I was walking along the sidewalk to the gym in downtown Boston the other day. A young man wearing a dark suit, black tie, and large square name badge approached me. I forget what his opening line was to me as we passed, but I knew that he was on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or Mormons). I didn’t slow down, but did engage him in conversation. “What do you know about the Mormons?” he asked. I told him that I knew they almost singlehandedly funded Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative that revoked the right of same-sex couples to be legally married in the state. Of everything that I know about LDS, this is the thing that most sticks in my craw. Because the church leader demanded it, Mormons across the country saw it as their religious duty to send money to the anti-gay forces in California. As we know, Prop 8 passed.
“I was too young at the time,” my Mormon proselyte shared, which considering it was only four years ago belied how young he actually was. He handed me a business card with a Web address on it. “Would you like to know more about Jesus or Mormonism?” he asked. “Jesus, yes. Mormonism, no,” I said handing it back to him.
I then explained my conviction that homophobia is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. “Well,” he said, his pace slowing as he dropped back, “Jesus believed in standing up for what he believed in.”
I don’t begrudge Unitarian Universalists for not sending our 18-year-olds to the world to convert others to our way of doing religion. But I do wonder: Do religious liberals have any sense of being sent to the world in order to do something? What is our work to do outside of the walls of our church? Is church a place we visit on Sunday morning that has nothing to do with our Monday morning? Are we formed in some way by an essential message, or core values, that shape all of what we do within and outside the congregation?
Churches that are thriving are not necessarily the ones with conservative theologies or who proselytize strangers. Churches that are thriving are ones that have a strong sense of identity and mission, of knowing who they are and what they do. Declining churches characterize themselves as “a big family;” thriving churches describe themselves as “a moral beacon in our community.” Declining churches wait for people to find them; thriving churches are known in their communities for who they are and what they stand for and they attract people. A church’s mission is so much more than its mission statement: it’s a sense of purpose, focus, and vocation.
The word mission, of course, is rooted in being sent. What are we religious liberals sent to do?
As I reached the door of the gym after my encounter with the young missionary, a breathless woman caught up with me. She had a twinkle in her eye. She said, “I just wanted to tell you that you made my week. I saw you talking with that Mormon kid and the only snippet of your conversation I heard made me laugh out loud. All I heard you say was, ‘Jesus, yes, Mormonism, no.’ That would be a great bumper sticker!” I laughed.
Or a great sermon…