A new kind of godless missionary may be coming soon to a city near you. Organizers of the Sunday Assembly, a London gathering of atheists hope to start 30 new godless congregations during their “40 Dates and 40 Nights: The Roadshow” tour of the U.S., the U.K, Canada, and Australia.
Among the planned stops are Atlanta, Phoenix, Grand Rapids, Los Angeles, with dates in Dallas and Nashville still in the planning stages.
It’s essentially a missionary tour for atheists.
The Assembly got its start in January 2013, when a group of nonbelievers began meeting in a former church in London. By June, organizers say, the church-like services were drawing more than 600 people weekly, leading Salon to call it atheism’s first megachurch.
During their services, they sing, have a few moments of meditation, and listen to a secular version of a sermon, according to the Guardian.
The group sing along is part of the Assembly’s appeal, according to the Daily Beast.
A recent service of the Assembly featured a sing-along version of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” Organizers say the idea for the assembly was inspired by the sense of community found at a Christmas-carol service, where everyone joined it.
Weekly gatherings are meant to build camaraderie and celebrate the good things in life.
“It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more,” according to the group’s website.
Over the past nine months, new branches of the Assembly have opened in New York, Melbourne, Australia, along with Bristol and Brighton in the United Kingdom.
Organizer Sanderson Jones said the idea of a godless congregation may have worldwide appeal.
“If we do it in London and there are 400 people who come, that’s brilliant, but if we find a way to help hundreds of people to set one up then we can have a bigger impact than we could ever dream of,” Jones told the Guardian.
Their vision, according to the Guardian, is “a godless gathering in every town, city or village that wants one.”
Jones and other leaders hope to open franchise congregations during its tour, which launches Oct. 22, 2013, in Edinburgh.
They’ve even started a “Sunday Assembly Everywhere” organization that seems part multi-site church and part denomination.
Here’s how they market it: “We’ll provide you with videos, marketing support, and all the resources we can muster, while making sure you have the creative space needed to make it your own. So, you can choose the songs, readings and speakers and, more importantly, start building a community.”
Their first meeting in the U.S. will be held in New York on Nov. 4, 2013. The tour wraps up in Sydney on Nov. 24.
The Assembly is not the only atheist group to start expanding congregations.
Teresa MacBain, a former United Methodist minister who left the ministry after losing her faith, is now the director of the Humanity Community Project at Harvard.
Her new job: starting congregations for nonbelievers in the U.S.
“Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter,” wrote Samuel Freedman, in a recent New York Times story describing MacBain’s work.
This mini-boom in new atheist congregations is likely to continue the debate over whether or not atheism is a religion.
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice said that leaders of the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) might be eligible for a clergy tax break, known as the parsonage allowance, since some religions don’t believe in God.
Leaders of the FFRF were not interested.
“We are not ministers,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, told USAToday. “We are having to tell the government the obvious: We are not a church.”
What can evangelical churches do to reach out to nonbelievers who have a desire for community?
Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends.