There just weren’t enough people. Making a congregation happen basically meant putting on a big show on a regular basis. Somebody needed to book bands, find speakers, set up chairs, pick up snacks. Anne Klaeysen, who was a board member for the New York chapter at the time, told me the same thing. “The core group worked their hearts out, but it wasn’t sustainable.”
In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings—but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.
Beneath the surface were other rifts. Even within the community of nonbelievers were different groups with different priorities: Some ardent atheists wanted to rail against religion, for example, or have heated debates. But at Sunday Assembly, the point wasn’t to put down faith or even to celebrate being faithless, per se—the point of being there was being there, together.
Still, in a city like New York, people have plenty of other options on a Sunday morning. Boot camps. SoulCycle. Brunch. “You’re competing with hundreds of other events at the same time,” Walford said. Getting enough people to show up felt impossible. The chapter officially closed down in early 2016, three years after opening.
These issues didn’t just affect the New York chapter. Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years—from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. The number of chapters is down from 70 three years ago to about 40 this year.
Sustaining any kind of new congregation—indeed, any new group activity at all—is hard work. But religious groups have more tradition, history, and institutional support behind them, and these factors can stand as a kind of safety net behind religious start-ups. “If Sunday Assembly was a Christian community that suddenly had brand recognition, a flock of pastors would come and bring all their skills and experience,” says Sanderson Jones, one of the founders of Sunday Assembly. “You could buy training videos, there’d be conferences you could go to—there are all these different preexisting structures.” But for secular congregations, there are no training videos. There are no “Church planting” experts to help them grow roots. They’re starting from scratch.
Even more challenging than the logistical barriers are the psychological ones. Linda Woodhead, a scholar of religion and culture at Lancaster University in Great Britain, told me that structured communities just aren’t easy to form. “Meeting in a building with the same group of people every week … I don’t think there’s any natural need for that,” she said.