Monday, September 23, 2013

The "Atheist Church"

Check out this article about London's Atheist Church -- the Sunday Assembly.

Leave aside for a moment all your questions and comments about the purported necessity of having an exclusively atheist theological mix.  Notice what they are doing for an aggressive growth model:  it's a franchise model.

A recent article by the newly-minted Sunday Assembly Everywhere (SAE) network outlines the SA affiliation process: Interested groups must apply for a Sunday Assembly charter and license agreement, “which will give you the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.” The next step is to form a legal entity, probably an “unincorporated association… which allows you to have a bank account.” And then, training from SA HQ, either in the UK or via “webinars and telecals worldwide.” If all goes well, aspiring founders will be invited to sign “A SAE Stage I Charter. This is a ‘provisional license,’ which gets you running your Sunday Assembly using our tried-and-tested formats and themes.” This is followed by a peer-review process and evaluation by other SA chapters. Nailed it? A “Stage II Charter” will be issued, granting full SAE membership. The model is inspired by TEDx.

In general we congregationalist types are not particularly impressed with anything that relies on "Tried-and-tested-formats-and-themes."  And a "peer review process and evaluation by other [SA] chapters" would probably be unwelcome.

On the other hand, our Congregational Growth Consultant, Tandi Rogers is sputtering with a mild rage over congregations that don't keep current email addresses for congregational leaders up to date with the UUA.
The Sunday Assembly's founders, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones
Anybody up for a discussion about mimetic rivalry? 

Let's review: Mimetic Rivalry describes a relationship in which the other party in the relationship is both your rival and your model.  

Unitarian Universalism has been in a mimetic rivalry with the evangelical, non-denominational megachurch since Brent Smith first visited Willow Creek back in the late 1980's. It seemed for them that great contemporary worship, great programming for all ages and stages, organizational competence (the microphones worked) equalled rapid growth.  We both 'hated' them and wanted to be like them.   They were rivals and they were models. 

We set about trying to emulate them in many ways.  At the same time, we also explained to ourselves that the real reason why they were so successful (and we were not) was that their theology appealed to people who liked conforming to authoritarian top-down structures.  Freedom-loving, hip, and smart people who would want to be Unitarian Universalists were not attracted to that sort of thing.  

The Sunday Assembly franchises may test our theory.  Here's a body that uses the megachurch model (actually goes beyond it to a franchise model) and may be attracting those freedom-loving, hip and smart people whom we thought would never fall for such a top-down undemocratic structure.  And they are not very different theologically from us; in fact, the content of their humanism is right in our wheelhouse.

There's enough irony in this situation to make your compass point in the wrong direction.  

Now we have two mimetic rivals.  

I predict that some people will say that the Sunday Assemblies are successful because they have not diluted their humanism, as we have, with all sorts of metaphorical theisms.  

Others will point to their superior brand management as the key factor. 

Still others will dismiss them as being yet another manifestation of consumerism in spirituality.  (Consumerism in ecclesiological discussions refers often to other people wanting something that you don't think that they should want.)

I'll be blunt here: I think that our 'rivals' succeed when they change lives and equip people to live more connected and responsible lives.  I think Unitarian Universalism succeeds and fails on exactly the same grounds.

It is possible that creating a "community of like-minded people" doesn't help people change, but actually shelters them in a place of resistance to a changing world.  But that is what some people need, at least for a while.  

And all of us, the evangelical megachurch, these new Sunday Assemblies and the UU congregation that may be your spiritual home, can easily fall into that temptation.

1 comment:

d. breeden said...

Spot on! The "atheist church" idea has excited several folks at First Unitarian in Minneapolis, a congregation historically out as mostly humanist. So, as the minister there, I've been following this story, and chatted with Sanderson Jones, one of the founders. (I'm trying to convince them to visit Minneapolis.) "Atheist church" grabs the media chatter, but it's the positive message that people are keying into, and why the "franchise" is growing. Positive message. Each Sunday a celebration people want to be part of. They aren't arguing about theism on Sunday mornings . . . or even talking about it.