Sanderson Jones has created a new form of congregation: a social technology that supports community integration and personal well-being. With over 70 Sunday Assembly chapters in 8 different countries, his work harnesses the human need for inclusive local gatherings to drive empathy and empower communities trying to better themselves.
The New Idea
Sanderson re-imagines the role of congregation, critically engaging modern society to practice inclusivity and create healthy communities. Present-day life leaves little platforms or occasions for people to connect, gather, and interact randomly and casually. According to research commissioned by the BBC, community life in Britain has weakened substantially over the past 30 years, with the Office for National Statistics finding it to be the loneliest country in Europe. Sanderson founded Sunday Assembly, with his friend and fellow comedian Pippa Evans, to create a new form of congregation: a social technology that supports community integration and personal wellbeing, harnessing the human need for inclusive and local gatherings that drive empathy and empowering communities trying to better themselves and their surroundings.
Sunday Assembly was launched in 2013 when he saw an opportunity to build communities in a similar way to the church but secular and inclusive of those with and without religion. The movement is community-led, equipping volunteers to create occasions for people to share, gather to celebrate life, help others, or seek friendship and help. What started as a local community project in Islington turned into a global movement with over 70 chapters in eight different countries with 5 000 monthly participants. Sanderson and Sunday Assembly have created a new and scalable solution to tackle and counteract the growing challenges of loneliness and isolation by bringing communities together in a simple and creative way.
All Sunday Assemblies are radically inclusive, free, and open for anyone to join. They are launched and run by communities for communities, with the Sunday Assembly team providing the necessary training and guidance on both the format and underlying values. At the core of each Sunday Assembly lie the three principles of ‘live better, help often, and wonder more’. An Assembly consists of shared singing, reading, aspirational talks, moments of reflection and an address, which sums up the day giving a take-home message. When the Assembly ends, people are invited to stay for tea and coffee to chat and socialize. For all those who look for further opportunity to connect with others or seek help on a certain issue - whether it be parenthood, mental health issues or a career change - Sunday Assembly volunteers organize peer-to-peer groups, social activities, and local volunteering opportunities.
As community wellbeing is increasingly recognized as a vital aspect of personal health, Sunday Assembly has helped many suffering from mental ill health or isolation without ever considering them beneficiaries. In contrast to many community or mental health interventions, Sunday Assembly does not require people to self-identify as needing help. As such, Sunday Assembly is already receiving funding from Guy’s and St Thomas’s Foundation - one of the UK’s most prestigious health foundations - as a community led health innovation.
Most recently, housing associations have commissioned Sunday Assembly to bring the innovative and low-cost intervention to the most underserved and socially excluded communities in the UK. At its heart Sunday Assembly is a celebration of life - something every single human has in common with each other. t. It is about bringing people together around this shared gift, making it a scalable, replicable, and low-cost community integration innovation.
The UK’s Office of National Statistics research on national wellbeing has revealed that loneliness is a growing problem in the UK, with one in three admitting that they sometimes feel lonely. Too often, loneliness is assessed in isolation and on a purely individual level, ignoring the fact that personal wellbeing is strongly correlated with community wellbeing. There is general agreement that social capital is an ‘asset’ which has the potential to link and explain factors that influence both health and wellbeing. As the OECD found ‘People who are engaged in social activities tend to be happier, healthier and have a greater sense of purpose of life.’ One large scale international study, from PLOS Medical Journal out of the University of Cambridge showed that over seven years, those with adequate social relationships had a 50 per cent greater survival rate compared with individuals with poor social relationships.
Mirroring Robert Putnam’s research on the decline of social capital, policy makers, public health institutions, and increasingly the world of business are increasingly exploring alternative interventions to foster the growth of social capital to strengthen the wellbeing of communities. However, traditional social technologies such as the church, the market place or even the pub are in decline. With an ever-increasing change in national demographics, migrant populations, and self-selecting segregation, questions are raised about what types of institutions generate social capital without being exclusive or perpetuating social inequalities.
Existing opportunities to engage in gatherings that raise social capital such as running clubs, reading groups or explicit self-help groups, often require certain skills or interests or mandate that participants self-identify as beneficiaries - a premise that limits the effectiveness of these tools to build communities within societies where mental health is often stigmatized. According to a recent report from the Royal College of Physicians, many public services are understaffed, underfunded, and overstretched resulting in long waiting times with some regions lacking specialist services entirely. At the same time, public spending is focused almost entirely on coping with crisis, with only an insignificant investment in prevention.
The shrinking state, rising austerity, and cuts to government provisions, means that reactive care can’t keep up with the demand. The Mental Health Foundation found the determinants of mental health include society (equality vs discrimination, social coherence, education), community (access to open space and housing, isolation, neighborliness), family (structure, intergenerational contact) and individual (lifestyle and attributional factors). In light of these challenges, there is an increasing need for non-medical and community-led interventions to create capacity, harness existing resources, and put communities in control of their own wellbeing.
Sunday Assembly was founded to build a network of self-help communities, empowering citizens to build social capital and strengthen community health for themselves, impacting individuals, families, and society at large. In order to start a movement of value-based (and secular) communities, Sanderson has developed a threefold approach: designing a simple and inclusive social technology that brings people together; empowering communities around the world to launch their own assemblies while protecting its inclusive philosophy; and lastly building partnerships in both public and private institutions to drive research and generate evidence demonstrating the value of community-led interventions as a tool to combat social exclusion and resulting loneliness.
At the core of Sunday Assembly’s strategy lies its simplicity. The meetings on a Sunday were chosen as they mimicked the most common form of congregational gathering in the UK and and because Sundays allow for people to come with open hearts and open minds, not rushing there or back and giving themselves as well as others time to connect, chat or simply be curious. Having established a strong set of values throughout the organisation, Sunday Assembly has assured that wherever in the world people join an assembly, the spirit and structure of the event is the same. To ensure global coherence, he co-created a charter with all chapter leaders that defines its values such as ‘Sunday Assembly is radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs’; ‘Sunday Assembly has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources’; ‘Sunday Assembly won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can’
Sunday Assembly is built on three guiding principles: The first one ‘Live Better’ sums up how Sunday Assembly aims to provide inspiring, thought-provoking, and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead. The second ‘Help Often’ shows how Sunday Assemblies are communities of action, encouraging people to help and support each other; The third ‘Wonder More’ refers to helping people see the bigger picture in life. To appreciate the world in all its wonder and complexity. To wonder about the big questions and to wonder at the marvels of existence.
Sunday Assembly’s impact does not end with the closing of the ceremony. Sanderson knew that to provide vulnerable community members with a genuine safety-net, the community needed to co-create opportunities for people to connect and engage beyond Sunday mornings. Hence, what happens after the assembly is as fundamental to its model as what happens during the assembly: people are invited to stay for coffee, can join a peer-to-peer help group on where people can bring issues that they want help with whether that is s motherhood, depression or weight loss, for instance. Alternatively, they can sign up for activities during the week such as volunteering in the local community. By encouraging the congregation to co-create their own community activities, Sanderson launches a movement of community-self-help.
The second strand of Sunday Assembly’s strategy lies in its scaling and the appreciation and promotion of volunteering and creativity. The scaling strategy decentralizes the growth process ensuring that Sunday Assemblies are driven by local communities for local communities. For many, Sunday Assembly is one of few occasions that allows them to mingle in an environment with no expectations, finding their role in society and a reason to get out of their homes. For others, Sunday Assembly provides a genuine opportunity to be entrepreneurial and start something they can call their own. This gives local participants an opportunity to experience real agency and harnesses the entrepreneurialism of changemakers all over the world, while giving enough guidance and support to protect the fundamental charter of the organization.
To launch a new Assembly, chapter leaders need to recruit a team of 10-15 people who commit to an 8-week online training. New chapters must be accredited by others, meaning that there is a built-in accountability system allowing individual chapters to expand globally. After the initial launch period, the Sunday Assembly team provides ongoing support through monthly webinars for all chapters to connect and share challenges and best practice. To further strengthen these bonds and the global network, Sunday Assembly also holds a yearly conference.
The third strand of Sanderson’s strategy focuses on embedding the social technology of Sunday Assembly into key institutions such as councils, hospitals, and housing associations. Sunday Assembly is recognized as a non-medical, low-cost, independent community health intervention. In order to strengthen research and externally validate their impact, Sanderson is working alongside research institutions and hospitals to create evidence demonstrating the impact on individuals and communities. Dr. Michael E. Price, Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University, conducted a 6-month longitudinal survey finding that Sunday Assembly improved the wellbeing of participants. In addition, Sunday Assembly resulted in participants gaining at least two new confidants as well as increased volunteering activities, further proving its ability to build social capital and combat loneliness and social isolation. Internal analysis by Sunday Assembly found that 88% of attendees feel a greater sense of community, 80% feel greater life satisfaction, and 80% feel happier. As the qualitative and quantitative evidence grows, Sunday Assembly is increasingly being deployed as a community health initiative. Most recently, they have been commissioned by one of the UK’s largest health funder, St. Guy’s and Thomas Hospital, as well as a housing association in East London to bring their model into areas with particularly high levels of loneliness and segregation.
To date, changemakers in over 70 cities around the world have started their own Sunday Assemblies, engaging hundreds of team leaders, and thousands as participants. While the London Sunday Assembly remains the flagship, and serves a centre of best practice, it has been proven that Sunday Assembly’s model can be applied in the most diverse settings, allowing communities to focus on locally relevant issues while staying true to its fundamental principle of inclusivity. The vision is for Sunday Assemblies to reach a critical mass so that the congregations are empowered to deliver services themselves, creating a sustainable community health solution.
Sanderson was born in London with 5 sisters. He first went to boarding school in Brighton before his family moved around from Belgium to the UK. Sanderson did well in school despite struggling undiagnosed ADD and Executive Function deficit - the combination of success and frustration later drove him to create an organisation to help people cope with their own struggles. At school, he was a high achiever, leading the rugby team as captain and the debating team before becoming the captain of the 2nd XV at Bristol University. After graduating, Sanderson lived abroad and working at radio stations, journals and startups. When he returned home he started worked at The Economist including a period in Project Red Stripe, their digital innovation unit. In 2008 he left the Economist to fulfill a long-term dream to become a full time stand-up comedian. Sanderson had always found joy in laughter and found comedy an excellent way to create connections connection and build community.
His first show during the Edinburgh fringe festival was called ‘Another heart-breaking but ultimately life affirming show about death’. Three years later, he sold out the Sydney Opera House. Incredibly, he did this by selling every ticket to the show by hand to get to know his audience. He would then research his audience, incorporating their online lives into his show. The show was called comedysale.com and combined digital creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, receiving a Chortle Award Nomination for Innovation, and a Malcolme Hardee Award Nomination Sanderson enjoyed the freedom not to depend on anyone else and making his own livelihood. At the same time, he realized that he had found a format that could be applied to bring to life another long-term dream of his: To start something which was like church but which everyone could come to. At the heart, he wanted to put something that everyone could celebrate - a celebration of life itself.
In 2011 Sanderson met Pippa Evans as they drove to a comedy gig Bath. While they were chatting, they came to realize that they both shared the same dream: to start a secular congregation, not telling people what to do or believe, or how to live their lives, but helping them to do what they chose-- helping them live life to the fullest. It was then that they defined Sunday Assembly’s values, which still guide the organization today: live better, help often, and wonder more. They launched the first Sunday Assembly in January 2013 in Islington, London. Over 200 people turned up. Soon, people from all over the world got in touch, seeking help in setting up their own congregations. He They went on a tour around the world, launching 28 Assemblies by the end of the year. From then onward Pippa began focussed on her own stand up career, while remaining a part of the London community, and Sanderson carried on as CEO turning an idea into an organisation. There are now 5 staff members helping the 600 volunteers across the globe, making the Sunday Assembly movement happen every day. Sanderson envisioned the Sunday Assembly movement could be to congregation what Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness movement had done for meditation, making it inclusive and available to all.