For believers, a church is the institution around which the entire community is built. So atheists, long left out of those circles, are building a church of their own.
Sunday Assembly was founded in London earlier this year by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who wanted to provide all the things they say are good about going to church -- community spirit, engagement and inspiration -- without the intrusion of deities.
“We like to say it’s entertaining but not entertainment,” Jones said, ahead of a winkingly named "40 Days 40 Nights" roadshow. “We don’t have Heaven or Hell to tempt or threaten people with, so if you want to get people to come, you want them to say ‘this is a good thing, which I enjoy.’”
Each week's service has a guest speaker and worship comes in the form of group karaoke sessions, preferably to songs that sound more at home on Top 40 (or classic rock) radio than in pews.
“’Living On A Prayer’ smashes it so hard,” Jones said. “Or ‘Don’t Stop Me Now,’ everyone is like, ‘Oh, my God,’ I get to sing this at 11 o’clock on a Sunday -- and I’m not even drunk!"
Jones said he was inspired after attending a Christmas carol service, having been struck by how much he loved about the experience.
"There’s so much here that I love, it’s just such a shame that there’s something in the middle that I don’t believe in,” he said, of that moment.
But his co-founder, Evans, was once a practicing Christian, and her involvement in Sunday Assembly came from the feeling her lapsed faith had left a hole in her life.
“When I decided there probably wasn’t a God, it made church a lot more awkward,” she said. “I always felt like there wasn’t a place to have that same sort of community. I couldn’t get my head around how to do it without offending anyone."
Since the first Sunday Assembly service in January, the church has sprouted branches in New York City and Melbourne, Australia, as well as Bristol and Brighton in the U.K. The "40 Days, 40 Nights" roadshow is intended to evangelize -- it kicked off October 22, with stops in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Ireland -- with the hopes each stop would leave a permanent church in its wake.
And while the church has plenty of ambition -- Jones says he'd like to see one in every town in every country that wants one -- Sunday Assembly said its purpose is really simple: to "make the most of the one life we know we have."
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