When I was preaching around this August on the subject of science and religion, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. I always get several requests for copies of the sermons I preach during the round robin, but this time the requests were a deluge, and instead of wanting copies for themselves as they usually do, the requesters wanted them for friends or for members of their families. They wanted to use them to help explain why they were attending church - not just a Unitarian Universalist church, but any church at all. They were for those completely secularized people in their circle who made it clear that they feel that going to church is for the old-fashioned, the gullible and the weak, rather than for modern, educated, intelligent people.
I was a little surprised at the numbers, but perhaps I should not have been, because recently I have occasionally noticed a different reaction to my admitting that I am a minister than I used to. People used to be surprised at it because I am a woman, but when convinced of the truth of my statement would tend to be respectful of the office at least, and we would frequently fall into conversation about religious issues. Now I often feel that a stranger may be speculating on the nature of the scam that I am running, and these always turn the conversation as quickly as they can. This is probably partly because of the number of scandals created by ministerial or priestly misbehavior in recent years, but I think it is also because, unless people are themselves involved in a religious movement, the only ones they hear about are the more fundamentalist sects - not only of Christianity but of Judaism and Islam, whose way of thinking rejects the secular world-view - the world-view that is theirs.
Usually in the past we have thought of ourselves as a haven for those who have been brought up in another religion which they have rejected, and which often has caused them some trauma which they need to recover from. Lately, however, we have been hearing more and more about our members who are "come-inners" rather than "come-outers." I was one of those, a little ahead of the crowd, so I understand the phenomenon. The so-called "UU Evangelists" tell us, and I think correctly, that this is the growing edge of our movement. It is the myriad of people who have always been unchurched rather than those who are escaping church who present the most fertile field for our proselytizing. I know, we would never do a thing like that, but we would like to have people who we think would like us - if they knew about us - to become a part of our religious movement. When I hear some of the speakers for the new Unitarian Universalist Evangelism point of view, however, I often think that they are suggesting conversion rather than evangelism. They are talking about ways we can attract people to our churches which seem to me to have little to do with who we are or what our good news may actually be. People may come to church to get a non-oppressive religious education for their children, or to play ping-pong as that humiliating and infamous Doonesbury comic-strip suggested, and they may even support the church which is giving them the services that they are asking for with time and money, but that has nothing to do with religious faith, only with the provision of whatever services the customers demand. Why should people come to us? Because we can provide what they want more cheaply than others who are providing the same things? Or are they joining a religious movement which has its unique story?
It has been suggested that the come-inners are escaping, just as their parents were, but instead of an oppressive religious background their escape is from an oppressively secular society. I don't think that is quite accurate. If they are simply escaping from too much secularism why us? There are all sorts of non-secular options. Most people, in fact, are choosing the fast-growing conservative fundamentalist sects, but the main-line religions are still available, and there is a growing list of alternative spiritual groups like 12-step programs, gender-exclusive spirituality groups, The Course in Miracles groups, pagan groups, UFO religious groups, ad infinitum. Some of these groups have attached themselves to a few of our churches, but they are peripheral and in most cases antithetical to what we have always stood for in the past, but that can happen if we forget to preach our own gospel, tell our own story, remember what our mission really is. My point is that if all people are doing is trying to escape from too much secularism, they don't have to come to us. They have other options. So why should they come to us? Why should anyone get involved with a Unitarian Universalist church or with our church in particular? For that matter, I don't think it is a question of escaping from secularism, but simply finding that it is not enough. It doesn't cause the kind of trauma that (for example) being taught that if you deviate from the prescribed religious path you are doomed to hell-fire may cause. It simply fails to satisfy the feeling that there is something more important than the physical and even the social world, that there is something bigger and more important than material satisfaction. Again, we are not the only option for those seeking for, in the buzz-word of the day, but indeed in reality, spirituality. So much gets lumped into the notion of the spiritual, and so much that belongs with it is often left out, that the word spirituality has become pretty meaningless, but that really is what the search is for, and what any religious movement, including ours, is, at bottom, about. All religious movements - ours, the Catholic church, the Methodists, Baptists, even the Assemblies of God, Buddhism, Islam, all of them - are about being to committed to what is bigger and more important than the getting and spending of the everyday world, to what is bigger even than you or me.
Indeed, we know only too well how small each of us is: Just one of billions of human beings on a tiny planet orbiting a nondescript star on the rural outskirts of only one of an unbelievably huge number of galaxies. It is, I think, the need to be a part of something larger than ourselves that fuels the search for a religious home - a place that tells us that there is something of infinite importance, that transcends our smallness, of which we can be a part. There are huge numbers of options available to fulfill that need. Our rivals in the growth of our movement are not secular society, but instead are still the same ones they have always been: the other religious movements, whether they be traditional or New Age, or reactionary.
When I hear people talk about growth I often wonder when they will tell me a reason for it. And whether I will agree with it if I hear one. Usually reasons aren't given. It is simply assumed that growth is in itself a good thing - that is the kind of growth that is simply getting bigger and more numerous. That depends, it seems to me, on what is growing, and I'm not sure that we are necessarily talking about the same thing when we say that Unitarian Universalism should grow. Do we mean congregations that call themselves Unitarian Universalist should increase and multiply, whatever the religion that they are preaching and practicing, or do we mean that we would like the religion that we have identified with the Unitarian Universalist movement to grow and spread? Are we concerned with numbers for which we will make any changes, any compromises, provide any demanded services, or are we concerned with spreading the good news of the free faith tradition which goes back in the United States to the founders of our country?
A religion is a living thing. It grows, changes, and develops over the years. However, it has a central story, a basic vision which does not change, because when that changes it is the beginning of a new religion rather than a further development of the old. Protestantism, though Christian is a different religion from Catholicism because it developed a different center. For Catholicism the center is the primacy of church teachings, the relationship of the church and its institutions to the god of the New Testament. For Protestants the center was the right of human beings to their own unmediated relationship to that same god. When the central story changes, it is time to call the religion something different, to admit the break from one tradition and the beginning of another. The central story is the uniqueness of a faith, and the single reason for a choice of that particular religion. That is what it teaches. You may, of course, go to a church for reasons that have nothing to do with its teachings, but you cannot expect to change them, nor should you be able to expect them to change to accommodate you - even if they wish to grow.
We, too, have a central story, one that has been a part of who we are from the beginning, when we broke from traditional Protestantism and became a new religion. It is the good news that we have to tell, in word and in deed. and that cannot change in its essence without creating something different from our heritage. That might be all very well, but should it happen it would be time to change our name. It is what we offer the come-outers from other religions and the come-inners from the non-churched, secular world. Why do people come to our church? They may come for many reasons, but all we have to offer, in whatever form that may take (even if it is a ping-pong team), is that good news, as it is taught and lived today, and as our forebears also taught and lived it. It may seem different today, but its center is the same.
Our central story is one of integrity of the mind and spirit. It is lived as a quest for truth which listens carefully to the understandings of others, but which can accept beliefs only according to its own conscience. There is no authority that is above being questioned, there is no experience whose implications may not be tested. There can be no final end to the quest, because even a perceived end is subject to question. It is a free faith because no person, no book, no idea, can require our assent. You may choose another religion because you wish to believe its teachings. In ours you may not believe anything merely because you wish to. You may only believe what you must because you have been independently convinced of its truth. I heard someone trying to explain Unitarian Universalism to his wife. "It's the responsible alternative," he said. It seemed to me that he had chosen the precise word. It is responsible because it supports no wishful thinking, no exploded notions, no hiding from reality. That unchanged and unchanging beacon of integrity is our central story, shining its light on all our history and all of our changes over the years. That is our good news. It should be the central reason for our existence as a church, the story that we have to tell, the way of being that we have to offer as a religious movement. It is the gift that we have to give, and even the only real reason for a commitment to growth. We should wish to grow not because that will make it easier, less work, more money for us, or will increase our sense of our own importance in the world, but because we want others to hear the story so that they too can become a part of the "responsible alternative" if their spiritual center demands the same integrity.
The secular world, too few discover, is not enough. It is a little thing of getting and spending, of graven images and false idols. We need to be a part of something greater than ourselves and the material existence that we share, of something that transcends this world in its beauty and goodness and transforms and redeems it. We can see that in many different ways. Our individual quests for truth can find different answers and do, so that when others ask us our specific beliefs we cannot tell them and must not even try. This church and this religious movement must keep alight instead the beacon of integrity which shines upon our path and keeps us from straying into superstition and wishful thinking, and guides us ever closer to the harbor of faithful living.