Reach out to become a public church

Reach out to become a public church

Unitarian Universalism can't yet claim that the greater good is its primary purpose, but it should.
Michael Durall


Not long ago I attended the opening of a community health clinic, funded almost entirely by a local church. This church had received a bequest from a long-term member whose only desire was that the money be used for the greater good. The congregation believed how it spent this money would reveal the church’s true nature and character, so members raised an equal amount and built the health clinic in a marginal neighborhood. It just didn’t seem right to put all that money in the bank, for the congregation’s use alone.

A layperson who spoke at the health clinic’s opening said she was proud to be part of a “public” church. She conveyed the dedication of that congregation to its primary purpose—to serve the public good. There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.

This congregation held great appeal for me. It had a distinct purpose. The church’s theology, different from my own, mattered little.

Many churches throughout the United States have funded large-scale community projects. Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, is an excellent example. This congregation raised $750,000 from its members to help build a Boys and Girls Club a few blocks down the street. The church was one of the largest donors to the project.

I don’t know of any Unitarian Universalist church that has constructed a project on the scale of a community health clinic or a Boys and Girls Club, though many have the financial resources to do so.

While most UU congregations are involved in smaller-scale initiatives, I don’t believe Unitarian Universalism can claim the status of a “public” church—that the greater good is its primary purpose. Does that mean Unitarian Universalism is some type of private church?

The Rev. William Murry, UU minister and former president of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, addressed this issue in very potent language. He said, in part:

Too often we have understood our task as relegated to the private sphere, the personal lives of our members. Too often we have preached sermons on trivial and inconsequential subjects rather than address the significant issues of our times. In a word, too many of our ministers and churches have retreated into the safety and security of the private sphere and have little or no public ministry, and that is tragic.

I believe Murry’s prophetic words have a direct bearing on how UU congregations view their role in the world, and whether or not they will grow in membership.

In The Almost Church Revitalized, my most recent book, I explore ideas for how church leaders can help their congregations become more vital, outwardly focused entities. Gleaned from my thirteen years as a church consultant who has helped about fifty UU congregations develop comprehensive visions and goals, The Almost Church Revitalizedis a realistic book. Today, in church terms, the fastest growing segment of the population is the unchurched. The second-fastest growing group includes those drawn to conservative faiths. In part, these trends have occurred because traditional faiths, including Unitarian Universalism, have not evolved quickly enough to adapt to a rapidly changing American society.

I believe that many of Unitarian Universalism’s perceived strengths are in actuality its most significant liabilities. Murry’s phrase “private sphere” is an excellent example of a perceived UU strength that is actually a liability. The fourth Unitarian Universalist Principle, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” is the quintessential private spirituality and may be detrimental to future growth.

When I witnessed the ribbon-cutting ceremony opening that health center, the search for truth struck me as trifling in comparison to what this congregation had accomplished. This church had brought about a miracle. Thousands of lives would be made better. The search for truth resounded not only as trivial, but indifferent to a world in great need.

This brings us back to the concept of the private church. That phrase may not be entirely precise, but Murry’s notion of the “private sphere” resonates accurately. The future growth of Unitarian Univer­salism may hinge on this very concept.

America now sports a multimillion-dollar “spirituality” business. Countless opportunities exist to seek truth via books, DVDs, seminars, conferences, and residential retreats. Many are based on Eastern faiths and offer people the opportunity to delve deeply within themselves. Others have a more questionable basis and are prosperity oriented, teaching subjects like, “Nine Spiritual Practices for Getting Everything You Want.”

My purpose is not to rate these programs, but rather to say that they attract people who are on the inner search for truth. While spirituality-related programs have flourished, their success has not translated into increased attendance at traditional churches.

If UU congregations emphasize the search for truth as a fundamental goal, they are attempting to reach this segment of the population. But people on the search for truth are unlikely to believe they will find what they are seeking in organized religion. (Jokes about being a disorganized religion are amusing, but not helpful.) Beyond this particular segment of the population, the search for truth is not a motivating factor for the vast majority of church shoppers today.

We needn’t abandon the search for religious truth, or the belief that revelation is not sealed, but these should be a secondary focus, at best. Our primary concern should lie elsewhere—away from the private sphere and toward becoming a public church, one that reaches out to create a more just and humane world. UUs are among the most highly educated and affluent of American churchgoers, and such a goal is well within our reach.

You can perform a simple test to determine the extent to which your congregation takes a public or private stance. Just look for the “outreach” or “social action” line item in the church’s budget. This line item is separate from denominational or district dues.

Mainline Protestant congregations, churchgoers most like UUs in socioeconomic terms, maintain a budget line item for outreach of between 10 and 29 percent, with the national average being 16 percent. This money goes to people who are less fortunate, beyond the church’s four walls. These are churches whose primary orientation is outward, toward the community. If the line item in your congregation’s budget is appreciably less, or nonexistent, this indicates an inwardly focused congregation.

Likewise, if your congregation does not give away the Sunday offering to community needs, the emphasis is most likely on maintenance and a principal concern for members who are already there. This is a congregation that essentially gives money to itself, a private church. Such a situation should be a matter of conscience for UUs of good faith.

If UU congregations wish to engage the world in more meaningful ways, they will need to become more outward-oriented, public churches that challenge members to reach new segments of the population with a very different message.

Adapted with permission from The Almost Church Revitalized, © 2009 by Michael Durall, published by CommonWealth Consulting.

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