Thursday, May 22, 2014

Does Making More Church Members Make The World A Better Place?

I.             Does making more Unitarian Universalists make the world a better place?

Update Intro: Should have added that for the church the question is also WHO are you making the world a better place for; making the world a better place for some means making it worse for others. So just making it a better place still demands discernment and a preferential option for the poor...

When talking about the what and why of our missional ministry, I say that our goal is not to create more Unitarian Universalists, or for me as a Christian it is not to create more Christians. I get the feeling that is somewhat of a radical sentiment and statement. I don’t think it should be the goal of other UUs or Christians, et al either. I came across a post in a facebook group the other day that seemed to crystallize for me why this is the case. The post was passing on the statement that we needed to grow our churches because, to paraphrase, “the world would be a better place if we had more Unitarian Universalists in it.” I flinched a little when I read that and had to figure out why, beyond just the sectarian impulse behind it. It would have been the same if it would have said the world would be a better place if we had more x or y or z faith communities and traditions.

Colleagues Tom Schade and Teresa Cooley remind us lately, and I think I have mentioned it in a sermon or too :) that becoming Unitarian Universalist (or others for others) is not the end in itself, but is a means to a greater end. It is those greater ends we need to keep our eyes on, and our resources pointed toward, creating neighborhoods and communities that themselves help create lives of abundance and commitment to the most vulnerable and endangered in our society. Creating religious institutions is certainly one way toward that end, but only if they do not see themselves (and their beliefs) as the end in themselves; in fact, they may, in various ways through what they do and not do and keep people from doing, work against making the world a better place, especially for those beyond them (and maybe within them too) who are suffering the most. This is what happens when a church focuses on becoming the “best” church in a community instead of the best church for the community. It is what happens when a church thrives while a community around it declines.  
It is what I mean when I say that creating more Unitarian Universalists does not make the world a better place. In fact I can see ways that making more Methodists, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, etc might in fact make the world a better place to even a greater degree than making more Unitarian Universalists even though I resonate a little more closely, or a lot more in some cases, with the theological tradition of our faith community than others. Since there are more of them to begin with, and there is much good being done by people of these other faith communities and traditions, perhaps making more of them would make an even bigger difference in making the world a better place. But if I were in one of these other faith communities I think I would be saying the same thing, that making more people into Methodists, Muslims, etc. is not the end of our mission in trying to make the world a better place.

Is it then “by their fruits you will know them”? Are the best fruits those of “right ideas” about the Ultimate, or “right relationships” with the most vulnerable, shamed, and outcast? Which fruit is deemed the “most religious”? This is especially true in areas where there is a lack of any groups living in and with and for the poor and marginalized and it is not a case of “other groups” doing this mission. In our area, for example, the landscape is dotted with churches only opened on Sundays while buildings continue to be abandoned around them, or buses that come in from the big churches in other area who pick people up and bring them back and ignore the neighborhoods they live in, all to focus on creating a pseudo-community feel-good experience weekly; like a spiritual hit. These kind of areas seem to be growing in number throughout the US. It is an ages-old situation and question, and one the Hebrew prophets particularly, and the Christian early monks who moved away from Empire’s influence kept alive in their times.

II.           Why The Shift in Focus: Flipping Church in the Unchurched Culture… 

It is important to put this all in a wider context. If nothing else it should help alleviate anxiety, blame, shame, and conspiracy theories. This shift in ultimate focus is an aspect of living in the wake of the cultural move in the West from the churched to dechurched/unchurched culture. In the churched culture (that began to really lose its privileged place throughout the USA by 1963) the point of church life was, mistakenly of course but still the dominant perception, to continue the existence and power of the institution of the church in a world populated by the institutions of other churches, faiths. The church was primary, the center, and the mission field was secondary, was a resource for the church. People tended to become or return to becoming the church-goers of their families and neighborhoods; brand loyalty was high and clearly defined culturally and there was little competitiveness between the churches, and littler still between the churches and the culture and its various opportunities outside the church. In this world making more Unitarian Universalists, for example, was the way the church realized its beingness in the churched-focused world. 

Especially if you were in a church that also grew more and more percentage of its own coming in from other churches, then making more UUs became increasingly important, it would be seen, for its survival. In the dialectic of the age, the more the community became less focused on the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. “The mission” used to be to perpetuate themselves in a world where the “missional field” flowed toward the church; in a world where the church as institution has been marginalized, the missional field has shifted and become primary, and so too then should “the mission.” In response the church today either flows toward the missional field, or it dies, gradually or quickly depending on circumstances. (There are admittedly many ways the church can flow, can empty itself, toward the missional field).

Is making more Unitarian Universalists (Christian, etc.) a bad thing then, or an unnecessary thing? Only I think if we make more Unitarian Universalists who think that the purpose of their faith is themselves and what they believe, and that it is more important to have and promote the right religious beliefs instead of the right religious relationships. But aren’t ideas, beliefs, important and have   consequences? Yes. For example, I say that what I try to do as a leader of a missional community among the vulnerable has all to do with how I understand and experience following Jesus, and comes from a theological commitment to a God of liberation and radical solidarity. But in reality what has been manifested here has been enriched and deepened not so much by thinking about missional life and holding the right ideas about it but from living in it. It has come more from failing at visions and endeavors and being able to respond to the openings and relationships that happen as a result.

In the postmodern culture, the primary path of the religious way has shifted from understanding to experience, as from knowing to mystery, or as the ecologist have an extreme way of saying (Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry) moving from knowledge-based to “ignorance”-based systems. Still, isn’t there an ideological battle on between liberal and fundamentalist or conservative views of reality and “God”? One that requires us to promote our tradition’s ideas (encapsulated as “getting our message” right and easy to communicate and doing so as widely as possible) as the primary purpose of our being, and all the rest, so to speak, is commentary; so that spiritual practice, faith formation, and service to and with others are byproducts that round out in a holistic way our core purpose of waging a struggle over truth? I wonder at times if our “theist-humanist” conflict didn’t leave us and our systems in a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder where we are frequently triggered to still be looking to solve our identity, and promote “our side.” There is a sense in this approach, this underlying metaphor, that worship then becomes our side on a battlefield and the sermon the bullet fired toward others who have been firing at us or what we stand for; is it then another legacy of our hyper-protestantism, that continuing Reformation struggle, or even ghosts of Puritanism past?

Still another way of framing it might be: Was Servetus burned at the stake and David imprisoned so today we can say their ideas, or some semblance of them having been morphed into the current spirit of Unitarian Universalism, both theistically and otherwise, are not what we are primarily committed to keeping alive in the world? Yes. I am more concerned with and am more urgent about keeping alive those in my zipcode where there is a 14 year life expectancy gap with the zipcode just six miles away in a wealthier area (and by extension all those imperiled by even greater inequality and injustice today regardless where they are). That missional focus, that our reason for being is in being sent (hence missio) into the places and peoples around us who have been left out and left behind, and in doing so we come into our own more fully and grow in imitation of the beloved community the more we attempt to initiate it in the world, is something too that’s even greater than preserving and promoting the “how” we do church, our polity, what we used to say was our ultimate commonality no matter the liturgical form or covenantal language a church takes as its own. We don’t want to grow the numbers of Unitarian Universalists so that the democratic process in religious will flourish. Nor, for that matter, so any of the Seven Principles either will be adopted by more people. They can be and are being championed by any number of faith communities and more secular groups. Our calling is still higher than these, and the seven principles are also means themselves to put to use toward the ends of missional transformations in the world.

Again, I believe we are experiencing a shift from those who are seeking and coming into, or staying in, a church because of what they have come to believe and think already (the mark of the churched culture) to a condition where people are seeking and coming into or staying in a church because it is open and nurturing to what their beliefs might become as they grow and deepen as persons through the primary religious act of healing engagement in the world beyond themselves (the mark of the unchurched culture).

III.          The New Transient (Secondary) and The Permanent (Primary)

Seeing this shift in what is primary (mission field) and what is secondary (sectarian institutionalism) will, ironically, help us to survive and thrive in the new landscape of culture. Both are needed in the holistic system. But one is the end and the other the means, and it is flipped from what it used to be, and that makes a world of difference in how to impact the world now. Unitarian Universalism (Christianity, Buddhism, et al too) matters. Not because there is a difference and uniqueness it must preserve in order to be itself. Not so people of like minds have a place to call home and celebrate their like minds (or like values). No, it matters because it offers, or can offer, a way--an inspiration now, even a history of serving a God of lovingfreedomandjustice to point the way--for people to connect and grow with others into a more abundant people creating more abundant communities in the world.

UUism, and others, offer particular ways to do this. They are more particular in nature perhaps than peculiar in nature. Some people like to contrast or pit UUism, for example, up against “liberal Christianity” for example and bemoan its attraction or similar markers to liberal Christian ways and warn against “losing ourselves” in being like them, in being like what we, in large measure, came from and in some places still are woven into. But “liberal Christianity” has within it many particular strands, and is being overlaid these days with new strands like emergent and missional and others that are putting the old dichotomies like liberal and evangelical into dustbins. This openness to the Spirit wherever it might lead is not a cause for concern; in these times of “generous orthodoxy” the many tribal differences can be celebrated and be seen as portals for connecting with one another. UUism, in all its many tribes, can adopt the same generous approach, and apply it to those communities within UUism that may draw closer to liberal Christianity just as some in those spheres may be drawing closer to us; the same for some realms of Buddhist or other spiritual paths. Some people find us of particular interest (in our varied forms of “us-ness” and at rare times too even when we go to them instead of expecting them to come find us) and we are appealing to them in ways that they might not so readily find with other communities. We can share with other communities the purpose of helping people “to set their lives on fire loving the hell out of this world” in this new spiritual climate change without being anxious about either existing identity or future existence.

 That is why One of the particular promising ways that Unitarian Universalism at its best offers this kind of connection for people; in other words, why it matters—how it can connect people with others in order to make the world a better place. This is in our historic and current manifestation as a radically free church. We have such radical congregationalism, in the best interconnected sense (one that is in tune with the manifestations of an open-sourced world), that we can be a seedbed for experimentation for faith in the post-congregational world in ways that other religious bodies might not; which, of course makes it all the more painful why we have not launched, as another has, the vision of a thousand new churches in a thousand different ways by 2020. (By the way, this emphasis for the church of freedom as our marker supercedes the church of diversity; I say that it is not our existing diversity—theologically of course, since we seem to have little of the various other kinds of diversities in communities--that makes us valuable in this world; it is our radical ability to form free non-creedal communities and relationships of covenant, even if those communities use specific theological language and liturgies, that allows for the diversity we have to grow and flourish).  

Of course the fact that it is hard for us to live into and out of this promise and this potential for new communities causes us pause; our very success at bearing fruit of theological diversity out of our foundation of freedom means that we have elevated the presence of belief and the juggling of its diversity to the forefront, especially within specific faith communities, at the very time when much of our world is moving itself “beyond mere belief” and toward missional transformation and a desire for communitas, that form of group that pivots itself toward beloved community beyond itself. This is an issue not just for Unitarian Universalism, of course, but is particularly fraught for all those inheritors of Schleirmacher and the “third way” of religion where the meaning comes from how the faith is messaged to the world. We can become captive to our message, and our need for one.

Finally, the question to ask of course, and that underlies all this speculation, becomes eventually: What difference would it make to the “least, the last, the lost”, to the variously “disconnected” if our/your community/denomination ceased to exist? How many beyond yourself would notice? Not that it is a real concern for the forseeable future, and I suspect the bigger congregations would be “islands of strength” carrying on without the national institutions. But in pondering it, we move beyond the issue of whether growing more Unitarian Universalists (or others remember) itself makes the world a better place…we now face the question of the abyss, of mortality, of what if the world creates Odd Fellows of us, (I.O.O.F. lodge) where we have historical architecture, and here and there small groups, continuing to decline in proportion to the population growth around them, enacting old rituals, taking care of their own when it comes time to be buried? Well, here, the Odd Fellows are one of our partners and while all that is true of them, they are one of the few presences remaining in an abandoned place of Empire, and like the monks of old they are bearing witness and making the world around them a little better than it would be otherwise. 

We have to be willing to die; only then is resurrection possible. We mustn’t go gently into that good night either, trying to find ways to keep what we have had, making a fist to hold onto it tightly, and the tighter our fist the more slips through our fingers. The lesson from today’s missional planters, and the organic church movement, is that there is liberation in being able to “grow smaller to do bigger things” and being freed from maintenance to focus on mission impact, even the ability to move on. It grows a kind of radical trust, as Jesus’ parable framed it, in both the seeds planted and in the Sower. The goal is not to have a building and programs with your name on it 100 years from now and people still doing pretty much what you have done; that is not immortality but narcissism.

I remember words by the Rev. Carl Scovel entitled “Ghosts, Shadows, Witnesses” about the relationship of Christianity and Christians within Unitarian Universalism; in a broader sense now it seems an apt metaphor and message for the relationship of Unitarian Universalism (again, or other faith communities) within the broader culture. He said something to the extent that Christians remaining in the UUA could be viewed, by themselves and by others, as ghosts from the past that haunt, and scare, others they come into contact with, and that perhaps need to be met with ghostbusters?; or they can be viewed as shadows, reminders of what they carry with them even if they don’t see them all the time, something not them but illuminates what they are, good to have around in an antithetical way, a reminder of what not to become or lapse back into; or they can be viewed as witnesses, witnesses to a good news, to another way and world possible, a witness not just spoken but one lived out in response to one’s faithfulness to one’s God and that God’s mission in the world instead of from a sense of anxious scarcity and identity crisis. Witnesses measure success in different ways. Witnesses thrive on boldness. Witnesses live in but not for today. Witnesses make the world a better place now and tomorrow.