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Seattle's new Sunday Assembly Church is no Mars Hill

As Mars Hill retreats from the U District, a new, secular church - started by two London comics - moves in.
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Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, comedians and founders of Sunday Assembly, the Atheist Church

As Mars Hill retreats from the U District, a new, secular church - started by two London comics - moves in.

For years Mars Hill Church treated the University of Washington as a field of young souls ripe for harvest. Pastor Mark Driscoll courted on-campus audiences with his now infamous blend of Calvinism and titillation. Mars Hill staff debated the leader of the Secular Student Alliance on campus, graciously covering the costs and hosting videos afterwards — until they hit a conversation that left them fumbling for good answers. They recruited and trained peer “friendship missionaries” from among college student members, turning them into a volunteer sales force.

In 2010, when Mars Hill purchased a large and timeless church building just north of the University, it appeared that Driscoll’s brand of hipster fundamentalism was here to stay, much to the dismay of moderate Christians and secularists who saw the mix as a toxic brew even before  serial scandals erupted. Last month, with the sale of that building in progress, Mars Hill merged the university congregation into its Ballard location, which also is now on the market. The drama culminated last week in Driscoll’s resignation.

In the shadows of the Mars Hill implosion, a new church recently held its first U District gathering. The group is small and experimental — much like Mars Hill in its early days — but beyond that the differences are hard to overstate.

Sunday Assembly Seattle, as it is called, is a local grassroots “franchise” of a secular church started by two London comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, in 2012. Many attendees are refugees from authoritarian forms of religion, and Sunday Assembly is low key by design. Part of its appeal is that organizers lack the polish that draws followers to a charismatic leader like Driscoll. The group’s symbol is a triangle bordered by three short sentences: Live better. Help Often. Wonder More.

A 10 point charter explains that Sunday Assembly “has no doctrine; we have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources. Has no deity; we don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.”

“Everybody is welcome, regardless of their beliefs,” says local organizer Andy Coleman. He envisions a group that is “radically inclusive.”

The launch of Sunday Assembly Seattle on September 28 was timed to coincide with launches in 37 other cities, from Brisbane to Halifax, all are driven by local volunteers.

At the first Seattle gathering, 50 or so people trickled into an old classroom in the University Heights Community Center, past a bar with cookies and drinks that had been laid out to encourage conversation after the service. Classic rock played in the background. Greeters pointed parents to a table where children could entertain themselves with art materials. The service lasted less than an hour, and featured singing ("Lean on Me", "Yellow Submarine") and a short homily by Korin Leman, leader of Portland’s Sunday Assembly, which kicked off earlier in the year.

Leman talked about feeling alone after leaving Christianity until her serendipitous discovery of Portland’s Sunday Assembly group. “Research tells us that happiness relates to three factors,” she said. “Gratitude, purpose, and community.” She encouraged her audience to dive in, calling the start-up phase of the Portland assembly one of the hardest and most rewarding times of her life.

“We are not a cult,” Leman assured prospective members. “Then again, every cult says that.” She laughed.  Seattle volunteers passed around sign-up sheets and a couple of empty beer growlers into which attendees could stuff donations.

Will Sunday Assembly grow or fade away? That remains to be seen. “We’re here to stay,” asserts Sunday Assembly’s London website. Organizers in Seattle are busy planning their next gathering, scheduled for Sunday, October 26. They’ve put out a call for more volunteers, and a band. 

Whether this model survives, the fledgling secular church is part of a much broader movement among non-theists who increasingly are exploring how best to foster spirituality and community without supernaturalism. Several years ago British philosopher Alain de Botton spoke at the University of Washington about his book, "Atheism 2.0".  Letting go of gods is just a starting point, de Botton asserted. We now need to glean what’s good from religion and carry it forward. In Seattle and beyond, efforts are underway to figure out what that might mean.

Earlier this month, neuroscientist and renowned anti-theist Sam Harris spoke to a packed audience at Town Hall about his latest book, "Waking Up:  A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". Harris spent years studying meditation with Eastern mystics. He extols the benefits of mindfulness, meditation and other forms of altered consciousness, which he sees as natural, learnable processes.

Psychologist Dale McGowan seeks to build on another positive dimension of religion, the ways in which faith communities encourage altruism and generosity. He started Foundation Beyond Belief to encourage the habit of thoughtful pooled giving among atheists, agnostics and humanists.

Later this month, Seattle Atheists will host former minister Teresa MacBain. She made headlines in 2012 when she left the ministry and came out publicly as an atheist. MacBain is now is a secular community-building consultant and public speaker. Her goal is to help non-believers find connections.

“We all need a place to belong, to be accepted and supported, to celebrate life and mourn loss, and to just have fun,” MacBain says. “Secular community is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; people are different and their communities will be different. But, at its core, the basics are the same: a place to connect, a place to serve, a place to love and a place to call home.”

  

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Seattle's new Sunday Assembly Church is no Mars Hill