Sunday Assembly: A church for the unchurched

In Grand Rapids, it’s not unusual to be asked, upon first meeting someone, “Where do you go to church?” For an increasing number of people throughout the United States, and even here in Grand Rapids, the answer to that question is, “I don’t.”
In West Michigan in general, and Grand Rapids in particular, it’s not unusual to be asked, upon first meeting someone, “Where do you go to church?” For an increasing number of people throughout the United States, and even here in Grand Rapids, the answer to that question is, “I don’t.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the "Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.”

The center further reports that six percent of the country's population identifies as non-believers. While this may seem an insignificant percentage, that number represents 13 million adults in the United States. Thirteen million people who don’t believe in God…and some of them are in traditionally conservative and religious communities like ours.

But moving away from church and traditional religion has its downside. The sense of community and mutual care present in many churches can be lost when a person leaves religion behind.

That’s where Sunday Assembly comes in. It’s been called the church without God, but, members say, it’s more than that. It’s an opportunity to recapture a sense of belonging, community and companionship without the need to adhere to a certain set of beliefs.

Sunday Assembly began in London when two stand-up comedians (yes, really) decided they wanted to create something like church but without the religious component. In 2013, the first Sunday Assembly attracted 300 people. Since then, the movement has spread throughout the world, including Grand Rapids.

Although Sunday Assembly has no dogma or creed, it does have principles it follows, and Sunday Assembly Everywhere, an international organization, states it:
  • "Is 100 percent celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.
  • Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.
  • Has no deity.
  • Is radically inclusive.
  • Is free to attend, not-for-profit and volunteer run.
  • Has a community mission. We will be a force for good.
  • Is independent.
  • Is here to stay. The Sunday Assembly will make the world a better place.
  • Won’t tell you how to live but will help you do it as well as you can.
  • Is a celebration of the one life we know we have."
In Grand Rapids, Sunday Assembly began when a group of the unchurched heard about it on NPR and decided to see if they could bring it to their city. Lena Riemersma and Jamie Coop-Klamer headed up the committee and were assisted by Dave Stein, Melissa Freeman and Lou Wislocki.

“It was a lot of work," says Riemersma. "The effort took time, energy and resources, but we were determined to succeed. We had guidance from Sunday Assembly Everywhere, an international organization, but most of the planning was in our hands. The closest Sunday Assembly to us was in Detroit, where it is housed at the Birmingham Temple, a congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism. When we visited one of their services, we were energized by their exuberance and enthusiasm. That’s the spirit we wanted to bring to Grand Rapids.”

The first Sunday Assembly was held at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters on Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids on January 17. Expecting a small group, the Sunday Assemblers were amazed when the venue was filled to capacity with those who showed up to participate in what has been called “a global movement for wonder and good.”

Speaking at the first gathering was Jeremiah Bannister, a former Christian pastor who now hosts PaleoRadio, a radio show aired in Grand Rapids at WPRR 95.3 FM. He and his wife have four children and are struggling with the cancer diagnosis of their older daughter.

Songs were sung ("Imagine" by John Lennon and "I Can See Clearly Now," among others), poetry was shared, and the energy was off the charts. Over coffee and doughnuts after the service, new friends connected and old friends chatted. It was a good beginning for what members expect will continue with February’s Sunday Assembly on February 21 at 758 Wealthy Street, SE. Sunday Assembly plans to meet in Grand Rapids monthly.

“We pride ourselves on being ‘radically inclusive,'" Riemersma says. "We are not anti-Christian or anti any other religion, and we welcome anyone whatever their beliefs. As our motto says, we want to ‘live better, help often and wonder more.’”

“Part of our goal is to encourage our members to do good in the community," she continues. "We have taken on Arbor Circle, particularly in their work with homeless youth, as our cause, and we will be working with them going forward.”

The group also meets for informal conversations over coffee; these meetups are announced on the website. Riemersma, the mother of a 13-year-old, says there are plans for youth programming going forward.

Grand Rapids is also home to the Center for Inquiry (formerly the Freethought Society), which has a mission “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” They host biweekly meetings with speakers like Susan Jacoby (best-selling author of such books as “Free Thinkers: A History of American Secularism” and “The Age of American Unreason”); Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry Magazine; Mark Reimers, professor of Neuroscience at MSU; Holly Huber, Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists; and other scientists, philosophers and authors.

The Center for Inquiry also sponsors weekly Skeptics in the Pub and Living without Religion groups, children’s events, a yearly family retreat, service projects and other activities. Grand Rapids is the Michigan base for CFI, which also operates in Detroit, Kalamazoo and other communities, as well as on college campuses throughout the state. For more information about CFI Michigan, visit their website

For more information on Sunday Assembly, check out their Facebook page or their website.

Photos courtesy of Sunday Assembly.

Jane Whittington is a freelance writer and editor in Grand Rapids. When she's not writing, she likes to go to New York City, volunteer and spoil her grandchildren.