope that this could be a place for people to finally gather together since “churches have just about used up their usefulness,” followed by a woman who shared names of people throughout history for whose contributions we should be grateful, and then a member of the congregation to share a project he is working on to make the world a better place (ironically, all proceeds go to the Union Rescue Mission, a religious organization).
Then came the Meet and Greet. But we didn’t just shake hands or pass the peace – we played a game, Dutch slap. Everyone got to their feet slapping their knees, giving high tens and getting to know those around them. The congregation then sang James Taylor’s “Shower the People.”
After being assured this was not a place or time for prayer, there was time for silence to reflect on the goodness of life and what we’re thankful for. And there was an offering – “another thing we stole from the church was the offering, otherwise this is just a good idea that dies.” This Sunday Assembly costs around $3,000 for overhead, so all who came were urged to give generously to allow these gatherings to continue.
And there was a sermon, which they called the “special address.” The topic was gratitude. And how we should live our lives in optimism and with hearts of gratitude always looking for the good in things. The service closed with us singing – “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers. Oh, and there was time for fellowship afterwards with coffee and donuts.
The room was full, the community was diverse, and there were opportunities to serve literally posted on the walls. The congregation was involved – more than most churches I’ve attended; people were laughing, dancing, stomping their feet and engaged in the service (having stand up comedians leading the service helps).
According to Wikipedia (everyone’s favorite academic source), religion is “an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” Given that definition, I’d say the Sunday Assembly was very much religious, albeit a godless religion. It was fascinating to engage in the morning activities to see what made this community emulate so many aspects of “church” while also being repulsed by the very reason for the church’s existence.
Other than one song that blatantly had everyone chanting, “Jesus, I don’t need you,” and the preaching that focused on our own ability to live for good and motivate others toward that end, it was strikingly similar to church.
I think the church could learn a lot from Sunday Assembly. It is flattering that a group of atheists would want to emulate the church in even the smallest ways. That should let the church know they are doing something right. Yet, the overt fear and distancing from religion indicates the wider society’s view of the church as a place of lifeless religion, technique, laws, and obligations rather than a place all are welcome to come and question and doubt and learn what it means to live life to the fullest.
I don’t think very much separates the Sunday Assembly from many of our congregations (which is both positive and negative). And, whether they intended him to be there or not, I felt God in that Sunday Assembly. Through the excitement for life, the truths spoken about love and kindness and service to others, and the desire to see greater good come from a life well lived.
And of course, the donuts.
This post first appeared on The Burner Blog