A Sabbath ‘church’ for Salt Lake City’s unchurched? Believe it. It’s called Sunday Assembly

Many Americans see atheists as earnest or combative, determined or misguided, quiet truth-seekers or militantly anti-religious.

Few observers, however, view them as fun.

Sunday Assembly, a hip new group of nonbelievers in Salt Lake City, hopes to change that perception — and is using amateur art contests, talks about Quidditch or Animal Jam, pop music, storytelling and snacks to do it.

It's kind of like the trendy K2 The Church (whose Christian pastor has been known to ride in on a motorcycle) — minus God or scripture.

Rather than fostering debate about the existence or nonexistence of deity, Sunday Assembly is building a new community by drawing on what its participants consider the best elements of age-old churches — music, group singing, coffee hour, idealistic living, and service — and want it to be radically inclusive.

"We don't do supernatural, but we also won't tell you you're wrong if you do," Salt Lake City organizer Nichelle Reed said. "It's a place where you can find community that is not based on your religious beliefs, where you're from, your race, your orientation or your identity."

The Assembly's three-pronged motto: Live better, help often, wonder more.

Service with smiles • The rhythm of a service is much like a Christian church with choreographed times for music, greeting one another, standing, sitting, readings and even "Funday school" for kids ages 3 to 11.

It meets the second Sunday of every month at The Falls Event Center, a light-filled space on the southwest corner of Trolley Square in east Salt Lake City. (More information can be found at www.sundayassemblyslc.com.)

Nearly 70 people — mostly young Anglos and some kids — joined last week's December gathering, a playful and unpredictable hour and a half.

It opened with a four-member band playing the 1980s hit, "Walking on Sunshine," with lyrics projected on a big green screen at the front, while participants belted it out as they batted beach balls around the room.

After a brief introduction, Laura Beck, an Assembly board member, directed the children to step into another room for a "Lego Challenge." That was followed by an icebreaker paper plate art game, a reading of a short story about sledding, and more singing and swaying to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

Next came Reed, sharing a tale about trolls her family members traditionally read during Advent — they were Lutherans; she is atheist. Then there was an explanation of the "science of snowflakes" by Brian Worley, co-founder and Reed's husband, using six volunteers to act out the three stages of water and slides showing various snowflake patterns.

In a segment called "Life Happens," Beck mentioned one person had learned to play the ukulele and another couple had bought a home.

Beck announced that the group had raised $775 for Primary Children's Hospital with its astronomy tree at the Festival of Trees and then did the proverbial "pass the plate," outlining the monthly expenses and asking for contributions to the nonprofit.

The get-together ended with the group's signature theme song, "It's My Life," and moved on to the foyer for snacks from Trader Joe's.

The growing Assembly community in the Beehive State delights Reed. It serves a need for those who don't fit either in Mormonism, Utah's dominant religion, or in any of the other faith-based traditions.

"We share the same ideals; just take a different approach," Reed said. "Basically, we are here to celebrate and have fun."

It also coincides with the rise of the so-called "nones" — those religiously unaffiliated — as the country becomes less and less churched.

According to a 2012 Pew survey, a fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — profess no religious brand, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the past five years alone, the unaffiliated ranks "include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics," Pew reported, "as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation."

That's a large pool for the Assembly to tap.

Missing church • On Jan. 6, 2013, London comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans launched Sunday Assembly as an alternative to institutional religion as well as to the isolation of secularism.

Evans told The Washington Post that the idea came to her after trying to get her wedding guests to sing "When I'm Sixty-Four" by the Beatles.

"We realized," she said, "we'd never seen everyone we know sing together" — except at church, which she had stopped attending as an adult.

Jones and Evans came up with Sunday Assembly's broad purpose: Celebrate life without doctrine, dogma or deity, to see wisdom from all sources, to engage all who wish to attend.

After the Assembly's founders took a tour of 40 countries, promoting its Sunday experience, critics mocked the movement as "church for atheists," a term the group rejects.

"Jones and Evans are the anti-angry atheists," The Post reported. "In fact, they wiped from their initial publicity material the phrase 'atheist church' and have been busy since then trying to strike any language or labels that might seem negative."

On that opening day, some 200 people converged on the meeting, according to the organization's website. Today, there are more than 70 officially designated Sunday Assemblies in the U.S. and across the globe.

In Utah, the response likewise surprised its founders.

"We just kept hosting it," said Beck, one of the Salt Lake City leaders, "and people kept showing up."

The global headquarters provides "guidelines (though there is room for some regional variations) for the general format," Reed explained. "This is so that if people traveling, they can visit any Assembly and feel at home."

But Sunday Assembly doesn't work for all secularists or nonbelievers.

Different strokes • Well-known Utah atheist Gregory Arthur Clark understands the appeal of Sunday Assembly.

Religions provide a strong social and emotional cocoon for people, offering help and support through human trials and tragedies, Clark said. Even when one no longer believes in the faith's teachings, it can be "psychologically wrenching to leave."

In history, it was almost impossible to survive without the assistance of a religious community, he noted. "We are a social species. The worst thing you can do is put someone in social solitary confinement."

Clark, a bioengineering professor at the University of Utah, affiliates with Atheists of Utah, which features weekly gatherings that include speakers, discussions and some community service. Humanists of Utah, the Free Thinkers Society and a relatively new group, the Oasis Network — a "secular community ... empowered by reason, connected by compassion" — also were created, among others, to fill the void left for those turning away from religion.

Many people now want a sense of connectedness, Clark said, "without the magic, and in some cases, without bigotry."

Sunday Assembly may serve many of the same needs, just with more beach balls.