The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You

Recently, a fellow who does some work for my congregation was in the building. We had never met before, and so we introduced ourselves and chatted for a while in the church office. At one point he said to me, “You know, I should tell you this story. I have a thirteen-year-old son who has been asking a lot of religious questions lately. I was raised Catholic, but we’re not involved at all, and haven’t really given him a religious education. One day, my son was with me in the car when we drove by another Unitarian Universalist church. He asked me, because he knew that I had done some work for them, what kind of a church it was. When I told him, he asked what Unitarian Universalists believe. So I told him, ‘Well they don’t really believe anything specific. It’s a religion where whatever you think or believe or feel is what the religion is all about.’ And my son said, ‘That’s the kind of church I want to go to!’” And the fellow chuckled and we had some pleasantries about his teenager being a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.

But my pleasant façade betrayed the bomb that had just gone off in my head. Oh dear God, it’s true. We have institutionalized narcissism. Here was a person that was not involved in a Unitarian Universalist church, and yet knew something about us. As an outsider, the message he received about what we stand for is: It’s about whatever you want it to be about. It’s all about you.

This man did not invent this perception of Unitarian Universalism. He got it from somewhere. He got it from us. It could be posited that many thoughtful UUs talked to him about our creedless religion, our covenanted communities in which one is free to search for truth and meaning. It’s likely that thoughtful UUs explained being gathered around basic principles and values rather than beliefs and doctrines. But what he heard was: We don’t believe anything. We’re just making this stuff up as we go along to suit ourselves. Of course, it’s also possible that this is precisely what he was told.

There’s a difference between a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning, unencumbered by doctrine and “a religion that’s all about you and whatever you want.” How does, “You are responsible for discerning your spiritual path” become “Whatever you think, believe, or feel is what the religion is”?  How did we become the religion that puts its faith in you (to quote an ill-conceived denominational slogan)?

A good deal of this slippage comes from a lack of opportunities for faith formation in our congregations, especially among adults. A disciplined search for truth and meaning takes effort; it takes discipline. Being unencumbered by doctrine ought not imply that doctrine is not examined for the truth it may contain. Indeed, not being constrained by creedal formulations seems to have been translated into an abandonment of theological reflection altogether.  We offer a non-dogmatic approach and context to religious inquiry without equipping members of our communities for the search. Discerning your spiritual path is difficult without tools, without support.

Faith formation is not simply adult religious education. Run a couple of classes on building your own theology and spiritual practice and then you’re done. Formation involves worship and preaching, mission work and governance. It’s the work of the entire enterprise of being church together. It takes place collectively, mutually as well as individually. We are also formed as people of faith in conversation with the tradition, with our historic testimonies. The tradition speaks to us and we respond. We respond lovingly, critically, thoughtfully–but recognize that our historic context has a voice shaping today’s conversation about who we are and what we’re about.

And it takes discipline. It is telling, I think, that the 1961 principles of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association speak of a “free and disciplined search for truth and meaning” and the statement’s revised 1980s version is, “a free and responsible search.” I also find it telling how Unitarian Universalists like to speak, when they do at all, of “spiritual practices,” but almost never “spiritual disciplines.” Being together in community takes discipline and effort. I think we have become lazy and simply tell each other, “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. You have your spiritual practice and I have my book discussion group. Whatever.”

Engaging one another in a spirit of curiosity, openness and humility, with the recognition that one might be mistaken, or one’s own perspective might be partial, is the opposite of institutionalized self-involvement. The practice of hospitality is the antidote to self-centeredness. The ever-present narcissism enshrined in our congregations spawns entitlement and complaint rather than engagement and curiosity because, well, you’re not giving me what I want!

There is a contradiction inherent in liberal religion. We are free, autonomous individuals in community with one another. Tension exists between freedom and connection, autonomy and community. There is no getting around it. Our calling is to live gracefully in that tension, holding them with equanimity, without being weighted as we are now toward individual freedom and autonomy. Our capacity for being a transformative presence in the world is diminished when we neglect the communal, connected, covenanted aspect of our life together and when we focus primarily on the individual and their freedom. Our institutions suffer.

When my congregation was in search for a new minister, they conducted a workshop on welcoming their new settled clergyperson with the district executive. When she asked, “What is the minister’s primary job,” somebody answered, “To make us happy.” “To serve our needs,” somebody else chimed in. The DE replied, “Guess what? The minister’s job is not to make you happy. The minister’s job is to serve the mission of the church.” There was a sharp intake of breath in the room. That moment was such a shock of recognition that the people who were there remember it still. It’s not all about me. It’s not all about my needs.

At church these days, and in our movement more broadly, we are having conversation about mission. What are we for? What are we called to do? Where are we being sent? In a collection of individuals, each on their own responsible search, these questions are impossible to answer. There is no “we.” There is no shared identity, let alone shared sense of purpose or vocation.

I am skeptical about Unitarian Universalism ever becoming the sort of missional religious movement that some of my colleagues and friends are imagining. A group of like-minded individuals doing community service together with no theology, no discerned sense of vocation, is not a faith community; it’s the Rotary Club. A group of people dedicated to liberal ideals with no (perhaps I should say) shared theology, shared sense of vocation is not a church. It’s a political club. The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force do a fine job of fighting for LGBT equality. Why would I join a church to do that? The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is doing terrific work (as are other organizations) defending the rights and freedoms of immigrants. I support the ADC. Why would I join a church to do that? Local service agencies alleviate suffering of all kinds and use my volunteer time. Why would I join a church for that?

Religious liberals, both within our movement and beyond it, dropped theology in favor of social action in the twentieth century. We are compelled to do social justice work, but we have little or no understanding of why this is religious. To base whole congregations around this kind of mission work without a clearly articulated theology is to reinvent the Rotary Club for religiously inclined political liberals. And a clearly articulated theology of social ministry is not possible as long as “theology” is whatever individuals happen to believe, think, or feel at any given moment.

Inasmuch as Unitarian Universalist communities continue to neglect discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition, we will never be a missional religious movement. As long as we are known as the church of individual seekers we will never have the kind of impact that a missional religion has on transforming the world. It should go without saying that the chronically self-involved have no interest in serving the needs of others.

What would it take for us to be known in the wider community for some of the traits, characteristics and perspectives we hold in common and that we continue to share with our historic legacy? What would it take for our communal calling as a faith community to become as important as our much-vaunted individual spiritual journeys?

What would it take for a parent, in the car with their thirteen year old, to be able to say, driving past a Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse, something like:  That’s the church where they believe you can hear God talking in nature. Or: That’s the church where they teach religious studies and make you think about what to believe. Or perhaps: That’s the church that says there’s no Hell. As well as: That’s the church that houses homeless people in its building in the winter. That’s the church that helps you recover from addiction.

What would it take for us to be the religion that puts its faith in something larger than you?