Wouldn't U Like 2 b a UU, tuu?
Updated: Jan 1, 2019
"These things shall be . . .
A loftier race than e’er the world hath known, nation with nation unarmed shall live as comrades free, new arts shall bloom and every life a song shall be when all the earth is paradise," (Singing the Living Tradition, #138)
What is this? Some kind of poetic Unitarian Universalist utopian vision of the world as it might be? Or could be?
Hmm, Pie in the sky, right? Hmm. I like pie. Do you like pie?
Are we “The Church of NO?"
When I read Kris Wilcox’s article in UU World (Fall, 2016) I was struck with her description of many U.U. churches as “detox programs” where damaged people limp in to be comforted and healed of their previous religious experiences, where the rhetoric is against religion, and the people hide away to be safe from the threat of oppressive religious influences all around them. It felt familiar somehow . . . and just a bit uncomfortable.
With the exception of my three seminary years in Denver, I have lived in or near Birmingham all my life. I grew up attending United Methodist and Christian Science Sunday schools back to back every week. I went to John Carroll – Catholic high school, and simultaneously I followed a boyfriend to a charismatic fundamentalist church for a time. So I have been around the Christian block a few times, and I sport some spiritual scars to show for it.
So I get why this place is a refuge for so many of us. I understand what a remarkable discovery it has been for many of us in this room to find a church where you can say what you really think, and ask all the scary questions you like, and disagree with other people out loud, and regardless of what deity you believe in, or if you don’t believe in deities at all, you are welcome here, and safe from judgment and worse.
Hallelujah, Siblings & Kindred! Can I get an “AMEN!”?
Attracting new folk
This haven we’ve created must look pretty good. Visitors have to work some to find us, but they keep showing up, almost every week. And many come back again, because there is such a joy in freedom from tyranny of thought and belief. If you’ve been out there, living and breathing the narrow, limited, pressured religious atmosphere that we all encounter at work, at school (yes, in public schools), in the markets, in government offices, at the gym and the park, then of course, walking into this place among all of us lovely people can feel so liberating.
So with very little effort or expense, we attract people in sufficient numbers to maintain our church at a certain level of attendance, membership, financial contribution, activity and project participation. At first glance that probably looks OK. We’re kind of managing to replace the number of people who have died, or moved away, or slipped away for other reasons. We’ve been in a slight downward trend for several years, but we’ve got a very large U.U. 101 class meeting after church today, so maybe things are picking up.
SO why talk about Unitarian Universalist evangelism? Aren’t we doing OK? We don’t really need to worry about growing do we?
Do we need more U.U.s in here?
Why do I keep throwing out that uncomfortable word, “EVANGELISM”? Maybe that’s just my Methodism showing. 'Cause we don’t really do that here – evangelize. We don’t talk about our private religious lives out there. We don’t force our philosophical and theological views on other people. We come here to get away from that kind of distressing, disruptive, offensive behavior.
Fair enough. I get that. Evangelism has been given a bad name by Christians going all the way back to the Roman Emperor, Constantine who “converted” the entire empire to Christianity and made the church into an institution. So you should know that I have a serious problem with what I call, “Mercenary Evangelism.” Here’s what it sounds like:
1) “We need more members so we can pay for ______ (sound system, more staff, building improvements, etc.)”
2) “We need enough families coming to keep our R.E. program going, and our children’s choir.”
3) “We need more volunteers to do the church work because we're all so tired.”
I imagine most of us have been on the receiving end of this kind of evangelism – come to our church to help us have and do what we want or need. Some of us on the inside may also have voiced those same desires for more members to meet current church needs. That doesn’t make anyone bad; it reveals a level of anxiety about the state of the congregation. It’s just not a sound foundation for a program of evangelism.
So DO we need more U.U.s in here?
Are we allowed to need more members in our community or to want them, or is that always corrupt? Certainly there are benefits to having more folk in our midst: more people means more resources, more volunteers, more talent, more energy, more ideas, more money. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging these advantages or with wanting them but it doesn’t need to be the primary motivation for evangelism.
However, there is another answer to the question, “Do we need more U.U.s here?”
Some of us may feel deep down like saying, “No,” or at least, “not very many.”
I have heard the following said by members of this church from time to time:
“I don’t want to envision what we might become. I like this church just the way it is.”
“I don’t want lots of new people. They might change things too much.”
“I don’t want our church to grow very much. We might get too big and then we wouldn’t all know each other anymore.”
What is that about? Why wouldn’t we want to grow, and grow as much as possible?
Hmm. Earlier in my life, I served four small United Methodist churches over a period of 11 years, all white and mostly elderly parishioners. At one, a woman who volunteered at the local polling station told me she thought the poll tax should be reinstated so black people wouldn’t come in and vote the way their ministers told them to. At another, a man told me that black people shouldn’t attend our church because they worshiped differently and wouldn’t like our services. A scare went through another of my churches when Massachusetts first legalized same-sex marriage. The board chairman called demanding to know if I would be performing gay marriages in his church, which would be an abomination in his opinion.
Oh, wait . . . can you feel it? Ah, it's that lovely, warm glow of righteous indignation? Oh what terrible, mean, nasty, ugly, ignorant, fanatical, narrow-minded bigots! How could they think and say such things? Oh, I am so glad we don’t think like that here! There’s nothing narrow-minded about us is there? Don’t you love liberal self-righteousness?
Well, those people, my former parishioners, were frightened. They were frightened of the changes happening around them, and they wanted their churches to be shelters from those changes. Sure, the racism and homophobia is abhorrent, but fear always brings out the worst in folk. They were afraid that people different from themselves would come into their churches and take over and change everything.
Are we really so different? Ask yourself this question: what kind of people would I be uncomfortable sitting next to in church? Who might come in and “take over” and change things? Maybe atheists and agnostics fear deists of various flavors. A large number of pagans might ask us to dance naked outdoors, while too many Buddhists might lead us to sit on yoga mats and meditate for uncomfortably long periods of time.
After my first few months here, I observed that the only religious tradition that seemed unwelcome was Christianity. As a Christian, I felt suspect here. I might be allowed to bring Jesus in with me, but he must sit in the back and be quiet. I just kept telling people that I am a “Liberal skeptical Panentheist Christian Unitarian Universalist with Humanist and Earth-centered sympathies.” Over time, folk relaxed a bit and decided I was not a spy come to infiltrate and undermine the congregation.
So let’s just be honest and admit to ourselves that the idea of growth makes some of us nervous. Some of us are afraid of the changes growth will bring, of loss of familiarity, of the unknown ahead. This fear is normal and natural, and all church communities looking at evangelism and growth experience these struggles. So what might motivate us to move forward in spite of our fears, and engage in more active evangelism?
The U.U. Prophetic Voice
Let’s talk about something called, “The Prophetic Voice.” Now don’t confuse prophecy with fortune-telling. Prophecy is an ancient concept but is still relevant today. Rather than “fore-telling,” it is the practice of “forth-telling.” Prophets declare to all who will listen important truths insofar as they can discern them. Frequently credited to divine sources, prophecy may be heard and seen in speech, writing, song, visual art, and theater. Such are determined to be prophetic because they express certain basic and undeniable truths. Think of Dr King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This was prophetic – a declaration of how the world should be and can be. So is there is a Unitarian Universalist Prophetic Voice? I know, I know, how can a herd of cats like us possibly agree on any set of truths which we might collectively, prophetically declare to the world?
What about our Seven Principles?
Remember the song they teach the kids in RE? (sung to the tune, "Doe, a Deer.")
"1, each person is worthwhile; 2 be kind in all you do; 3 We help each other grow; 4 and search for what is true; 5 All people get a vote; 6 Build a just and peaceful world; 7 We take care of the earth, and that’ll bring us back to me and U.U . . ."
These principles constitute a consensus of conviction among the thousands of Unitarian Universalist across the globe. These are steps to transforming the world into something like paradise. They are guides to becoming our best, fully human selves, to interacting with each other with compassion and justice, to building communities which nourish and nurture full humanity and can work to improve the world around us.
Doesn’t our world need improving? How much suffering there is, how much pain and loss, how much cruelty and chaos. Do we Unitarian Universalists have anything to say about it? Once we have discovered the refuge from spiritual and religious tyranny, and found our tribe, and done some resting and healing, some learning and searching, some relationship building, all of which is vitally important, what then?
Do we need more U.U.s out there?
There are churches and religious centers all around us. We are one religious community in a sea of such communities. What do we have to offer? What difference can we make? What shall we declare with our Prophetic Voice?
If we want to grow, believing that we can benefit from growth, even if we’re scared of it, too, then what more do we have to offer those who will flock to our door. They will come for the safe haven, for the liberation, and they will stay for a while, but for the long haul, there must be more.
There must be meaning and purpose! While we are all on our individual spiritual journeys seeking truth, we need a unifying purpose for which we can work together to help transform our broader community. Believe me that while some out there look with suspicion upon us in here, hungry people are always glad to get fed, and vulnerable people will always need advocacy and protection, and victims will welcome more folk fighting for justice, and our prophetic voice will be heard through our presence and our deeds.
U.U. Evangelism – the whole enchilada!
I am convinced that a good, well-planned and executed program of practical evangelism will bring new people here in greater numbers. So that is step one: devising the PLAN.
Step two is preparing to receive these new folk with tremendous hospitality, and helping them find their place here. We can all help the Membership Committee with that joyful task.
Step three is sharing our Prophetic Voice and our U.U. message about transforming the world, and find ways to include new folk in living out that purpose both inside and outside these walls.
There are people out there who are Unitarian Universalist and just don’t know it. They need us, and we need them, and the world needs all of us!
A final word; Wonder
Allow me to share some of Kris Wilcox's words:
"Wonder may in fact be the center of our prophetic message. It strikes me as a word uniquely suited to our purpose. It is a noun synonymous with amazement and awe, and describes both attitude toward and experience of remarkable phenomena in our world. It is also a verb expressing a state of questioning, a hallmark of our tradition. We U.U.s learn to comfortably and ably slip back and forth from wondering at the extraordinary to wondering about it, and we so often find that amazement leads to questioning, and the answers lead back to amazement.
That is the heart of our Prophetic message: We CAN make the seven principles a reality and live in a paradise of WONDER!"
Pie in the sky? Why not? I like pie. Don’t we all like pie?
Please open your hymnals to #138 and let's sing, "These things shall be."