I just wanted to reach out and say thanks for all the encouraging words leading up to my visit to Unitarian Universalist district assembly in Meadville, PA. The Keynote talk seemed to be well received and the workshops afterwards were very lively, informative, and hopeful. We have a lot of leaders bravely struggling to increase the relevance and impact of their churches. In this post District Assembly reflection there were a couple of discussion topics that emerged during the workshops that I led that I wanted to further address. These were the themes of technology and theology. If you weren’t at the keynote some of this might not make complete sense and for that I apologize ahead of time.
The first question had to do with a systematic analysis describing exactly why the church is presently struggling as an entity that is institutionally alienated from the broader society and culture. In this analysis I intentionally did not mention technology as a leading factor contributing to the church’s irrelevance. This point came up in discussion and felt a bit counter-intuitive to some of the participants.
There are a few reasons I did not include it as a leading factor. First, let me say that the changes that technology brings is shifting culture in new and dramatic ways, so I did not mean to deny that. But I would suggest that the very fact that there is an awareness of this dramatic change of technology suggests that it is not a leading source of the church’s estrangement from the broader culture. In other words, the fact that leaving it out feels counter-intuitive means that we are not blind to the reality of technological change. In fact, no matter what cultural worldview you hold, you are dealing with changing technology, after all, you are reading this blog.
What I would say is that from a missional standpoint, it is not technology per se, but rather the culture that has been influenced by it that should be our focus. Different cultures and subcultures relate to different technologies in different ways. How we use technology to include people in our faith should be determined not by who we are inside the walls but by who is outside the walls.
The leading factors that were the focus of the missional analysis centered not on the methods that influence people (such as technological change), but on the people themselves, the culture, their lives and values. In other words, the discussion of why society has changed is a huge topic which could easily be endlessly debated, and so for the sake of the actual mission I’ll hand it over to the academics. My focus was on how we break through the UU cultural ghetto into real people’s lives. Technology is important, but who your heart breaks for is critical.
Another vital discussion was about faith and theology. Just to be clear, I’m a grace guy, a Universalist, everything else flows from this. It’s how I interpret theological stories and images. In my conversations in the workshops and in the hallways the question came up many times of the place of theology in our current UU climate.
There does seem to currently be a shift underway both among clergy and laity, but for a period of time after the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations it seemed that the answer to bad theology was no theology. This is what I call the believewhateveryouwantism interpretation of the faith. Believewhateveryouwantism is the interpretation that is simultaneously embraced and decried in the description of Unitarian Universalism as the religion where you can believe whatever you want. There are some clever tropes to avoid this reality such as saying “you don’t believe what they want, you believe what you must,” which sound good but ultimately don’t mean much. The result of all this included a semi-purposeful disconnection from not only liberal theology, but from the discipline of theology as a whole.
It was interesting to hear from so many people the recognition that avoiding theology because it contained Bible words is not as liberating as it once was. So many of the people present had kids who graduated from our programs and have no interest in going to a UU church, and many have found themselves a spiritual home in other denominations both liberal and conservative. The reason they cited is that they were given nothing to believe in. In a recent conversation with a dedicated UU who recently moved to the UCC’s (a liberal Christian denomination), she said that the effort in retaining young adults is hampered by the fact that in her experience we lose most our kids by middle school. As she put it, unless your a church nerd, the moment you discover a social circle outside the church there’s not much of a spiritual reason to stay.
For the preaching-teaching minister it puts one in the position as no longer an interpreter of the faith, but as practically the only embodiment of it. In other words, take the Bible away, and the minister almost inevitably takes its place as the spiritual resource. In this kind of scenario the clergy moves from a more traditionally protestant role of preacher and teacher into a role closer to that of the Guru. The problem with this (other than simply the abandonment of both Unitarianism and Universalism) is that our ecclesiastic system is not set up for the Guru-disciple relationship.
The point of theological discipline is not that the Bible is perfect in all ways. It’s authority is that the very language of our tradition’s faith and practice is sourced in the stories and images of that ancient book. Liberal theology does not come from liberals thinking about religion, it emerges out of the disciplined process of how we tell these stories and engage those images. This means dealing with not just the stories, images and ideas that we like, but engaging the ones we don’t as well.
One of James Luther Adam’s (20th century liberal Unitarian theologian) guiding principals for a free faith is a belief in continuing historical revelation. That means approaching the revelation of truth and meaning with both an openness to the future, which most liberals do well, and it also means a continuity with the past. This is what Adams referred to as a sense of length. In my former church we used to say it this way – in our faith the Bible is the beginning but not the end.
The missional point of this being that the practice of telling people they have a million spiritual options available to them is redundant for our contemporary culture. As a Universalist I’m called by a particular theological interpretation, practice, and experience. Witnessing people discover the reality of God in their life is powerful and transformational. Like I said, I’m a grace guy.
Within the UU denomination it is very possible at this point to come up with alternative interpretations, but the point being that believewhateveryouwantism is an interpretation with a very narrow level of relevance and impact to most folks under 50. (In fact I’d find it interesting to discover what a missional humanism looks like but that’s a project for someone else to work on).
One final reflection before I close. In the conversations we often arrived at a point of questions and complexity to the point of feeling overwhelmed. Maybe like you feel now after having read this. To this I say two things.
First this is not easy, change never is, and their are no silver bullets.
And finally when overwhelmed, remember to return to the critical missional question, who is it that your heart breaks for in such a powerful and profound way that it changes you for good. The way forward is not found in a new program, its not found in another vote, nor is it in a clever elevator speech. The way forward is an adventure of doing Unitarian Universalism with new people in new ways.
peace and grace,