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Message or culture?

Are Unitarian Universalists more committed to spreading liberal religion or to preserving our congregational culture?
By Doug Muder
8.17.09

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UU Chalice (Photo by David G. Hawkins, First Parish in Brookline, MA)

(Photo by David G. Hawkins, First Parish in Brookline, MA)

Every year, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly takes on some unannounced theme. Or at least I think it does. Maybe it’s just my mind’s unconscious habit of imposing order on the buzzing, blooming confusion of it all. But each year the talks I go to, the people I run into, the random blips of conversation I overhear all seem to point to some idea or issue or question that I didn’t think I was thinking about when I got there.

This year, it all seemed to point to this: At its core, what is Unitarian Universalism really about? Do we have a message we are trying to bring to the world? Or do we have a culture we are trying to preserve against extinction?

In one of the Thursday workshops at GA, the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, an African-American minister and historian, opened a talk called “The Perversity of Diversity” by describing the churches he could see in his Toronto neighborhood: two Korean churches, a Ukrainian Catholic church, a Lutheran Slovak church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall advertising services in Portuguese. “Where does your congregation fit into this ethnic mix?” he asked. “You don’t know. You don’t think of yourself as an ethnic congregation. I’ve got news for you. You are.” (See UU World’s profile of Morrison-Reed in the Spring 2009 issue.)

He wasn’t just talking about our race (“97.5 percent Euro-American”) or language (English), but also our class (professional as opposed to working), education (just short of a master’s degree, on average), regional heritage (New England), and worship style (“no ‘Amens’ here”). One of Morrison’s questioners noted that his southern church was made up largely of transplanted northerners: Even the local English-speaking white population was too culturally distant.

The previous day, in her response to the Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor’s Berry Street Lecture (which was technically part of Ministry Days rather than GA, but nobody was checking badges when I walked in), another African-American UU minister, the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, could have been preaching from the same text. “We forget when we talk about cultural change in ministry,” she said, “that it is not just those other people who have a culture.” She poked fun at some stereotypic UU traits: liking PBS and NPR but denouncing all other mass media, shopping at farmer’s markets while avoiding Wal-Mart, listening to classical music rather than gospel or hip-hop. But the humor faded when she wondered whether her son will be a UU in adulthood. He loves our message, but questions whether he can share our culture. Will he ever feel like he belongs?

Are we bringing a message to the world, or preserving a culture?

It makes a difference. If we’re bringing a message to the world, we’re not doing very well. Not much of the world is listening. Some of our churches are growing while others are shrinking, but nowhere are we spreading like the yeast in Jesus’s parable of the leaven.

If we’re preserving a culture, on the other hand, we’re doing fine. Our numbers are holding reasonably steady while other liberal or mainstream denominations shrink. (A 2006 report by Presbyterian researcher Perry Chang showed declines in the top seven mainstream Protestant denominations, with the United Church of Christ—our closest cousin historically—losing about one-third of its membership between 1994 and 2004.) Just about anyplace that a stereotypic UU would want to live for very long—a major city or a bucolic college town, say—has a UU church where our people can find refuge against the storms of ignorance and intolerance (or just bad taste) raging outside its walls.

“We are an ethnic faith,” Morrison-Reed repeated several times. Was that an observation, or a taunt?

With the McNatt/Morrison-Reed words ringing in my head, I listened to the UUA’s presidential race differently. The Peter Morales T-shirts said: “We can be the religion for our time.” But I began to hear an unstated challenge—or was it also a taunt?—at the end of that line: if we want to.

We might not want to. If we’re really going to have this discussion, we need to give that possibility its due. By describing the churches of his neighborhood, Morrison-Reed was implicitly pointing out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with an ethnic church. There are lots of them, and why shouldn’t the Slovak Lutherans have a church of their own? Our partner churches in Transylvania, he observed, would understand perfectly: They’re Hungarian-speaking Unitarian Christians who preserved their ways through half a century of rule by Romanian-speaking atheists.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing. This isn’t a good-versus-evil issue; it’s a question of what kind of good we want to pursue. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel comfortable in church, wanting to feel affirmed in your identity, wanting to see and hear and do familiar things with people like yourself. But if that kind of good starts to crowd out other kinds of good, we need to make choices.

Gustav Niebuhr was also at GA, accepting the Melcher Book Award for Beyond Tolerance. His book is about interfaith dialogue, but it has a subtext about identity. The dialogue he celebrates does not demonize identity. It does not ask people of diverse faiths to airbrush away their differences or compromise on some vapid set of universal principles. Quite the opposite, it calls for people to be secure enough in their identities that they can listen deeply to each other without feeling threatened.

I had no trouble fitting his message into the theme I was hearing in (or imposing on) General Assembly as a whole: It would serve no purpose to demonize the UU stereotype. We don’t need to hide our advanced degrees, stop listening to NPR, or watch NASCAR or hip-hop videos instead of Bill Moyers Journal. We’re never going to become cultureless or identity-free. But perhaps if we go deeper we can reach the bedrock of our UU identities, and recognize that many of our common traits are not really necessary. To steal Theodore Parker’s evocative terminology, perhaps we can separate the transient from the permanent in Unitarian Universalist culture.


If I were making a novel out of General Assembly and could arrange its events in any order I like, the story would culminate in the “Guess Who’s Coming to Worship?” talk that in fact happened on Friday evening, with two days of the conference to go. The Euro-American minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, shared a podium (as he has shared a pulpit) with African-American preacher the Rev. Carlton Pearson. Pearson was once a Pentecostal bishop, a regent of Oral Roberts University, and the leader of a 6,000-member Tulsa megachurch whose services were televised on the Trinity network.

Part of Pearson’s story was already familiar to many UUs, because NPR’s This American Life centered an entire episode on him in 2005. In 2001 he had a religious experience that (from a UU point of view) sounds a lot like something John Murray or Hosea Ballou might have preached about: God told him that no one was going to Hell. All the doctrine about God taking out his anger on Jesus instead of us—it was just wrong. God was never angry, and has always loved us.

As soon as he started talking about this new insight, Pearson fell from favor in the Pentecostal world. His congregation dwindled. They lost their building, bounced around a little, and then last summer started meeting at All Souls—and drawing a number of curious UUs to their services. By the fall, Pearson had recommended his flock join All Souls, and Lavanhar had crafted a Sunday program where the church’s two services had the same UU sermon and readings, but the late service had a more Pentecostal worship style, with livelier music and more amens.

“It’s not our norm,” Lavanhar explained to his congregation, “but there’s nothing about who we are or our values that says we can’t.” (Watch for the Fall 2009 issue of UU World later in August for a cover story about Pearson, Lavanhar, and All Souls.)

All Souls isn’t changing its message, in other words, but it is trying to change its culture. For the rest of the conference, I heard people buzzing: Is that really possible? What if it works? Could it happen at my church? What would we gain? What would we lose?

Saturday, during the question period of another workshop, Morrison-Reed was asked what UUism might look like in twenty years. “In Tulsa,” he answered, “if it succeeds in merging the fervor of Pentecostal culture—and the emotion—with the UU message, I can’t tell you what we might be in twenty years. If we can merge true, honest emotion with liberal religion—and they are not contradictory, in spite of what some people believe—I can’t tell you what we will look like. It will be vastly different.”

If that starts to happen, if we are going into a cyclone period where things become “vastly different,” it will be tempting to hold on for dear life. There’s nothing wrong with that reflex. It is in fact a virtue—if we hold on to the right things. If we hold onto the permanent in Unitarian Universalism and let the transient blow away, we will come out stronger. But if we hold onto the transient, the cyclone will scatter us across the landscape.

Now we just need to figure out which is which.


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