Sunday Assembly, Atheists, and Unitarian Universalism: The Mission is the Message

Sunday Assembly,  Atheists, and the Importance of Mission

This morning NPR ran a piece on the Sunday Assembly movement. Here’s the link.  Sunday Assembly may be the fastest growing church in the world, but it’s not a church.  It’s a Sunday gathering of Atheists, but it looks like church. It has a talk or a lecture, poetry, art, and as they say “good pop tunes.”  Assemblers (congregants?) gather for a non-worship service, have coffee hour, and do public community service together.  Sound familiar? Sound like some people’s description of Unitarian Universalism?  Yes, it does and it should give Unitarian Universalists cause to reflect on just what Unitarian Universalism is and more importantly what is Unitarian Universalism’s mission?

Sunday Assembly’s basic idea – let’s recreate church without God – is nothing new.   Trying to create church without God is what the American Religious Humanists were doing about one hundred years ago.  The rise of Sunday Assembly reminds me of John Deitrich and the rise of some of America’s first large-scale humanist congregations that he created in Spokane, WA and  Minneapolis, MN. 

Unitarian Universalists who are interested in congregational “growth” or in “growing” Unitarian Universalism might want to look more closely into Sunday Assembly to see how they are inculturating their approach to evangelization, using social media, franchising.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to note that Sunday Assembly was started by two British comedians.  Just as Jon Stewart is a comedian who does the best news program in America, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans are comedians who run a, well, a (non) church. You don’t need a Master of Divinity degree or a job as a “growth consultant” to successfully do a church start. What you need is to understand your culture and be creative enough to plug your ministry into the culture and its needs. Take at look at their crowdfunding video:

What would a similar “growth” website or project look like for Unitarian Universalism? I think its major issue would be not being able to define Unitarian Universalism or its mission.  There are no Sunday Assembly principles or purposes, but their mission comes across clearly: Celebrate Life and Do Good without God.

Note that folks attending and involved with Sunday Assembly are aware of Unitarian Universalism and, as the NPR piece points out, find Unitarian Universalism TOO Spiritual and TOO Religious!

… there have been secular organizations for years, like the Ethical Culture Society, American Atheists, Humanist centers, some nondogmatic Unitarian chapters and organizations fighting for political and social causes. But unlike some of these groups, he says, Sunday Assembly is not out to critique or debunk religion. That approach is what drew TV animator David Hernston, 38, and retiree Valerie Stansfield, 75. “I don’t believe in God, and so going to church, even with Unitarian church, it’s not so explicitly God-y, but there’s still some spirituality that just doesn’t resonate for me at all, so I’ve been hoping for this sort of community experience for a long time,” Hernston says.

I think the old argument in Unitarian Universalism between theists and atheists is continually losing steam.   The younger generation of leadership, both ministerial and lay, within Unitarian Universalism is increasingly less concerned with being a theist or an atheist or any type of hyphenated Unitarian Universalist, such as a UU-Christian or a UU-Humanist or a UU-Buddhist or a UU-Pagan.   The younger generation of Unitarian Universalist religious leaders are interested in being Unitarian Universalists and articulating a Unitarian Universalist theology and a Unitarian Universalist religious tradition.  For Unitarian Universalism to explode the way Sunday Assembly is exploding, the message must be tight, focused, and engaging. It must also be implicitly spiritual.  The Sunday Assembly is specifically Atheist in its orientation.  Unitarian Universalism is not specifically ONLY an atheist “religion.”  Unitarian Universalism needs to be specifically and implicitly spiritual and inclusive while not falling into the nebulous purgatory that is hyphenated UU identity.  I think that as we go forward, the great strength of Unitarian Universalism, and the strength it ultimately has over Sunday Assembly is that it brings together people of different perspectives under one umbrella. All too often we focus on the constituent parts of the umbrella and not the umbrella itself.

It may be easiest to craft this message at a local level, as each faith community clearly articulates its message and mission to its local community.  The ability to do that should result in the type of growth and explosion of awareness of the movement that Sunday Assembly is currently enjoying. The process of doing it will help to define us and our mission more clearly.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Assembly, Atheists, and Unitarian Universalism: The Mission is the Message

  1. Too spiritual? Is UU a church/religion or not? All of us want to grow but we don’t want to water ourselves down to where we become just a coffeehouse gathering and worried that we might be too spiritual. God forbid (pun) that we should use the word “God”, or “Spirit”.

  2. Having just attended an SA here in Las Vegas for the first time today, I did notice the similarities to UU, but the atheism factor while not necessarily a orthodoxy, to use the wor ironically, sheds light on the damage religious dogma has had…. The structure and fellowship community remains, but any God language, even a reading from the Song of Solomon would be out of place here… Because God and Jesus have been used to beat them. I personally am an agnostic pantheistic deistic trinitarian UU…. Depends on which side of the bed I wake up on and how much coffee :). I’m glad that SA exists, but agree with Rev. Tony, UUs need to sharpen our message without excluding any worldview that fits our ideals… Difficult but doable.

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