The Sunday Assembly hopes to organize an ungodly future. It is not easy.


(RNS) – Steve Phelps forsook God years ago.

But the former Baptist music director and his wife still believe in tithing. So, each month, they make an automated donation to maintain their original congregation.

Phelps is a member of the board of directors of the Nashville Sunday Assembly, a congregation of unbelievers who believe in the power of the community. The group meets monthly to sing together, give testimonies, and even hear a secular version of a sermon.

Until COVID-19 hit, there was even a potluck.

“You should taste our casseroles,” said Phelps.

Over the past eight years, nonbelievers like Phelps have met regularly in about 70 cities in the United States and Europe. They are engaged in an ongoing experiment that essentially asks, “Can you build a sustainable community that offers all the social benefits of a church but without God?” “

The answer is not yet clear, especially at a time when confidence in institutions is declining and COVID-19 makes it difficult to meet in person. Yet Phelps and a group of other church volunteers across the country are determined to give it a go.

Ross Llewallyn.

Ross Llewallyn is one of them. A software engineer and president of Sunday Assembly Atlanta, Llewallyn grew up in a family he described as “slightly Methodist.” They went to church together and he spent time in Methodist youth camps during the summer, experiences he fondly recalls.

But the belief in God did not stay.

When Llewallyn heard about the Sunday Assembly, the brainchild of a pair of atheist British comedians who missed the human side of the church, he was drawn to it. He likes the sense of community as well as the motto of the Sunday Assembly: live better, help often, ask more questions.

Putting this sentence into practice takes a lot of work. Someone needs to fundraise to organize events, find a space to meet, organize small groups, brew coffee, and handle the dozens of logistical tasks required to organize group meetings.

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For Llewallyn, the effort is worth it.

“When I feel the best about the Sunday Assembly, what I think about is that it didn’t have to happen,” he said. Entropy says that in fact we should all be back home, reading books or watching Netflix, instead of being together. We are not together to brainstorm a theme, sing songs. on this theme or plant trees together.

Llewallyn is a board member of Sunday Assembly America, which recently broke away from the UK-based Sunday Assembly organization. The group is busy drafting a mission statement and other institutional tasks, such as creating a representative governance structure. They also worked on a job description for a national support person to help local assemblies with planning and logistics, as well as to start new assemblies.

In the short term, Llewallyn is playing the supporting role for the Las Vegas Sunday Assembly, which is planning its future. As a facilitator, he asks the members of that assembly two main questions: “What do you want your assembly to be?” and “Do you have the capacity to be successful?” “

One of the challenges of the process is that assembly leaders cannot appeal to religious or spiritual authority to motivate people to get involved. Everything is voluntary.

“We cannot promise you heaven and we cannot threaten you with hell,” said Richard Treitel, Sunday Assembly Silicon Valley board member.

Ben Zeller, associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College in suburban Chicago, said the Sunday Assembly faced the same challenges that new religious movements face: how to turn a charismatic founder’s vision into an institution ?

New religious groups often have a sense of urgency, believing that their actions have eternal or transcendent importance.

“It’s easier to organize if you think your founder is the messiah,” Zeller said.

Some ungodly movements have found a way to build lasting institutions. For example, the Ethical Society of Saint-Louis began to meet in the 1880s and still remains a viable congregation. Part of it was luck and part of having a strong institution, said James Croft, the leader of the company.

Members of the Sunday Assembly after watching a short film on the experience of black people traveling from the Green Book era to today.  Photo courtesy of Ross Llewallyn / Sunday Assembly

Members of the Sunday Assembly after watching a short film on the experience of black people traveling from the days of the Green Book to today. Photo courtesy of Ross Llewallyn / Sunday Assembly

The founder of the Ethical Society, the son of a prominent rabbi, envisioned building a community open to all and promoting human dignity and social change for the better. This vision emerged at a time when many wealthy people invested in philanthropy, and so from the start the company had resources to work with.

Their founder, Felix Adler, also intended to create an institution, Croft said.

“He was charismatic and had a very clear idea of ​​what he wanted to create,” according to Croft.

Croft said Adler realized that many of the benefits of organized religion came from the organized part, not the religious part. Being part of a values-based community is good for you, he said.

“If you believe this, then building a community is a critical component of what you do,” Croft said. “It’s not a plus.”

Community building has proven to be a challenge in the COVID era for Sunday assemblies and church groups, as both rely heavily on volunteer participation and are built around in-person gatherings.

Treitel, a software engineer from Silicon Valley, said he often compares his grades with his wife, a music director at a Presbyterian church, and finds that they face similar challenges.

Like many other assemblies, the Silicon Valley group has struggled during COVID because they cannot come together. At its peak, the Sunday Assembly movement claimed about 70 congregations. That number has fallen to less than half now, with many groups retreating or becoming inactive.

While he enjoys singing at the monthly reunions – and having the chance to dance while the music plays – what Treitel values ​​most are the friendships he has made in groups. These friendships, his wife told him, made him a happier person.

Zoom, he said, is not enough.

Treitel said he sometimes wonders if the Silicon Valley group can survive in the long term. Some members have moved away during COVID, while others are so busy that they have neither the time nor the energy to invest in building an organization.

Still, he’s not ready to give up.

There are always plenty of churches, he says. If one closes, another will open in its place. This is not the case for the Sunday Assembly.

“There is only one other Sunday assembly within 100 miles of here,” he said. “I feel like there is a need – or there should be.”

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