Are We Sacrificing Our Principles for Our Culture?

Recently, UU World posted the question, “What is UU Culture?”, subtitling the post with another question, which seemed to be the topic of most of the responses they posted, “Is Unitarian Universalist congregational culture a barrier to a more diverse faith?” The common answers seem to fall, vaguely, into one of two camps: either we need to change the “culture” of our congregations, or we need to accept that we just can’t make every person feel welcome. I have yet to see one of these posts give the answer that I support, and most miss the mark by a fair bit.

The concern seems to center around growing congregations, and expansion within the framework we already have. Of course, we all want to see our congregation remain vibrant and stable, both in terms of involvement and budget. Most congregations are actively seeking growth. The problem is, as many seem to grasp, that our typical congregation is not suitable to every individual, even many who would gladly embrace our principles.

I am writing this to propose one more idea. I know that it isn’t a unique point of view, but it seems under-represented: Instead of forcing congregations to embrace people who don’t quite fit in (Our narrow niche), why aren’t we encouraging the birth of new congregations, born with an eye towards different cultures?

America is culturally diverse. This is a problem as often as a blessing (Let’s take off the hair shirt). People actually want to segregate; we are born with the “us and them” mentality. People cross those lines when they see that they have things in common with the “other”, and see that working together nets better results. Schools force integration, and even then, the hallways are imperfectly stratified. You see integration based, largely, on group memberships that are not draw on cultural lines, mainly athletics and the performing arts. Given common goals, students then choose to blend their racial and economic groups.

There are Baptist Churches in my town. There are some that are housed in hand-me-down buildings, bought from a congregation that outgrew them. Some are even smaller, renting or even borrowing space to hold services. There is one that takes up 2 city blocks with its compound; tens of millions of dollars in buildings with multimedia systems to rival the best music venues. It is jokingly referred to  as The Bapti-dome or the Hallelujah-bowl. Some of these churches are predominantly black, while others are mostly white. Each of these churches serves their diverse memberships while adhering to the same basic creed and dogma. Certainly, the “mega-church” tries to be everything to everyone, but for those who don’t want church to be the only community in their lives, there are plenty of options while remaining Baptist.

I think, maybe in this one area, we can learn something from the Baptists. Why are we worrying about shifting existing communities and congregations out of their current, stable identities? Why not, instead, work to build new communities seeded with different cultures in mind? I guess what I am trying to ask is, what do we care more about: The expansion of our “Culture”, or the promotion of our principles? Isn’t it worth allowing entirely different cultures to share or values if it means that a liberal, welcoming faith, free of superstition and dogma, is more accessible to all the people who need it in their lives?

By encouraging new congregations, they can be formed with the intention of serving Hispanic, African American or even culturally Jewish UUs. If current congregations held services in the evening or on a weeknight, they might welcome more working families into our buildings, with the goal of making them comfortable in our faith and letting them choose what to do from there. Rather than trying to fit everyone into a single culture, give them their own identity with the faith, and allow that common ground to bring us all together in time.

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