our callingFrom the President
The most dangerous church in America
How would you like to give the religious right a good scare?
It has been known to happen. When we held our General Assembly in Salt Lake City in 1999, the Rev. Stefan Jonasson, now the UUA's coordinator of services to large congregations, met with the head of missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Knowing that several thousand of us were coming to town, this Mormon official had done his homework, and he told Stefan something interesting: Proportionate to our size, he said, Unitarian Universalists do a better job of attracting visitors than do the Mormons. But, he added, we do a terrible job keeping them. "If your churches were half as successful at integrating and retaining members as we Mormons are," he concluded, "then Unitarian Universalism would be the most dangerous church in America."
"I knew deep down that he really meant it," Stefan told me. "I also had a pretty clear sense that he was not much concerned that we would ever become that great a danger." What would it take for us to prove that Mormon missionary wrong? To become the most dangerous church in America?
Back in 1996, an evangelical theologian warned readers of Trinity Journal that we were on our way, that "the UUA has shed its passivity and is now spreading its 'saving message' with a vengeance."
What would it take to prove him right, to really spread our saving message, our Good News, "with a vengeance"?
Less than we might think, I believe. We see ourselves as a tiny and fairly radical movement. But a major study in 1990 found twice as many people who identified themselves as Unitarian Universalists as were on our rolls; three years ago, a similar study turned up four times as many. How many might there be if more people knew what we stand for?
But most Americans do not know. We have spent most of the last forty years talking to ourselves about who we are. (We have also taken justifiable pride in our cutting-edge stands on issues of gender and sexual orientation and even about our reengagement with race.) But while we have been talking to ourselves we have not noticed that much of the religious world has been shifting toward us. Despite the well-funded din from the religious right, most Americans have decided some things in our favor: Empowerment of women is a good thing. Gay and lesbian persons are human beings and are to be valued, not discriminated against. The world is a religiously pluralistic place; there is no one gate to the city.
We're no longer way out on the margins, and we no longer need to confine our message to the little side streets in our UU neighborhoods. We can take our Good News to the center of the public square with some expectation that it will be favorably received. We need to do this, and to do it consistently, because religious conservatives have so far succeeded in making many people believe that theirs is the only religious voice on issues like gender roles and sexual orientation and abortioneven though most of the culture disagrees with them. No wonder they sense that we're dangerous.
How can we become the most dangerous church in America? We can stand up in the public square and consistently and clearly voice our commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person and our commitment to a world community with peace, justice, and liberty for all. We can take action inspired by these commitments. We can offer visitors to our congregations a liberal religious home, a sanctuary from the uncertainty and isolation that may have brought them to our doors, a community that will help them develop spiritually and grow emotionallyand as we do, they will stay with us, surprising Stefan's Mormon friend.