The Missional Church and Unitarian Universalism

The Rev. Peter Boullata recently got a lot of well-deserved attention for his articulate, hard-hitting blog post, “The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You.” I was one of the many Unitarian Universalists pumping my fist in the air and saying, “YES! Woot!” And also, “BOOYA” and other thoroughly juvenile expressions of excitement and approval.

Peter has got it so right. So painfully right. Our religious tradition has placed its faith in the individual to determine their own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and mostly failed to insist that there are faith claims made by historical Unitarianism and Universalism to which we are beholden as congregations and as members. Rather than affirming those faith claims and shaping our worship, faith formation, evangelism and social justice around them, we have spent our time and effort inventing a totally definition of religion, squabbling endlessly and comically about how we will grandly allow each other (and our ministers) to talk about it and then peevishly refusing to see why are not taken seriously and why we do not grow.

We have thus far in our post-merger existence as Unitarian Universalists treated our theological legacy with white gloves: as fragile, faded archival material to be handled as lightly as possible and then filed respectfully away in an attic or basement file cabinet, or as historical curiosities to be peered at curiously over the top of our spectacles, smiled fondly over, and left in the church library to be studied by the few UUs who ask for a key to the locked stacks.

We have elevated the voicing of opinion to a sacrament, misinterpreting our first principle of affirming “the inherent worth and dignity of all people” to mean that we are obligated to take every idea seriously and consider every person — no matter how dysfunctional, abusive or destructive –of such value to our communities that we indulge their behaviors long past any other reasonable organization’s willingness to do so.  As a result, our congregations are regularly hijacked by the pre-offended, those I call “perma-victims” and chronic critics who have been led to believe that Unitarian Universalism and the local church are more interested in serving their personal opinions and perpetual woundedness than teaching them how to engage in the mutual deepening and spiritual transformation that leads to love and service.

Now we are in a new era. Many of us who have been railing against Unitarian Universalist terminal uniqueness are thrilled to see lay people, clergy and (most exciting to me) seminarians move beyond the negation-identity that UUs have for so long embraced (“We don’t believe this, we don’t believe in that”) and confronting Unitarian Universalism’s bizarre, misinformed, irrational and willfully ignorant allergy to Christianity (see, in fact, Tony Lorenzen’s interesting take on this in his recent blog post here) that has led to a petulant refusal to participate in the ecumenical community.

I ardently hope that I have made a personal contribution to more UUs growing acceptance of our current identity and location in the American religious landscape as a creative, eclectic but still culturally Protestant denomination. We are at the farthest left edge of the Protestant Reformation heritage. Our form of governance derives from the Puritans and has not changed significantly for over 350 years. Our ways of training and calling ministers are Protestant. Our liturgical tradition is unmistakably Protestant (at least in the vast majority of our viable congregations), and our associational structure, denominational staff structure and understanding of authority and responsibility have so much more in common with Protestant traditions than with any other religious tradition that it is ridiculous to claim that we are in any meaningful way a hybrid of the best of world religions. We are not, we never have been, and in this era of closer examination of the problem of white Anglo hegemony, cultural appropriation and reductionist, simplistic treatments of  world religions, we should abandon all claims to be practicing small-u world religion universalism.

And now all this buzz about mission. What does mission mean to Unitarian Universalists as one religious movement among many who are beginning to wake up to the very real possibility of their non-existence within a few decades?

Peter Boullata has sounded one important alarm: mission cannot be based on what he calls “institutionalized narcissism,” or the continued insistence that religion is at its best and most appealing when you get to make it up yourself.  That affirmation has to end, and I pray that the current crop of new ministers will work with their congregations (and frankly, new Unitarian Universalists who haven’t been thoroughly indoctrinated in this puerile delusion) to quash it for once and for all. I look forward to the day when no one defines UUism as “That religion where you get to believe whatever you want” but teaches that spiritual freedom and the right of conscience are the starting point for serious theological study and spiritual growth, not the comfortable end point of religious meaning.  “Oh, thank [deity of choice] I found this place. I’m done now. I’m HOME among other people who also don’t have to believe things that I find morally or intellectually questionable or just plain dumb.”

We are not home when we have found a religious community that respects our inherent worth and dignity and invites us to develop a personally meaningful theology in conversation with the best of our classical theological tradition and the insights from the sciences and contemporary fields of study. We are rather at a base camp, equipping ourselves for a climb. What we have found is not a “family” and a “hearth fire,” but a group of fellow climbers. It is time to retire cozy, sentimentalized imagery for what we do as religious communities.  The family metaphor, for instance, creates a bizarre disconnect for the way that a huge number of people experience family, perpetuates the idea of spiritual community as a kind of social club for people “just like me,” and puts the minister in the role of Mommy or Daddy whose job it is to keep all the children happy.

The missional church cannot generate its energy from the sighs of relief exhaled by its members who are welcomed into it as a place of refuge from “icky ole religion.” Nor can it be a place where people slide “safe” into home base and stay there for the rest of their church life, with grass stains on their pants and a sense of elation for having made the run. The church’s responsibility is to help such individuals get up off the dirt, brush themselves off, have any injuries tended to, and sent back out on the field, and then eventually out of the ballpark altogether.

The great unspoken embarrassment of many of our leaders today is that many Unitarian Universalists are so out of touch with contemporary religious movements that their well-rehearsed grievances against “organized religion” or even “traditional religion” are laughably inaccurate. Things have changed so much since most UUs paid close attention to the non-evangelical conservative religious landscape in America (if indeed they ever did) that anti-religious Unitarian Universalists now sound like so many Rip Van Winkels, having fallen asleep around 1971 and stomping around in 2012 insisting that they have an informed opinion. They are impossible to deal with, refusing to be budged from their irrational prejudices and insistently clinging to their right to insult a wide variety of theological positions and faith communities based on shallow scholarship and total lack of experience with the people they denigrate. These committed curmudgeons are keeping Unitarian Universalism out of right relation with whole populations of human beings. Their casual habit and group sport of degrading the tenderest desires of people’s hearts is terrifying to newcomers, as it should be. Congregations that fail to grow should look first to this issue. The open disgust and mockery that so many Unitarian Universalists express regarding religious beliefs held by the majority of ordinary Americans is the black mold in our association.  If it is not eradicated soon, I will be only too happy to see Unitarian Universalism die in my lifetime.

Social justice efforts that come out of such religiously toxic environments are not properly called social justice at all, which connotes a foundation of mutuality such as Dr. King named. It is political action organized out of a church and as big a noise as it makes or a big an effect as it ever has, it deserves to be regarded with suspicion as the product of a deeply hypocritical people.

The missional church does not exist to endlessly consider and react to the opinions of its members, knowing that to be nothing more than institutional navel-gazing.  It is permission-giving, ministers to the health of the congregation, adapts to change, encourages creativity in leadership, makes learning and opportunities for service easily available to all ages,  and moves forward. It draws people into community for the purpose of  being changed and challenged by what they encounter together through worship, learning and service, and then asks them to bring their changed selves into everywhere they are in the world.

The missional church says, “It is not enough for you to come to Sunday service, sit in your pew with your friends, chit chat about the sermon (focusing on whether you personally liked it or not, because that’s not the point of any sermon), criticize or praise the music, drink some coffee and then go home, satisfied that you have been a good churchman or woman. We will die if we continue to accept that mode of participation as satisfactory. It worked for many decades because the Church was an esteemed institution in America and all it needed to survive was for men and women who wanted to be associated with the idea of goodness, justice and service to show up on Sundays shiny and well-dressed and mingle with others who also wanted to be publicly identified as upstanding citizens of the town.”

Today the church is an outsider institution, as it should always have been. It exists to question cultural norms, to help us want the right things and to hunger and thirst for justice, to make us uncomfortable with the gap between our professed ideals and our actions. It exists to claim us, to shake us, to demand of us, and to make us new people — brothers and sisters of one another, lovers of the world, workers on behalf of the Kingdom of Equals, and the kind of people that others are so drawn to that they can’t help but ask, “Wow, how did you get trained to be such an amazing human being?”

“My church is training me,” we would respond. “It is a lot of inner work, a lot of thinking and reflecting and talking with people about how to be, and it’s expensive. I give my church a lot of my time and my money. But it really is working a miracle in my life, which feels amazingly freer, richer, more meaningful, deep and hopeful now than it did before I devoted myself to religious community and practice. If you’re interested I’d love you to be my guest for a Sunday service.”

Thank your for listening, and thank you for caring. PeaceBang blog turned seven years old a few days ago and it heartens me more than I can possibly express that we have been able to have these conversations in the blogosphere for that long. May they bear good fruit.

This post is dedicated to the following friends and colleagues who have most recently contributed the most to my thinking on this subject: Tony Lorenzen, Peter Boullata, Roger Butts, Scott Wells, James Estes, Derek Parker, the lay leaders I am privileged to work with in my own church (especially Sue Robinson), Hank Peirce, Stefan Jonasson (there’s a “puerile” in there just for you!) and Joanna Fontaine Crawford.

58 Replies to “The Missional Church and Unitarian Universalism”

  1. Jon:

    I don’t think it is very productive of dialogue to identify people as “the problem”. It also doesn’t seem to me to be consistent with most positive religious messages.

    Whether you like it or not, humanism is a major part of UU history, and includes many UUs today.

    It seems highly unlikely that a positive message for UUism would not include that legacy.

    From an earlier response of the blog owner to one of your previous posts, I think she is at variance with your perspective.

    Humanist bashing does not represent progress over Christian bashing. In fact, let’s stop bashing altogether.


    Tim Bartik

  2. The problem with the way many UUs respond to particular faith claims is that they hear them as exclusive, and then react by saying, “I won’t allow [my congregation][the whole denomination] to promote or even utter those propositions, because I personally disagree with them, and they make me feel excluded”. I think that reaction is antithetical to our authentic tradition, which affirmed the individual’s personal discernment of religious truth, but also required individual authority to be subordinated to the collective discernment of the covenanted community. The function of the covenant was to inhibit and moderate idiosyncratic personal demands, to place personal needs below the needs and health of the community as a whole, and to protect against errors in individual judgment by holding up the collective communal understanding as a benchmark for personal exploration. Until very recently, our congregations were free to frankly assert particular faith claims, and frequently did so even in the explicit language of their covenants, but they also allowed room for personal dissent within the constraints of the community covenant. In recent decades, however, this practical and salutary function of the covenant in subordinating personal to collective discernment has largely been lost, so that any specific faith propositions of any sort can no longer withstand the personal criticism of what may be only an idiosyncratic few. Additionally, the opportunity for communal witness to reliably guide personal faith formation has largely been lost, so that there is no effective safeguard against mistaken or toxic personal discernment.

    I would like to see the focus shift, not back to a time when only one set of faith propositions was normative, but forward to a model where several different models of faith and practice are affirmatively upheld and promoted, without being susceptible to critics who are indignant because “that’s not me”. I would suggest that some of these models that have authentically arisen at different points in the history of our denomination(s) would be a Unitarianism that honors Jesus as the ideal human being and a model for living our own lives, a Universalism that affirms the Crucifixion and Resurrection as a metaphor for the proposition that God’s unconditional love extends to all humanity, a world-religions focus that sees the deepest truths and surest principles as those that are apprehended and expressed variously in the widest variety of cultures and faiths, and a Religious Humanism focus that celebrates the value of human achievement and potential. I’m sure other people might propose other orientations as well. I think it would be possible and authentic for UUism as a denomination and UU congregations as locally covenanted communities to uphold and promote each of these particular faith orientations with depth, rigor and integrity, without denying the validity of any of the others and without offending any individuals whom those particular disciplines did not satisfy.

    Really, the only religious orientation that we currently honor that a new model like this would no longer satisfy is the one that says, “It’s all about me, not about you, not about us, not about what we can still cherish from where we’ve been. And it needs to be about me, or I will shut you up and drive you out.” But I for one think that making a collective decision to no longer honor that viewpoint would be a very good thing.

  3. All of this harks back to the great Western Conference Problem of 1886 when the “Western” conference refused to express its purpose as either Christian or Theistic and placed itself upon an ethical only basis. In retrospect, this has been very damaging and is still being fought by a minority in a very minority religion.

    The Unitarian: a monthly magazine of liberal Christianity, Volume 1
    edited by Jabez Thomas Sunderland, Brooke Herford, Frederick B. Mott

    See page 142

  4. Jon says:
    January 9, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Stephen says: “I consider myself a Buddhist, a Humanist and Non-Theist, &c.”
    Ok, that is not a Unitarian (one God) or Universalist (all are eventually redeemed / saved), hence the problem with UUism today.

    Dear Jon: 😉 My statement was simply to say that I consider Unitarian Universalism to have transcended its historical roots. What was once “God is One” seems to say to me today that “We are One,” which is certainly consistent with the idea of interdependence and “Universal Salvation,” for me is saying that I and all other beings have the ability to “save” ourselves. I have most certainly found UU-ism to be “salvific,” particularly in community/communion with others.

    I note that Islam forbid music, singing and such during its earliest history, yet today it has taken root in many cultures where such “meditative” accoutrements are common – the Sufis, for instance. Islam, as a “world” religion has adapted. The Buddha warned against making statues (earliest representations were of “foot prints”), yet the influence of the West and the innate need of some people for a visible representation on which to focus, have changed the face of Buddhist practice.

    Surely Unitarian Universalism has enough room in its tent for those who define it as “One God not Three” and “Universal Salvation – No Hell” and those non-fundamentalist UU’s who see a less narrow translation of our faith. (Please note I am NOT using the term “fundamentalist” in a pejorative way.)

    Dear Rev. Weinstein: You state, from a place of kindness: “Thank you for writing, Stephen. You come to UUism from a place of hurt and woundedness. I came as a child with no such history. ” I believe we all carry various wounds of one sort or another. I can assure you that I had worked through my issues with those who self identify as Christian long before I encountered Unitarian Universalism. I simply felt it necessary to give some back ground on me. If any good came from my bad experience it can be seen in the interfaith work I do through UU-ism and Rissho Kosei-kai (the UUA’s longtime partner in the Buddhist tradition.) I bring with me all my past experiences, good and not so good, in hopes that they are a source from which to help others.

    As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m much more interested in how we transcend our differences through mutual respect, honest dialogue and working together. I like living under a big tent. [Given that I never said that the ‘big tent” concept of UUism was illegitimate in the first place, I didn’t find it worthwhile getting into a conversation about it. I don’t find it to be productive to have to defend points that I never made in the first place. – PB]



  5. Stephen, just to try and clarify – my problem is that words have meanings and religions have certain basic beliefs otherwise they fail to be religions.

    “What was once “God is One” seems to say to me today that “We are One,” which is certainly consistent with the idea of interdependence and “Universal Salvation,” for me is saying that I and all other beings have the ability to “save” ourselves. I have most certainly found UU-ism to be “salvific,” particularly in community/communion with others.”

    We are One…what? Humanity? Universal Soul/Spirit? As in Vedanta?
    What happened to God” “Unitarianism is a Christian theological movement, named for its understanding of God as one person,..” Wiki
    Save ourselves ….from what? How? Any consideration of soul?
    “…George de Benneville in America, taught that God would grant all human beings salvation. Those in America teaching this became known as the Universalists.[3]” Wiki

    If there is no underlying Unitarian or Universalist theology that informs those questions then the words have no meaning in practice. A self help group or other philosophy, Buddhism, are the proper avenues…not Unitarianism. If UUism is just a place to have a political discusstion or protest, to address secular issues then it is no longer a religion.

    I consider myself more Unitarian than Universalist,. Sure, there is room for various views of God, but I think there must be a basic level of agreement (a no-creed is a creed, 7 Principles are a creed etc.) in One source of all (call it God, World Soul etc.). A Buddhist is a Buddhist…an atheist is an atheist…a humanist is a humanist…a pagan is a pagan…a Unitarian or a Unitarian Univesalist must mean something base on those words. Like I said, maybe the UUA should simply resolve the issue by changing its name and dropping the pretense of being Unitarian and/or Universalist.

    Just my opinion and why UUism has lost any attraction for me.

  6. Being a UU who more closely identifies with Humanism and who does not believe in a supernatural supreme “being”, I am more comfortable of thinking of the Unitarian part of UU as the source of our lives, the “creator” as in those who came before us, so basically the original genetic material that we have come from, no matter what it’s orginal origin. One source- you call it God, I call it the primary DNA. Whatever, I feel its very similar to our traditional Unitarian roots. As far as the Universalist, all life on this earth shares this basic centerpiece of life, we all share the same ultimate fate, which is physical death. What happens after is pure supposition as no one has been dead to the point of signficant nervous system decompostion and been brought back.
    So I have no cognitive dissonance in being UU with humanist and atheist indentification.
    I read earlier about the panic some atheists may have and can understand it. Atheism is still the least acceptable attribute that a politcal candidate can have, a last “acceptable” prejudice. And to have some suggestion that another formerly welcoming venue could be gone, and to be told, not matter how gently, they may no longer be welcomed, that’s just disconcerting, no matter how stable one might be.

  7. The saddest thing about this series of posts is that nowhere in it do I say that atheists and Humanists should be unwelcome. I discuss a number of issues — primarily focusing on the dysfunctional emotional culture in our congregations. The three posts I devoted to this subject were long and complex, and yet without exception, every atheist commenter focused on one paragraph (where I locate UUism historically and culturally — NOT theologically — at the extreme left of the Reformation tradition) and fixated on it as a place to locate their panic and anger. Everything else that I wrote about UUism’s theological diversity — including my own personal spiritual eclecticism– was ignored. My larger points about our unkind ways of interacting was ignored. I see these comments as examples of exactly what Tony Lorenzen is talking about when he writes about “aversion addiction” and co-dependency in our denomination. Our conversations about religious maturity are constantly hijacked by those who cannot hear anything beyond their own fear and woundedness. They consistently obsess over one remark that they hear as rejecting of their perspective and draw the conversation away from the common experience and to themselves. In thus keeping UUism “safe” for themselves, they abdicate responsibility for improving the experience for others, and especially newcomers. And, as usual, comments contributed by such individuals reveal a distressing habits of presuming to know the mind of others and misinterpreting history and theological tradition to suit their agenda. This reminds me a bit of when I started writing about covenant several years ago and hysterical UUs insisted that I could not define it the way I did. It did not matter that I am a scholar of the covenant tradition who was writing my doctoral dissertation on the subject, it mattered that they were personally uncomfortable with my ideas. Unitarian Universalist claims to be the intellectuals of the religious world seem more embarrassing to me with every passing year. We are not, and have not been for a long time.

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