UK Atheist Church Invasion

The Sunday Assembly was conceived by British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans as a “godless congregation that celebrates life.” In just a few days on Indiegogo they’ve raised almost £24k (toward a £500k goal) to help plant atheist churches in the UK, Ireland, Australia, the United States, Canada and beyond.

They took some time from their busy touring schedule to chat via Skype about this accidental movement that’s now becoming a global phenomenon.

Is this how you envisioned Sunday Assembly playing out when you launched your first service in London in January 

Pippa Evans: No, we didn’t think it would take off this fast and that we’d be touring around the world spreading the word of the Sunday Assembly. We thought this would take a lot longer to grow. London could be such a lonely place, and church has always played that role in bringing people together. So we assumed people would come, see it was a good time, and eventually we would start doing community things.

Sanderson Jones: Given our background as comics, we’re used to trying things out and then if enough people come, you do it again. We thought we’d give it an experiment and see what happens.

Who were your influences and mentors in this venture? 

Evans: Well, I was inspired by church having gone to church when I was younger.

Jones: I had the idea in my head for some time. When Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists came out, I realized if I don’t do this soon, then someone else will. So I might as well get a move on. 

Evans: We now hold our church in the same building as his School of Life

Jones: The difference between our two programs is that his has a lot more price tags. We want it to be free for people to enter. Also, we’re about building a community not a business. 

What were the origins of the Sunday Assembly’s Public Charter?

Jones: We we were going for a walk in the woods when we heard a voice that told us to go to a tree and dig it up.  

Like Joseph Smith?

Evans: Yeah. Well, we wanted to write down what Sunday Assembly is all about. Also, we asked some people who come to Sunday Assembly what they thought and incorporated their thoughts.  

Jones: Some said it was too joyful. So we put the bit in there that says life is hard. We want to make sure this is a celebration of life—which is the philosophy that undergirds our work. 

In a rather odd reversal, we now have hipster pastors dropping the F-bomb and comics working clean.

Evans:  We’d like to have children come to Sunday Assembly. Our oldest person is over 80 and our youngest person is under one. 

Jones: My show “Taking Liberties” got investigated by the police during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a few years ago for being deemed as too obscene. But here we’d like to have a service that appeals to the entire family. We realize we need to work on diversity. As a comic, you just want anyone who turns up. We don’t want just people who look just like us.  

Evans: We need more ugly people to show up.  

What gifts do comics bring to Sunday Assembly that one doesn’t  find in traditional church planters? 

Jones: No idea. I’ve never met a church planter. I think we’ve learned things from putting on events that are certainly useful like knowing how to entertain a crowd and make sure they come back. Also, we know how to present an idea that you can package and promote. My career has been mostly massive self-promotion. 

Evans: We give those wanting to start church plants a crib sheet and advice on how to set up the services. Also, we’re only planting churches in places where people have indicated a desire for such a church plant. Once people have started their congregation, we give them specific community management tools, turning all of the talent into the congregation and making it available to the wider community.

Jones: We decided while the spotlight was on us, let’s go a hundred percent and see what happens. If we can get the momentum to get this up and running, then we can help people launch their own services. If we can unite them using one website that we’re calling Sunday Assembly Everywhere, then we can scale it and make it really easy to set it up. Instead of us doing our own thing, our effort can be multiplied a million times over.  

Launching a crowd-funding campaign to raise £500,000 sounds like megachurch pastor money. 

Jones: We’re trying to build a series of tools so that not tens or hundreds but thousands of congregations can be started. The bulk of this money is to build the digital platform, and this amount is what it costs to build and maintain comparable international platforms for a two year period. Once we raise this money, we can build this digital platform that will make it easy for people to meet up with people in their area, start their own community, and grow their community virally. 

Evans: This has become an international organization so quickly. We were sort of OK running Sunday Assembly from our bedrooms but international movements can’t be done by emails at three am in the morning anymore.  

Jones: We’re also working on our branding. Humanism is such a wonderful idea but it’s got some of the worst marketing that I’ve ever seen around it. 

How does Sunday Assembly address the sexism and homophobia inherent in US church culture?  

Evans: The fact that we’re a woman and a man running things helps. 

Jones: As we develop these assemblies, we realize we need to make sure we put in the structures that don’t let men climb to the top and put themselves in charge. So far though I’d say most people who want to get a Sunday Assembly started are women.

Often in the US, a church plant becomes a vehicle for a charismatic pastor to launch their author/speaker show. How do you envision Sunday Assembly becoming more than an entertaining service? 

Jones: Our guides for starting a Sunday Assembly are mostly resources and recommendations not rules. One recommendation is that the host rotates. No host can do more than three Sunday Assemblies a year. This prevents someone from seeing Sunday Assembly as a chance where they get to stand up and deliver a talk once a month.

We found that if people who come to speak happen to have books to sell, we don’t find it’s appropriate for them to market their books in this venue. We’re trying to weed out the person who wants to just get in and bang the drum. Also, if you look at our accreditation process, it’s a bit like a trade association. Let’s say if someone starts getting a bit Islamophobic, we can tell them they have the freedom to say what they want but we won’t post them on the website.

Evans: And we’re very big on feedback. 

Jones: When we came up with our first set of Sunday Assembly guidelines, some people felt it looked a bit businesslike and controlling. We try to listen to criticism that we think is valid.

Describe your relationship with the Humanist Community at Harvard

Jones: Both Greg Epstein and Chris Stedman have spoken at the Sunday Assembly in New York City. Greg has been so helpful to us as a sounding board, and advice giver. He is great. We are going to Boston on November 5th. There is a local team who are organizing it who are hungry and keen.

How do you address concerns that by calling this church, you may be giving people the impression that Sunday Assembly is equipped to provide actual pastoral care?

Jones: We have always said that Sunday Assembly is a phased growth into a full church like structure. At Sunday Assembly London we are going to try to go weekly in 2014, and we are adding the services that you get at church. Pastoral care will first come in the form of small groups, with more serious problems being passed on to relevant service providers. However, we want to take care of the whole person.

Since launching the first Sunday Assembly in New York City () on June 30, 2013, this group experienced some growing pains with some the board of directors choosing to form their own group called The Godless Revival. Your thoughts?

Jones: It’s my understanding that the chief split is between those who are more on the atheist side of the fence, and then those who want to have a more inclusive message. This division has meant that the inclusive contingent resigned from the board. This then led the remaining gang to start a new group called The Godless Revival.

Obviously, I think it is very sad that this has happened but, ultimately, it is for the benefit of the community. One day, I hope there will soon be communities for every different type of atheist, agnostic and humanist. We are only one flavor of ice cream, and one day we hope there’ll be congregations for every godless palate. Luckily Pippa and I will be coming to New York on November 4th to resolve, reboot and relaunch Sunday Assembly NYC. Indeed, these difficulties are really blessings as we learn so much from them.

What’s your response to those who say that by calling this a “church,” you’re making atheism into a religion

Jones: I think religion has become associated with some certain practices, which because people don’t like religion, they think that all of the things associated with it are bad. But that’s not the case. There are loads of things which it does that are not bad in and of themselves but they’ve become guilty by association. The big difference is there’s no supernatural in our thing.

How does Sunday Assembly bring together like minded liberal Christians who no longer believe in the supernatural or worship a Father God but like church community with humanists/atheists in a quest to live an authentic life?

Jones: We’ve got some people who love the Sunday Assembly who fit that description. If you start talking about living this one life as fully as possible, you can suddenly open the door very wide. I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious. 

Evans: We don’t check anyone’s beliefs at the door but seek out people who are just happy to be alive.

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Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Washington Post's On Faith section, The Guardian, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Killing the Buddha, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams' Little Book of Virtues (2013), and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (Jossey-Bass, 2006).