Many Secular “Churches,” Once Part of a Growing Movement, Are Struggling July 22, 2019

Many Secular “Churches,” Once Part of a Growing Movement, Are Struggling

It’s been a while since the Sunday Assembly has been in the news, and maybe that’s a good thing. The so-called “atheist church” — though they didn’t promote atheism — burst onto the scene several years ago offering an alternative for people who missed the rituals of churches but no longer believed in the supernatural. The motto of “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More” spoke to them. They enjoyed singing songs that weren’t worship music. They loved the idea of a community bound by a passion for life, whatever that meant.

But an article in The Atlantic by Faith Hill suggests that the experiment hasn’t worked. At least not as well as its creators would like to admit.

Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years — from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. The number of chapters is down from 70 three years ago to about 40 this year.

That’s not entirely surprising. Just about any organization that grows rapidly and early is bound to see the rubber band snap back. Eventually, the ones with great leaders and room to grow will do just that. No one knows that better than evangelical Christians, who have become experts at “planting” churches with the awareness that many of them won’t succeed. But some will, and that’s the point.

And maybe, Hill writes, that mindset is what atheists need. She’s not saying that they should accept religion, but that they lack many of the tools that help new churches thrive. Even the Sunday Assembly’s co-founder agrees with that.

… religious groups have more tradition, history, and institutional support behind them, and these factors can stand as a kind of safety net behind religious start-ups. “If Sunday Assembly was a Christian community that suddenly had brand recognition, a flock of pastors would come and bring all their skills and experience,” says Sanderson Jones, one of the founders of Sunday Assembly. “You could buy training videos, there’d be conferences you could go to — there are all these different preexisting structures.” But for secular congregations, there are no training videos. There are no “Church planting” experts to help them grow roots. They’re starting from scratch.

I would take some issue with that. They’re not all starting from scratch because these groups often have terrific organizers, some of whom come from religious backgrounds, and many of whom have run other groups before. They know what it takes to maintain a group and grow it.

The bigger issue, to me, has always been the bond that ties churches together. Religious people have a belief in God that (theoretically) overrides some of the other problems that eventually develop when humans try to work together. They have a shared culture. They seriously think going to church makes them better people — and that attendance is good for their families.

Not believing in God doesn’t offer that. You definitely can’t build that culture when we’re talking about a once-a-week gathering that doesn’t include separate programs for children.

So what does Sunday Assembly have to draw in new members? Community, sure, but you can find that in a lot of places if you’re willing to look. Music and singing? Sure, if that’s the sort of thing you like. A secular “sermon”? Sure, though it’s hard to find quality speakers every week.

Maybe one of the biggest downsides is that the Sunday Assembly is, by design, not a pro-atheism group. That means the entire organization is catering to the “Nones”… but not the people for whom godlessness matters.

… the majority of nones are just indifferent to religion. “On what basis would you pull them together?” [director of religion research at Pew Research Center Alan] Cooperman asked. “Being uninterested in something is about the least effective social glue, the dullest possible mobilizing cry, the weakest affinity principle, that one can imagine.”

All of that is to say I still think Sunday Assembly is a nice idea, and I’ve been to various services around the country that found ways to draw crowds. I can see the appeal even if I would never go on a weekly basis myself. It’s ideal for some people but it’s not for everyone, and nothing the group has done over the past few years has made it more enticing for atheists. (If anything, the rules for how services must be run are rigid enough that there’s not much room for experimentation by local leaders. That doesn’t help.)

Beyond all that, we’re seeing a larger societal shift away from community. As religion becomes less popular, one of the strongest social support networks ever created is rapidly disappearing. So you have to respect people trying to create communities however they can. Still, it’s clear Sunday Assembly hasn’t solved the problem of how to recreate churches for people who don’t care for organized religion. The upside to that is that the better organizers will always find new ways to create successful communities, even if that means creating something completely different. They did it once. They can do it again.

***Update***: Sanderson Jones, one of the co-founders of the Sunday Assembly, has responded to the Atlantic’s piece here:

It’s a long thread, but it’s worth reading in full by clicking on the tweet above.

(Screenshot via Sunday Assembly)


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