At the Edinburgh festival Mr McDermott attended a show called Wonder & Joy,
the creation of Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two comedians whose Sunday Assembly, a self-styled "godless congregation", opened in January in London and has since spread globally. Sunday Assembly goes by the motto "live better, help often, wonder more". It is an organised celebration of humanity without the threat of eternal hellfire. The monthly gatherings feature talks from scientists and philosophers, readings from novels and the collective singing of pop songs, such as Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer". The first events in a former church in north London proved so popular that the company moved to a 1,200-person venue. There are now assemblies in Bristol, Melbourne and New York (FT Weekend Magazine, August 24/25, p7).The Sunday Assembly has been inspired by the megachurch movement, Mr McDermott reports:
Without obvious irony, Jones recommends that new assembly organisers read The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, the hugely popular American preacher who combines Christian teaching with self-help philosophy. Evans says that some of the assembly attendees come for a moral "recharge". She jokes that whereas some Christians wear wristbands sporting the question "What would Jesus do?", the godless congregation would have some asking, "What is it I know I should do but seems a lot of effort right now?"
The success of the assembly, opines Mr McDermott, is due to the fact that it
serves a desire for community. Humans are social animals and plenty of research shows that the quality of our relationships is crucial to our wellbeing. Over the past few decades there has been an erosion of some of the institutions that have provided a source of fellowship, for example churches in Britain, political parties and trade unions. It makes sense that an organisation such as the Sunday Assembly can fill the gap left by their decline.
So how we should we respond as Christian churches to the growing popularity of the church of no religion? Start playing Bon Jovi at our Sunday services and promote bear-hugging, mini-raves, and pogo-jumping?
That would be the imitative response.
But it might be worth trying the Pauline prescription first - the proclamation of the Cross of Christ as the spiritual foundation and sustaining power of loving Christian communities. As Paul instructed the church in 1st century Corinth, which had been beguiled by worldly gimmickry:
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2v1-5 - NIV).