By Laura Latzko, January 2016 Issue.
What started as a casual conversation between Nate Whitten and Gina Florio during happy hour at Kobalt is now formally known as Sunday Assembly-CenPho.
The Sunday Assembly model, adopted by congregations around the world, is built around the ideals of “live better, help often, wonder more.” And, since September, the CenPho chapter has been meeting for one-hour services on the second Sunday of every month at Stacy’s @ Melrose.
Although Phoenix already had a Sunday Assembly congregation, Whitten and Florio wanted to develop one specifically targeted toward the LGBTQ community, in a space within the “gayborhood.”
According to Whitten, who served as the pastor of a considerably more conservative congregation for seven years, the Sunday Assembly model appeals to individuals who miss certain elements of their churchgoing experience – especially the social aspect – but don’t want to attend a traditional church service.
Whitten describes the CenPho chapter as “the community, the connection and fellowship” without the “telling-you-how-to-live” element and the altar calls.
“Whatever your level of spirituality, it is welcome,” Whitten said. “You’ll never leave our services feeling like you’ve been told what you should believe, but instead you’ll be able to leave feeling like what you believe is fine – and here are tools to implement that belief and make your life better.”
According to Whitten and Florio, the non-denominational services focus more on spirituality than religion or doctrine and aim to satisfy a need for connection that they’ve observed in the LGBTQ community.
“I think people are craving more meaningful conversations, about more meaningful topics,” Florio said. “I think that people who are showing up are at a point in their lives where they are open to new ideas. Maybe they are at a standstill, looking for inspiration as well as connection, belonging and a sense of community.”
With this congregation, Florio and Whitten didn’t want to push any specific doctrine but, instead, strive to offer a space for discussion among LGBT people and straight allies. The result is what Floria describes as “like the congregation aspect of church has had a baby with TED Talks.”
According to Whitten, explaining the Sunday Assembly model can be difficult because many individuals are used to a different model for church services – models where they are told how to behave.
“[Sunday Assembly] takes you out of your comfort zone [and outside] of what you think church is going to be like,” Whitten said. “To me, this is not what I expected, but it’s what I want.”
During the services, Whitten, Florio and guest speakers discuss broader spiritual topics. And, to enhance their lessons, they use a combination of interactive activities, video clips, scientific and academic data.
“That’s the great appeal, the fact that there is no one set of teachings,” Florio said. “It’s a way to just put forth new information, new ways to look at things and new ways to view ourselves.”
During gatherings, Whitten and Florio also provide tools to help people along their spiritual paths.
“Whatever your level of spirituality, it is welcome,” Whitten said.
The services are open to people of all backgrounds and ages (since the bar is closed for the duration), and typically draw between 20 to 25 new and returning attendees each month. And, as the the CenPho chapter continues to grow, Whitten and Floria hope that others will bring in new ideas and take on leadership roles in the all-volunteer congregation.