WHY WE’RE HERE
Some years ago I preached a sermon in August, and one of the members said to me, “You should have waited and given that sermon during season when more people are here.” Well, this will not be exactly the same sermon, but it is on the same theme, a theme I return to again and again and which seems particularly appropriate for this time of transition when you will be seeking new spiritual leadership. You will be taking a new look at yourself, answering questions about your beliefs, your vision, and what you are seeking through your membership in the church. That’s a question we often ask ourselves in surveys: Why do you come to church?
The reasons people give for coming to church are varied. The one that Unitarian Universalists have often cited is intellectual stimulation. You may, indeed I hope you will get that here, but it seems to me that there are other places for that purpose that are more focused on their product. I’m thinking, for example, of schools, libraries and the lectures and classes that they provide. If that’s what you want, there are better places to get it. You could even join a book discussion group or watch public TV or some of the other educational channels.
Recently outstripping intellectual stimulation as a reason for coming to a Unitarian Universalist church is that of fellowship, relationship, community, social activities. There are a lot of other places that do that, too. Almost any congregation of any religion does that and there are country clubs and social clubs and various other groups and organizations which do that sort of thing quite well. You may say that the fellowship here is different because the people here are different in some way that attracts you, but the reason for that is not fellowship, so it can’t merely be the desire for fellowship that brings you here or to any other of our congregations.
At some point in their lives many people say that they come for their children’s religious education. There is obviously some truth in that when they become less active after their children graduate, but why come here? Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Ba’hais, just about all religions offer religious education for children. What is special about Unitarian Universalist religious education that makes some parents choose it over some of the other possibilities? What is the reason to choose us?
Then some people say they come for the diversity. Well, look around you friends. We are one of the most homogeneous religious groups in the country — perhaps in the world. Demographically we are almost exactly like the Episcopalians — except they’re somewhat more diverse. We have trouble admitting diversity in social and political opinions, and mostly we deal with theological differences by not talking about them. Do you know how many Christians there are among us? Do you know how many atheists, or agnostics or mystics or theists of various stripes there are — or who they are? We pride ourselves on our diversity, but we don’t experience very much of it. When someone commented to me on how diverse we must be when the article about our being a Welcoming Congregation made the Naples Daily News, my response was, “Well, yes, but those members are all mature, white, educated and affluent just like nearly all the others. Where’s the diversity in that?” That has been true in every congregation I have known.
But then there are the people who say that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation because they think of it as a place to work for social justice — and we have over the course of our history often found ourselves as a voice for that. There are, however, other voices, louder, clearer voices. If that is your only reason for membership in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, there are other places to go — Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the NAACP, opportunities to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, Housing and Family Services in Immokalee, organizations to which we do belong, and why bother with coming here? There are lots of other places to work for justice, more than anyone has time for. What have we got that they haven’t got? In that area, at least, clearly nothing.
Then there’s spirituality, though the request for that is a much more recent phenomenon. Well, there are lots of places for that, too. If traditional churches, synagogues and temples don’t appeal to you, there are 12-step groups of various sorts, all kinds of New Age gatherings, and some less traditional religious organizations all of whom can fill that somewhat amorphous need with ritual and good feelings. We certainly have a lot of competitors, and it’s hard to know what product we’ve got that others haven’t got. Any of the reasons people give for joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation are goals that can be filled by myriads of other groups.
Given all that competition, I suppose it was reasonable to put on a workshop — no, more than a workshop, a full day’s program — on how we can satisfy our customers. This was a few years ago at General Assembly when hundreds of us gathered to learn the thinking of the non-profit organization experts on how we can be better at marketing our product. The talk was about identifying our customers, discerning their needs and deciding what we needed to do to fill those needs. We talked about all the reasons people come to church and how we could do all the things they wanted. They never said why we should, though.
It was about that time, too, that we began to read papers and books and go to meetings led by those who called themselves UU evangelists. Now, I think Unitarian Universalist evangelism is a good idea. It means telling the good news, and I think we’ve got a lot of good news. What they were talking about, though, was not our good news, but about growth. What should we become in order to attract more people to us? What demographic is available to us? What should we do about intellectual stimulation, about fellowship, about religious education, about social justice, about spirituality, to make people want to come to us? How can we attract them? It was about that time that Doonesbury published one of the most depressing cartoons I’ve ever seen. The minister was trying to build his church at Walden and a young couple came to see him. He described the delights of the place, the support groups, the teams, the 12-step programs, and the husband said to the wife, “Let’s check out the Unitarian Universalist church again. They’ve got ping pong.”
When I would listen to the UU Evangelists, when I would read their work I would say, yes, but what for? Why should we grow? Tell me something — anything — that we have to offer that can’t be found anywhere else. What is the point of growth if there’s no point to our existence except to fill needs that other places, other organizations can fill? It was also at that time that I heard the joke that I have often sadly repeated — it sounds almost like something Garrison Kiellor would say — that if you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness you get someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason. I was beginning to fear that it might be true. We’ve been turning the whole process on its head. Instead of saying loudly what we stand for and inviting people to join us, we’ve been inviting people to join us to define what we stand for.
I think that thereisa reason for people to choose to attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation that underlies all the reasons that people give for coming. Thereisa reason that shapes the way we offer what we do, that influences the intellectual stimulation, that attracts the kind of people with whom you wish to be in fellowship, that shapes our religious education, our social justice, our spirituality. It is something that we seem to find difficult to articulate, or perhaps we are not even entirely aware that it is there. Since we get pleasure in having our minds exercised we think that that is why we are here. Or perhaps it is because we really love the people and don’t think about why it is that this kind of people gather at this place. We know that we want our children to have religious education, but we often seem not to think about the reasons that this is the kind of religious education we want them to have. Why is it that there are certain causes that we champion and not others? How is it that people with widely differing religious beliefs can and do wish to gather under one roof? What is it that underlies our ritual and makes it meaningful? We need to remember what it is, to nurture it and support it, or we will drown in blatant consumerism, trying to become all things to all people and losing our soul.
There is an elected committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association called the Commission on Appraisal. Their purpose is to discern what weaknesses or problems exist within our movement, study them and make a report. They have reported on polity and membership, and one of the most interesting ones was on the center of our faith. What, in effect, do we stand for. It was an interesting study and one that I had been urging on them for several years — on every survey they sent out for ideas — but they got no deeper into the root of the matter than past attempts. The study found no center. It couldn’t because it was looking for the wrong thing — a theological agreement. We get so bound up in the effects — the intellectual stimulation, the fellowship, the religious education, the social action, and so on — that we don’t even see or think of the cause, the reason for our existence. I think it may be because we really don’t know what questions to ask to get at it. We are so used to talking about those effects that it is difficult even to begin to identify the cause.
Yet, I think that cause is the one that it has always been. It is our commitment to the institutionalization of religious freedom. That commitment is based on a particular understanding of the human character and condition. We really do agree that human beings can discern and follow the truth better in freedom than if they are required to follow the teachings of ancient authority. It sees human beings as thinking, feeling individuals, who are to be understood as having rights of belief and conscience, who can make their own judgments and moral choices, who can exercise their own reason and conscience. From that comes the necessity for thought which becomes intellectual stimulation, the shared values and respect for other individuals which creates fellowship, the kind of religious education which teaches critical thinking and width of appreciation, the respect for others’ beliefs which permits diverse ideas, a social action that fights the slavery and oppression of others in respect for their individuality, and a life of the spirit that serves these ideals.
That is our good news, that we honor freedom and integrity of the mind and spirit. That is the answer to why we must grow. To hold it to ourselves, to become a little country club cherishing almost in secret the gifts of the free mind and spirit, refusing to share it with others because we like the comfort and economy of smallness is pure consumerism. We speak of the needs that this religion fills for us when asked why we come to church, but those are not reasons for its existence. The religious life is that of service to higher ideals than the filling of consumer needs. If any religion, ours included, has a customer, it is only one, and we have no way of discerning how satisfied God is with our product. And I mean that even for the atheists among us, where it stands not for the higher power or the divine energy or the soul of the material universe, but for those ideals that transcend our material needs and which we serve. In freedom we may believe any theology that makes sense to us, which seems to answer questions of meaning, but with our differing theologies we serve together in community, the call to the best that we can imagine. This is the gift that we must share with all we can, and this is what we must cherish in our free community of faith.