Summary: A speaker will read excerpts from a text the community finds important, weaving the quotes in with experiences from their life or stories.

Tags: Large, Investment, maybe Experimental?

Purpose: This creates common knowledge around the subject of the reading. Everyone knows, and everyone knows everyone else knows. A small number of lessons, repeated regularly, also ensures that newcomers learn the things the community wants everyone to know.

Materials: Copies of the text to hand out to readers. If you do this regularly, it may be nice to have a bunch of copies of a book that contains the things readings will be from.

Announcement Text: “We’ll have a reading from Rationality: From AI to Zombies, a text that drew many of us into the rationality community. Today there will be a reading of _____, read by speaker ______. The general format will be a mix of short speeches on the topics of the reading and songs sung in a group, followed by a potluck luncheon.”

Description: Wait for the audience to take their seats, introduce your speaker if necessary, and then let them speak. This text is written as though there’s one speaker, but I’d strongly recommend getting multiple speakers if you can.

In some detail:

  1. Write the program
    1. Choose the readings. 
    2. Write speech notes for each reading, leaving slots for announcements and songs. Have a clear cue to connect them: “...and now we’ll turn to page twelve and sing this song.”
    3. Community announcements
    4. Songs.
  2. Find speakers and songleaders
    1. A few days to a week before the meetup, ask around in your community. It helps to ask specific people directly, but you can also pair the announcement with “we’d like to have extra speakers for parts of this. Please get in touch if you’re interested in helping!”
    2. For speakers without much skill or practice, make sure they have copies of what they’re saying ahead of time. 
    3. If time allows, have each person rehearse their part at least once or twice. People usually sound much smoother the second time.
  3. Follow the program
    1. You’re the one who announces when it’s time to start.
    2. A key role is tracking where we are in the program, and calling for the next step.
    3. A short connective speech, even as simple as “thank you John Smith so much for that last reading. I enjoyed it. In a moment, we’ll have the next reading by Jane Davis,” can give people enough time to get up or to sit down. This can also help put each piece in context.
    4. You are also the one who announces when we’re done, and it’s time to move to the potluck. 

That is not enough detail to run it (see the Not In A Box Warning) but it’s the checklist I’d use to run this.

What are the Community Announcements? They're a chance to mention any updates within your community that should be common knowledge. Births, deaths, and marriages were almost always included, but so were notable injuries or misfortunes and notable successes and triumphs. Knowing who was sick means knowing who could use a hand with yardwork or a home cooked meal.

Variations: One very easy, very obvious variation is to skip the songs. One or maybe as many as three readings, closely connected and read directly, is doable by one person without much preparation. Adding music requires an extra skill set, and one that degrades poorly. A bad speaker is boring and annoying to listen to, while a mediocre speaker is merely okay. A bad musician meanwhile can leave your attendees holding their hands over their ears. So skip the music.

A second variation is to just have the reading, with no asides or speeches linking this to daily life. That also makes things easier! I would advise against asking people to read the reading in advance so you can skip straight to discussion; it seems like it should work, but in my experience a couple people won’t have done the reading and then you have to either explain it to them or let the topic drift to what everyone does know about. If your group does their reading, you might do the reading ahead of time, though I like the common knowledge here.

A third variation is, of course, to skip the potluck. I didn’t even give any details there, but “How To Potluck” is (from a meetup perspective, if not a LessWrong perspective) perhaps worth a post of its own. The short version is, everyone tries to bring enough for more people than they’re bringing in their party, and not everyone brings chips, and then when a few people can’t bring something there’s still more than enough to go around.

You can of course do this without music, without a reading, and without food, though at that point I think you’ve created a pure social meetup. Skipping the songs and potluck however gives you a reading group, and that's a solid and reliable meetup to run. 

Notes: As written, this is a sermon with a different core text. I’m most familiar with small protestant churches (Community and Congregational, mostly) and am actually a pretty big fan of the format, but if you’ve attended one of the numerous other variations on a religious sermon you can likely see the arc I’m using. I’ve found it interesting to go to the meetings of other faiths and most are pretty comfortable with a stranger showing up for a service if you want to see what I’m talking about though; and if you’ve only ever been to one church, there may be some things you think of as universal that aren’t.

I tagged this as “maybe experimental?” because the two foundations of this setup are really well tested. We have a lot of history on what Abrahamic religious meetings look like. We also have a tradition in the Rationalist community of Secular Solstice, which is the most Church Service shaped thing I have ever seen which wasn’t a church service. Just, like, combine the two and it should be fine. This is practically just a reading and discussion group, and those are common. I think this is fine. Still, uh, note that I don't think anyone's tried combining them this overtly and casually. 

I have mixed thoughts about what weekly renditions of the Secular Solstice song canon would do to ones experience of Big Annual Solstice. On the one hand, you are also creating common knowledge of how to sing them. On the other, repetition will likely make them feel less Special.

Also, please if you do this check your source text for errors, replication crisis induced or otherwise created. The hilarious failure mode here is for a Rationalist community to get stuck repeating old incorrect text because it's traditional, and by "hilarious" I mean "very ironic."

Not In A Box Warning: So, I’ve been writing a Meetups In A Box sequence about how to run specific kinds of meetup activities. This post uses the same format, but isn’t in that sequence. Why not? In brief, because I cannot put this in a box. I haven’t figured out how to give your community a skilled orator with a regular supply of lessons on rationalist texts. This is very obviously outlined based on what pastors do, and being a pastor is a part time job. 

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