Missional Unitarian Universalism: a layman’s persective.

At the turn of the 19th century, Universalism had a vibrant and passionate voice in Hosea Ballou. Having converted to Universalism in 1789, he also came to reject the concept of the Holy Trinity, making him a Unitarian Universalist long before the consolidation of the UUA. He wrote many sermons designed to empower Universalists to talk about the unconditional love of God. He also established Universalist publications, and was known to welcome public questions of his beliefs.

One of the constant questions he faced was along the lines of “How can you believe God saves everyone, no matter how much they have sinned. Ballou confronted the idea of damnation, saying that love required salvation at all costs. He asked, given the Christian assumption of a fatherly creator:

“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”

He did not make these declarations to shame people. He was not trying to lure them to his pews for prestige or tithes. He wanted people to feel loved. His desire was to save people; not from damnation at the hand of God, but from the condemnation of the society they lived in. He argued against Calvinism and the idea that bad things happen only to bad people, and good things only to good. He had more than faith, and more than a message. This was a man with a mission.

This is what Unitarian Universalism needs; not more “social action” or “welcoming” language. We need a mission to actually change the world, with our faith in humanity and the power of love and knowledge, as the core of that mission. We don’t need more people to join us because of how we do politics; we need people to feel compelled to activism by our message that people deserve to be treated with respect and empowered to live lives that make them happy.

To reframe the question posed by Rev. Ballou: Do we embrace our faith because it promotes things we want to do, or are we doing things to help the world because we have a loving and humanist faith? Do we love the world because we are making it better, or are we making it better because we first loved it?

There are people in the world who are lonely, who have been hurt, and who are angry. They don’t want to talk about religion, and they definitely don’t want to hear about divinity and love. They are the people who need us the most. We can reach them, because our divine love doesn’t come after you are dead. Our religion doesn’t even require that you believe in gods, much less worship them. We can offer them a community and a home for their spirit to heal, so that they can find the path that makes them happy and healthy again. We have that, and we shouldn’t be at all afraid to tell people about it. They may say no, but that isn’t a reflection on us, and it isn’t an insult. The insult is presuming that they don’t want the invitation or might not deserve one.

There are people in the world who have been oppressed. Our movement is overwhelmingly made up of people who are white, educated, and middle-class. As a group, we have a lot of privilege. As a religion of love and justice, we owe it to the world to use our individual privilege to work for equality and justice. In effect, our mission should be to leverage our political, economic, and intellectual power to reduce our own impact, much as Jesus said to his followers to give all their goods to the poor in order to follow him. If the poor are elevated, then poverty is eliminated; if cultural privilege is shared, then oppression can be eliminated. Both are essential to achieving social justice and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute their best back to society.

We need to love the world enough to want to change it. Too many Unitarian Universalists seem to come from the other end; operating from a place of dissatisfaction or even disgust and a desire to change things so they are tolerable. We need to care about more than what we can personally stand to allow. We need to make sure the mission is about making things as positive as we can for as many people as we can help. We need to make sure that we are building an all-inclusive community, that makes room for everyone who truly desires to join in our spiritual and social work.

I’ve previously argued that our creator must love us all, and must either have one final destination planned for all of us, or be a being unworthy of my personal reverence. Now I am making the point that our churches must do the same. We have to actively embody that belief, encoded in our Principles, that all people have an inherent worth and dignity that needs to be nourished, and deserve the chance to build a life that makes them happy so long as it doesn’t harm others. It needs to be rooted in our shared belief and a desire to build a better world. We also have to tell people about that mission, because there are people who want to help us, and we need them. There are others who just need the hope that they might have a place in the community; that we are working to have their dignity recognized and respected.

That is missional Unitarian Universalism, to me, and it leads me to be evangelical about our faith. Even those who have no desire, even those who truly have no need, for a religious community do need to know that we are different, and that religion can be a force that helps unite society and undo the idea that God has picked winners and losers and that the oppressed don’t deserve better from their society.

The Principles of UU Evangelism

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?

Unitarian Universalist Evangelism: Speculative Conversations

It wasn’t until about 1998 that I discovered Unitarian Universalism. This despite being 20 years old and living in a part of the country where UU churches are pretty dense for the US south. There was a UU congregation in my home town when I left, but I knew nothing about them. The building was clearly decades old, but the idea of it was completely new to me.

I was invited by a friend who had started attending shortly before, though he had been to a UU church before (he was a bit older and a lot better traveled, as a veteran of the US Navy.) I was unsure I could be excited about church, and fairly unwilling to accept the idea of regular attendance, much less membership. I left the church of my youth and was on a very personal and very eclectic Pagan path. I didn’t want to turn on to some well-trod road just to be part of a community, though he assured me that I wouldn’t need to.

So I discovered the local fellowship in my college town at about age 20, and I was unimpressed.

Honestly, I loved the young adult group, some of whom are still long-distance much much respected friends. I liked the pluralism and I really respected the part-time minister. Some of the lay-led services where really interesting, too. Part of me couldn’t really get excited, though, about getting up early on a Sunday to sing hymns to nothing in particular.

It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the Principles. It was only very slightly that I was struggling with the sources. One big problem was that the congregation was very humanist, and I was very spiritual (a problem I have previously discussed). The bigger issue, as I see it now, was that I wasn’t ready to really embrace the 4th Principle. I was still mad at Christianity, and I was ticked that the Humanists didn’t make more room for my form of patchwork paganism.

In my last post, I pointed out that there are a lot of people who come to Unitarian Universalist churches thinking, “This is what I have been looking for for so long!” I was another case, which I touched on in the second half of that post: I hadn’t embraced diversity and reason far enough to be comfortable in Unitarian Universalism. I found this amazing faith before I was ready for it, and I almost didn’t come back.

Ours can be a mature kind of faith. To accept it, you might need to understand that the world is complex, and people are different in many ways, and yet there are rules and people, ultimately, have the same needs physically and emotionally. You absolutely need to see that we can’t all follow the same path, or we would all be doing the same work. It requires some understanding that I, for one, didn’t have at the age of 20. A lot changed over the next 8 years, but Unitarian Universalism didn’t, and it was still there, waiting, when I was ready.

I had to learn that “pagan” was a lousy denominator for any thought other than “I’d like to shock the Christians a little”. Learning to accept the variety that comes with the “Pagan” community, be they Wiccan, Asatru, or Hellenistic,  helped me understand how humanity needs people who feel called to different kinds of service to the divine and to humanity. I came to understand pluralism better, and it helped heal the scratches (I can’t call them wounds) that my Christian upbringing had left on my heart.

I came back to Unitarian Universalism, to that same building, to find that there had been changes on both sides. Both the congregation and I had grown more inclusive and welcoming. It was honestly joyous; I had found a community where I could hope to be my whole self. I ended up not joining that church, but finding myself in another due to obligations and situations. The church I joined was the one in my home town, that I had not, would not have, known existed until I went looking for it. It was more like the building and the services I grew up in, and that was both comforting and inspiring, as they had room for bigger programs and projects.

I found a place that I could call a spiritual home, with a loving and supportive family that wanted to help me grow and encourage me to participate and give of my talents. They demanded nothing, and they have been, for the most part, very gracious with what I have wanted to share.

The fact is, though, that I found Unitarian Universalism, and unlike so many others who eventually become members, I wasn’t already a UU. I had to grow into it. I had to overcome things about myself and my world view. I needed to mature and be ready to accept the Principles. I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but this is why 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 still think it matters that we get the ideas and the Principles out into the world, so that people can contemplate them and they can make a choice. Whether they ever join us in covenant, we need to be letting them know that the invitation is open. We need to have these conversations, because so many of the people who will benefit at some point won’t even know at the time that they want to know.

There are a lot of people who are, like I was, looking for something meaningful, but have no idea what it looks like. If they don’t know how we are different, then why would they ask us about our church? If they don’t know that our Principles are very different from the creeds of other churches, then they won’t know to ask. We can make excuses for not reaching out to people, and we can certainly point out that our outreach might make some uncomfortable. It also might plant the seed that brings them home one day. I was saved by an invitation that was not well received. I had no intention of joining, even after several months of participation. If I hadn’t been invited, if someone hadn’t risked my rejection and ridicule, I would still be lost, and I would be so much worse off for it.

When I say that we need to speak up, invite people in, and strike up conversations with anyone who gives us an opening, I say it from experience. We cannot convert anyone; our Principles don’t lend themselves to it even if it were a goal. We can make sure that people see us, and know that we can be there for them, their community, and their family. We can give them the information and let them turn it over in their heads. I speak to strangers at bus stops, people in online discussions, and just last week the cheerful young woman who works in the bakery at my supermarket. Few people have ever been offended because I brought up religion, and most actually ask questions, because what we have is interesting and different.

They may not come the next Sunday, or in a the next year, but I feel better telling them that we are out in the world, spreading love and preaching acceptance. Many of them seem grateful to hear about a religion that doesn’t condemn them before we’ve even been introduced. A number of people have even thanked me for telling them that we love them for who they are, and that they are welcome with their whole selves and their whole family, even if they had no intention of taking me up on the invite. I honestly believe that just telling people who we are and what kind of work we do makes the world a better, more tolerable place for some. I also believe that no matter how few find their way to our doors, it is worth letting them know where to find us.

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.