Growing Up May Be The Only Thing That Leads To Growth

What assumptions do we make when newcomers join us on Sunday mornings? I want to lay down a few of those assumptions, and then blow them sky high, PeaceBang-style. It’s time we had this talk, if you haven’t been having it among yourselves already.

We assume that people visit us because they are interested in joining a church – and we hope they will want to join our church.

Pure fantasy. We need to get over this.  The only people I have ever seen walk into a church with the intention of “joining it” are parents with small children who are there because their little ones are starting to ask big questions and they heard somewhere that the Unitarian Universalists are good at offering RE for people who want room to explore, ask questions, express doubts, and to learn about the wisdom of a variety of traditions (except the Christian tradition. We never come right out and say this, but our excruciating discomfort with Christianity remains perhaps our greatest stumbling block in attracting new people. Here’s my version of what goes on in many of our visitors’ minds – based on dozens and dozens of conversations over the years:
“How can this ‘open and affirming’ religious community show such hostility, ignorance and immaturity to the broad, diverse movement called Christianity? These people bill themselves as the free-thinkers and intellectuals? Why, all I had to do was scratch the surface to find that many of them are actually just bitter refugees from Christianity and are still obsessed with its shortcomings. I am outta here!”)

That was a digression. But an important one.

So, people with children often do want to join a church. They want it for their children.  And a few other assorted souls may come wanting to join a church, but fewer and fewer nowadays.

People do not attend a church service because they are interested in joining a church. They attend a church service because they are looking for something deep. They are seeking. They are searching. They are in need.

What do they need?

I think they need to experience something. They need to be able to experience something in that space that confirms for them the thing they have been struggling with as a lone individual. I wouldn’t dare try to articulate exactly what that “thing” is: it has something to do with what Jesus called “life more abundant.” It has something to do with being sick and tired of trying to navigate life by themselves with only their own opinions and thoughts to guide them. It has something to do with being ready to get over themselves and to be drawn into a greater and more profound version of life.  It has something to do with being vulnerable, even if they may not consciously know it (many of them do). Whatever the “thing” is, exactly, the need for it became so great that it drew them out of their comfort zone and into a strange building to sit with a group of total strangers – can you imagine such courage?

You may be able to, as you may be one of the people who have joined a church in the “post-church-obligation” era. Good, because you may be able to help the rest of us understand the contemporary seeker’s perspective.

And what happens when that seeker shows up? What do we give them? A red coffee cup and a stack of pamphlets? A series of friendly queries over coffee hour? Questions about where they live, what they “do” and whether or not they’re married?  An invitation to help with the bake sale?

There is nothing wrong at all about those friendly queries or invitations. They reveal the social spirit of the community, and a community’s social spirit is a good thing, and even a selling point for some seekers.

But not, I contend, for many. Not anymore. Not these days. These are new days. These are different times. These are not the days when a hearty offering of potlucks, social events and smiling people wrapped around some pretty good preaching and a decent Sunday School were all your church needed to keep  visitors coming back.

While the United States has become a much less churched place than it was forty years ago, I believe (and research bears me out) that it has become a country that takes spiritual questions much more seriously. I believe that if today’s seekers do not immediately experience a church community as a group of people who take spiritual questions seriously, they will not return. And why should they? Because we’re cool? Because we march in the right parades and support social justice causes? Because we agree with them that the Catholic Church/Bible Belt is hopelessly corrupt, and we’re willing to stand around and mock the religious right in the most spiteful language at our gatherings?

Coolness and a commitment to liberal social activism and a shared hatred toward Christian fundamentalists may be the fly paper that grabs and attracts a certain number of new Unitarian Universalists (or liberal Christians) to congregations, but we need to ask ourselves: do we want to be communities of people gathered around these purposes?  What kind of maturity level are we then establishing at the core of our communities? How mature are we now? Have we even stopped to consider that a huge part of our evangelism problem is the wide chasm between the wisdom and maturity of our proclaimed faith commitments and the immaturity and shallowness that characterize the life of too many of our congregations?

Oh, and by the way, and this is important: Unitarian Universalists tend to be quite uncool, and devoted to making our congregations havens for those with bad social skills. It may be time to talk openly about the fact that UUs seem to have a preferential option for the socially inept. I was popular in high school. Sometimes I think that it is this fact more than my Christian theological orientation that leaves me at such odds with the majority UU population I encounter at our larger denominational gatherings.

Another digression. And an important one. I leave you to make the obvious comments about how what I’ve just said influences the culture of our youth programming.

Back on topic:

How many of us assume that the seekers to our congregations are looking for a place to flee from traditional Christianity or seeking an alternative to religion? TOO MANY.

And that’s a serious problem, too.  No one seeks anything from a primarily negative context. They do not act on negations: “I will walk out the door today and into that building actively looking for the non-presence of something I disliked about my old religious community, or the religious communities I see around me.” No one does that, yet we often greet them in just that spirit. It is in that spirit that we try to bond with newcomers (“Oh, you must be fleeing the Bad Religious People! That’s what we DO here!”), and it is in that spirit that we dictate the narrative for why they came and found us.  UUs around the country (less so in New England, but certainly here, too) still insist on identifying as the “Not That” community. We begin from negation, rejection and damage and we project those black holes of missional purpose onto most newcomers who find us. The ones who stay resonate with that narrative of rejection and damage, and again I ask you: how healthy a congregation can that approach ultimately build?

Deeply spiritual people who want a religious life without dogma but also without a constant haranguing about what “other religions” (ie, mostly Christian neighbors) do wrong, simply leave. They know they’ve been had by false advertising.  They say to themselves, “This is a denomination that looks great on paper but feels lousy in practice.”

I hope this is an offensive and upsetting post that will jar some of you into defensive inner rantings (but please, until you have processed what I am saying for some time, don’t rant here). It may particularly gall you that I am lumping together liberal social justice commitments with “coolness”* and hatred toward Christian fundamentalism  as the things that UUs unconsciously believe will endear them to seekers (notice that I do not say Muslim fundamentalists or Jewish fundamentalists – these religious fundamentalisms, while certainly not appreciated by UUs, are not derided with the same visceral venom with which we freely rip apart fundamentalist – and even conservative – Christians), but here’s why I did:

I think that when Unitarian Universalist congregations believe that their social justice identity will be the major drawing point for newcomers, they are barking up the wrong tree. While I may be drawn to a congregation for a one-time engagement with an issue (to join them in a community justice campaign of some sort or another), that doesn’t mean that I am interested in “joining a church,” and after connecting with them for a short time, I will go my way.  I will not want to attend a dinner, join the choir, or attend movie nights. I will not suddenly develop an interest in attending Sunday morning worship.  I will appreciate the UUs for having organized the peaceful protest at the local health clinic, or whatever the event was, and I will think of them fondly as those people who showed up and did something awesome in my community.

But I will not necessarily have any accompanying need for spiritual community. That was their assumption, not my need.

However, if I have come to a church service on a Sunday morning, I am specifically looking for an experience that confirms my spiritual longings, that connects me with people who also long for a deeper life, who ask big and serious questions, and who take the inner life absolutely seriously. I will be looking for a minister who has serious, learned and heartfelt reflections on serious topics. I will want to feel as though I am among deep and reverent people. I will want to feel touched and awakened as a deep being who takes the project of life seriously.

I expect these people to be serious spiritual seekers whose activism comes out of their deeper lives. If I want passionate activists with no particular spiritual quality or identity, I can join up with dozens of organizations.

Of course I want this deep spiritual community to be friendly, funny, helpful, loving and even fun. But when I look around, I will want to see a really interesting variety of human beings getting deep and serious together, and getting closer and more intimate with each other’s lives as a result. That’s what I want to see. That’s what I want to feel. When I walk through the door, I don’t want to be rushed at like a new pledge at a sorority gathering or greeted in the manner of the time-share salesman at the informational session for potential buyers. I don’t want to feel like I walked into a pep rally for a high school football team or looked over with hungry eyes as though I’m the only attractive gal at a singles bar (a look which I am told is especially given to same-sex couples or people of color in our liberal religious congregations).  If I’m a mother coming in with my three little children, I don’t want to hear how great it is that the church is attracting “so many new families” – I’m not there to increase the church’s “young family” demographic, but to find a serious community of spiritual nurture: are you that community? What if I’m thinking about a divorce? Is this a community that will help me through that? How about if my children go live with their father? Will I still be so welcome? Will you still have a big smile for me?  Will you still assume that we have so much in common and that I fit right into your demographic?

I want to see a community of people taking seriously the spiritual life. Figuring out what life demands of them. Considering the time-honored theological questions in conversation with tradition and the insights of science and the contemporary humanities. Holding themselves accountable for getting better at all their relationships. Being people I’m impressed by and want to become more like. Setting an example by their sincere efforts to embody the things they say they believe in. Being a community I’d be proud to be allowed to join if they thought I was ready, willing and able to.

Wow, wouldn’t THAT be a different way to look at things? How do we help new participants in the lives of our communities discern whether or not they should join, should that time come? Or are we too busy trying to get more people to sign the book?

How sad that we have come to look at spiritual seekers in demographic terms, or as potential pledges. Do we now understand the connection between the shallowness of our vision and practices and our terrible record or visitor retention?

As the hypothetical visitor, what I want to see are people who are serious about spiritual questions (yes, I’m aware that I sound like a broken record here). That is the first thing we should talk about when you greet me. Not what I do for work, not how much better I think your church is than the conservative evangelical church I stumbled into last week (I’m unchurched, so please don’t assume I know the difference between a UU, a UCC, an ELCA, and the LDS – and don’t explain who you are by defining what you don’t believe). Not how great it is that I’m “young” or gay or black or Latino, and isn’t it exciting that we have a Spanish-language version of the hymnal. Stop examining me and sizing me up for a committee and let me see you. Let us see each other.

What I want to see is people who are deeper and more attentive than the usual crowd at the coffee shop. I want to see evidence that this place is important to them, that it challenges them, and that there are no “insiders” and “outsiders” but one people with a common desire to live deeply in an ethic of service, learning and love.  If I see a group of people jockeying for power and status, or all I hear about is money or social outings or how great “we” are or get asked a bunch of questions that are thinly-disguised inquiries into my political opinions, social status, educational status or marital status, I will know that I am not in a serious and deep spiritual environment but at a cocktail party that happens to have a sermon in the middle of it.

Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals, as well as all mainline Protestant churches need to stop driving the narrative around why seekers come to their church. They need to stop assuming that such people come to join a church (especially if they are long-time members whose reasons for joining a church are firmly fixed in a historical context that is dead and gone), but to learn to listen, to ask different kinds of questions than are asked anywhere else, and to see every new person as an opportunity to examine their own depth and maturity level. Every new person should present an occasion for soul-searching:

“Am I treating my church life with the seriousness it requires? Am I offering shallow welcomes that are about me the hostess, and them the visitor, and failing to remember that we are all visitors in the house of God (the Highest)?  Am I assuming anything about this person, and if so, am I inflicting my assumptions on them? What do I have to say about my own spiritual practices that might speak to this person where they are? Do I even have any spiritual practices that hold me accountable to the values we profess to hold here? If not, why not? Can I steer this newcomer toward a small group ministry experience, formal or informal, that will give them an opportunity to articulate the needs and desires that brought them to our door, or do I assume that an invitation to an upcoming social gathering will meet that need to integrate with the life of the community? What programs does my congregation offer for an ongoing discernment and reflection about the spiritual dimension of life? If not any, why not? What else are we here for? How can I help support such an offering, and have I participated in one myself?”

I’ve said an awful lot here, and I hope you will refrain from commenting until you have put at least a tiny portion of the time I’ve spent thinking about this and articulating these ideas into your own response.

Also this: Churches are obsessed with opinion, marketing and trying to find out what kind of “product” their members and newcomers want.  That’s shallow and avoidant. It’s all part of dictating the narrative,  controlling and diminishing and trying to manage what the Spirit is doing in people’s lives through the institution of the church.  All this panic I hear from UUs about GROWTH, “How are we going to GROW?” That’s not the question. The question is, “How are we going to start growing up?”

I will be looking forward to fleshing out these ideas and doing deep discernment around these questions with the Midwestern Unitarian Universalists in November. This post is my initial reflections for my opening keynote.  For recommended reading, I would direct you to Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, whose theories are grounded in strong academic and statistical research.

Thanks for reading.




* As I said previously, we really aren’t “cool” at all. We continue to harbor a comically unrealistic sense of terminal uniqueness and relevancy — all while remaining willfully ignorant about the actually coolness factor of loads and loads of hip Jewish and Christian and Buddhist and alternative religious communities around us. Seriously, ask around. Especially if you live near an urban center. If not, spiritual seekers have many very cool options for theological reflection and spiritual practice and accountability in on-line communities and through digital ministries. We’re generally dated and staid, folks. We really are.




47 Replies to “Growing Up May Be The Only Thing That Leads To Growth”

  1. This is a wonderful and beautiful statement about so many of the things that are wrong with the idea of “growth” as the primary function of a congregation.

    We need to grow deep before we can grow tall, because we are already suffering from the poor support of shallow roots in so many areas.

    It isn’t enough to be the catch-all, if we offer nothing life alerting in exchange.

  2. Preach on preacher woman!

    I’ve come to the conclusion that most UU congregations don’t want to grow. Because growth would mean that the myth that has been created about ourselves would have to change AND the condescension that is displayed towards other religious people would be exposed for what it truly is.

    I wonder how much of this is really unexpressed (or unconscious) anxiousness. As an African American Christian UU I see a lot of this anxiousness in UU churches. Nobody talks about it openly, but UUs don’t really have an idea of how to spread their gospel to non-WASPs (of all strips…race, class, culture) and continue to come up with strategies that will only appeal to WASPs (which is what I think “Congregations and Beyond” is all about–running after people who don’t want to be a part of this). To go after non-WASPs would require different strategies for each group and would require looking at the religious landscape differently than we do now.

    I have long thought that UUs would benefit from studying the black church in all its varied formations. For almost 200 years (in denominations, 300+ if we’re going to talk about gatherings of people) the Black Church has been able to strike a balance between inward thinking/working/being and outward thinking/working/being. They have an amazing diversity of class and education and belief.

    Marcus Garvey said almost 100 years ago, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” As long as UUs continue to run away from who they are, nothing will change.

    I have long admired you. This post is a small part of the reason why.

  3. I have only one thing to add to this.. and I hope you don’t mind.
    The ONE and only UU function I attended was a wedding. It was so superficial, sanctimonious and contrived, if I hadn’t been the wedding photographer I would have left.
    When the minister asked me what religion I was, and his response was ” oh you poor thing, you really do need to break the bonds” I wanted to smack him.
    This was an interesting read, I don’t think I would have thought twice about a UU church other than to roll my eyes..
    But I might just think again..
    [Oh my goodness. I am glad you wrote, as hard as this is to hear. We need to know how awful our shallowness and immaturity really look and feel to others. Humbled and grateful to get this negative feedback. – PB]

  4. Thanks for writing this. I went to seminary with so many amazing UUs that I even considered it for awhile. That said – I attend the UU church with our kids in the DC area when I visit and have found it as you say. After 3 random visits I was tired of being told how terrible I am for being a Christian. I wrote the pastors to say however much they think of themselves as inclusive it sure did not feel that way to this Episcopal priest. You are right – people do not keep coming for negativity and “in-crowd” snickering, they come for community and seeking the holy and/or a deeper meaning for life. In the Episcopal Church the statistics show that people walk away from churches who fight or are negative towards others – on both ends of our spectrum – conservative or progressive.

  5. Peacebang, I’m curious why you remain in the UU church. And I don’t mean that in a snide way – I’m just genuinely curious about your path that has led you to stay so long. I realized not too long ago that I do not have the patience to remain and am so much happier now that I tell people I’m seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. I honestly have given up on UUism. The UCC struggles with similar issues but in so many ways it seems less dire/extreme to me. Where do you see the light/hope in the UU denomination?

  6. I think a good portion of people come to church because they are in pain. The stories I hear are so often, “I lost my husband two months ago” or “I’m now a single mom” or “My friend died and I don’t know how to survive the grief” or “I just moved and I am lonely and wondering if I did the right thing” or “I just got a diagnosis of…”

    We may think of “seekers” as blithely skipping along on a search, but often that search is more of a struggle with despair…how would we greet visitors if we assumed they were looking for something far deeper than “community”?

  7. It’s not just the UU’s, PB…much of what you’ve said here applies (with contextual adjustments) to the mainline denominations of Christendom as well. Many thanks for this food for thought. I will need to ruminate and come back again… [Oh, honey, I so know it. I work with ministers in all the mainline traditions and I am very aware of this. I thought I said so, but it’s not bad to say it again! – PB]

  8. Agree strongly. We must be inclusive and be able to include everyone, including Liberal Christians. And we will not increase in numbers unless we increase in spiritual depth. I’ve been saying that for a while, but you articulate it in far more breadth and depth than I could.

  9. I like the idea of this as required reading for every “membership” committee out there. You weave the realities I’ve experienced and the hope I know so wonderfully, here. “Beyond” the congregation, I work with so many people who are longing for that deep spiritual life, with challenge and accountability and community that CAN stick with them through the divorce, the unemployment or the health crisis that brought them to church in the first place. They seek circles where they can share their recovery from addiction without being told their “higher power” is bunk. It has been waaaay too often that I have heard “This is a denomination that looks great on paper but feels lousy in practice.” Stories galore.

    In working with young leaders, I have faith that the nature of congregations can and will change, but I don’t know that the existing congregations will remain. I could speak about one place where the leaders couldn’t trust members to serve lunch because of that “preferential option for the socially inept” dominating the culture would alienate newcomers. (As if the answer was let’s hire “socially ept” people and hide our true selves til they sign the book!). And it makes me sad that I’ve sat on more than one committee where plans for a “how to make small talk” task force was being convened. The whole distraction of marketing plans that dominated the past decade kept spiritual maturation off the table. Now we’ve “trained” people into coffee mug ministry and bumper sticker theology and live with the consequences. Congregations stunted in their ability to meet people where they are and companion them in faith filled living.

    Growing souls could be a powerful part of a congregational ministry, but how heart breaking is it that it is an exceptional place, not the norm, where that can happen. I’m very much guided by the wisdom of Meg Wheatly and others who have studied individuals and groups that have to “Walk Out to Walk On…” when it comes to all this stuff… And we are marching…marching….we are marching….

    Thanks so much for your public ministry raising these vital conversations.

  10. Thank you PB. The division between social action and spirituality is one that can so easily divert the meaning and purpose of a congregation. Yes, it is important to have social action ideals and activities. Yet these are an expression of our spiritual values – they cannot be the values that brought us together in the first place.

    For UUs, and Unitarians over this side of the pond, we are both blessed and cursed with the wide range of religious beliefs and approaches. Yet we can so easily overlook the value this brings to our lives and, more importantly, that this is the simple reason people will cross the threshold in the first place. No-one, when thinking they would like to do some good for the community starts by looking for a church to join. However, someone wanting to enrich the spiritual dimension of their beings will look for a religious group or congregation.

    Thank you so much for articulating this so well (as ever!).

  11. Wow, a truly awesome blog and just what I needed to hear today. Thank you for a prompting/nudge that is so needed!

  12. Thank you for this post. It really articulated some of my struggles with being a UU.

    As an aspiring/occasional UU, I found this aspect of the church to be frustrating. Initially, I did in fact start going because I was about to become a dad and wanted to re-introduce church into my life and my son’s life. However, I found it spoke to the deeper, more seeking side of me.

    While it can be mitigated by the occasional moment of grace during services, the smugness can be a little irritating as was the class anxiety it caused (I’m of a working class background, the congregation is, um, not). I now go to a different, smaller congregation and a lot of what bothered me about the first church is not present there.

    But to your point, while I’m not a believer, I don’t go to the church because it’s some kind of atheist club. I go because it lets me ask big questions and to do that, I think you need people of all faiths, otherwise there’s not much that’s “universal” there.

  13. Rings ABSOLUTELY true in my Presbyterian experience.
    You know who does this stuff well? 12 step groups. They ask “what brought you here?” or the like. They expect that you come for a deep reason. I want a more 12-steppy kind of church. I’ve been brooding on that for a while and planning to blog about it…

  14. At this point having been popular in high school is so deeply uncool everywhere that Deborah Messing gave an interview to “People” where she mentioned how uncool she was. One of her classmates wrote in to ask how she was so unpopular, given that the class elected her prom queen. [Yea, but you know what I mean. We love that “wounded outsider” thing way too much. We embrace it to the extent that cheerleader/jock types go away disgusted. I know I’m reducing everything to high school stereotypes, but I think they’re apt. – PB]


  15. Beautiful. There is so much to think about and process here, it will keep me busy for a while. These ideas have been flitting around for me too, thanks for bringing them to light with such depth and clarity. I just bought the Butler Bass book too, can’t wait to start reading.

    Peacebang, you are truly a prophetic voice for our faith and I thank you for your honesty!

  16. Thanks for this- lots to think about. I served on and then chaired the membership committee of our small UU church for years, and always was haunted by the feeling that what we were
    doing in that effort was shallow, glib, and inappropriate. But a big welcoming smile does make people feel better when they are newcomers, and many (most?) committee members are shy and somewhat at a loss for what to say to visitors. So we say well intentioned, dumb things. At some level we are all looking for help.

  17. Thanks for this- lots to think about. I served on and then chaired the membership committee of our small UU church for years, and always was haunted by the feeling that what we were
    doing in that effort was shallow, glib, and inappropriate. But a big welcoming smile does make people feel better when they are newcomers, and many (most?) committee members are shy and somewhat at a loss for what to say to visitors. So we say well-intentioned, dumb things. At some level we are all looking for help.

  18. Great post. I agree with most of it and will keep considering what I’m not quite certain of yet.
    However, I recall a few months ago your post about your frustration with those individuals who refer to themselves as “Spiritual But Not Religious” or SBNR.
    Yet this post seems to be describing, at least in part, those very people. And, in fact, those are the people that my congregation and I most often have visiting us or having conversations with.
    Perhaps part of growing up may also involve not only getting over the disdain for Christianity that happens in some (not all) UU churches but also the disdain many UU’s have towards those who are, in fact, “Spiritual But Not Religious.” Those folk have a place in our midst, too. I know. I’m the minister of a UU congregation and that’s how I identify. [Good catch, and thanks for reading so closely! The “SBNR” folks I have no time for are the ones who find out what I do and launch into their very self-satisfied, comically myopic description of how THEY THEMSELVES – (as if they’re desperately special) don’t NEED that church thing, and that religion thing, and I’m supposed to drop my jaw in amazement and wonder how I can ever achieve their level of enlightenment. It’s comical because it’s a cliche, and intellectually lazy and ignorant. “SBNR” folk who say something more like, “I have rejected a lot of traditional religion but I know that religion is changing and I may need to upgrade my definition, and I’d like to learn more,” well, then we can start talking! What “SBNR” tends to be, however, is shorthand for “I am firmly in an adolescent phase of rejecting everything mom and dad told me was true.” – PB]

  19. PB, thanks for this. I am just reading (and it’s at least a decade old now), Ken Wilbur’s “Integral Spirituality.” I”ll have to read it again–his spiritual wonkiness often needs study, referencing and interpreting. But his relevance to the ideas and practices behind your post seems important. And it has to do with growing up spiritually, which may or may not be done in a church. And, he says, our society is now at a point where the “leading edge” of spiritual growers find many churches insufficient for their needs.

  20. I am convinced that the 12 Step Movement is the most important program for spiritual growth going in the U.S.A. The most powerful thing for me about how 12-Step groups can work is that people hold each other accountable to truth, and call others on their b.s. right away when they smell it. This doesn’t heal everyone — there are people who can’t stop lying to themselves and others and who use the 12 Step community to enable their false sense wholeness and integrity just as churches can do. But boy, once you start lying in a 12-step group setting, you know you’re really not well, and I think the program makes it impossible to easily deny that. It’s too bad so many people chafe at the “powerlessness” and “Higher Power” concepts. They need to be unpacked and nuanced for each individual (and especially women in this culture, I propose), but they’re great in that they expect the participants to DO SOMETHING. Work it! What does it mean to “WORK IT” in a church setting? We too often hesitate to say, don’t we? Don’t want to offend anyone. – PB

  21. My daughter experienced a little of what you’re talking about with the “coolness” factor at district youth cons. She said that she felt like she was too “normal” and that it wasn’t welcoming for someone who wasn’t socially odd in some way. Our district Cons have made progress in the last 10 yrs, but still fall short if you’re not an insider.

  22. Well, as to the question of why PB stays in the UUniverse, my guess (and only that) is that it might have something to do with going to where the lost sheep* are, and by her descriptions and criticisms that certainly would include UUs. Kind of like her version of saying, “Here I am Lord, send me.”

    (*those who are hurt, scared, frustrated, etc when it comes to spirituality)

    I was going to make a comment, then I realized it would be waaaaaay to long. So I posted it here instead. Be well.

  23. Oh, and beware of those who want to chuck out organized religion even as they feast on it and use its treasures as the basis of their marvelous new growth and insights. Those things must be incorporated back into a system which can refine, contextualize, and preserve them.

  24. I’m still relatively new to UU. As said in other comments, I was in a bad place in my life and sought spiritual connectedness without the rigidity I associated with traditional denominations. I knew a few of the members of our Congregation before attending so at least had someone to sit next too. Perhaps not during the service but sometimes later in the week I would realize some part of the minister’s message had touched me and made me think. When I became comfortable talking to guests, my comment was that each week I heard something that made me feel connected but also feel like I was a better person. Now, I try to let that be my focus with guests. Of course, I’m doing hospitality so spend most of my time in the kitchen washing dishes. Thank PB for the thoughtful article.

  25. I was so hoping you would list the “better” questions. “What brought you here today?” seems like a good one. What else?

  26. Oh, thank you thank you! I have experienced so much of what you describe. I consider myself a Christian UU. I was raised Catholic, left the church over feminism, abortion and dogma, and then studied what I think of as the intersection of all faiths. My UU church has the banners of many faiths on the walls of the sanctuary, and that attracted me. Social action is a spiritual practice for me, and doing it as a spiritual practice also protects me from much of the pain involved in working for social change.

    One more thing to share: my husband died suddenly when my two children were 1 and 6 years old. Going to church on Sunday was essential to my wellbeing. However my kids had a hard time transitioning to the RE classroom. I was told I had to stay in the classroom with them. This was at a time when I needed to worship, pray, sing, experience the sermon, etc. I was so deep in grief and needed that one short hour each week when I was able to be myself in my grief and not hold up my kids. The church told me “no help here”. Literally in those words! So there you go.

    We work too hard to be a place for people who are not spiritual, and not hard enough for those who are in need of the particular brand of UU spirituality that is based in the seven principles. I want to make that change here in my chosen faith.

  27. I do get what you mean, PB. And I go back and forth on it. At least partially because the jock and cheerleader types so dominate everything else in this world. Also because the kid smoking behind the theater may need us more. At the same time, I was never much on playing “let’s snark on the jocks” and we UUs do that a lot.

    Complex questions, even after we take it back to high school.


  28. This is exactly what I’ve been saying for years when people ask why I don’t attend my local church anymore. It feels good to know that another person –a minister even!– is having the same problems with our approach to religion– or lack thereof. She has articulated these problems very well. I’ll be passing this along to other UUs when they ask why I’m not a member of any church.

  29. Thank you for your honesty. I have been feeling much of what you wrote about myself. I recall an old quote I read once that goes something like this. “Unitarian Universalism. That’s a pretty sizable piece of real estate. Now let’s see if they can live up to it.” It may be that the secular humanist social activist phase of UUism is on the decline. Our challenge is to, as you put it so well, grow up – let go of our resentments, claim our spiritual path and focus on providing a compelling reason for people to engage in meaningful relationships with us.

  30. I’d like to offer something on the hopeful side for a moment. The major problems you list are not Unitarian Universalist in of themselves. Even the theological issues are not inherently Unitarian Universalist.
    The problems you list are primarily an outgrowth of a particular cultural demographic. I believe we exhibit them so strongly because we have embraced the modern, secular, churched cultural paradigm to the point of capitulating to it (and we can narrow that cultural bubble to something even more exclusive, much of which you mentioned). Of course culture effects faith, in particular how we interpret our faith and what core teachings rise to the top and become doctrine (Tillich anyone?). Its easy to identify this when we look at a church teaching prosperity theology (God wants you to be rich) as a capitulation to consumerist culture. Its always more difficult to see cultural capitulation when dealing with something closer to home.
    I would posit that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the cultural demographic that UUism has privileged. I think the real problem is that we’ve privileged it for so long that many if not most contemporary UU’s confuse the culture for the faith. You can see this vividly whenever hear it said that someone is a UU without knowing it. Inevitably they are almost always talking about the worldview of a particular person’s cultural demographic, not a theological position. In fact if you drop the currently privileged cultural paradigm and ask what is UUism outside of it most would be challenged to name anything.
    I think one of the challenges for UUism is that the particular modern secular churched cultural bubble that has been embraced is a shrinking, aging, and dying demographic. On the other hand this might also prove to be a great thing in that the decline may force on us a moment of clarity and cause us to contextualize UUism to other contemporary cultures. Imagine UUism outside the “sanctuary” of like minded-ness. What kind of UUism exists beyond politically liberal come-outers? What new theological distinctions might rise to the top as the most relevant and redemptive?
    As someone who has done UU ministry outside the bubble it can be absolutely theologically rigorous, transformative, and filled with God’s grace. Most importantly it can be done! The challenge as a “religious movement” is to open up the ecclesiastical space to reach into other cultural worldviews to see UUism reach new people in new ways. There are a variety of different possibilities for this, but first an foremost we need to care enough about people to change.
    Great post, keep it up!
    btw, here is my review of Diana Butler Bass’ book

    [Thanks for a great comment, Dave. – PB]

  31. Wow!!! I cannot tell you how much this resonated with the experiences I have had in the congregation I have worked for the last 12 years. I have reiterated that folks often visit because they are in need to several church leaders in the past; however, I don’t think they have listened. I laughed when I read the line about same sex couples or people of color! (In our church it also young people because the average age is 70.) When visitors do not return, which is often, leaders tend to blame the minister, or the Membership Committee. Our minister has said many times that, “the congregation IS the Membership Committee!” I have written several newsletter articles trying to stress the need to be more welcoming, and to really listen to newcomers. Only a handful of members have responded. We had a meeting just a few weeks ago after GA. I was on such a high from the GA experience. Then one of our longtime members said, “What we need is more brown people in the church! Then we will grow.” They will never get it…

    Do we have permission to reprint this article? [YES! Absolutely, with my blessings. Thanks for writing. – PB]

  32. Thank you for a very candid and honest look at UU. I stopped attending one because I got tired of the sneering anti-Christian bias that permeated that particular congregation. Well done.

  33. Great! The critical stuff stirs (wakes) people up, but is also gets in the way. I hope that in your keynote you’ll focus — as concretely and operationally as possible — on what, for you, is the confluence among your words (a) “spiritual”, on the one hand, and (b) “depth”, “maturity”, and “genuine connection”, on the other. SGM and personal spiritual practice are two such concrete, operational arenas. What else? PG

  34. PB,
    Thanks for the clarification the the SBNR issue and those who identify as such. I agree that many choose that label out of intellectual laziness but not all or even most. I have found that most of the people I’ve met who identify as SBNR do so because it is all they have ever really been exposed to whether or not they have had any religious training in the past. Many of them may have been raised in a particular tradition, but that doesn’t mean they received any real kind of religious instruction or have studied that tradition – much less others – in any depth. Yet, as they get older, they find themselves asking the same questions those of us who may have had such training ask but have no frame of reference except the SBNR one which is fast becoming the cultural norm. So it may be less intellectual laziness than simply not knowing how to “think theologically.” And while “spirituality” and “theology” are not mutually exclusive as some seem to think it is, they very often do trump one another. There are times when theology, like reason, simply cannot answer those deep questions and yearnings of Spirit. And at times, it must be recognized that “spirituality” can be baby food when the spiritual nourishment needed is theological meat.

  35. PB,
    I also appreciate deeply your comments regarding the 12 step movement being the most important movement for spiritual growth in the USA. Personally, as one deeply involved in a 12 Step program, I would extend that to the rest of the planet.
    And yes, I often wonder about those who chafe at the “Higher Power” and “powerlessness” concepts. One of my pet peeves is a comment that is often heard in 12-step meetings: “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there.” I cringe every time I hear it. It’s odd how the intellectual laziness you describe in people who label themselves SBNR exists in large measure in the 12-step movement given the importance that movement is playing in the spiritual zeitgeist. The fact is that Bill Wilson – the person most responsible for AA and by extension 12 step literature – often wrote of his respect for religious observance and suggested that 12 steppers practice some form of religion. Certainly I understand that being a member of an organized faith may not be for everyone, but the disdain many in recovery show for “organized religion” is a far cry from Bill’s appreciation for it.

  36. Wow. I love this. In particular your honesty about ‘socially inept’.

    I am seeking the kind of spiritual community where we do hold each other accountable and where depth of experience, sharing and serving is the main focus. Thank you for articulating this.

  37. Peacebang, I am looking forward to your visit to the Midwest. I am a member of a large UU congregation that has members who exhibit all the traits you mentioned! And (thank God) there are lots of us who don’t. A few years ago, a family joined my church who said, “This place is just like our Presbyterian church back home, but the Pres. churches here are too conservative for our taste.” I took it as a good sign.
    In my experience, almost all the UU ministers’ sermons I’ve heard challenge us to be more spiritually mature, to go deeper with questions, to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and to wipe that smug smile off our faces! Your post reminded me a little of Kaaren Anderson’s Sunday morning sermon at GA (Charlotte, I think) when she talked about what Sunday visitors are seeking.
    It seems to me that it is lay people more than ministers who “should” attend your workshop, because it is some lay UUs who have been around for a long time who are still thinking in the old way you described (and still railing against fundamentalist Christians) But, would they be the folks who are the least likely to pay attention to this and do the work to change?

  38. Thanks for your words. They ring true to the situation for Unitarians UK too. I’ve posted some reflections on my own blog, which I’ve linked below

    [Thanks, Tim. I have fond memories from my month-long stay with the British Unitarians last summer. My warmest regards- PB]

  39. Hi PB,

    I really enjoyed this post. I tried to respond a while back (unsuccessfully) and thought I’d try again. I particularly took note of your comments about 12-step groups. I have been sober for 17 years now and do not participate in the local AA, because it seems that the basics of working a 12-step program and being of service to others have been replaced by “psychobabble,” or spiritual sounding language which disguises excuses for continuing to be rather disgustingly self-centered.

    Anyway, my experiences with UU congregations (having grown up UU and walked away until I had kids and wanted them to get a UU Religious Educaiton) is similar to what you write here.

    There is often little that will help someone get through what my wife calls a “dark night of the soul.”

    I am a lay-preacher and try to write sermons with substance and which give people something to chew on and maybe to find some strength in. I find, often, that the response from many congregants is a shallow cut at what is available in the topic. It troubles me that we don’t do more interfaith work and that we assume anyone who is attending has a college degree.

    Here is my most recent sermon, which was inspired by a visit to Cambridge MA the other week:

    Hi Mike,
    I owe you a letter but I’ve just been so busy! Your last comment did post but it had to be retrieved from the spam blocker. Do be patient when you post a comment – sometimes I’m not checking the blog for a few days. Thanks again for this. I’m going to read your latest sermon now. – PB

  40. Hi PB, thanks for your response. I’m curious if you’ve ever been to Glide Memorial in San Francisco? I believe it is a Methodist church right in the middle of the Tenderloin District. I love that church. I found it to be warm and welcoming and uplifting. I reluctantly went when I was a few years sober, because I had a job caring for disabled adults in a group home. One of the guys wanted to go see Rev. Cecil Williams. I finally relented and took him a quadriplegic, along with another quadriplegic, both in wheel chairs to Glide Memorial.

    I hadn’t expected it to be in the middle of a ghetto and when we arrived and I saw the line snaking around the block (like when we were kids and went to see the Empire Strikes Back). I turned around to leave. A guy called to me and said, “No, come on over, we’ll get you a spot inside now.” He found us a spot in the balcony.

    I looked around and I was surprised to see rich people, poor people, homeless people, black people, white people, Hispanic people, Asian people and gay people all talking and hugging each other. I thought to myself, “this is what Unitarian Universalism wants to be like.”

    Then the choir started singing. Everyone got up and started dancing and laughing and hugging each other. I stood up and found myself crying. Someone looked at me and smiled, she gave me a hug and said, “is this your first time?” I nodded yes and she looked me in the eyes said, “welcome home!”

    For quite a while, I took the two hour drive into San Francisco every Sunday just to attend that church. I felt like I was participating in something important and I was doing so on a spiritual plane. I was part of a huge loving community, who hugged strangers and said welcome home to each other. We also provided 20k meals every month to homeless and impoverished people. We provided tutoring for kids who needed help. We provided shelter and assistance to young struggling families.

    All of this I participated in while dancing to spiritual songs, hugging strangers and listening to some preacher talk about God’s love.

    Today, I’m an atheist, but I can still listen to someone talk about God’s love and be moved as I know there are theists, who can listen to me talk about the spirituality I’ve found as an atheist and they too can be moved. This is what I want in my UU denominations. This spiritual connection and strength, which allows us to go out and change the world.

  41. Mike Adams writes:
    Today, I’m an atheist, but I can still listen to someone talk about God’s love and be moved as I know there are theists, who can listen to me talk about the spirituality I’ve found as an atheist and they too can be moved. This is what I want in my UU denominations. This spiritual connection and strength, which allows us to go out and change the world.

    THIS. That is all. 😉

    As a “came up in YRUU” person, I really identify with the need for more spiritual depth in congregations. Youth cons were places of real connection and spiritual depth for me (and many of my peers) and most congregations I have experienced do not come close. As I’ve gotten older, I do appreciate that I can go to a congregation every week, instead of waiting for several months, or all year, for a con or annual camp, but I still feel a bit out of place, even in the congregation I’ve been a member of for a few years now.
    Another thing I feel is that grew-up-UUs are less scared of sacred and God-language because we’re not “recovering” from another religion. I’m from the south and our UU church was a real oasis from being evangelized (Jr High Sunday school often consisted of sharing stories about people trying to save us and being clever about challenging our “savers”), but I have nothing against Christians who don’t insist I’m evil and I definitely feel in the minority. Over the years I do think christian-bashing has gotten less acceptable but it really depends on where one goes to church.
    Lots of thoughts here, I will to link to a homily (sermonette?) I gave at a lay-service recently that touches on some of these issues, once it gets posted.

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