Sunday Assembly Has It Backwards
I, like many UUs, was both excited and curious to learn about The Sunday Assembly, the latest trend among atheists and agnostics. Have you heard about these British hipster high priests of nonbelief? They've been growing a "congregation" in London that combines popular music and a funky style with thoughtful messages. They are receiving glowing press coverage and have a top notch website. Sounds pretty exciting for an aspiring religious organization.
So on TSA's recent 40 Dates and 40 Nights Roadshow worldwide tour of expansion, I absolutely had to go see their Boston event. And I was in good, if modest, company - half of the 80-person audience consisted of UUs I could personally recognize, or reporters. The event was in a Harvard lecture hall (talk about reaching the masses!) and started off well with a rousing power ballad. However, as the evening wore on the energy started to drag. Readings ran over and speakers meandered. There was no real theme, and transitions were sloppy. Even Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the charismatic leaders, were having a hard time bringing the crowd back. As I walked out, a study group in the next room poked their heads out and said "Is this thing ending soon? It's kinda loud."
The irony is striking. Just as we UUs are looking to think outside the box of our post-war congregational norms, here comes a group with an enviable foothold among the nonreligious who is trying to build... a traditional congregation! UUs are often mentioned in articles about TSA, but no reporter has asked Jones or Evans why they think TSA will you succeed where UUs have not. Because my read is that the reason church lacks appeal to the Millennial generation isn't theological or even political, it's institutional. The structure and feel of church seems outdated, irrelevant, and unable to respond to a changing world. I almost laughed out loud when I heard about The Great Schism incited by TSA's freshly planted group in New York City. Welcome to church, friends! The Alban Institute has some excellent resources on conflict management that you may appreciate...
I realize I'm coming off a little snarky in this post, and the truth is I am thrilled that more media-savvy people with creative ideas are trying to get into the religious organization business. We have huge opportunities and unmet needs among the nonreligious of all ages in this country and I, for one, believe that it's critical for our national wellbeing to locate some spiritual grounding. But do we have to always reinvent the wheel? Must we pretend that no one has ever learned anything about how to create meaningful worship spaces or powerful liturgies or moving sermons? Do we really need to run headlong into the denominational politics that have stymied innovation among UUs and Mainline Protestants?
If worship can never bring your to your knees in revelation of the divine mystery, then what's the point? If your organizational structure is bureaucratic and conflict-prone, then why have it? Turns out these challenges are not easy to overcome, and we UUs have spent decades struggling to figure them out in a way that welcomes diverse theologies (and if you want to know what innovative, high-quality worship looks like in this context, check out The Sanctuary Boston). I wish TSA's leaders the best of luck but, if the experience of our congregations is any example, then they'll soon realize there's no room for mediocre church in America today.
The best thing about TSA is its tagline "live better, help often, wonder more." Brilliant in its crisp simplicity. TSA's leaders would do well to ask themselves "how do we really promote this in the world?" beyond riffing on a sermon sandwich-style service, however snazzy you try to make it (and its subsequent coffee hour). What about small group discussions, life-transition rituals, volunteer service and reflection, and community action for justice? Coupled with meaningful worship, these are keys to the personal and social transformation that religious or reflective spaces seek to create.
So go bigger, Sunday Assembly! I'm not talking world franchise domination, either. Impress me with your new ideas, not just wacky twists on old ones. Don't recreate what isn't working, find something that will help us evolve into a new era of religious participation and spiritual exploration. And hey, don't stop believin'.