To avoid decline, Unitarian Universalism must risk offering heart, spirituality, and blessing.
I’m worried about Unitarian Universalism. I was raised in this faith. I have found a place here during every era of my life, although my theology and spirituality have changed several times. It is hard for me to imagine a good life without Unitarian Universalism. Yet I’m worried. After three decades of very modest growth during a population boom—which can only be called a success when compared to mainline Protestant faiths that have plummeted in numbers—we’re starting to shrink, too. Unlike the Methodists and the Presbyterians, we were minuscule to start with. The world has changed around us, and if we don’t adjust to those changes, we are going to die off.
In the middle of the last century, America was a churchgoing society. In much of the country, people who didn’t go to church or synagogue kept the fact quiet. There was nothing else to do on Sunday in most locales besides going to church. Polite persons didn’t even mow their lawns on Sunday morning. Shopping was out of the question. If you got crosswise with your church, decided you didn’t believe its creed, or were angered by its policies, you licked your wounds and found another church, because belonging to a church just seemed necessary to a good life—especially if you were raising children.
In this religious and social landscape, Unitarianism, and then Unitarian Universalism, offered people the opportunity to belong to a church free from the requirements of doctrines that they didn’t believe. Or, to put it crudely, Unitarian Universalism found a successful niche in the mid-twentieth century by asserting, in effect, “Unitarian Universalists are free to believe whatever we want to, and most of us don’t.”
The times, they have a-changed.
In 2011, this is an increasingly un-churched society. Plenty of people don’t participate in any organized religious observance. Most parents who bring their children to church are choosing church over soccer, TV, shopping, family time, and chores. Most children go to school with Christians, Jews, and Muslims, those of other faiths, and many friends who do not belong to a religious body. The right to believe what your own heart and mind suggest to you is true, including “nothing,” is taken for granted in much of elder society and in virtually all of younger society.
When people decide that they don’t believe what they were raised to believe, they often go for years without belonging to any church, because religion is no longer a privileged part of the social landscape in most parts of the nation. When they decide they want to go to church again, it is not because they want freedom; they’ve had freedom. Nor are most of them interested in “community,” generally speaking. For community they have Facebook, volleyball leagues, going out for a drink after work, mothers’ groups, and the like. No, when they show up at our door, they show up looking for the one thing they can’t get at the gym, or the Democratic Party headquarters, or the mothers’ group. They want a safe place to explore what happens to them when they start to deepen their lives. They are looking, in short, for a religious community—not a secular one. Those who try orthodox options and can’t bring themselves, in all integrity, to sign on, or who already know what they don’t believe, they are the ones who might come to us. These people are our natural constituency. These are the people we are supposed to be serving. This is our niche in the current religious landscape.
If we don’t serve their needs for depth, heart, spirituality, hope, faith, and love outside of an orthodox setting, who will?
Early in my ministry, older colleagues talked about their building projects and how, “If you build it, they will come.” I want the next buzz to be about heart. “If you deepen, you will attract.” “If you risk offering heart, spirit, god, prayer, blessing—without demanding that people believe specific things about these practices—you will grow.”
When I think about my mixed emotions about undertaking change, I think about the saying that most people spell the word change L-O-S-S. I get it that secular Unitarian Universalism has been really important to some people and that change will be a loss. I get it that those of us who grew up singing Germanic hymns accompanied by a powerful organ look at the drum set in the chancel and spell it L-O-S-S.
And then I think of another important piece of doggerel wisdom: “At the bottom of God’s pocket is . . . change”—which, if it were translated by a theologian, would read: “Change is the very heart of reality, and the meaning of your life is to go with that flow, into the future.”
Adapted from “The Future of Unitarian Universalism: What’s Possible?,” a presentation at the 2011 Minns Lectures by Christine Robinson. see below for links related to this story, including other selections from the Minns Lectures.
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The Rev. Christine Robinson is retired after 29 years serving as the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico.