Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I go to the Sunday Assembly

The Sunday Assembly is a humanist organization which runs church-like meetings, minus the religion part.  It's a growing movement (28 assemblies exist today, 100 will exist by the end of the year), so it holds some interest to me.  What are they like?  We decided to find out empirically!  With a few friends from BASS, I organized an outing to a Sunday Assembly.

I thought the service was short and punchy (but I grew up with Catholic services, which are the opposite).  When it started, we immediately jumped into singing pop songs, with lyrics shown on a screen.  "Life is a Highway" and "Superstition" were first.  Following this, we had some very brief presentations by various members of the assembly, a guest speaker, and even more pop songs.

The Sunday Assembly's motto is "Live Better,  Help Often and Wonder More."  So the guest speaker came to talk about wonder.  He had a powerpoint, with videos of cellular motion and millions of gallaxies.  He spoke briefly about why we have wonder, but my impression was that the primary purpose was to evoke wonder rather than discuss it intellectually.

The assembly was diverse in ages.  But it was also predominantly white, which is more striking when you compare to the demographics of the city it's in.

One person in our group really liked it, but most of us didn't care for it.  For me a major sticking point is the singing.  The problem is, I like a very narrow range of music (like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails) and I actively dislike pop.  And I'm not too fond of singing either.  Singing pop songs in a group is wonderful for people who like it, but it really isn't for me.

I feel similarly about wonder.  Wonder is great for people who like it, but personally I'm not into it. Yes, even though I'm a scientist, deal with it.  Overall, I confirmed my prior belief that the Sunday Assembly was a perfectly fine organization, but not something I'd personally enjoy.

I thought the Sunday Assembly might be pretty similar to the Unitarian Universalist Church.  Both are humanist groups that try to adapt Christian traditions.  My boyfriend grew up in a Unitarian Universalist Church, and offers the following perspective:
The Sunday Assembly meeting was rather less like a Unitarian Universalist service than I had expected. A UU service is very much like a Protestant church service. It is run by a minister who wears a special outfit. It opens with a benediction by the pastor, the congregation may recite a statement of principles, and the chalice is lit (this part is unique to UU's). There may be a call-and-response or readings from some sacred text or other. At various points the choir sings alone, and at other points the congregation sings too. The songs are often Christian hymns that have been edited to get rid of the stuff about Jesus and God, or they may be from other religious traditions. The minister gives a sermon, and then there's more songs/readings, and then there's a parting invocation by the minister and the chalice is put out. Everything is full of ritual and vague spirituality.

The Sunday Assembly felt very different. The group sang a bunch of songs together, but they were all pop songs and we were singing along to the original track. There was no symbolic act like lighting or putting out the chalice and the person running it didn't have a special outfit to symbolize the occasion. Instead of a sermon, there was a PowerPoint presentation by a guest speaker. The (not very good) PowerPoint was on the subject of "wonder," which was the closest thing at the event to the vague spirituality of a UU church.
If you're interested in seeing what the Sunday Assembly is like, I also recommend this video on youtube.