"What's Holding Us Back?"

February 20, 2011
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


This is one of the Burning Questions I have been hearing on a very frequent basis during my life as a Unitarian Universalist:
"We're so great, we're smart but we don't claim to have all the answers, we're the obvious affiliation for people who don't want to be told what to believe, we don't understand why we're not a larger denomination!"

I have a very passionate response to this question. It comes from being a UU all my life and having visited and worshipped with, preached in, or consulted with thousands of UUs and around fifty congregations. This is going to be a bit of a barn-burner. It is a bit repetitive as I hit some points more than once because I think they're so important. Some of this will feel like it doesn't apply to you personally and to us as a congregation. But some of it really does. The trick is to be always willing to look at ourselves honestly -- with love and appreciation but also with an eye for the "gotcha," as in "Oops, that really could be me! Gotcha!"  Remember that the preacher's job is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!"

First of all, a bit of context: UUs number at about 100,000. We have about 1000 congregations in the United States and around the world. We are a minute number of people. There are many thousands more Muslims in the Boston area alone than there are Unitarian Universalists in the entire world. As a denomination, we are not growing. Our tiny growth percentage over the past decades is puny when considered next to general population growth. We welcome a small handful -- if any -- new congregations every year, and the vast majority of our churches have less than 100 members, and most of our congregations are located in Massachusetts.

However, all that said, we should know that the mainline Protestant church in America in general is dying, and fast. By "mainline Protestant" I mean those churches and movements that are not evangelical, not independent mega-churches, and not one of the ethnic, immigrant churches - most of which tend to be either orthodox or evangelical (they read Bible as literal truth, espouse conservative "morals," are patriarchal and hierarchical, are Holy Spirit-centered, emphasizing a born-again conversion experience, and ministering to a particular ethnic group). So times have changed. Times have changed a LOT.

The fact is that church life and churches, and not necessarily WHAT we do but the WAY we do it is just totally unappealing to people who never give it a second thought. Friendship, mutual support, cultivating reverence, service - these ideas are great but why pursue them in such a fusty institution as the Church? Look at us here, coming out in the cold on a Sunday morning and sitting on a slab of wood to hear an instrument that the average American under the age of 50 has never heard and doesn't care about, listening to a preacher talk for way, way longer than anyone talks at one stretch anymore, shaking the hands of friends and strangers, drinking coffee while standing around in an open room with no computers, not going anywhere, no music, -- it's just alien to people. The building and what we do here feel like a bizarre throwback to American suburbanites, which is where the vast majority of UU congregations are located: the suburbs. One remark you'll often hear from our folks all over the country is that "People don't join UU congregations because they want to be told what to believe."

I am always amazed at this folly. It is totally disrespectful, it's a gross over-simplification of the complex reasons people affiliate with churches and it reveals a total lack of understanding about the culture of our Unitarian Universalist congregations. We somehow imagine that the most noticeable thing about us is our theological diversity and openness. In other words, we tend to actually believe our own press. But that isn't what people see when they walk into our congregations. What they see is the people. What they see is a crowd of almost all white people who look alike, sound alike, embrace the same causes, are self-righteously critical of the same things, who make the same insulting remarks about "other" religions, and are just as intolerant, insular, prone to bickering about petty things, and out of touch with reality as are the people in any other church. Yet, these UUs aggressively market themselves as an alternative to those "other" churches!  That wouldn't be such a crime, except that we are the people who say of ourselves, "We're about community! We're about the seeking after wisdom! We're about openness to a variety of points of view (as long as it's not THAT point of view). We're intellectually curious and broader minded than everyone else! We're welcoming!"

What we should have said is, "We're a religious community. We find a really awesome opportunity to be together, to try to live a deeper life than the ones we can manage to create on our own. We're trying to take care of each other, and to find some meaning in this insanity called life. We like this old way of gathering on Sunday morning. We love tradition and history. We love to laugh together, and we're thrilled by life and beauty and creativity and we really like to sing and eat together, too. We get into squabbles like any other community. We don't always see eye-to-eye but like any other community that cares about its mission and vision, we stick it out. We're prone to being proud of ourselves like any other church is, but you know, we're proud of ourselves for good reason. A lot of us work really hard to be good people; that's all we're trying to do. As far as our theology goes, we believe in one God at most, and other than that we believe in love. You have to spend some time with us to find out how our religion works because it's ultimately about being in community. We'd be so happy if you'd come join with us." 

So l would broadly identify as our first major problem, as not having an educated and realistic sense of our identity, context and our own limited perspective. We are not, as one of our recent marketing campaigns tried to brand us, "The Uncommon Denomination." We are a religious movement that could be properly identified as the extreme far left of the Reformation; a group that imagines itself as a kind of protest movement against fundamentalism and orthodoxy, a temple for world religions, and a radical innovator in the religious landscape but that is, in actuality, a mainline Protestant church that differs from other mainline Protestant churches mostly because we say right out loud that we have our doubts about God, we openly welcome an atheistic viewpoint, we openly acknowledge that we're not all on the same page theologically, and we have an eclectic and creative worship tradition. In other words, as a group of people with certain ideas, we are pretty indistinguishable from any of the other mainline Protestants in the United States in our same socio-economic demographic with similar levels of education. What differentiates us is that we don't worship with a prayer book or according to a strictly Christian liturgy -- again because we have evolved in our sense of religious identity to something I would call "eclecticism" .

We are not radical. You know who's radical right now? The young Christians who are gathering in each other's homes to be followers of Jesus with no clergy, no church building and  no budget. In some cases they combine their incomes and live together, they are highly educated, totally modern, hip, progressive, often have high-paying jobs in technology, they are widely read and very respectful of and interested in world religions. They practice yoga and dance to African drumming. They have been to India and Southeast Asia. They ride their bikes to work. They are vegan and really try not to accumulate possessions, eschewing American consumerism as the most dangerous threat to the planet. Now, most Unitarian Universalists don't know about them, or any of the other thousands of really fascinating, contemporary religious movements around today, because (among other things) they hear "Christian" and think they know what that means and close their minds against it. 

UU-ism is not growing partly, I am certain, because we are so insular and anti-ecumenical. We think we are cutting-edge. We are not. Our theological questioning, our rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine, and our embrace of eclectic spiritual practices and interest in a variety of sources of wisdom are not in any way cutting edge and have not been for many decades. We are not a unique religious people in the American landscape in the least, although we persist in this self-image. We are not unique in our intellectual search for meaning, our commitment to science, our comfort with agnosticism and atheism, and our post-modern worldview. The things that many Unitarians get excited about in "new" religious scholarship were actually new about fifty years ago. We are not unique in our progressive attitudes toward sexuality, environmentalism, or any other social issues. Those UUs who call us "the social justice tradition" completely fail to recognize that we are just a tiny (if very loud and passionate!) dot on the faith-based social justice scene. We are not "the social justice tradition." We are not "the people of deeds, not creeds." We are neither of these things. Our commitment to social justice and communal emphasis on deeds rather than doctrine -- is not unique to the Unitarian Universalists. We are simply one small religious movement that is strongly committed to social justice.

Because the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists are so adamantly anti-ecumenical and neither fellowship with, visit, or regularly consult with people in other religious groups about religious matters (especially not with Christians), we have an embarrassingly limited sense of who we are and how much we have in common with other religious liberals -- many of whom can be found in the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Catholic traditions. There are millions of Catholic progressives. The Catholic church has an extraordinarily impressive tradition of both scholarship and of progressive social change. Maybe not in our immediate acquaintance, but worldwide: yes. Most UUs know nothing of liberation theology, a place where I personally think we lost our opportunity to be a major religious denomination, but that's a story for another time. We are not unique in our perspective on Jesus, the Bible, and the questioning of God. As I said before, we are somewhat unique in that our worship services reflect these questions and our post-modernist orientation while other mainstream Protestant churches retain traditional forms of liturgy. But in the minds of the people - very much the same.

So why does this matter so much? Because, I think, there is such a totally bizarre disconnect for people when they walk through the doors of a UU congregation and are trying to figure out what it's all about. If they've done some research in advance (say on the Internet -- www.beliefnet.com brings us lots of visitors), they have every reason to be confused: "Wow. This looks a lot like every other church I've ever been in. They do most of the same things except they took most of the "God" and "Jesus" out of the hymns." "We're into diversity!" Gee, it looks like a lot of educated, white, middle or upper middle-class people to me. They dress the same, they drive the same cars, they vote the same, they listen to the same radio stations [NPR], they read the same books and care about the same causes.  They seem pretty not diverse to me...  Now, some of these seekers might love what they see and stay, but a lot of them don't. They say, "I get it. It's just a church."

There's nothing wrong with being just a church, but we have to know our culture, and see ourselves in the broader perspective. We need to develop a much more humble sense of reality and remember that we are every bit as much a stereotype as the Bible-thumpers on the religious right. If we claim to be a more mature people than typical church people are, then we need to change our behaviors and adopt a different kind of presence: a truly mature, truly open and truly humble one. I don't mean false humility. I mean a humility that doesn't engage in the bashing of other traditions, isn't always emphasizing what we reject about religion but that affirms what we do embrace and do believe, doesn't make rude remarks about what we reject, and above all, isn't ignorant.

We are not THE radicals. We are not THE intellectuals. We are not THE social reformers. What are we? We are a quirky little denomination that tries to love the world and stay engaged in it. Because we have inherited a tradition that says that it's this world that matters: the next one we know nothing about. We are a little religious movement that ardently believes in the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms. What I see for us is to really get braver and more creative in how we envision church. I will be preaching about my vision for what this would look like at the end of this program year, in a sermon in June called "20/20 Vision." It will project a vision for what we might look like in the year 2020. It asks questions like, "How do we honor our traditional ways of being church while recognizing that that way might feel inaccessible, confusing and/or arcane to many of our seekers? Who do we serve, and who do we need to serve, with our buildings and our ministry? As old ways die (and we grieve them), what new ways have we been too nervous to even contemplate? How can we help the Spirit of Love live and move through us and into the South Shore more broadly?" If you are amenable, I would like to spend some of our next year together -- the tenth year of my ministry with you -- in a visioning process where we let ourselves think radical things and get really wild in our imaginings.

Two other reasons we're not a larger religious movement: We don't retain our children and youth. The simple reason for that is that we don't raise them to be loyal to the church, and set expectations that they will remain in it. We raise them within a climate of choice -- you don't have to go to church if you don't want to (and the unconscious subtext there is often, "I didn't want to when I was your age so I can't really expect you to, either") and we teach them ambiguity ("We don't know what we believe, we're very nervous about telling you anything specific, because the specific things we were taught hurt us -- so we'll teach you about other religions instead"). So they grow up thinking of church as a pleasant place to be at best, and so far, they have overwhelmingly chosen not to stay in our congregations. Something like 90% of the members of our congregations are what we call come-outers -- they come as adults. This means that we are perpetually welcoming newcomers, introducing them to Unitarian Universalism, and basically helping them get acclimated to being part of a church, teaching leadership, mentoring, and helping them understand what it means to be being ministered to -- as well as helping them find their own place and ministry in the church.
Every church of every denomination I have ever visited has felt that it needed to grow. Every church I have ever visited has lamented its lack of volunteers, thought that more people needed to do more, and had the same worries about their future. So I wonder if it would help if we could think more about what the world needs and not worry so much about what our church needs, or our denomination. (I don't know what the world needs. I know what I love. I love the church. I am giving my life to the institution. But, you know, I don't know what the world needs. I am in prayer and discernment about that all the time. It's scary to think that the world might not need what I love. There is existential pain in that. But I don't know.)

Those who get it right, I think, are the ones who don't fret too much. They say, "I love my church, in this place and time, and I hope others join who would be able to love it too. It will change in every generation. It will take up different causes in different eras and it will sing different songs. But it is here for to inspire, comfort, challenge all who choose to be here, and to teach love and service. That is all it is, and tradition- things like potluck suppers and concerts and book groups and Bible study and spring fairs and visiting people and phone calling and being friends. I hope new generations will love those things, too. If not, may they create their own traditions to love." 

What we must realize and not fret about too much in our own place and time is the fact that the institution of the Church is not the only place one can be inspired, challenged, experience community, learn love and service, and explore spiritual truths. It's the one that we love, but it's not the only one. We, therefore, are not competing with other churches -- and that's where contemporary Unitarian Universalism gets it so very wrong, I think -- but we are in the same boat as all churches. Church involvement and membership is, in this time in history, just one choice for people to make in their own construction of a meaningful life.

But we love the church. We do have a charge to live into and to live up to. It is a charge inherited from our spiritual ancestors whose lives were so enriched by this institution. Remember though, that when they first gathered, they had one concept of church and that they would find us unrecognizable as religious brethren today, 369 years later. Time marches on, and we march with it. If we are to survive as a religious movement we will have to be smarter than we have been, wiser than we have been, more humble than we have been, braver than we have been and more visionary than we have been. If we believe in the true goodness of our endeavor than we cannot fail. And by that I mean that we will not, by the grace of the Spirit of Love, fail. And I also mean that we must not fail.