A couple of years ago, I was considering coming to a certain church to do ministry with the congregation there. I came to the town to visit for a weekend, look at places to live, and speak with the committee that was searching for a minister. It was an established church in a lovely small town. I was shown around town by various members of the committee and at one point, walking around town, one began telling me the story of how he had come to this church.
“My partner and I were new in town,” he said. “And we didn’t know anybody in the area and we wanted to get better connected in the community. We figured joining a church was a really good way to start networking. So we looked around and decided on the Unitarian Universalist church in town because of them all, it was the least offensive.” I enjoyed his frankness. This thoughtful man was a leader in his congregation, had found a home there. People join congregations for all kinds of reasons–advantageous business networking, finding a date, finding a job, developing a real estate practice. These are some of the real, practical reasons that people affiliate with communities of faith. They’re no better or worse than wanting a religious education for one’s children, exploring questions of meaning, comforting during a time of transition.
And the fact that this congregation didn’t promulgate anything he and his partner found offensive was the clincher. No hellfire and brimstone, no judging LGBT people negatively, no political positions, no onerous requirements intellectually, financially, or in any other way.
All kinds of people, in all kinds of conditions gather together in congregations for all kinds of reasons.
We need different things from church at different times in our lives–comfort, guidance, edification, challenge. When a local congregation is at its best, it is offering these disparate things simultaneously through its programs–its ministries–and its worship. We are also called upon to offer different things to our co-congregants and the institution at different times.
Sometimes, the church is a refuge, a haven, to gather in the brokenhearted and despairing. We gather for healing, to be strengthened, to be renewed in hope, to be reminded of our deepest convictions. Ultimately, we are gathered in this way in order to be sent back to the world. Our broken hearts are offered balm in order to go back to a world (a workplace, a family, a neighborhood, a nation) strengthened if not completely made whole. We are offered hope and courage in order to return to a world in which we strive to create justice and peace and a sustainable future for the planet.
There are plenty of Unitarian Universalists who have absolutely no interest in mission or outreach, let alone evangelism, and don’t think their congregation ought to be mission-driven. The purpose of the church, for these folks, is to gather the likeminded together for comfort and solidarity. Or simply gather the likeminded together. The shadow possibility of this, however, is that such congregations become ingrown, inwardly focused clubs that focus only on participants’ perceived needs and wants. If we gather together for the sake of gathering together, without a sense that we have work to do on ourselves or in the world to which our faith sends us, we risk ossifying into a cozy self-congratulatory group of likeminded people that is guarded, suspicious of others, and openly derisive of those who are not like us. Hardly in keeping with the liberal spirit.
There are also plenty who do not want to do or say anything that will offend anyone. Sermons that convict (to use an old Calvinist expression) are abandoned in favor of talks full of information or ideas that most will agree with. Certain words and expressions are informally (or explicitly) banned–you know, like God or sin or death or repentance–effectively blotting out exploration of major religious concepts. And nothing that will challenge anyone should be done or said or imagined. Because that might offend.
It is fine to offer respite to those working the vineyards of liberal political causes and social change movements, but respite cannot be the only purpose of a liberal religious faith community. Gathering together for the sake of creating a congenial environment for oneself is fine, but cannot stop there if we are talking about a church. I believe we need to also be upheld and challenged by the liberal gospel and so compelled by it to go make a difference for it in the world.
The way I see it, the church exists for gathering, supporting and sending its constituent members. All three. When one of these gestures is lacking, something vital is missing.
Supporting or upholding members of a liberal religious community, as I see it, is in part to sort out not only how we are going to be the best of who we are called to be as individuals, adequately equipping participants for a robust ethical and spiritual life, but also discerning what repercussions our ethics and spirituality must have beyond ourselves. Going deeper ultimately equips us for going farther. The search for truth and meaning produces results which require something of us: how am I going to live my life in the light of this truth and meaning? What demands of me does this make on how my life and my society are to be ordered? Our congregations exist to help deepen our spiritual and ethical strength, renew our commitment to basic liberal principles. And it is not for our own sake only, but for the sake of a world (household, neighborhood, city, nation) that needs what we have to offer.
Not only does a liberal religious community empower and inspire its participants, sending them to the world, but our congregations at their best offer spaces for reflection and contemplation upon one’s experiences of tending the vineyards of a broken and hurting world. Or just living a life. We offer analysis in the light of faith for what we have experienced in our workaday world. Transformation and transcendence can and frequently do occur when a person is engaged in mission outside the confines of the church. The local gathered community offers a context in which to make sense of those experiences. It’s an interpretive circle of action and reflection, not only being sent but also arriving (wounded, inspired, vexed). Making sense out of our experience–making meaning of what we do in our day-to-day lives–is the task of theological reflection and is a discipline of the local church.
Theological reflection among us is hardly the memorization and study of a common catechesis–a body of approved doctrines. Saying we need more theological depth–more soul–in no way means “We all have to believe the same doctrines.” Peacebang puts it this way: “And I want someday for those of us who want to cultivate reverence, humility and soul to stop being categorized and dismissed as pissed off Christians who want to take over the UUA.” Amen!
Not everybody who is a member of a congregation is interested in theological reflection, developing a spiritual practice or pondering the meaning of life. That’s as it should be. These are not for everybody. There are also times in our journeys when we need them more than others. But for those who are looking for something more, a church ought to be offering it.
Signing up for an inoffensive club that has benefits for oneself can’t be the final word in what it means to be a community of faith.