A young and bearded Sanderson Jones has the audience of nearly 200 on their feet, clapping along and singing to “Walking on Sunshine.” For the next hour and a half, there are more songs, a reading, and speakers, such as Pixar animation wizard Daniel McCoy, who talks about "beginnings."
Everyone bows their heads in a moment of silence to contemplate the wonder of life. A collections basket is passed around before the service ends, and then most of the crowd makes for the coffee and cookies.
This is the first-ever meeting of Sunday Assembly, Silicon Valley. It has all the elements of church, but one thing is conspicuously absent - God. Sunday Assembly, which began in London earlier this year, is described by many as an “atheist church.”
But Jones, who co-founded the organization with fellow stand-up comedian Pippa Evans, says it’s more than that.
“We prefer to think of it as a celebration of life,” Jones says. “It's basically all the best bits of church, except with no religion and super awesome pop songs.”
While the organization is less than a year old, there are now at least 35 chapters around the world, including four in California - Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose. The new California chapters are part of the “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour, which the organization planned after getting requests for local chapters from all over the world.
“It's crazy to think at the start of the year, there were zero, and people have reacted so strongly,” Jones says. “It just turns out there are loads of people who aren't being looked after.”
At the first Sunday Assembly, Silicon Valley, service, the audience skewed older-hippie but featured a handful of 20-somethings. Most people had heard about the event online, but not everyone was exactly sure what they were in for.
“Before we kick off, give me a cheer if you know what Sunday Assembly is,” Jones shouts from the stage.
There’s a loud cheer.
“Give me a cheer if you don't!”
An equally loud cheer.
Then Jones launches into a bit about “leisure time renegades” that would be just as fitting for a stand-up routine. The audience loves it.
There's no denying Jones is a charismatic leader, and his stand-up skills definitely shine through. With his hipster glasses, slim-cut suit and long hair and beard, some say he looks a little like Jesus. He says right off the bat that any resemblance is purely coincidental.
Skeptics are likely to wonder if he's in it for money or fame, but one of the underpinning principles of Sunday Assembly is the avoidance of glorifying any one person.
To this end, “Each one is hosted by a different person,” says San Jose chapter organizer Gillian Claus. “We take turns, so it doesn't become about a host, or a minister or a person.”
The organization is entirely nonprofit, according to the website. This event in Silicon Valley, for example, was put on by volunteers and paid for by donations - mostly straight out of the volunteers’ pockets.
Furthermore, each chapter is organized independently, and a charter posted online provides guiding principles, centered on the motto, “Live better. Help often. Wonder more.”
When the service is over, people pour themselves a cup of coffee or cocoa and begin to chat.
Matt Kirshen, a comedian based in Los Angeles, happened to be in the Bay Area for the inaugural Silicon Valley gathering.
“I thought it was a really fun experience. It was nice to have a community event,” Kirshen says. “I think that's something the atheist, or religion-free, community lacks - a coming together, a chance to sing and mingle, and just have a reason to share some time.”
Claus says that's exactly the purpose.
“Were all curious, we're all looking for something,” she says. “Why not get a group of people together, a community where we can volunteer, we can do some good. And it's a good way to meet other people who might be asking the same questions that you are.”
Anna Verwillow, 16, and her mom drove over from Palo Alto.
“A lot of my friends are religious, and so I'm like, I can do that too, but not for religion, just getting together and having some fun with not-religious people,” Anna says.
Her mom Kathryn agrees.
“The fellowship, community, just really neat to be in a room of jolly atheists - it was really fun,” she says.