Saturday, April 27, 2019

The importance of good preaching in Unitarian Universalism

I continue to think about churches as organizations and as I reflect I wonder what Unitarian Universalism has going for it?

Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, I am very aware and have experienced church as liturgical and sacramental. The rituals, the ceremonies, the music, the pomp and circumstance, the architecture, the holy objects in the form of the crucifix and statues and candles are very important. Also the celebration of the seven sacraments: baptism, Holy Communion, Reconciliation (confession), Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Last Rites all occur at important transition points in the human life cycle.

In the Protestant movement, the Catholic adoration of statues etc. was seen as blasphemous and idolatrous. The Bible became central and Jews, Muslims, and Protestants are known as The People Of The Book because they all seem to worship and hold holy their written word, their holy books.

Unitarian Univeralism does not have a liturgy, sacraments, and outside of the flaming chalice any holy and sacred objects. Nor does it have a holy book. What Unitarian Universalism has are its 7 Principles/Values, its preaching, and its fellowship. It seems to me that the important element of Unitarian Universalist practice is its preaching and fellowship. The cornerstone of UU worship and communal life are the sermons, the weekly messages that should inform, inspire, challenge, and above all else encourage religious practice to facilitate spiritual growth in congregants and in the world.

The source of knowledge, skills, and values to inform the message comes from multiple sites, traditions, origins, and it is a very wise minister who knows what the congregation needs to hear, needs to be touched by, needs to be inspired with. How do ministers gather this knowledge, this insight, this wisdom?

It comes from relationship. Relationship first and foremost with oneself. Next, in comes from relationship with the people the minister aspires to serve. Third, it comes from a knowledge of and relationship with the wider world. A good minister can read the signs of the times, views the world through a compassionate and prophetic lens. A good minister is not afraid to call a spade a spade, to take the bull by the horns, to put words to the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. Waffling and playing it safe leads to ambiguity, frustration, and gossip among the people. Taking a clear stand and position is the sine qua non of good leadership.

Unitarian Universalism has a weak religious structure. It has no liturgy; it has no book; it has no hierarchy; it has a very democratic consensus driven model of governance which makes it hard for leadership to emerge and manifest. Therefore, Unitarian Univeralism is doomed to mediocrity unless it can facilitate the development of powerful preachers. There are a few around. Thank God for the Internet because their sermons are available for downloading.

It is interesting to observe that the UU churches with good preachers are the largest in the country and seem to be growing. Those with lackluster preaching are either just maintaining or in decline.

The future of Unitarian Univeralism depends on many things and yet as far as the weekly life of the church is concerned, it depends greatly on the quality of good preaching.

This article, written by David G. Markham,  first appeared on the Chalicefire blog on 04/22/08 and is reprinted here with permission. For a video explanation about the re-publishing of these articles, click here.

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