The Sunday Assembly – A Non-Theist Response to Religion

MET-AJ-GODLESS-CHURCH-1108For well more than a century freethinkers, and religious skeptics, have gathered, talked and participated in various forms of social interaction without any expression of formal religion. In 1882 the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago was founded to provide a meeting and fellowship for just such a gathering.

The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago describes itself as a democratic fellowship and spiritual home for those who seek a rational, compassionate philosophy of life without regard to belief or non-belief in a supreme being. According to their website they value “the importance of living an ethical, responsible, and joyful life [and] promote intellectual, philosophical, and artistic freedom, avoiding dogma and rigid creed.” They also say of themselves: “While respectful of the faiths and traditions we have been born to, we serve as a new religion or as an alternative to religion.” A full-blown description can be seen on their very attractive website.

A new movement, similar in many ways, began in January a year ago in London and now already has over thirty meeting places in the United States. This new movement is simply called Sunday Assembly. It describes itself as “a godless congregation that celebrates life.” The Sunday Assembly says: “Our motto: “live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

Believing that many non-theists want to live better, help [others] often and wonder more the Sunday Assembly says that it exists to be a “100% celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.” This is really nothing more than an expression of one of the ancient philosophies that the apostle Paul sought exegete in his presentation of Christ in the first century. The modern Sunday Assembly has no doctrine and no sacred texts, no deity and no supernatural. But, they add, “we want tell you you’re wrong if you do [believe in the supernatural].” The group is radically inclusive and non-profit. Their goal is to make the world a “better place.”

Unknown-1The Sunday Assembly was the dream of two stand-up British comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. They both say they wanted to do something “like church but without God.” The first Sunday Assembly drew over 300 people to a meeting in North London. These events have continued to spring up, most of them meeting monthly, since January, 2013. A forty-day tour was launched in the United States and Australia this fall with a goal to raise a half million pounds to grow the movement. (It appears that the rather ambitious goals of the founders have not been reached either in terms of new venues or money raised!)

What happens in these Sunday Assemblies? Attendees listen to talks by speakers, socialize and sing songs by artists such as Stevie Wonder and Queen. Jones has stated that he expects churches will not oppose them as much as “aggressive atheists.” (that surprised me when I first read it.)

A Sunday Assembly began in Chicago in November. The Chicago Tribune, in the Religion section of November 7, reported:

“It’s not about being against God,” said Nicole Steeves (a 37-year old librarian), an atheist who has planned the Chicago group’s first service at a Lakeview bar. “It’s for people who are really happy to see each other and to explore things. It allows for them to question.”

The Tribune further reports that:

Leaders say the congregations fill a natural human need for a fast-growing segment of the American religious landscape — about 46 million self-described atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated, mostly in their 20s. They also predict it could give clout to the millions of unaffiliated Americans longing for a voice on the national stage.

I first learned of the Sunday Assembly by hearing an interview with Jones and Evans on NPR just before Christmas. I then did an Internet search that revealed a number of articles and interviews as well as YouTube clips. To my mind this is a deeply fascinating response to the growing need that young, non-religious, adults have for social relationships through groups which gather and promote humane values.  There is nothing about this movement that should make any person nervous. These young adults already reject the idea of a sovereign creator and loving savior so they are seeking an alternative way to “minister” to the social and emotional needs they share with one another in a more creative and non-religious way. I am guessing, if I can be so bold in my evaluation after reading some about this movement, that these assemblies will spread and grow, at least for a time. I have no doubt they will provide meaningful relationships for some who are drawn to experience them.

What seems apparent, at least so far, is the following:

  1. Though these Sunday Assemblies are expanding to new cities and growing numerically they are not likely to become large in size, or wildly popular, over the next decade. The leaders do not speak of them in this way and their muted tone is respectful and appealing.
  2. Godless congregations are not new. As noted in my opening paragraph a Chicago group called the Ethical Humanist Society opened in 1882. And in 1876 Felix Adler, the son of a New York rabbi, founded the American Ethical Union for a similar purpose.
  3. Atheism was associated with communism when I was a young man but this is no longer the case. Most Christians know atheists who are good neighbors and fine friends and most are not remotely interested in Marxism. Many loyal and good Americans are atheists, though their number is often vastly overrated by journalists.
  4. Finding a way to get people to commit to something when they are not “joiners” will prove to be very hard for this movement. Their demands are very low (intentionally) thus their results will likely prove valuable to only a few after a moderate sojourn in this setting. Perhaps the leaders can find a way to connect people through a deep and growing commitment to something like a positive social cause but simply attending a meeting once a month is quite unlikely to build much that will last.
  5. The movement has come together, so far, through Twitter and Facebook. From these social media contexts local gatherings are starting. It is to be seen how this will translate into non-social media relationships that are deemed important.

Look, these groups may attract bright and intellectually gifted young adults but on the whole they will labor for creating a meaningful social identity if they do not discover a way to gather and then give back to one another, and to their community. They need something that is truly worthy of sacrifice. This is precisely where I think their problems will come over time. Low expectations equal low results!

After spending some time reading about this movement I concluded that there is more than a little that we Christians could learn here.

  1. The stated purpose of a gathering is “for people who are really happy to see one another” and “explore things.” Churches could do worse and regularly do. Our meetings are often cold, sterile and unfriendly.  There are marvelous exceptions but I have experienced a less than warm welcome in my fair share of Christian churches.
  2. The people who attend these Sunday Assemblies speak about having children who do not “feel like outcasts” socially. I wonder how this works for the children of Christians, especially those who refuse to engage socially with their neighbors who are non-Christians.
  3. If these groups are for people who are “not against God” then maybe we could learn something here too. Church is not simply for those who already know God or have committed their lives to Christ. We can have a solid liturgy, centered on the ancient faith in Christ, and also welcome those who are “not against God” and still unconvinced of the faith we believe in so ardently.
  4. I think the most important positive take-away from such a movement is that it could prompt Christians to learn how to do relationships better in a non-threatening and non-condemning way. This does not mean the church should reduce itself to a consumer message or a seeker service. It does mean that we can become more humanely aware of who is around us and the real questions they have, as well as the heavy burdens they carry in this world.

I have heard it said, “We must never be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.” I once mocked this slogan. I now believe it. Our minds are to be in heavenly places with Christ (spiritually at least) but our lives are to be lived here on earth just like those who do not believe. If we are so focused on the life to come that we are of no real good to people here and now how can we expect to attract those who do not believe, which numbers now in the millions throughout Europe, Canada, America and Australia? 

Have you ever read or studied the kinds of social expressions that provide a place where non-Christians can “hear” the good news and come to believe the gospel? Most of these studies reveal that people care about what we believe when they see that we truly care about them socially, financially and emotionally.

I am not surprised that these groups are springing up in Western nations. I actually think that I would like to visit one of them sometime and see what happens for myself. My guess is that I would enjoy much of the experience but leave without a deep spiritual impression at all. I could be wrong. I am willing to listen and learn. I suppose that statement alone will offend some Christians, especially those who think that we should oppose all atheists and such gatherings of non-theists who want to celebrate life without God. I want to know these neighbors and learn what they are really saying and doing. How else can I share the love of Jesus?

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