Why Unitarian Universalist Must Embrace Evangelism

My normal blog entry works up to a point. I spend time on the facts and details and build my case before making the statement that I am trying to convince readers of. Not today. Today, I think my point is pretty clear, and while I will back it up below, I want to make it now and tell you exactly why Unitarian Universalists need to create a form of evangelism that works for us:

People need us to tell them about our loving, inclusive faith communities. We need people to join us in our work to create and expand our beloved community.

I recently took the time to again listen to a presentation that Peter Morales and Don Southworth gave in 2000 about Unitarian Universalist Evangelism. It is a great presentation, and I highly recommend listening to it. There is an MP3 for it, which can be found on UUA.org, near the top of an article entitled “Evangelism: Letting Our Love Reach Out“. In this presentation, Rev. Morales say that he feels shame when he hears people say things like, “I was a UU for 20 years, but didn’t know it.” He says, rightly in my opinion, “…it means that we haven’t done the very simple thing of communicating who we are.”

On that same page, the UUA itself claims that we have a responsibility to reach out to others, and tell them who we are while we are working to improve our communities. As they put it, “Evangelism is the natural result of a deep belief that we Unitarian Universalists have something important and precious to offer. Evangelism is founded on the beliefs that people have a need for religious community, for deep relationships, for spiritual exploration, for social involvement.”

That is the first half of my claim: People need us. They need to know that they can be loved for who they are, even as we encourage them toward spiritual and personal growth. There are people looking for what we provide. They want us to find them, and we should want them to find us.

I feel like the second part of my thesis shouldn’t need to be defended, but I’m not known for being brief.

We need to share our Principles. They are 7 imperfect statements that form a very functional framework for how humans can share our planet and its limited resources with the rest of creation. If we agree that we should “affirm and promote” them, then we should be eager to tell people about them and how they shape our lives, individually and as communities who gather around them. Certainly, not everyone is ready to embrace them all, but if we can find even one that a person agrees with, then we can find problems that we can agree to work together on.

More over, I firmly believe that people who are exposed to diversity learn to see it as a positive thing that makes a community more adaptable and capable of addressing a wider range of problems. I believe that an educated person will see that a rational approach to the world, as opposed to one guided primarily by superstition, will see that reason and scientific study have solved many more problems than has faith alone, and I hope they will see that science and religion do not have to be at odds when each is given its proper authority. Crucially, I believe that a person who has embraced both diversity and education will find themselves more drawn to liberal religion. It is a position held by a great many fundamentalist, too, who denounce reason and learning, lest their flock find their teachings too constrictive.

If we share, we will grow. Even those who do not join a UUA-member congregation will still be better allies for our social justice and outreach. Our willingness to speak up and define ourselves will help us find partners, and it will help those who already embrace our values become members of our communities and our movement.

We have to be willing to speak of the salvation we offer; salvation from oppression and self-doubt. We need to believe that we have a message worth sharing. We need to stop being embarrassed by the language of religion, and start challenging ownership of ideas like God, Sin, and Spirit.

We need a Unitarian Universalist form of Evangelism that involves more than protests and Pride floats. We need to wear our affiliation proudly when we go out in the world and do good, whether it is volunteering at a food bank or just giving a tourist directions. We need to let the world know that our faith shapes our lives, and that there is a faith for those who want to bring a type of heaven to everyone here on Earth.


20 Responses

  1. I couldnt disagree more, the whole evangelism thing is problematic.It would lead to the kind of ehavior that I abhor and what brought me to the UU. Please dont become evangelists, Id h ave to leave.

    • It is a shame that you feel this way. I wish you had addressed anything I said other than the word “Evangelism”. We need to start conversations about who we are. We need to invite people to join us in our work. This isn’t a fringe idea, either. The president of the UUA has begged for it. I hope you will see that it is good for us to reach out and let people know who we are and why our communities are a different kind of church.

      I invite you to actually discuss any of the content of my post, and let me know what kind of behavior you think would arise, and why it would upset you.

      I also ask if you would like me to edit your comment for typos, as I generally don’t edit comments, but you do not have the ability to do so.

      • Unitarianism is about as vibrantly diverse as cream cheese; you’re basically NPR at prayer.
        After 50 years of “celebrating diversity”, you have lots of social statements and about 4% non-White, non-Middle/Upper Middle class membership. You’re either still doing the wrong things or you just don’t mean it.

        • I welcome your constructive follow-up to this. How are we getting it wrong? I am absolutely not going to pretend we don’t have problems. As a white man, I am not sure how to fix them. We absolutely mean it, and we are absolutely not doing the right things, or not enough of them. What’s the magic pill, if you have it..?

  2. While your sentiments are on target with how I think anybody should feel who is impassioned about life or living, I think using the word “evangelism” is in poor taste. It’s so strongly stigmatized and many UU’ers have personally dealt with the problematic nature of evangelism. Unitarian Universalists strive to respect, appreciate, and honor the diversity around us, thereby offering our peers a different, peaceful perspective of spirituality and responsible living. Evangelism is, at its heart, a concept that strives to change people – people who have heard hundreds of times the message that they need to change or else they’ll reap negative consequences. How do we avoid this dynamic, especially when adopting that vocabulary?

    Aligning ourselves with a evangelical doctrine is neglecting one of the core values of UU. I believe we need to give people more credit and not turn the church into another advertising agency that recruits people arbitrarily, however strongly the members believe in the messages presented.

    • We UUs need to stop arguing amongst ourselves about whether or not we are a religion, and whether or not we are allowed to use the words of the philosophers and theologians that we so proudly claim the legacy of. We cannot continue to claim to be the intellectual descendants of Emerson, Ballou, Channing, or Murray if we refuse to use words that they would have found commonplace.

      Evangelism is the passionate sharing of religious ideas, the “good news” of a theology with the world. That is what I am calling for, and indeed, what the man who is now President of the UUA called for. It seems very dubious to me to say that it somehow violates the “core values” of our movement to tell people what we stand for and how our communities have shaped our lives.

      Religion at its heart, a concept that strives to change people. Our faith has saved people from depression, loneliness, isolation, and self-loathing. Why would we want to keep it to ourselves? Our Principles call on us to try and change the world. We cannot do that without speaking up about our beliefs and our mission.

      People have been hurt by “conversion” and “damnation” and “hell”. We have none of those things, and so they cannot be part of Unitarian Universalist evangelism, accept in their rejection. People have been hurt by the words of others, which only strengthens my assertion that they need our words, if only to tell them that there are people who would accept them if they allowed it.

      As with the previous comment, I invite you to raise specific objections to anything other than my use of the word “Evangelism”, or to supply some data about how the use of this word, which is found in a flattering light on the UUA website, is poisonous to our work.

      • By no means do I implore people to keep their joy to themselves, as I stated in the very first sentence of my original response. I also reject the argument that we should be “allowed” to use specific words because we admire the legacy of theologians or philosophers who also used these words. This is not a matter of legality of speech, but sensitivity to the history of pain caused by techniques used in doctrines we do not adhere to.

        As the most religious country in the Western world, America is filled with citizens who are desensitized to messages of “good news” or “salvation from [ … ].” As a member of Generation Y, an ex-Christian raised in a strictly Christian household, and a believer in the good that can come from the movement away from traditional religiosity, I do not see the benefit of sticking to worn out tactics to grow church numbers, as attempts to spread good news to those we do not know inevitably turns into.

        I can certainly stand behind an appeal to share our good news to the broken souls around us. I have and continue to do so myself with the people I converse with daily. I am strongly against a church-wide endeavor to market our point of view to people we have little to no grasp of their background, struggles, or pains. Arbitrary petitions to the hurt people who could certainly prosper from peace will not respond to the same tactics implemented in the hundreds of churches within a stone’s throw of them. If the UU movement were to attempt to better vocalize their value in a community, copying the strategies of countless institutions around us – the ones who have caused so damage – is not the way to go.

        Rather, we should believe in the strength and ability of others, hope our seeds of peace prosper, and encourage every person we have contact with to be responsible, to have self-respect, and to seek peace from depression, isolation, and self-loathing.

        • I was also raised Christian, and not in the since that everyone is Christian unless they are specifically not. I went to camp. I spent evenings at the church. I read books about Jesus in my free time. I came to reject the inerrancy of the Bible because I realized for myself that it was broken. Maybe that is the difference; church didn’t hurt me, I just out grew it.

          Never the less, you say that we should share our values. We should share our joy. You must see the need for us to make ourselves easier to find for those, like yourself, who desire a community that will accept everyone who desires to help make the world a better place. They need us to advertise, and newspaper ads won’t cut it.

          What would you call our sharing of joy and love with the world? What would you label our effort, on a personal level, to inform people of what Unitarian Universalism is and how it can change lives? What would you call the act of sharing your religion with someone who needs a loving community; inviting them to see for themselves how we are different?

          Thus, I still hold that the argument you have is a semantic one, and on that can only last as long as our refusal to embrace the word. Just as homosexuals now hold “Gay Pride” parades, and members of other oppressed groups refuse to allow old slurs to hold power over them, how we allow words to be used changes the power they have. Definitions, in English, are completely fluid. We could force a change in the dictionary entry by refusing to let the Baptists or the “Cowboy churches” use the word Evangelize as a bludgeon.

          We are a religion. When you share a religion, the English word is “Evangelize”. We can make up a new word, but then we have to go about teaching it to people. Wouldn’t it be easier to use the correct word, and change its connotation back to the original roots? The sharing of good news is what I am pushing for.

          Hate the word choice, but there isn’t a more appropriate way to say it that wouldn’t require a treatises to explain it and create a definition. If you want to create such a document, I would gladly consider your proposal. In the mean time, I will continue to encourage UUs to share their stories and our love with others, so that those in need of a beloved community can know who we are and what we stand for.

          • To put it frankly, simply adopting the vernacular of differing groups is not reclaiming those words. Additionally, the people you intend to reach through “evangelism” will not have your definitions in mind, but the commonly accepted and regularly used ones.

            I do think this is partially a debate of semantics, but I also find the idea of aggressively advertising to strangers – presenting yourself to them solely to sway them to feel how you feel – is, in my opinion, against the very heart of the church. We are no better than they. We can learn as much from others as they from us. Attempting to spread the message through marketing tactics changes this dynamic. Plenty of people could benefit from the UU doctrine, but it is not a route for all, as nothing is, and we must respect this.

            I share my spiritual journey openly and frequently with my loved ones. I have swayed people from skepticism of the UU church to appreciation. I will never stop spreading my good news, but I will not expand my expectations to those I have no history or shared connection with.

            • Again, I wonder if you’ve really read what I wrote, or if you are still getting caught up in the language that you find so terrible. I never proposed “selling” anything or trying to “convince” anyone of our rightness. I said that we need to open discussion and find areas of agreement. I don’t believe people can be converted to Unitarian Universalism; they have to come to it themselves first.

              I do agree with you on one point, though. There are those who believe in eternal damnation, and who devote their lives to saving others from it. They work hard to help people see the error of their ways and to repent, so that they don’t have to suffer in the here-after. While I disagree with their theology and I do find their insistence to be, at time, irritating, I agree with you 100% when you say that “We are no better than they.” They have passion, and they share it in the hope of saving people from pain and suffering. I sincerely wish more UUs would risk the social stigma that the Mormons do to try and help people find love and acceptance.

              • After a lengthy discussion related to your piece, I find it rather difficult to understand why you continue to question my comprehension. I am not the sole response expressing disagreement; in fact, all three comments on your piece find the verbiage contestable.

                As stated above, I also encourage free and open speech on the effects UU has had on attendees. This is, to me, the most effective and respectable way to minister and evangelize to others, not broad and generalized advertising. If you would rather chalk my disagreement up to a simple misunderstanding of your presentation, I bemoan your missed opportunity to better connect with the people you so strongly care about.

                • Again, I ask what you would call it, instead. We are a religion, and that is the language I used. I admit that the few people who commented here were, to very different degrees, dissatisfied with the word choice, but the fact that it was shared dozens of times on social media indicates that there were plenty of people who thought I had said something meaningful. In fact, given that almost all the comments I ever get are either complaints or questions, and yet several hundred people read this post in the last week, I would say that very few people were offended enough to say anything, even in support of the comments that have been left.

                  Again, I am sorry that the word bothers you so much, but it is the best word for my meaning. I hope that you find peace with your past and with the Christian roots of our religion.

  3. I agree the word evangelism can upset people as a person raised in a Baptist home. Watching the Mormons and Tea Party we see the people clinging to groups to spread fear and hate. We should figure this out. We have a positive and joyful message in a world of fear and hate.

  4. The word evangelism implies that the UU church offers some specific answer to the problems people are facing. To me this seems contrary to the whole environment this church should be presenting. The UU church is attractive to most because of it openness in spiritual terms and in the questioning spirit it encourages in its followers. To start ‘spreading the good news’ about our church isn’t a bad thing it just needs to be done in a manner that accords to our principles. People who might attend the church need to understand that the church is there to encourage ones religious journey and not to offer them solutions to problems we don’t have the authority or capability to answer. UUers don’t seem afraid or ashamed to spread their message to others, they just understand the damage a billboard acclaiming some divine answer can have on a troubled psyche. In my opinion its best for one to spread their message about the UU church on a personal basis because all the UU church can offer is an environment that encourages and fosters ones personal religious journey.

    • That is exactly what I propose. I think someone may have hacked my blog and inserted wording about “advertising” and “radio spots” that I cannot see…

      My point is precisely that we need to speak openly about our faith, engaging in conversations with people and encouraging them to question our faith and their own.

      I am not sure where everyone else is getting their definition for “Evangelism” from, but I’ve never seen one that included the words “television” or “billboard”. Evangelism is about getting personal and connecting with people. That’s why I say that it is something UUs need, and not some action the UUA can take.

      • According to Webster’s dictionary, ‘Evangelism’ refers to spreading the Christian gospel. You kind of addressed that in your post, but I think you might need to recognize that you are holding your own personal definition of evangelism. It’s difficult to disassociate that word from that Christian grasp in which billboards and televangelists are popular mediums, even if those aren’t the only ones.

        It seems to me that some people are being choosy about the words you use, but that’s important! You referred to wishing UUers were more like the Mormons with their faith, but that also seems at odds to me with the mission of UU. How effective is blind evangelism (I believe mormons are popular for the door-to-door method) in reality? “Witnessing” to strangers is statistically ineffective. Of course being willing to discuss your faith with someone willingly listening could be viewed as evangelism, but it’s so much more than that. UUers need not shy away from wanting to talk about what they believe in, but that’s not evangelism… that’s just living. I personally prefer Swiffer Wetjets to real mops, and if anyone is willing to have a discussion about it, I’ll gladly explain why, but if i come to you and start giving you all the reasons why i think wetjets are so much more beneficial than mops, the listener will not take that to heart the way they would if they were seeking information. Furthermore, if I talk about something I believe to be the best personal choice, is that evangelism or speaking freely?

        Perhaps you should consider the history of the words you choose.

        • The words were chosen by the UUA and the man we elected President of that organization, too. Words change definitions, just as new words are created and old words fade from use.

          I do wish we were more like the Mormons, but there is a lot of room between us and door-to-door visits. I simply meant we should have their courage to speak up for our Principles and values. Too many UUs will gladly sit back, or hide behind politics, when what we need is moral fortitude.

  5. Good points and I agree with the goals. The execution has the risk of alienating as many as you might gain though. Many that walk your path found their way to it by getting off another. I admire, the UUA. Have since I discovered it. Which yes, was not easy. I found myself at a service with a friend who was a member. I had heard of it, but thought it was much the same as all the other churches I would drive past. I agree, you have a good organization and a good message. Just remember your strength is your uniqueness. Your message is unique. Make sure your voice and methods are just as unique.

    • There are only so many ways of talking to people. Of course, we must be true to our Principles, respecting the worth and dignity of others and allowing that their lives have taught them different lessons. We should not be afraid to say that we believe in love, or equality, or justice as strongly and proudly as others may believe in damnation, and judgement, and sin. Our message helps people feel better about themselves and the path their live has taken, and offers hope that they can be part of a community that will encourage and support their growth and progress. without forcing them to become anything or bow to any doctrine.

      I wish we were unique, and that desire may be part of the confusion being created. We are not. We are a fusion in some ways, and an evolution in others, but we are a religion with ideas on how to make the world easier to live in. Our Principles are really just some of the best ideas that other religions have worked out over the centuries, coupled with the understanding that science is answering more questions with greater detail every year. We are the American Mutt of religions, and I feel we are only special in that only we keep trying to claim deep religious heritage, while simultaneously denying that it actually matters.

  6. I did not come to UUism because I was damaged by religion. I came to it because I had been helped by it, and as I grew deeper in understanding religion and how it worked, pat answers and blinding faith just weren’t cutting it.

    I say evangelize and spread the good news. It is the practice of sanctuary in which we engage when we evangelize. It is the practice of prophecy. It is the application of that Balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole. It is a sacrifice of self in order to salve another.

    it is the establishment of connection which is what religion is all about.

Speak your piece

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: