(RNS) — Steve Phelps gave up on God years in the past.
However the former Baptist music director and his spouse nonetheless consider in tithing. So, each month, they make an automatic donation to maintain their residence congregation going.
Phelps is a board member of the Nashville Sunday Meeting, a congregation of nonbelievers that has religion within the energy of group. The group gathers month-to-month to sing collectively, give testimonies and even hear a secular model of a sermon.
Till COVID-19 hit, there was even a potluck.
“You must style our casseroles,” mentioned Phelps.
For the previous eight years, nonbelievers like Phelps have met regularly in about 70 cities in america and Europe. They’re engaged in an ongoing experiment that primarily asks, “Are you able to construct a sustainable group that provides all of the social advantages of a church however with out God?”
The reply will not be but clear, particularly in a time when belief in establishments is on the decline and COVID-19 makes it tough to satisfy in particular person. Nonetheless, Phelps and a gaggle of different volunteers from assemblies across the nation are decided to present it a go.
Ross Llewallyn is one among them. A software program engineer who serves as president of Sunday Meeting Atlanta, Llewallyn grew up in a household that he described as “frivolously Methodist.” They went to church collectively, and he frolicked at Methodist youth camps throughout the summer time, experiences he seems to be again on fondly.
However the perception in God didn’t stick.
When Llewallyn heard concerning the Sunday Meeting, the brainchild of a pair of atheist British comedians who missed the human aspect of church, he was drawn to it. He enjoys the sense of group in addition to the Sunday Meeting’s motto: Stay higher, assist usually, surprise extra.
Placing that phrase into follow takes a variety of work. Somebody has to boost cash to placed on occasions, discover a house to satisfy, arrange small teams, make the espresso and deal with the handfuls of logistical duties wanted to drag group conferences off.
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For Llewallyn, the hassle is price it.
“After I’m feeling the very best about Sunday Meeting, what I take into consideration is — this didn’t must occur,” he mentioned. “Entropy says that truly, we needs to be all again at residence, studying books or watching Netflix, as an alternative of being collectively. We’re not gathered collectively to consider a theme, or sing songs about that theme or plant bushes collectively.”
Llewallyn is a board member for Sunday Meeting America, which lately spun off from the United Kingdom-based Sunday Meeting organization. The group is busy drafting a mission assertion and different institutional duties, corresponding to tips on how to create a consultant governance construction. They’ve additionally been engaged on a job description for a nationwide help particular person to assist native assemblies with planning and logistics, in addition to getting new assemblies off the bottom.
Within the quick time period, Llewallyn is serving within the help function for the Sunday Meeting in Las Vegas, which is doing a little planning about its future. As a facilitator, he’s asking members of that meeting two fundamental questions: “What would you like your meeting to be?” and “Do you’ve gotten the capability to drag that off?”
One of many challenges of the method is that meeting leaders can’t attraction to spiritual or non secular authority with a view to inspire folks to get entangled. Every thing is voluntary.
“We are able to’t promise you heaven and we are able to’t threaten you with hell,” mentioned Richard Treitel, a board member of Sunday Meeting Silicon Valley.
Ben Zeller, affiliate professor of faith at Lake Forest Faculty within the Chicago suburbs, mentioned the Sunday Meeting is dealing with the identical challenges new non secular actions face — how do you flip the imaginative and prescient of a charismatic founder into an establishment?
New non secular teams usually have a way of urgency, believing their actions have everlasting or transcendent significance.
“It’s simpler to arrange when you suppose your founder is the messiah,” mentioned Zeller.
Some godless actions have discovered a technique to construct sustainable establishments. For instance, the Moral Society of St. Louis started assembly within the Eighteen Eighties and nonetheless stays a viable congregation. A few of that’s luck and a few of that is because of having a powerful establishment, mentioned James Croft, the society’s chief.
The Moral Society’s founder, the son of a distinguished rabbi, imagined constructing a group that was open to everybody and would promote human dignity and social change for the higher. That imaginative and prescient got here alongside at a time when many rich folks had been investing in philanthropy, and so from the start, the society had sources to work with.
Their founder, Felix Adler, was additionally intentional about constructing an establishment, mentioned Croft.
“He was charismatic and had a really clear thought of what he needed to create,” in line with Croft.
Croft mentioned Adler realized most of the advantages of organized faith come from the organized half, not the non secular half. Being a part of a value-based group is sweet for you, he mentioned.
“In the event you consider that, then constructing a group is an integral part of what you might be doing,” Croft mentioned. “It’s not an added further.”
Group-building has proved a problem within the time of COVID for Sunday Assemblies and non secular teams alike, as a result of each rely so closely on volunteer involvement and are constructed round in-person gatherings.
Treitel, a Silicon Valley software program engineer, mentioned he usually compares notes along with his spouse, a music director at a Presbyterian church, and finds they face comparable challenges.
Like many different assemblies, the Silicon Valley group has struggled throughout COVID, as a result of they’ll’t meet collectively. At its peak, the Sunday Meeting motion claimed about 70 congregations. That quantity has dwindled to lower than half that now, with many teams folding or turning into inactive.
Whereas he loves the singing at month-to-month conferences — and getting an opportunity to bop because the music performs — what Treitel appreciates most are the friendships he has made within the teams. These friendships, his spouse tells him, have made him a happier particular person.
Zoom, he mentioned, simply doesn’t minimize it.
Treitel mentioned he wonders at instances if the Silicon Valley group can survive longterm. Some members have fallen away throughout COVID, whereas others are so busy they don’t have time or vitality to put money into organization-building.
Nonetheless, he’s not keen to surrender.
There are all the time loads of church buildings, he mentioned. If one closes, one other one will open as a substitute. Not so for the Sunday Meeting.
“There’s just one different Sunday Meeting inside 100 miles of right here,” he mentioned. “I really feel like there may be want for one — or that there rattling nicely must be one.”