There is apparently now an organization for the one-fifth or so of Americans who always check “none” on forms asking for their religious preference. Folks in this self-described category are called “nones” (pronounced the same as “nuns,” though something entirely different).

Nones as a whole don’t go to worship, except for maybe Christmas, Easter, weddings, and funerals. That’s if they are Christian nones. I don’t have experience with nones from other faiths, but I suspect they would follow the same pattern, dropping by on their traditional high holy days while ignoring anything more regular.

That is about as organized as they like their religion. When I hear someone say they dislike organized religion I always invite them to a North American Lutheran Church service, since it’s hardly organized at all. It’s turned out to be a strange selling point.

Anyway, as every parish pastor knows, nones rarely hesitate to claim the church for their wedding or whatnot. To get what they want they may even be willing to jump through a few hoops: pre-Cana, baptismal instruction, a contribution or two. But otherwise they are not inclined to bother with much. It is just all so, you know, organized.

Turns out the nones won’t mind getting organized, after all—a little, anyway. Nones are an untapped market on the anti-organized religion scene and, sure enough, someone is marketing un-religion.

At least I think that is the premise behind Sunday Assembly. The outfit was started by a couple English comedians. Pippa Evans is a sketch comedian while Sanderson Jones did and maybe still does what is characterized as “fringe” stand-up, although among critics “edgy,” “offensive,” and “tasteless” are also tossed around. His routine has included flashing the Garry Cross photograph of the then ten-year-old Brook Shields posing nude, asking his audience if anyone wants to see a naked little girl. Everyone does. There is an announcement at the beginning of the routine that a possibly offensive photograph may appear, but reports say very few leave on account of it.

Sunday Assembly has been billed as a church for atheists. They may get a little pushback from the Unitarian/Universalist (UU) groups who appear just as eager to welcome unbelievers. With the UU, “you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart.”

I don’t want to start a doctrinal fight between the two, but Sunday Assembly says more or less the same thing. The Sunday Assembly “has no deity. We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.” That’s all part of the openness to diversity thing for which they are noted.

The only outward difference I can really pin down is that Sunday Assembly regularly features praise bands and the UU doesn’t. There may be something in the differing generational demographic both are trying to reach. Sunday Assembly appears very “with it” on their web site. The UU is, well, stodgy, stuffy and, maybe here’s the heart of it, too organized. The UU has a page on youth ministry. Sunday Assembly is youth.

The Sunday Assembly speaks, finally, to whom?

We are here for everyone who wants to:

  • Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be 
  • Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other 
  • Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in.

As laudable as that may be, there is little here that really distinguishes the Assembly from, say, the average ambitions of any average go-getter denomination anywhere. Perhaps that is some of the problem accounting for the decline of American Protestantism.

There should be distinctions, starting with Jesus and moving on from there. Yet I see a fretful Protestant mainline church, trying to live inoffensively in America. I don’t think it can be done, not anymore.

As for Sunday Assembly and groups like it, religious language even without the supernatural patina always hints at religion. As soon as one says “I am not religious,” a religion has been defined.

But once defined, well, let’s get it organized.

Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the University of Mary Christian Leadership Center. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.

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