A half-hour before everyone takes a seat, the Sunday morning coffee and doughnuts are producing their desired effect.
Fellowship: Hearty greetings, handshakes and hugs. The chatter gets boisterous as the gathering space fills.
Coffee and doughnuts are a classic element at many a house of worship. This isn’t a church, though. That’s about the last place most of these people want to be. But it’s not anti-church, either.
This assembly is called Kansas City Oasis. Members gather weekly in a way that appears churchlike, but there’s no prayer, no reference to a higher power. Most are atheists or agnostics, although people of faith aren’t excluded.
“We get to celebrate the human experience every week, so welcome,” says Helen Stringer, the group’s executive director, as the room grows quiet.
Some drawn to this Sunday gathering grew up without a religious tradition. Some felt driven from church by harsh dogma and treatment. Some were raised with religion but lost their faith, they say, to reason and science.
That last description fits Stringer, the founder of the group that has been meeting at 11 a.m. Sundays since April.
A wave of such groups is appearing across the country and around the world — a popular one begun in London calls itself Sunday Assembly. Stringer patterned Kansas City’s nonreligious Sunday gatherings after Houston Oasis, begun two years ago by a former pastor. Oasis is described as a combination TED talk and house concert.
Filling a void
Stringer, 33, grew up in a mainstream Protestant household and graduated with a pastoral studies degree from North Central University, a conservative Pentecostal school in Minnesota.
“When I was in college, I thought the best way to help people was through church life, and that the example of Jesus Christ was the ultimate example,” Stringer says.
But she and her husband, Larry, whose family attended an Assemblies of God congregation, were also questioners, then skeptics.
For her, finally, the lack of evidence to support religious beliefs, the conundrum of evil in the world and the contradictions she found in the Bible ate away at her faith.
“It all just unraveled in a matter of three or four years,” she says.
Still, the couple went to church, even worked with the youth group, until as nonbelievers it all felt wrong. They decided their sons, now 4 and 7, should make their own decisions about religion — later. So Larry and Helen Stringer quit.
They had turned away, but they had nothing to turn to.
“The sad part of leaving is you don’t have that weekly connection, you lose the community environment,” says Stringer, who has a professional organizing business.
“There are a lot of people in church pews who don’t believe any of it, but they want to belong,” she says. “It’s their community. And in our culture, church has a monopoly on community.”
Not to be ironic, but Stringer came to an epiphany: “It just dawned on me. ‘Why are we not doing what church does, minus the dogma and exclusion?’”
That idea is exploding, says Chris Stedman, executive director of the Yale Humanist Community and author of “Faitheist.”
Some atheists and humanists have long been activists, targeting issues such as church-state separation and religious extremism. But there is a growing number of Americans who are religious “nones” — they claim no religious affiliation — and they’re helping to change that focus, Stedman says.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” he says. “In the past five or six years, I’ve seen a real shift among the nonreligious toward putting a greater emphasis on community-building.
“And it’s not just about why they’re leaving religion, it’s what are they stepping into,” he says. “This is about being part of a community, finding connections to others, having places to be moved and inspired outside of a religious context.”
The number of Americans who say they are atheists or agnostic remains small, about 6 percent, but growth is rapid among those who say they are religiously unaffiliated, from about 15 percent of adults a few years ago to nearly 20 percent more recently, according to the Pew Research Center. Among adults younger than 30, nearly a third say they are unaffiliated.
Anthony Pinn, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University, says the rise of Sunday gatherings is the result of a “perfect storm” — a foundation of activist atheists and humanists, plus the growing number of religiously unaffiliated young adults, fueled by a surge of clergy who have left the ministry.
“A lot of the leaders of the Sunday gatherings are coming out of that church model,” Pinn says.
At an Oasis gathering in the fall, after Stringer welcomes everyone to the rented loft space in the Crossroads neighborhood, she introduces the acoustic duo, Smythe & Taylor, the house concert part of the proceedings.
The live music varies from week to week and is intended to be upbeat and accessible to a wide audience, which isn’t expected to sing along.
The 70 or so here this day, some dressed in business casual and others in jeans and T-shirts, are seated in rows of chairs. They give the musicians their full attention. Attendance has been as high as 140, and there are 340 people on the group’s email list.
After several selections, member Stacy Leonard comes to the microphone to remind members to sign up for potluck dinners at members’ homes in the Northland, Lee’s Summit and Overland Park. Leonard promises “a lovely variety of food.”
Members also gather regularly for happy-hour events and meet for volunteer activities at Habitat ReStore and other charities.
“It filled a void I didn’t know was there,” says David Ready, 47, of Kansas City, who comes every week, sometimes with his wife and their two children. Volunteers lead activities for youngsters in two rooms next door, one for ages 7 and younger and another for kids 8 to 12.
Ready says he was 11 or 12 when he walked out of church, literally. He was bored and just didn’t want to go anymore.
His parents gave up trying to get him to church. His dad was enamored with the evangelical Christian denomination formerly known as the Worldwide Church of God, but his mom wasn’t as religious.
Later, Ready says, he experimented with paganism, perhaps mostly to irritate his father. He moved from agnostic to atheist and hooked up with the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, a nonprofit.
Ready thought the social trappings of church were only for church, but after trying Oasis he realized he needed that connection with like-minded people.
“We’re all social creatures,” says Ready, who works in electronics recycling. “It’s part of who we are. We’re supposed to have that support system.”
Rob Myers of Olathe noticed his own lost social connection after college. He joined earlier attempts here to gather with other nonreligious folks, but nothing took root the way the weekly Oasis gatherings have, he says.
That the gatherings are weekly is one reason for their success, members say. Growing up, Myers didn’t have a church-going routine. His family celebrated Easter and Christmas but only in secular ways.
Myers, 38, was in high school when, during an English class on Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” a classmate announced that as a Southern Baptist he was upset and offended by the stories, which are known for their bawdiness.
“I had never experienced anything like that,” he says about the student’s reaction. “That was the moment when I realized some people take this religion stuff seriously.”
He decided he wasn’t interested in stridency, religious or nonreligious, and he likes that the Oasis group has a more live-and-let-live attitude. Myers, a computer network engineer, attends the gathering most Sundays, except when there’s a noon Chiefs game.
“It’s a positive, welcoming group of people,” he says.
Learning, growing together
At the Sunday gatherings, the “community moment” is one of the most popular elements. It’s a short, personal reflection, sometimes used to share a member’s path away from religion. But members share various experiences and challenges they have faced.
This week’s moment is a reflection not from a Kansas City member but from Rhonda Eckles, who is launching a new Oasis gathering in Dallas, the third. Kansas City was the second after Houston. Oasis groups are in the works in several other cities.
Eckles, 29, tells of her religious deconversion. She had accepted Jesus at age 4 and was a “crusader for Christ” as a youngster, involved in church activities nearly every day.
But at age 12, she says, her body blossomed, so to speak, and her religious training made her feel ashamed. She tried to hide behind baggy clothes.
“I stopped seeing myself in the mirror,” she says. “On a daily basis I prayed that God would change me.”
Later, Eckles says, she found Oasis and “real love, real understanding and real truth.” Her story receives warm applause, which gives way to the weekly greeting time, when members are asked to stand and introduce themselves to someone they haven’t met. The room bursts with introductions and handshakes.
Another Texan is here for the gathering’s “TED talk” part, Mike Aus, the founder of Houston Oasis. His presentation is an ode to joyfulness and a plea for playfulness throughout life.
Aus cites the example of a Lima, Peru, neighborhood he once visited, a poverty-stricken place that put on the most joyous all-ages street party he had ever seen.
“I realized I never lived in a neighborhood that had that much fun,” he says, laughing.
A question-and-answer session follows his talk, then more music and, just like church, a collection. Oasis is a nonprofit organization, and the money goes to operations, such as rent. Starting today, the gathering will be at 1712 Main St.
Aus was a Christian minister for 20 years before deciding he no longer believed.
“I don’t agree with the dogma of religions,” he says in an interview. “I don’t think there’s a single empirical fact informing any of them. But religion has done some things really well, and one of them is to provide strong communities where people find support.”
Oasis might work even better in staunchly religious areas, Aus says, because the nonreligious in the South and Midwest can feel more isolated than they might on the coasts.
Oasis is meant to be an “oasis of acceptance,” he says, “and a stopping point on the journey to refresh and recharge. Mostly the thrust of the weekly gathering is to hear something new about the world.”
In his Kansas City talk, Aus offered this conclusion: “We’re doing this because it’s fun. It’s fun to get together with great people every week.”
Oasis member Julie Cortes knows just what he means. She grew up in the Jewish tradition, had a bat mitzvah, but she never took it to heart.
“I didn’t see a purpose in it,” says Cortes, 40, of Overland Park. “I didn’t really believe any of the religious stories.”
Later she attended services only on the most important religious holidays and only for family reasons.
“It was to appease my mom and the Jewish guilt that comes along with it,” she says. “I decided I needed to be true to myself. I don’t go anymore.”
Cortes has been married to a Catholic for 10 years, and while she attends Mass on special occasions to be a supportive spouse, the two usually go their separate ways on Sunday mornings. Cortes, a marketing and advertising writer, also participates in Oasis happy hours, potlucks and volunteer activities.
“It’s amazing how many people out there need something like this,” she says.
While nearly all members are self-described freethinkers, humanists, secularists, atheists and agnostics, at least one is a lifelong Christian — still. Fred Heeren of Bonner Springs is currently looking for a home church, but he also attends Kansas City Oasis.
Heeren is a science journalist who writes about early humans, the fossil record and dinosaurs, and that puts him at odds with the evangelical church of his upbringing. But like many from other Christian traditions, he finds no conflict between science and the belief in a supreme being or the teachings of Jesus.
Heeren says he has many atheist friends, and he enjoys the programs at Oasis. He also understands why the nonreligious would be drawn to a weekly gathering.
“If I were an atheist, I would do what they’re doing,” he says. “They have been very accepting of me and of people with other viewpoints. I hardly need to remind them not to do the same thing to Christians that some Christians have done to them.”
Brian Carreno, with a more typical member background, says he also has found acceptance and intellectual stimulation at Oasis. A 24-year-old agnostic, he moved to Kansas City two years ago. He says Oasis has given him something he never got from his conservative Christian church growing up in Arkansas.
“I don’t feel stagnant when I’m going,” Carreno says about Oasis. “I feel like I’m constantly learning. I feel engaged.”