Two women sang at the front of Phillips Middle School’s auditorium: “Give me all you got, and don’t hold it back.”
Their voices filled the room, off-key and backed only by a four-piece band. But it didn’t matter. They were happy.
The audience members rose to their feet, clapping in time with the song. These congregation members meet at the Chapel Hill school every month to celebrate life in an attempt to reinvent the church community.
After the final refrain, Heather Klein stepped away from her singing partner and welcomed the congregation of about 40 members, with more trickling in as she spoke, to the Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill, a gathering she called “radically inclusive.”
“The Sunday Assembly is a 100 percent celebration of life,” she said. “We are born from nothing and go to nothing — let’s enjoy it together.”
The assembly is church re-imagined: Instead of religion, speakers talk about the communities around them and recognize recent scientific achievements.
“I miss having youth group, and I miss having a community where we all go and rake some old lady’s yard in the fall or make somebody food because we know that their husband is in the hospital,” said Sara Rodgers, who was at this Sunday Assembly meeting on April 12.
“That can happen with my friends, but I still want that sense of community that I’m missing in a church.”
Beyond services, members meet in small groups, or “smoups,” to hold movie nights and volunteer. In the future, wedding services and baby naming ceremonies may be held if members show interest.
Starting a ‘nonreligious church’
Brian Worley and Nichelle Reed are a musical couple — Reed sings with Klein while Worley plays guitar in the assembly band.
The two, engaged since December 2013, were key in starting Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill.
The original Sunday Assembly, started in London, was the brainchild of two British comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who wanted to combine the church’s community aspects into a nonreligious congregation.
Two years later, the two continue to carry out their vision with their program Sunday Assembly Everywhere, which works to spread this type of organization across the world.
Reed and Worley were ecstatic when they heard about the opportunity to create their own assembly and applied online early in 2014. They were meeting with other people, who later became the four other board members of Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill, by April of the same year.
“It’s been a really long road, especially because of the fact that, of the people on the board, none of us have done anything like this before,” Reed said. “We spent a long time navigating and figuring out how to start a nonprofit organization and what the rules of having a board are.”
“We toured all sorts of places,” Worley said. “That sort of drudgery was entirely too much of the planning process.”
They first felt backlash about the idea of their church when searching for a meeting space. A local business that initially agreed to host the monthly meetings backed out when hearing the Sunday Assembly referred to as a “godless” and an “atheist” church.
“The folks that were there were all wonderful people, but they said they didn’t really feel comfortable having anything with their business name on it that had the word godless,” Reed said.
The first Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill meeting in January 2015 had 115 people. The current number of attendees hovers at about 50 or 60 per meeting.
“I think a lot of that was people who were just curious and wanted to come and see what was going on,” Worley said. “Everyone seems to say, from your first assembly to your second, expect at least a 20 percent drop off.”
Still, people come to the monthly meetings to find out about a church community that thrives without a god. The term “godless” church, Worley said, can be off-putting, but he hopes it also draws people in.
“My hope is that someone could look past the one word and give it a shot and realize that ‘godless’ doesn’t automatically mean that we are barbecuing babies or something. It just means that we’re not dealing with religion,” Worley said.
From behind a lectern, Rodgers clicked through a slideshow with pictures of murals, a treehouse and a number of her other “favorite things” at the congregation’s April 12 meeting. She likes to fill her house with rainbows, a hobby that also matches her vivid hair.
Presentations like Rodgers’ — what Reed calls “Adult Show-and-Tell for Kids,” and Worley laughs off as a work in progress — are monthly occurrences. Members pick parts of their lives to share, and the audience listens at full attention.
Her kids were the real reason she decided to attend the local congregation after hearing about Sunday Assembly on the radio.
“My kids had been asking to go to church, and since that’s not a real option for me, we thought they would at least get a taste of what church was like,” she said.
Other members also join to provide a space of community for their families outside of religion. People who grew up religious and leave their churches, he said, often miss the close gatherings, and Sunday Assembly offers a remedy.
Worley’s dream for the assembly is to have a building shared with other secular organizations in the area.
“Right now, we live in a world where there’s a Christian church, three or four on every block sometimes,” he said. “I think there’s room for more than one secular, freethought community and for there to be multiple flavors of the same thing and for everyone to be working together to create a positive world.”
A Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill service ends as it begins, with triumphant singing. This time, Klein, Reed, Worley and the rest of the band performed “Lean on Me” and “Beautiful Sunday” — a fitting ending for the community-based gathering.
As the founders of the assembly will readily explain, we all need somebody to lean on.