When was the last time you said to someone, “I had lunch at the best Italian place today”? Have you ever said to someone, “There is a farmers market every Thursday over off the highway, if you want better, local produce”? I can’t be the only person who has tried to convince people to visit at a small, locally owned business instead of a box store or chain restaurant. Have you ever let someone know that there is a local charity that needs the kind of items they might have otherwise set out on the curb? Have you ever talked to someone about an issue that they seemed misinformed about?
Evangelism isn’t foreign to many UUs. We just don’t apply it to our religion, which is a shame, because we are often driven to tell people about things that are exciting to us because they promote our Principles.
Part of the difference is that we have let Evangelism be owned by fundamentalists. People tell me that the definition of the word is to talk to people about Jesus and the Gospels of the Bible, and that it has no relation to Unitarian Universalism. Do we really believe that we have no place for Jesus in our religion? That would be a painful thing to hear for our great theological fore bearers, of whom we are so proud. When did we stop teaching “love your neighbor”? What would Unitarian Universalism be without non violent protests, where we “Turn the other cheek”? Our Biblical message is part of our larger religious message; is it not as worthy of being shared as any other?
Some people have said that it goes against something fundamental in our Principles or beliefs to be excited and talk to people about why being a Unitarian Universalist matters in our lives. I would like to counter that, by saying that, just as we pray differently, worship differently, and fellowship differently from most Christian churches, we can evangelize in a way that still honors our Principles. Just as we haven’t, as a movement, given up those other words (nor should we), we shouldn’t give up the idea that we have a great message to share through personal evangelism.
We affirm and promote the idea that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Doesn’t that mean that we should be telling people that our church accepts who they are? Shouldn’t we make sure that they know where to find a community that will make room for them, as they are, and let them grow into the person they were born to be? Valuing their worth and dignity means wanting them to know that we offer something different in a church. It means telling them that, if they need it, it is there for them. Inviting people, warmly and sincerely, to join us honors their worth. Letting them choose for themselves honors their dignity. Shouldn’t we make sure they are aware of Unitarian Universalism as an option?
Unitarian Universalist congregations also covenant to “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. How can we grow if we are never challenged? How can we grow if we allow our churches to stagnate and age without seeking out new members? Our mission requires fresh ideas and new talents every year, to tackle fresh obstacles and meet changing needs. Our growth requires that we hear other perspectives and that we consider new information. Our mission requires that we engage people in conversation, and that we seek out people who hold different ideas than those already represented in our congregations.
The most likely sticking point, I think may be in our commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. As I said last week, “I believe that we can’t convert people to Unitarian Universalism; you have to come to it already knowing that it is right for you.” I also believe, though, that we can plant the seeds by talking about our Principles, and I am proof that those ideas will stick with some people, and they can come to accept them, even if it wasn’t their first reaction. I have never advocated for beating people with copies of “On the Origin of Species” or “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith“. It wouldn’t do any good. Instead, let us lead good lives, do good in our communities, and make sure people know that we are expressing our faith and living out our Principles. We can tell people about how our congregations are families that accept and embrace our uniqueness. It isn’t about conversion or convincing people of anything other than that our church helps us be better people, and that we have a place in it for them, too.
It isn’t against our Principles to talk to people, to educate them and try to influence their decisions. Our Principles actually call on us to try to change our communities for the better. It cannot run contrary to those saving, loving, accepting ideas to share them with others, to widen and strengthen our beloved community. We cannot proselytize in the manner of fundamentalist. Ours is not a faith that comes with answers, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We can talk people through that, if they are willing to listen, but only if we are wiling to share. There are people you encounter every week who need to know that they can be loved for who they are. We need to extend an invitation to join in our work, because our beloved community is incomplete without them.
Evangelism isn’t in opposition to Unitarian Universalist Principles. It is required by them. As with so many other religious terms, we just need to come to our own understanding of what it means to evangelize. We can do it in a way that respects the personal quest for truth, while still proclaiming the worth and value of each person we encounter. If we have something great to share, how can we claim to better the world while keeping it to ourselves?