I recently read a post by a Charismatic Christian, Mark Driscoll, who wrote about what, in his view, makes a “True Church”. I thought it might be fun to examine those dictates and see how they can (or in some cases, absolutely cannot) be applied to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I am going to cut it to just the headers, because the original is easy enough to find, and I am not trying to debate his views directly.
1. The Church Is Made Up of Regenerated Believers in Jesus
We start with what, I am sure, was the most obvious statement for Mr Driscoll, and what will be the most contentious for the Unitarian Universalist revision. My readers and Twitter followers know that I am not one to shy from controversial statements, and here comes one: We need Jesus, too. I’ve said it before, and I will reiterate it now: The Juedo-Christian traditions are one of our sources, and we do a great disservice to our intellectual heritage to ignore them. Still, I don’t believe that UUs need to feel “regenerated” at all, much less through one source or another, to be UU.
There is still something crucial in this that I have seen missing from some UU congregations. We need to seriously reflect on the idea that a church, if it is to use that word to describe its self, needs to be a faith community with a belief in something greater than the lives of its members. There is a gap here, in the Unitarian Universalist movement. It is hurting us in many ways. There is a schism brewing between those who desire faith community and those who would gladly see the UUA become a social fraternity. There are those who would channel our energy and funds into social reform with no consideration for any greater Spirit of Life.
We should consider carefully what it means to us to be a religion, and what it means for our congregations to be faith communities. A church needs to believe in something greater, and we cannot call a thing a church if it refuses to welcome the question of why we are here and whether the Universe has a Creator. We can all come to our own answer, but we have to welcome the question.
The UU version is rather obvious, to me:
1. The Church Is Made Up of People Honestly Seeking Truth and Meaning.
2. The Church Is Organized under Qualified Leadership
This is a tougher nut for a congregational organization working under the notion of polity. It shouldn’t be, but I’ve expressed some of my concerns with the basis of polity before. The fact is that any recognized congregation (one that pays dues) can ordain any of its members to be a Reverend minister. There is a long vetting process for “fellowshiped” ministers, but it is an add-on. It happens very rarely, in this day, but it is a problem that we could face when the only definition of a Unitarian Universalist is simply “a person who pays their dues”, and the definition of a minister is “One is is called a minister by the congregation”. There is a lot of room for abuse in that system, and I know there are many trying to address it, but doing it right means ripping off a few band-aides, and exposing some sore spots to new examination.
I believe we need to codify the ordination process, so that we know that leaders in UU congregations are qualified leaders. I think it ought to apply to both the senior minister and the DRE. I know that it means the loss of some of the congregational polity and independence, and I say “good”. We are being held back by our rabid individualism; it isn’t appealing to the mass of people under 40.
So, I present my ideal UU version of this header as:
2. The Church Is Organized under Qualified Leadership
3. The Church Gathers to Hear Preaching and to Respond in Worship
Here, I have to take a very broad definition of what “preaching” is to come close to agreement. I come close, but I still fail to get there. I think that a great many “preachers” from various traditions have actually been people who challenged their listeners. They didn’t come to simply affirm the status quo, but to question how the community was living its message. I don’t think anyone is better for coming to a Unitarian Universalist service and simply having their assertions repeated back to them. Our Principles state that congregations are there to promote spiritual growth. That doesn’t happen without challenge and contemplation. Even if nothing is said that one disagrees with, I hope that they are asked to look at an idea from a new angle, or to reexamine a definition.
I am similarly at a loss over the word “worship”. We should give thanks to the Spirit of Life and the community that sustains and enhances us. Worship, though, requires that we honor something external and separate. I don’t think that the Spirit of Life can be said to be separate from the living. I don’t think that we, as humans, are separate from the Universe or its Creator in a way that is meaningful enough for me to call my practice “worship”. Still, I recognize that there are things and ideas that are not me, that are worthy of some reverence, and there are certainly UUs who believe in true divinity, separate from creation, and in some cases even multiple individualized divine entities.
The wording needs a lot of thought, but in trying to keep with the spirit of the original, the UU bulletpoint might read something like:
3. The Church Gathers to Hear Meaningful Questions and to Respond in Wonder.
4. The Church Rightly Administers the Sacraments
On a certain level, I have to admit that I regret the lack of sacraments in the UU tradition. Many of us have OWL milestones to mark particular points on the road to maturity. We do have water and flower communions, to draw our personal stories and travels into the community and give us sound emotional footing. My own congregation has a bridging ceremony for our newly appointed Young Adults, but it is often poorly attended even by those it seeks to honor.
Again, polity takes some of the blame here, but also the undeniable fact the the consolidation of the AUA and the UCA has created a new religion that, while drawing from their traditions, as well as other sources, has yet to establish many unique and widespread traditions of its own. We are simply too young to really have much to call our own.
That being the case, each congregation is left to its own traditions and remembrances. We owe it to our children to create memories they can cherish, and traditions that hold meaning in their lives. If we are to create a lasting religious tradition from our fledgeling movement, then we must create a cultural language that we can pass on; one that our children will carry forward, feeling that it enriched their lives.
I cannot offer a lasting UU version of this claim, except to say that we ignore our lack of sacrament and symbology at the cost of our own children and the continued existence of our ideals.
5. The Church Is Spiritually Unified
Honestly, I cannot say this any better, except (in very UU fashion) to try to reshape the word Spirit in the context. I believe that in changing the way we see the word, I am not so much re-defining it as I am reclaiming it. The Greek word that is translated to “spirit” is “pneuma”, which means “breath”. The Latin is spiritus “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” related to spirare “to breathe”. The idea of the spirit is in the breath and the air; felt, but unseen. Even the actively non-religious have defended their use of the term more or less thusly.
If we are one in breath, recognizing that we share the community and that its health is our health, then we are one in spirit. If we acknowledge that the congregation has one mission, and that we are all trying to aid that mission to the best of our ability, then we are one in spirit, even when we are opposed in action. We have to respect the inherent worth of each person, and allow them the chance to make their contribution where and when they can. We have to encourage, not insist on, a healthy level of participation not only in carrying out the mission, but it allowing each person to shape it so that they can own it, too.
The UU version of this must be very different in wording, if not intent:
5: The Church is bound by common vision, to affirm and promote the Principles of the UUA.
6. The Church Is Holy
Mr. Driscoll points out that his intent is not to say that the people of the church are perfect, or that the congregants never make mistakes. Instead, he makes this prescription about forgiveness and spiritual growth. Like the 5th point above, I have no problem with the intent here, but the wording is too bound up in dogma for even the original essay to leave unexplained.
A church does have to be transformational; if you leave the same person you were when you came in, then you’ve wasted your time. That’s equally true of a movie, a book, or even a piece of music, in my opinion, though. Religion should challenge you and then assist you in bettering yourself and your impact on the world. A church should be a safe place to explore your place in the universe and shape your life towards a beautiful set of experiences.
To try and mimic the point above:
6: Church is constructively transformational.
7. The Church Is Devoted to Fellowship
This feeds neatly into my on-going (though so far neglected) project to read “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” by James Luther Adams. Adams lays out 5 Smooth intellectual stones with which we can slay the conservative Goliath which is so often set against us. The second and third stones, speaking of the importance of mutual consent in all relationships and the obligation to establish “just and loving community” respectively, build the idea that a UU Church must, also, be about fellowship. We have it in our Principles that we will not only accept others as beings or worth and dignity, but that our congregations have a responsibility to encourage growth and a search for truth and meaning. The congregation isn’t meant to be a passive body in the lives of congregants, or even just a stabilizing body in times of turmoil (though this is certainly crucial to the mission), but a force to improve the world, in no small part by fostering growth in individuals and improving their interactions with the world-at-large.
This one is pretty easy to read in UU language as:
7: The Church Offers Acceptance and Encouragement to Spiritual Growth.
8. The Church Is Committed to Jesus’ Mission
Again, I cannot dismiss what Pastor Driscoll is saying, but I must reframe it.
Jesus was asked: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Matt 22:36-40
Again, I personally love the red letters in The Bible. Jesus said a lot of really great things that resonate with me. I don’t appreciate what was done with his work over the last 2000 years, but I am glad that the Church has preserved as much of his message as it did.
Jesus’ mission was to love. Love God. Love God’s Creation. Love one another. He was sent, it is said in John 3:17, to save the world, not to judge it. There is no salve for the soul like love and compassion.
Still, I think that Joshua of Nazareth is so widely misunderstood and blatantly misrepresented, that we do no service to our goal by referencing him in a single sentence.
The UU version does not exclude the mission of Jesus, but broadens the appeal by refining the meaning here:
8: The Church is Committed to Spreading Justice, Equity, and Compassion in the Broader Community.