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By Becky Garrison

When stand-up comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones launched Sunday Assembly in London on January 6, 2013, they sought to establish an atheist church geared toward those who want to “live better, help often and wonder more” without the religious trappings associated with a Christian church. Almost immediately, they found themselves propelled into the global spotlight, and they used their background in event planning and publicity gained as professional performers to capitalize on this media exposure and promote their latest venture. Hence, Sunday Assembly garnered the lion’s share of the US media with the vast majority of journalists incorrectly labeling it as a new religious development. (A review of US church history notes the presence of non-theistic gatherings dating back to the Freethought Movement circa1850.)

Concurrent with the tendency to treat this latest incarnation of non-theistic churches as a new phenomenon, many in the media have also engaged in hyperbolic and at times inaccurate rhetoric in discussing the rise of Sunday Assembly. For example, Salon classified Sunday Assembly as a megachurch, though its London congregation averages 600 to 700 attendees. (According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the term megachurch generally refers to a congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more.) Also, the Daily Beast designated Sunday Assembly as “the fastest growing church” without citing any statistical evidence to back up this claim.  Along those same lines, Salon cites the organizers’ claims that “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world” without verifying this statistic.

This media hype does at least serve to direct attention toward the cultural shift documented by Pew Research that indicates that one in five people in the United States now classify their religious affiliation as “none.” However, news analysis often fails to fully analyze the nuances that lie within this data. Giving the study its due would require assessing the overall movement away from institutional religious structures within which 88% of those who classify their religion as “none” importantly state that they are not looking to belong to any religious body.

Gretta Vosper, author, atheist, founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, and minister in the United Church of Canada in Toronto, places this surge of interest in Sunday Assembly within the larger cultural shift she’s observed transpiring in more liberal Christian congregations. Over the past few decades, she’s witnessed a move away from the idea of God as a divine father figure into more metaphorical expressions about God among clergy and congregants. Even though emergent and progressive author/speakers like Lillian Daniels and Diana Butler Bass promote the notion that people seek experiences that are “spiritual but not religious,” their work presupposes that these seekers are looking for a more welcoming “Christian” community when, in fact, the Pew Research indicates only 12% of the nones are looking for a religion that may be right for them. Along those lines, Rachel Held Evans’ assertion on the CNN Belief blog that Millennials “need” the church ignores the glaring reality that over a third of young adults identify their religion as “none.”

When describing the ethos of Sunday Assembly, Jones paints with a broad brush. “I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious.” By using this rather elusive term, Jones seems to be in tune with the Pew Research data indicating that 88 percent of these nones are not looking for a religion.

Media outlets like Newsweek who focus on the “atheistic” element of these churches fail to capture how Evans and Jones seek to deliver an inspirational message rather than bolster anti-God talk. In an email exchange Emery Emery, host of the LA based Ardent Atheist podcast analyzes Jones’ strategy in crafting large non-theistic gatherings.

[Jones] is no idiot and he is trying to build a community that is less vitriolic and seemingly, more accepting of all flavors of non-belief. His motivation seems to be numbers. He knows that the more butts in the seats, the more money in the basket. It’s clearly a numbers game for Jones and he has his sights set firmly on that prize.

This decision to veer clear of “atheist” talk created friction within the leadership behind the first Sunday Assembly church planted in New York on June 30, 2013. Michael Dorian, co-producer and co-director of the documentary Refusing My Religion, explained why the majority of the board members behind the launch of this particular church plant have since left the Sunday Assembly structure. “We didn’t feel we can have a godless congregation and not bring up religious issues like church-state separation or any religion-based issues that deny or diminish the importance of science in affairs of public policy or legislation. We need to talk about the advantages of living a good life without religion and Sanderson wants a happy uplifting service that doesn’t mention religion at all.” In an email exchange, Emery adds, “Atheists have been oppressed and marginalized for so long that Sunday Assembly’s desire to minimize the use of atheistic language felt like more of the same, so naturally, many in the community reacted with frustration and anger.”

Michael Dorian hosting December 2013 Godless Revival.

Michael Dorian hosting December 2013 Godless Revival.

On October 15, 2013, Lee Moore, President of Atheist News Network and host of the NYC Sunday Assembly social media sites, announced via his Facebook page that he would now manage the social media for a new atheist group titled The Godless Revival. Dorian, who is co-launching this venture with Moore, describes The Godless Revival as “an atheist-friendly variety show with thought-provoking speakers.” So far their monthly gatherings have averaged over 80 people while the Meetup for the relaunched NYC Sunday Assembly lists 200 celebrators.

As NPR reported, the LA based Sunday Assembly appears to have gotten off the ground sans any schisms with around 400 people in attendance at their initial launch and 200 people continuing to return in the following months. Ian Dodd, one of the co-founders of LA’s Sunday Assembly chapter, described in an email his approach to building community. “I’ll be honest, I’m all about ripping off organized religion for the good parts, co-opting them and reclaiming them for the secular community. I’ve been reading The Purpose Driven Church by pastor Rick ‘Saddleback’ Warren and small groups is not the only thing we’ll be stealing from the Christian megachurches in the future.” Among the tactics they’re adopting include partnering with community service organizations, children’s programming during the services, and discussion groups between assemblies to be facilitated by Ian’s wife, who has experience with these types of groups.

But will people stay once Evans and Jones plant these Assemblies, especially in the United States? Fred Edwords, National Director, United Coalition of Reason, notes, “Many who have left religious institutions or have come to reject religious doctrines will find traditional congregational structures inappropriate. They will be the ones who stay away or only attend briefly as a novelty.” Perhaps revisiting these churches after a year’s time will indicate the level of long-term interest versus public curiosity to sample the latest popular fad garnering media buzz.

One might also ask how many people who consider themselves to be nonreligious want a gathering with a more atheistic bent such as that offered by the Godless Revival?  In a posting for CNN’s Belief blog, Katie Engelhart reports from London on her experiences attending Sunday Assembly, noting her disappointment as the church moved from a localized venture to a global entity.

Instead of a thoughtful sermon, I got a five-minute Wikipedia-esque lecture on the history of particle physics. Instead of receiving self-improvement nudges or engaging in conversation with strangers, I watched the founders fret (a lot) over technical glitches with the web streaming, talk about how hard they had worked to pull the service off, and try to sell me Sunday Assembly swag. What’s more, instead of just hop, skipping and jumping over to a local venue, as I once did, I now had to brave the tube and traverse the city.

In response to this posting which Evans and Jones described as somewhat shrill and alarmist, they summarily dismissed all critiques. Instead, they cited their positive attributes such as their charitable endeavors and the creation of 28 global Sunday Assemblies. In particular, they chose to focus on some of their better performing assemblies while dismissing the concerns behind the split within the NYC Sunday Assembly.

As of this writing, the long-term success for Sunday Assembly remains to be seen. They fell well short of their £500,000 target by raising less than £60k. However, Evans and Jones remain optimistic as they set their sights on launching an additional 100 churches come September 2014.

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Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, Religion Dispatches, The Humanist, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues, and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church.