Some Assembly Required?
Have you heard about the Sunday Assembly? Richard Underwood introduces us to “the godless congregation that celebrates life” and contemplates what the real church can learn from it.
While the congregations in some churches across the UK continue to age and to shrink, a new and fascinating phenomenon is beginning to build momentum: the Sunday Assembly.
Started by two atheist stand-up comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the Sunday Assembly aims to provide “the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs!” The first was held in London on 6th January 2013. On the second week, they attracted 300 people; at the time of writing they claim to have 6,000 email subscribers and nearly 10,000 likes on the Sunday Assembly Facebook page.
What’s the attraction? According to their website, the Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Their mission is to help everyone find and fulfil their full potential. And their motto?
What’s on offer?
A Sunday Assembly service follows a pattern that may sound familiar: songs sung by the congregation; a reading, usually a poem; an interesting talk that fits into live better, help often or wonder more; a moment of reflection; and an address which sums up the day and is designed to give the congregation a take-home message. Afterwards the congregation shares tea and cake to encourage people to stay and mingle with one another.
Outside of the main Sunday event, Assemblies organise small groups (smoups), and other social activities such as book clubs and choir, peer-to-peer support and local volunteering. They also plan to conduct rites of passage like weddings and funerals.
Sunday Assemblies promote atheism but are not exclusively for atheists. Proponents argue that meeting in this way can have emotional and experiential appeal and not simply be a cerebral exercise.
They certainly have proliferated in the last year. In June 2014, they had 38 meetings in 13 countries and they aim to have 100 meetings in 15 countries by September. There are Sunday Assemblies all over the world, with ten in the UK, six in Australia, 11 in the United States and many more in the pipeline. With a quarter of the UK’s population self-identifying as having “No Religion”, there appears to be plenty of room for the Sunday Assemblies to expand.
What do we need to learn?
Apart from not being in the least bit surprised by this phenomenon, what is the Christian response to the Sunday Assembly movement?
If the rise of the Sunday Assemblies teaches me anything, it’s this: our nation that yearns for community is in the grip of a spiritual vacuum – a vacuum that the real church is failing to fill.
As a recent cartoon pointed out, “the church without religion” sounds a bit like a pub with no beer! The challenge laid down by the Sunday Assemblies is for the assemblies of God’s people meeting on Sundays to be the real deal.
What should inspire us more powerfully to “live better, help often, wonder more” than the gospel? And who can empower us to pursue these goals better than the Living God? He is the author of life, the true expression of love and the ultimate source of wonder. And why only do it on Sundays? God gives 360º grace that embraces the whole of life. His idea of assembly isn’t a place we go on Sundays; it’s a community to which we belong 24/7.
Our Sunday meetings should be deeply attractive – not to be full of religion, but full of love and full of life touched by the power and grace of God. Sunday Assemblies can make a great job of celebrating life; what they can’t do is to offer rescue from guilt, the power to change or any hope for the future. Only God can do that. People should be able to encounter church – his gospel assembly – and say, “I’ve just seen the future – and it works!”