“There is a Pentecost going on among Unitarian Universalists. People are coming alive and beginning to live their lives on fire. Unitarian Universalism is wrestling in a very deep way with what it means to live life every day as if being a Unitarian Universalist can change individual lives and change the world. Unitarian Universalists are finding that their religion is not about going to church but about being the church.”
Our friends at the UUCF discovered a 1968 article published by the UUCF. I’m highlighting certain parts because I’m just blown away … this is a conversation that’s also happening right now, in 2012.
Where Shall We Go From Here? An article by the Rev. Harry Hoehler in the Summer 1968 UU Christian Journal, soon after the release of the UUA Report of the Committee on Goals.
The most serious criticism which could be leveled at the UUA’s Report of the Committee on Goals is that the committee failed to see the mission of Unitarian Universalism as being anything more than the establishment of more and more churches. After two years of study and the expenditure of ten thousand plus dollars, the committee concluded that the long range theological and sociological goals of the religious liberal movement could be summed up by the word growth. Its meager list of recommendations were all concerned with assuring the Association that it will be able to call 500,000 white, middle class, well educated, technically trained suburbanites its own by1980, providing, of course, the UUA does exactly what the Goals Committee suggests. Absent from the report was even an outline of a program of how the UUA might creatively use its funds and resource pool of talent to meet and try to heal some of the wounds of an ailing society. Absent was any vision which could have enabled us to look to goals which transcend the exclusivistic, self-contented, self-congratulatory style of life which permeates our churches. Absent was any sense of what it means in this revolutionary age to be churches in the world responsible to the world’s renewal and betterment. This was the Report’s gravest sin and the source of its irrelevance.
When asked to express my views about the future of the Unitarian Christian Fellowship, I could not help thinking about such an assignment except against the total absence of significant mission which characterizes our denomination. The UCF, it seems to me, possesses a golden opportunity in this period of denominational myopia. The UCF could, if it would, become the radical “underground church” in the Association. It could, if it would, by explicating the concept of Christ as God’s man for others, bear witness to a faith which takes seriously its responsibilities to the world. It could if it would make clear the implications of such a concept for the establishment of a free but genuine servant church in our midst. It could if it would hold high the vision of a church flexible enough to shape and reshape its structures around the moving and varied shapes of mankind’s needs. It could, if it would, become a small example to those individuals and churches in our Association who understand the mission of the church to be more than growth figures, budget evaluations, and the creation of happy suburban ashrams for sophisticated sectarian minds. The UCF could if it would exhibit what it means for an institution in our denomination to take as its mission Christ’s command that it become the gracious neighbor to a needful humanity.
Now in order not to be misunderstood let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that the UCF become a miniature UU Service Committee. What I am suggesting is that it develop a worship life, and educational life, a community life established around the dual concept of gathering regularly to celebrate what we believe God is doing to reconcile our world and of scattering to do what is required of us to make this world of ours a more liveable and human place. Granted many of us would stand on the fringe of such an organization. We would participate in its worship and corporate life only when able; but still it could stand for us as an example of a form which a true servant church might take. Thus I am suggesting that the UCF become more than a loosely knit association of individuals who gather yearly to celebrate past glories and frustrations. I’m suggesting that it adopt some of the structures of a church, not a residential church to be sure, but rather a church of dedicated persons who are committed to performing specific tasks for the renewal and reconstruction of their world and who come together to celebrate that fact and learn from one another.
The UCF could do such things, I believe, if it only would. But to do so, it must stop concerning itself with such rearguard and fruitless battles as the humanist-theist controversy. It must give up its own concern for growth, with hearalding itself to the outside world, with enlarging its political power base within the Association, with making the denomination “Christian “ and respectable. It must ends its reactionary tendencies, that is, its almost unfailing negative response to anything the UUA does. Instead let it do the things it can do best. Let it do the careful theological analysis which apparently the UUA is incapable of doing and discern what it means in our day to be a church in and for the world. Let it select those tasks by which it can demonstrate its style of operation as a group willing to let the world’s need determine its structure, as a group concerned more with healing and redeeming the life about it than it is with its own self-aggrandizement and self-perpetuation .
What the UCF is called to do in these critical times is to become radical for the first time in its existence, to rethink its priorities, to align itself with those groups outside the UUA who have a vision of the church as mission, to sell its headquarters building and use the money received plus its annual dues to sustain the religious life of those Unitarian Christians who are working to alleviate some of the pain of our common life, and who need to gather, reflect upon, clarify and celebrate with one another what it means to heed Christ’s call to become servants in the affairs of men.
“Churches are very risk-averse. They are not places that you normally associate with adventure, or risk, or creativity…a little bit of danger is good for us.”
One of my favorite stories of radical missional church incarnation is from Michael Frost’s book Exiles, about the young adult who had attention deficit disorder and had always found it difficult to sit still in the pews with his family during worship, and so when he became an adult it dawned on him that he really didn’t have to go to worship anymore as he had in the past in the congregational setting, so he went with friends to the lake on Sundays. But he felt a little guilty and he wanted to be spiritually nourished so while he was partying at the lake he asked his friends, most who had not had his church background, if he could take a moment to pray and he asked them if they had anything he could include in his own prayers, and he went on partying. The next Sunday he brought his Bible and took a few minutes to do the same, adding in a brief reading, and then he went on partying. Not taking more than a few minutes at first. But then he and his friends started adding more prayers, and they started doing small acts of service at the lake, cleaning up, towing boats, and then they sat at picnic tables and had bread and juice for communion alongside the burgers and the beer, and wove spiritual issues into their conversations. Still, it was a party; still, his family pestered him to “come back to church.” Imagine such an organic expression of church being seeded intentionally?
from “ReShaping the World: Church in Likeness to a Different God” by Rev. Ron Robinson
“Instead of trying to knock each other down, we (should see) it as an opportunity to cheer each other on.”
by the Rev. Ron Robinson
The prevailing church model today does much good in the world, and will continue to do so. But what I want to leave you with today is that no matter how good the congregation and its people are, and no matter how much it grows in number as well as in vitality, that fewer and fewer percentages of people in the world around the congregation are likely to be attracted to it—though still hungry for spiritual depth and connection and service. The pool, or mission field, of people who seek to be nourished by a congregation, any congregation, will shrink, and the competition by congregations for them will be fierce, cutting across denominational and religious lines as we are already seeing, with the already haves having the upper hand in landing the potential new members.
I believe the mission of the church is at heart about serving, saving, the most vulnerable of our neighbors; and if your neighbors aren’t vulnerable (though I bet they are in many ways; as my wife Bonnie says, the people in the wealthy suburbs have power but don’t know they have needs; the people in our area know they have needs but not that they have power; it is harder work in many ways to get the powerful to know they are in need) and you can’t figure out a way to give yourself away to them then you should move to a different neighborhood. I believe the church should not be growing more vital and healthy when the world around it is dying. I don’t believe the mission of the church is to attract more people to think like us, and lord knows its not the mission of the church to make more people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists, or call themselves Christian either, for example; if that happens as a byproduct of fulfilling our mission, then well and good; but it isn’t why we exist and the more we make it our focus, the more we worry about church even, as an institution and organization, the more we lose sight of our calling to love and shape the world bent out of shape, and the more we will just end up paralyzing the church anyway with anxiety.
Our most basic life process is one of receiving and giving. Taking in, and putting out.
We take in oxygen. We put out carbon dioxide.
You can’t do just one. Try it. Either only inhale, or only exhale, but not the other. I’ll wait.
As a member of a religious community, we too must both take in and give out. Which came first, a friend recently asked, the chicken or the egg?
First? I don’t know. I imagine it depends on the person. But who can remember back that far? Because if you’re doing church right, this isn’t linear, it’s circular. Round and round, giving, receiving. And we find that many times, when we give, we feel we are the ones receiving the greater gift.
Those in the missional church often talk about being gathered and sent. Sometimes, they reverse that – sent and gathered.
We are gathered to strengthen our souls, we are sent out to strengthen the world. That works, reversed, too. And one flows into the other.
Both parts are necessary. We can’t only inhale. We can’t only exhale.
Unitarian Universalism is a deeply missional faith. In Orthodoxy: Its Truths and Errors, Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke wrote:
“We think it possible to have a Church, and even a denomination, organized, not on a creed, but on a purpose of working together. Suppose that the condition of membership was the desire and intention of getting good and doing good. The members of a church are not those who unite in order to partake the Lord’s Supper, but to do the Lord’s work. The Lord’s Supper is their refreshment after working. They come together sometimes to remember his love, and to get strength from him. Let them sit together, express their desires, confess their faults, say what they have been trying to do, where they have failed, where succeeded, and so encourage each other to run with diligence the race set before them.” (419)
Being missional is not just about our ecclesiology. It’s about theology. As Alan Hirsch says, it’s about the very nature of God. God is a sending God.
You don’t have to be a theist for that to work. Sub in your term of choice for that which compels us to do for others. What is larger than ourselves.
Our churches may no longer take the Lord’s Supper in a ritual of bread and wine, but who can deny that we gather together for communion? We receive inspiration, relationship, love. We are strengthened. Our souls are strengthened.
Why? Is it just to have strong souls? I don’t believe so, and I don’t believe that our souls can fully be strengthened just by being happy recipients. It is through exercise that both souls and muscles become stronger. We go out and use these souls; they become more flexible, stronger. We come back together as a church for worship, and we use those strong souls in ministering to each other. So it is not always clear, when we are inhaling, when we are exhaling. Out in the neighborhood, we share juice and bread – is this worship? Inside the church building, we sit with each other during grief – is this service?
We breathe out. We breathe in. Both necessary to be alive.
— Joanna Fontaine Crawford
Liberal theology does not come from liberals thinking about religion, it emerges out of the disciplined process of how we tell these stories and engage those images. This means dealing with not just the stories, images and ideas that we like, but engaging the ones we don’t as well.
One of James Luther Adam’s (20th century liberal theologian) guiding principals for a free faith is a belief in continuing historical revelation. That means approaching the revelation of truth and meaning with both an openness to the future, which most liberals do well, and it also means a continuity with the past. This is what Adams referred to as a sense of length. In my former church we used to say it this way – in our faith the Bible is the beginning but not the end.