Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are you dying to share your UU faith with others?

On Sunday, 09/20/09, I posted an article based on some observations by sociologist Peter Berger and Philosopher, Anton Zijerveld that in our modern society people are less likely to participate in a religion because they been born into it and thus it is an indelible part of their identity, but rather express a preference and join a religious organization voluntarily.

This phenonmenon is the basis for the sociological fact that main line churches are dying while independent churches are mushrooming. I would speculate that this finding is true for Unitarian Universalism - that is - most present day Unitarian Universalists were not born into the religion but rather have come to it as part of a later life search and their participation is the result of choice not tradition.

If church membership is more a matter of choice rather than life long socialization what are the implications for how churches operate? It would seem that they have to be much more responsive to customer expectation and requirements if they are to attract and retain loyal customers.

To use a mercantile metaphor here is not entirely accurate however because a church member can be as much a provider of services as a consumer of services and so church membership is really a two way street in the sense that the church is an opportunity for providing service as well as receiving service. The modern day church must have members who provide services as much as consume services.

Having been raised a Roman Catholic, the model of church as a patriachial and autocratic one where the priest was Jesus' representative on earth and worked under the direction of the Bishop who worked under the direction of the Pope who is infallibly the representative on earth of God himself is very familiar to me. Church members play a very marginal role in such a religious world as supplicants, sinners, and beneficiaries of the church's largese and salvaic blessings.

Mainline Protestant churches have operated on similar premises even if somewhat modified into more anemic forms.

Independent churches, though, have risen on quite a different premise which is the direct line of empowerment to Jesus, Himself, through the process of being "born again" and accepting Jesus as Lord of one's life. The pastor and other church leaders become guides and cheerleaders and their primary role is to teach and legitimate what is defined as a very personal experience. One having had this experience, individuals are believed to be responsible to act as guides, teachers, and cheerleaders themselves and so every "born again" is a minister carrying the "good news" and the church flourishes without being burdened by bureaucratic controls and constraints.

While Unitarian Universalists operate with a congregational polity they do not have a clear nomos which lends itself facilly to interpersonal transmission. So, Unitarian Universalism has stagnated. There is little excitement at the individual level than leads its members to teach, guide, and cheerlead. So Unitarian Universalism, like the mainline churches, is stagnating or loosing members but for different reasons.

The nomos of Unitarian Universalism which can be shared with the world is based on its seven principles or values and yet the church has failed for the most part in builing on this nomos so that it has become clearly externalized, objectified, and then internalized. All of these steps are important if a nomos is to be created which can be legitimated and appear plausible to potential adherents.

How often are comments heard like "Oh, this is wonderful. I didn't know something like this existed." "How come I haven't heard about this before?" "This is exactly what I believe and have been looking for?" In Brockport as we try to develop a new congregation, we are hearing these comments regularly and they at once are validating and exciting to hear and also break our hearts that people have been left in the darkness when a faith such as Unitarian Universalism exists in the world.

I am concerned that many Unitarian Universalists live divided lives. They compartmentalize there lives with church in one compartment and work and friends in another compartment and they are split as it were between their faith which they say they espouse and their "real life".

Parker Palmer quotes Rumi who said, "If you are here unfaithfully with us, you are causing terrible damage."

The task for Unitarian Universalists is to find ways to share the faith that is empowering to people and transforms relationships. Looking at the numbers independent evangelical churches are doing a much better job of this than UUs. But there is hope if one looks at First Unitarian in Rochester, NY, All Souls in Tulsa, and the First Society in Madison for examples.

It can be done but first Untarian Univeralists must find ways of articulating their faith that is meaningful to themselves and to other people.

What has your Unitarian Universalist faith meant to you and you are dying to share with others? If you would like to join our on-line discussion group please email your request to


  1. As a UU, I am increasingly troubled by this lack of nomos (if I understand the word correctly) - a fairly clear relationship between what we say we collectively value (as articulated in our principles) and how we speak and act collectively, day-to-day, in the world.

    I have written in my own blog ( against war because I believe that wars shatter the interdependent web of all existence and destroy the worth and dignity of the people killed. By practicing war we renounce justice, equity, and compassion. Three of our principles are violated.

    This violation seems pretty clear to me no matter what the justificatin for a given war but many in our church disagree - embracing the concept of "just war" as a means to reconcile our principles with supporting wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Some would say that this disagreement is not all that important. "We all agree that war is evil (the important thing), we simply don't agree whether, at times, it is a necessary evil. We can agree to disagree on the 'necessity' part so long as we agree on the 'evil' part."

    But isn't disagreement on the "necessity" part really a fundamental disagreement? In my opinion, wars kill just as awfully regardless of their justice and anyone can come up with logical reasons to justify war - Hitler certainly did, so did George W. Bush (with 80% or more of the American public behind him - there had to be some UU's in that 80%).

    By leaving it up to each of us to decide whether a war is justified, we make it impossible for us to speak and act collectively. We leave each of us to stand alone with her / his own conscience on this fundamental issue of human life. In this way, far from binding people together, as a religion should do, we foster separateness.

    I didn't write this to convince anyone to become a pacifist but to illustrate a problem. In our zeal to promote diversity of views on fundamental issues as one of our highest goods, we UU's make it impossible for us as a church to bind ourselves more closely together through collective indentification with our values.

    I think this is why we fail to grow as a religion.

  2. Dear Tom:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you. While UUs value the right of individual conscience, we also have values which bind us together. I think your articulation of what the interdependent web and the inherent worth and dignity of each person means when it is operationalized in the making war is right on the money.

    It is in the application of our values in making decisions about right action that engenders disagreements and conflicts but these disagreements and conflicts are worth having in respectful ways.

    I wonder if you would join our online discussion group so we can discuss your ideas further with further input from serious minded others?

    All the best,

    David Markham