Sunday, 16 February 2014

My morning at the 'The Sunday Assembly' aka the Atheist Church

So this morning I took the trip up to Holborn to visit the Sunday Assembly with a few other Christian friends, this was mainly because I wanted to find out what it was like for myself after reading about it in the papers. The Sunday Assembly are a savvy and friendly group of people who clearly have a number of skilled people at their disposal, this may explain the spawning of what is really now a global movement of godless 'churches'. There are now Sunday Assembly's in Nashville Tennessee in the heart of the US Bible belt, with several more all over the UK, US and Australia (forty in total I believe). All this in just a year, statistics that any church planting group would probably have to describe as miraculous!

If I'm honest I thought it would be full of single weird men who love to tell Christians how deluded they are on twitter. But I was rather shocked that there were people from all age groups and quite a few young families. Not what I was expecting. 

So what did I think? I had been looking forward to going to the Sunday Assembly since we first arranged going and I wasn't disappointed, I enjoyed it basically because it was fun. When we were singing and dancing I felt like I was at a kinda weird wedding, the sort where I was having fun but I wasn't quite sure what I was celebrating. I suppose that's what alot of Christians have been critical of, after-all what are they celebrating and why are they so happy?

My observation was that as human beings we are relational beings, that is to say we generally flourish best in a community of shared beliefs and values. So on a prima facie level the Sunday Assembly is simply another expression of that human need and desire to be around other people who are like us. It's why many people go to football each week, to spend time with like-minded people who share the same interests and passion for their team combined with the lifting up of hands in a worship like fashion. It's difficult to look at the human race and not come away with the idea that we aren't innately disposed to worship which is what has led the human race to be referred to as 'Homo religiosus'. I suppose Blaise Pascal and CS Lewis would have something to say about that. Is the Sunday Assembly just another expression of our innate human religiosity?

I spoke to a few people while I was there and it was nice to hear that there are a number of people there who are not just atheists, agnostics and secular humanists but Christians and those with other beliefs. So in some sense I suppose it's not really accurate to call it the 'atheist church' even if most people there may in fact be secular humanists. I can now say with experience that it was a very friendly environment, they certainly have the church seeker friendly model well honed with tea and biscuits to finish and even a bookshop. Secular humanism really is the friendly face of the new atheism.

But even though I enjoyed it, it was still a little strange, the service was clearly modelled on a contemporary style Christian worship service and that wasn't where the similarities ended. There was charismatic leadership led from the front by the charming and friendly comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, a very good band with a mix of ages (which is nice to see), a talk (about the worlds first underwater tunnel) some lively fun singing (we sang Journey and Gloria Gaynor), moments of silent contemplation and they even have midweek groups for encouragement and accountability! So it is a little strange. So in some sense it literally was a church service minus any mention of God.

But even with all the similarities it still felt more like I was at a comedy club than anything else. One thing I noticed was that there was a particular emphasis on humour, everything was meant to be funny from beginning to end which I couldn't help but think was a way of deflecting genuine engagement with life's struggles and problems. But that might not necessarily be the case. Of course I think laughing about things can be helpful but there were parts that weren't that funny and I felt I was a bit stupid for not chuckling with laughter, it reminded me at times of the whipping up of the charismaniacs at the local Pentecostal Church. Which might not be a bad thing, I mean I'm a bit of a charismatic myself on my better days. I suppose I just wonder what it would be like without all the humour and pop songs, but we won't know whether it's just another passing fad or something with any longevity for quite some time yet.

Would I go again?
There are two levels to that question, on one level I would go because it was fun and the talks more often than not are quite interesting. But on another level it still felt shallow and lacking something, perhaps it was the mimicking of a Christian youth service or the absence of the transcendent. It just seemed like the humanist attempt to fill that God shaped hole, but certainly a fun attempt! Rather than being critical Christians should see it as an opportunity for engagement and discussion even if we may fundamentally disagree about the answers to life's big questions, of which we clearly do. But there are certainly many matters of agreement in terms of shared values and what we believe will best serve the common good of our society.

Some Christians will still be thinking to themselves whether you can be good without God, the answer is sort of. Many non-Christians live great lives whilst many Christians live horribly lives but it is only the gospel that is able to transform a selfish and nasty piece of work into someone who's whole being has been reorientated to love in regards to self, other and God. From a Christian perspective no-one is justified by what they do or how good they think they are compared to their neighbour. Instead God makes us right because of what Jesus has done on our behalf on the cross and is not something we can earn through good works and being nice.

I'll definitely be stopping by again at some point and thanks to The Sunday Assembly for being so welcoming.


  1. Wow, brilliant to see a Christian appreciating this incredible, wonderful phenomena for what it is: a coming together of people into a community to celebrate life, each other and the astounding things that can be done through human compassion, intelligence and wonder. It does bear a resemblance to a church service, as they are both displays of conviction to a higher purpose than oneself (God for theists, humankind and human progress for atheists), and I know it must be odd for a Christian to see this type of energy and community spirit without a specific "person" being in receipt of it, but for us, seeing worship towards one specific theory is just as odd! We are people who do not seek to earn goodness through good works, not because religion tells us we can't, but because our personal "goodness" means nothing to us. We do not care for how "good" in spirit we are nor how this impacts on how many treasures, virgins or golden cloud palaces a vain God bestows on us in favour of our worship, but we care how good we can make the world for our relatives, friends, predecessors and global community. And it's that conviction we are celebrating.

    Thanks so much for your article, I love these meetings of cultures and I certainly hope you got something from it. Wish you well!

    (PS. The humour you mention is a key feature of these type of assemblies -- atheists, unlike Christians (who have numerous group and community opportunities to celebrate their beliefs, including baptisms and the like), have no outlets for celebration of their beliefs and, frankly, celebration in general! Assemblies like this allow atheists to relax, express themselves and let go of the burden of global issues -- the latter is far easier for Christians, because they can use the concept of a higher power to explain the situation or comfort them, whilst atheists must use their own emotional stability to withstand the daily evils of humanity. Humour is one of the markers of intelligent behaviour, especially humour as a method of release. If you were to attend the focus groups afterwards, you would see a lot of the serious issues coming to the fore, but for the main service, it's usually pretty light-hearted. Not much is anymore in this world, huh?)

  2. "From a Christian perspective no-one is justified by what they do or how good they think they are compared to their neighbour. Instead God makes us right because of what Jesus has done on our behalf on the cross and is not something we can earn through good works and being nice."

    This is what confuses me. How can what one person does else does justify another? To this day I get more from the Golden Rule and the Good Samaritan story than I ever did the death of an innocent man. What I got from reading the gospels was that Jesus taught good works. This was my brand of Christianity that I tried to follow because it made sense. What I found is that this was not what Christianity was about for everyone else.

    1. Hi Chandler,

      This short response from Tim Keller explains some of the key elements of the actual gospel which certainly is not about your good works >>>

      The parable of the good Samaritan is one of my favourites but you have to look at it from the bigger picture of Jesus' teaching in the gospel, taken on its own it results in only a self congratulatory religion of effort that cannot make someone right with God.

      Sorry I haven't responded to your last email, been overrun lately but will email you now.

    2. Here's also a great video by NT Wright >>>


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