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Some Assembly Required: A Church Without God

At the door, I was greeted by cheerful people who urged me to sign in on a clipboard, and, to my astonishment, I was handed a bulletin. Why should I have been surprised? Can't bulletins be godless, too?
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On 1/11, I drove down the hill to the Musicians Union hall at 817 Vine Street to attend the monthly Sunday Assembly Los Angeles, described at its website as "a godless community that meets monthly to hear great talks, connect for service projects, sing songs and generally celebrate life. Assemblies are free to attend, and everyone is welcome."
At USC, through our new humanist chaplain, Bart Campolo, I recently made the acquaintance of Ian Dodd, the founder of the Sunday Assembly. It was time to take him up on his invitation to attend. Ian was a member of a Unitarian congregation, and led a study group in the congregation for atheists. The first Sunday Assembly was organized in London, and now there are dozens around the world. Its London initiators came to LA and met with some members of Ian's group about a year and a half ago. Ian and his friends decided to start an Assembly here.
At the door, I was greeted by cheerful people who urged me to sign in on a clipboard, and, to my astonishment, I was handed a bulletin. Why should I have been surprised? Can't bulletins be godless, too? The top of the bulletin indicated the theme for the day: "Resolutions." We filed in and sat down as the Masters of Celebration, two 30-something white men with apparent stand-up comedy experience behind them, welcomed us all to the event. "We're here to celebrate the one life we have!" People continued streaming in -- the seats filled and more and more people stood in the back of the uandorned union hall. All told, I guessed there were 300 or 350 people in the room. Josephine Johnson, a young songwriter, played the guitar and led the congregation in singing, with the lyrics in the bulletin and projected on the front screen. No one knew her songs, so the singing was weak. The tunes, "I Melt With You," and "Best of Us," were vaguely heartwarming. The Masters led us in meeting and greeting: sharing names, then slow-slapping the hands of the people around us. On the screen was an image of an icebreaker ship. Then came announcements, comically delivered back-and-forth by the Masters of Celebration, as the children went to SALA Kids. What happens at an atheist Sunday School, I wondered? Community service projects, lunch at the restaurant across the street after the Assembly, housekeeping details. Then a putatively inspirational reading about New Year's wishes.
Then, the featured talk -- the equivalent of a sermon, I suppose. It was delivered by someone with a lot of preaching experience. Ryan Bell appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago. The story focused on his "year without God," which commenced not long after he was kicked out of the ministry of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Hollywood. I wrote a "musing" about his project last year, after getting to know him in the difficult aftermath of the end of his ministry career. Ryan's thoughtful talk, "We Are Made of Stories," focused on the ways that narratives shape us, until they fall apart in personal and social crises. How do we construct new narratives, new overarching plots that give us meaning and purpose? He illustrated with bits of his own saga. He gave up God provisionally for a year, and wrote a blog about it. Now, he's extending his godless state indefinitely. He let it be known that he is still in the process of coming up with a new narrative for himself, after having abandoned, or being abandoned by, the evangelical Christian story that defined his life for so long. He's now the Director for Community Engagement for People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) in Hollywood.
Another singer-songwriter performed a New Year's resolution-related piece. Then it was time for "Assemblers Doing Their Best". A frail-looking woman stood up and talked briefly and directly about her life after a double-lung transplant which she got because she has cystic fibrosis. She was inspiring because she didn't pontificate about overcoming adversity, but simply shared how she lives with it. Her talk was beautifully raw and real. We ought to do this in Christian churches!
Then it was time for "Assembler Milestones". Birthdays, jobs, transitions. Then a "Moment of Quiet Reflection". "Now we'll -- well, just be quiet and do what we do when we're quiet," quipped one of the Masters of Celebration. The lights went down, a guitar softly played, and some semblance of silence was kept. Then the "Collection" - with ushers waving I-phones with Square credit card swipers in the air, and "Donation" boxes with slots for cash and checks moving among the aisles. "Let's say $20 is the middle amount," said one of the Masters.
Then the Masters, in comic style, back and forth, gave an "Address" about New Year's resolutions. Definitely not a deep disquisition, it was a light-hearted compromise between satire and helpful suggestion about how you can use peer pressure to help you follow through on your resolutions. Then "Announcements" about upcoming Assembly-related events, including the next month's Sunday Assembly gathering. The Assembly closed with singing"Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash. "And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire..." Was this a spoof on atheism, describing where you'll go if you don't believe in God?
Then came coffee hour -- America's true religion. Chairs were stacked up to make room for clusters of people forming with steaming cups in their hands. I could see social capital being created as people brought others into their circles: hands were shaken, names exchanged. In the front lobby was a table to sign up for service projects. Another table offered atheist and humanist swag for sale, including the iconic Darwin fish bumperstickers.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday Assembly. Clearly it addresses a felt need of many people for a community without religious content. I sensed that some folks were there in reaction against religion, but it looked like most were just looking for a wholesome community with which to connect.
I took notes on changes I'd suggest. The music had rhyme but little reason to it: there is a limited range of songs that lend themselves to congregational singing. But music is a huge problem in Christian churches, too. Do we stick with the top ten hits of 1820, or try to get the congregation to learn new and livelier music? The Assembly did not effectively manipulate the emotions of the Assemblers into heartfelt celebration. That's an art that effective religious leaders have taken centuries to perfect, and from which the Assemblers could learn much. What will be the central focus of the Sunday Assembly? What will be the glue that brings and keeps its community together? Can it witness for social change beyond just charitable service? Is it inevitable that some kind of basic doctrine of values and world-view will emerge? At coffee hour, Ian unblinkingly recognized that the Assembly is a work in process.
Some further assembly will be required in order for this gathering to reach its potential. But the same can be said for a lot of progressive Christian churches. We have common quests, and much to emulate in each other.

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