Wednesday, October 21, 2009

an atmosphere of liberality...

I have been thinking the past few weeks about growth, both in our church and in the larger denomination. The reasons why Unitarian Universalism does not grow are legion and fairly well known. To me the most significant is one that is also inherent-our lack of a unified message. Since this really cannot (and should not) be "fixed" it seems fairly clear that significant growth will never happen.
I am often asked by more evangelical or Catholic relatives and friends why we call ourselves a church at all and to a degree it is a valid question. My answer generally is that when I go to my Unitarian church, I see and feel much the same as I did about my small town midwestern Lutheran church. People put the coffee on, meet and greet each other with warmth and affection, join together in thought, word and deed, and together create a place in which the life of the spirit can be nurtured and acted from.

In yesterday's excerpt from the book, "Boston Unitarianism 1820-1850" was this line which, I think, is a good starting point. The founding generation of Unitarian ministers were described thus:

"It was their office to create an atmosphere rather than to advance a cause, to diffuse a spirit of liberality rather than to promote the interests of a system of thought, whether doctrinal or philosophical. "

Maybe. when it gets down to it, a religious denomination's main function is to "create an atmosphere" and if that is true the question becomes, what kind of air are we breathing today?

We pride ourselves on our liberality but that is not the spirit that many encounter when they walk through the doors of our churches. At best (as I myself have felt in more than one Unitarian Universalist Church) we are more like a bundle of conflicting illiberalites all wrapped up by a feeling of intellectual superiority to other less enlightened souls.

I am blessed and honored to serve a congregation that truly has created "an atmosphere of liberality" and, I am sure many others do as well. Perhaps to the degree that we can promote this spirit congregation by congregation, despite (or because of) our many conflicting theologies or philosophies (and as long as people continue to put the coffee on each Sunday) we can hold on to more people that walk through our doors.

Blessings

6 comments:

fausto said...

"We pride ourselves on our liberality but that is not the spirit that many encounter when they walk through the doors of our churches. At best (as I myself have felt in more than one Unitarian Universalist Church) we are more like a bundle of conflicting illiberalites all wrapped up by a feeling of intellectual superiority to other less enlightened souls."

What a great line! I think this truth is far more evident to outsiders than to ourselves, and explains our failure to grow better than many other diagnoses, including our lack of a unified message. How can resentful arrogance provide spiritual food? Get rid of the self-righteousness, superciliousness, and resentment, and the growth will take care of itself.

Tracie the Red said...

I am curious about the illiberalities. What do those look like? What are some examples of that? I'm not sure I quite understand what you're referring to there.

Kari said...

I wish you were here at the LREDA board meeting. You might just believe that growth will happen, and should! I do, because I feel that I have an ethical obligation to make a space next to me in this beloved faith of mine for the next person who comes in our doors. It might just be the thing that saves them just like it's been the thing that has saved me again and again. To me, we Unitarian Universalists do speak with one voice on one thing, and it's the thing that really matters. We all believe in love. Nothing is more powerful than that.
Blessings!

fausto said...

The illiberalities manifest themselves in all the things we say we are not or we say we are against: we are not Christians, we are not God-believers, we are against racism, we are against Republicans, to name a few common ones. It would be better to define ourselves by what we are for, rather than what we are against, if we would live up to our self-image of inclusive liberality. "We are not Christians" becomes "we find truths in unusual as well as traditional sources"; "we are not God-believers" becomes "we support each person in a personal quest for what is sacred"; "we are against racism" becomes "we affirm human equality"; "we are against Republicans" becomes "we believe our actions must reflect our faith and values". But that would mean we might have to walk the talk and welcome what we might otherwise instinctively try to exclude, and there are some UUs who refuse to go there.

mainiac said...

I agree that the UU message is part of the non growth explanation. But it seems to me that the more fundamental problem is that we are a nation of Christians (nearly 8 in 10) and a nation whose identity is profoundly Christian (try to imagine an avowed atheist being elected dog-catcher, much less president). The Christian denominations that ARE growing are successfully meeting the needs and requirements of their members with strong spiritual “atmospherics”.

After 40 years of intermittent attendance at various Unitarian churches around NE, my observation is that our churches’ atmospherics might be described as a bunch of smart people getting together for spirited conversation - but not a spiritual conversation. Not necessarily a bad formula, but not one for growth either.

Steve Caldwell said...

Boston Unitarian wrote:
-snip-
"The reasons why Unitarian Universalism does not grow are legion and fairly well known. To me the most significant is one that is also inherent-our lack of a unified message."

We may observe shifting "market share" within the multitude of religions in North America.

But the overall picture has been one of religion shrinking over the past two decades.

The lack of Unitarian Universalist growth may simply be a reflection of the shrinking "religion" sector of our economy.