Secular church 'Sunday Assembly' declining amid rise of unbelief

  1. Secular church 'Sunday Assembly' down from 5,000 monthly attendees to 3,500
  2. 87 percent of regular attendees said the Sunday Assembly made them happier - researcher Josh Bullock
  3. Inspired by, and modelled on, practice of mainstream religions

On a sunny Sunday in July, about 100 people filed into Conway Hall in central London to “live better, help often and wonder more.

Instead of opening hymn books, they read off a PowerPoint. Instead of hymns they sang pop songs. First was Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, followed by Wham!’s 1984 hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. This rendition was lead by one member of the assembly, who passionately performed the words on stage. This is church: but not as you know it.  

People singing Wham's wake me up before you go go at a London Sunday Assembly service led by co-founder Sanderson Jones (Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
Congregation singing Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go at a London Sunday Assembly service led by co-founder Sanderson Jones (Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Sunday Assembly is a secular community that uses existing religious structures, rituals, and practices to give non-religious people a space to gather. It was set up in 2013 by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.

Among the Sunday Assembly attendees that day, a mixed if mostly young adult crowd, was Marta Pomare Mo, 34, who grew up Catholic but said she had not been religious for a long time. 

“London can be a very isolating place,” she told WikiTribune. “I like coming somewhere where people are very friendly, and very open to connecting.”

Jeff Ewbank, 73, was also in attendance. As a former Christian, he said he enjoyed “the sort of congregation feel.”

Many of those in the congregation formerly practiced mainstream religion. Sanderson Jones said he was actually leaving a Christmas carol concert 15 years ago when he first got the idea for the assembly. He told WikiTribune that upon leaving the service, he thought to himself “there’s so much about this I love … it’s just a shame that it’s about this thing I don’t believe in.”

But this connection to the structures of Christianity might also be why the number of Sunday Assembly attendees is in decline.

Half UK population lacks religious allegiance

In the latest survey by the National Centre for Social Research, more than half of people in the United Kingdom were found not to be religious. In comparison, in 1983, about one third in the UK were not religious or “nones.”

In 2016, the Sunday Assembly had 69 congregations globally, with an average of 5,000 people attending monthly “services” worldwide, according to researcher Josh Bullock. There is a sizeable presence in the U.S., followed by the UK, with some locations setting up or “aspirational”. But Jones told WikiTribune the number of Sunday Assemblies worldwide was now closer to 42, with about 3,500 attending every month.

According to Bullock, 87 percent of regular attendees say the assembly made them happier, 88 percent say it gives them a greater sense of community and, on average, people had made three to four new friends through attending.

While Sunday Assembly isn’t religious, Bullock said if the UK’s Christian heritage were completely abandoned, “the current model and structure of the Sunday Assembly will no longer be relevant,” as it heavily leverages off those structures. This could explain the decline in the number attending on a monthly basis worldwide.

After the pop songs, Jones, 37, gave a short talk — his version of a sermon. Speakers then relayed inspirational stories about how they got through tough times in their lives. There was a two minute silence to reflect and more songs, before Jones interacted with the crowd and revealed that he was recently diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. 

Sanderson Jones, co-founder of Sunday Assembly and service leader at London's Conwayhall branch (Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
Sanderson Jones, co-founder of Sunday Assembly and service leader at London’s Conwayhall branch (Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

His stand-up comedy background helped him pepper his talks with jokes. The service ended after roughly two hours, and Jones asked if people could contribute a £10 donation, even giving them the option to pay by card. Most then headed off to the pub together.

While Pippa Evans is no longer involved in the assembly, Jones told WikiTribune he had found his calling.

“This is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said.

Jones said the charity itself only manages three Sunday Assemblies. The remaining 39 received inspiration and organizational models from these three. He said the organization runs on a strict budget, with finances coming in from donations, several large donations and housing associations.

The assembly began after an Indiegogo campaign that raised £33,668 ($43,071) out of a £500,000 ($645,000) goal.

But Jones said he doesn’t get paid for any of his involvement with the charity. Instead, he gets paid for his work around “unbelief”: he has a new web series coming out on the topic and is also writing a book.

And despite Bullock’s assertion about the assembly’s reliance on religion, Jones said it attracted a mixture of people, with most in UK families not having attended church for two generations.

LGBT members found refuge in Assembly

One woman, Thelma Baker, 34 and Catholic, attended both Sunday Assembly and church.

“I come here because I think the philosophies are pretty much the same – bringing people together and trying to help people … no one really talks about religion. It’s all about what you’re doing for yourself and [for] … other people.”

This London Sunday Assembly branch also has its own LGBT group. Paulen Healy, 35, formerly Christian, told WikiTribune that the homophobia of the Church he used to attend wasn’t the main thing that drove him away, but it “certainly prodded me along, out the door.”

James White, brought up Baptist, was thrown out of his family home by his mother for being gay. The 46-year-old said the church he attended supported that decision, so he went to another church but found it similarly anti-gay, before ending up at Sunday Assembly.

People talking after the service had ended. (Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
People talking after the service had ended. (Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Another member described Sunday Assembly as “unexceptional, it doesn’t do any harm and it’s not hostile to anyone … if I want passion and excitement I’ll watch my football team. This provides amiability.”

Whether that feeling is enough to sustain the membership of the assembly remains to be seen. But for his part Jones is still a believer in the concept.

He said the founder of a form of mindfulness, called mindfulness-based stress reduction, “spent 40 years banging the drum” before it became mainstream. He implied that these things take time.

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