Imagine walking into a synagogue, mosque or a church and the first thing your rabbi, imam or pastor did was encourage everyone to get up and sing along to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Then, the rest of the service would involve stand-up comedy, poetry, live music and icebreaker games.
This may sound like a peculiar joke, but for those who attend Sunday Assembly, a congregation that has been dubbed the first “atheist church,” it’s a reality.
Founded in January by British stand-up comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the Sunday Assembly recently embarked on a world tour and stopped in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 6 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
The idea of the assembly is to be an outlet for people to convene, express themselves and engage with others as they would in a church, but without any religious aspects.
Or, as the duo puts it, “We both wanted to do something like church, but with no religion and awesome songs. We want to celebrate the amazing fact that we’re alive.”
The assembly is open to people of all faiths, but mostly attracted atheists and secular humanists at the D.C. gathering.
Before performing a rendition of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” with bubbly Evans on vocals and guitar and Jones providing dance moves, the eccentric Jones told attendees he didn’t expect the Assembly to be in D.C. by November, let alone become as popular as it has.
The first meeting, held in London, attracted 200 people and has since expanded, which is what prompted the tour of 40 Dates and 40 Nights: The Roadshow. Along with other major U.S. cities, the tour has visited cities in Ireland, Canada and Australia.
“I love doing stand-up, but building communities like this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Sanderson said, as he hopes that these cities will form their own Sunday Assembly congregations.
Jones and Evans were both of Christian faith before they founded the assembly and said they’ve gotten some criticism from people of various faiths and beliefs, including atheists.
With every assembly, there’s at least one guest speaker. In D.C., the speaker was Dr. John Shook, director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational in Amherst, N.Y.
Shook has traveled the country debating about the existence of God, and has written numerous books on naturalism and humanism, topics he discussed at the assembly last week.
The assembly included short secular discussions on death and human relationships, and constantly reiterated the notion that attendees should celebrate life and the fact that they exist. It also included a moment of silent reflection, which Jones swears was different from praying.
The crowd was mostly composed of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but included a number of seniors as well. The entire time, they were thoroughly engaged with the dancing, singing and games, having been encouraged by Jones’ and Evans’ enthusiasm.
“I came because I feel as someone who doesn’t believe [in God], I don’t reflect on how I can live more morally,” said attendee Taylor Kennedy. This gathering is an opportunity for me to do that, she said.
Deborah Lash, who came to the event from Virginia, said her situation of not appreciating religion is common.
“[Jones and Evans] appreciate community, caring and connection,” she said, which is one of the reasons she chose to attend.
After over an hour, Jones and Evans came full circle, ending the night with karaoke. Except this time, it was to the tune of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
For more information about Sunday Assembly, go to sundayassembly.com.