Monday, January 02, 2012

What is it about? Thoughts on Peter Boullata's excellent blogpost.

My friend and colleague Peter Boullata has written the most "liked" and "shared" blogpost of end of 2011.

http://peterboullata.com/2011/12/29/the-liberal-church-finding-its-mission-its-not-about-you/.

He has a struck a chord with many of UU ministers.  With great passion, Peter articulates the frustrations and disappointments that many of us feel about the denomination and the churches for which we labor. Bookmark it and then print it out on archival-quality, non-acid paper. Put the paper in the shoebox you have marked for the Smithsonian.  It will do quite well as a historical document of this moment in the story of liberal religion in the USA.  As Eliot's Journey Magi asks, "Had we come all that way for a birth, or for a death?"

He has provoked me.

I see three strategic approaches to overcoming current UU malaise:  institutionalism, missionalism and evangelism.  Naturally, they overlap.

Institutionalism is dominant.  It says that the way for UUism to grow and thrive is to strengthen the institutions of the faith, especially the congregations.  Strengthening the institution is everything from "growth through better welcoming of the visitor" to "policy governance" to learning how to engage "adaptive change".  It's also changing our congregational culture to be more inclusive and providing better faith formation opportunities.  It means strengthening our congregations where they are, increasing their capacity in some way or another.

There are traditionalist understandings of the institutionalist tendency: The Free Church movement, for example, saw ministerial authority, the centrality of worship, theism and political detachment as keys to institutional strength.  Most UU Christians espouse a form of Institutionalism in which they think that our institutions would grow stronger if they only made a deeper engagement with our Christian heritage.  The more mainstream institutionalism is more about interfaith worship, shared ministry, behavioral covenants and multi-generational worship.  But they are variations on the same theme:  UUism will only grow and thrive if we do what it takes to strengthen the congregation as an institution.

The second trend is Missionalism.  The missionalists (missionaries?) say that our problem is that we are too focused on our institutional health and vitality.  What matters is living out our purposes.  The mainstream missionalists urge us to re-orient all of our institutional decisions around our congregational mission, as soon as we figure it out.

A more radical missionalism says that we need to get out of the churches and into the community in smaller units that combine service, worship and community in smaller and more particular community settings.  Live our faith at the grass roots.

Another form of missionalism is the interest in non-congregational settings for community ministry.  Ministers with marginalized identities look to a growth in a missional UUism as an alternative to the steep pyramid of the Darwinian parish ministry.

These missionalists call our prevailing church culture "churchism" and say that it is dying.  They remind us that the church is not a building and an institution, and the work of the church is not institutional maintenance.  It has become self-focused.  To them, the UU's are even more crass, saying, in effect, "we don't care what you think or believe, as long as your willing to give the church money, take your turn on the shared duties and don't disrupt the community."  Rev. Ron Robinson in Turley, OK is practicing this kind of radical missionalism.

Peter voices many of the critiques of Unitarian Universalism that the missionalists make.  The notion that our present institutions have become self-serving and self-satisfied bodies unable to see beyond their own needs is a missionalist argument.
He writes:  " We have institutionalized narcissism. Here was a person that was not involved in a Unitarian Universalist church, and yet knew something about us. As an outsider, the message he received about what we stand for is: It’s about whatever you want it to be about. It’s all about you."
But Peter ends up not making a missionalist argument, even though he talks about the liberal church finding its mission.
I am skeptical about Unitarian Universalism ever becoming the sort of missional religious movement that some of my colleagues and friends are imagining. A group of like-minded individuals doing community service together with no theology, no discerned sense of vocation, is not a faith community; it’s the Rotary Club.
 This is a line that has deep resonance with many traditional institutionalists, but is more content-rich than they have built.
Inasmuch as Unitarian Universalist communities continue to neglect discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition, we will never be a missional religious movement. 
Peter believes, if I understand him right, that common theological practices are the pre-condition for developing missional congregations.

But I wonder if he is advocating a program of raising the theological strength of our existing congregations (an updated version of the traditional UU Christian institutionalist program) or an outward looking evangelical strategy.

What I argue is this:  

 Our Mission is more important than our Institutions and our Mission is  Evangelism.

By Evangelism, I do not mean spreading Unitarian Universalism, or growing our congregations. Evangelism is not an old-fashioned word for growth strategies.  Our goal is to be evangelical, not sectarian.

Our mission is to spread Liberal Religion.  There are many other forms of Liberal Religion: many of the mainline churches, many varieties of Judaism, most forms of Western Buddhism, and many of the unchurched.  Unitarian Universalism is a particular form of Liberal Religion that has arisen out of liberal Protestantism and moved in the 20th century toward creating open-ended, interfaith worshipping communities.

Evangelism is spreading a message, sharing good news, entering the public square to contest the foundational ideas that shape the social order.

The world is not at a point of postmodern stability -- where all sorts of ideas co-exist and will so indefinitely.  We are in an unstable world in which religious fundamentalism, religious liberalism, and fiendish globalist consumerist anomie  all compete for the minds of every person. It is an ideological, philosophical and theological struggle about how we think about ourselves, each other, the planet we live on and the Universe we live in. There will be winners and losers in this ongoing struggle; the quality of the lives our children and grandchildren will live depend on its outcome.

Our goal is to persuade people of the basic viewpoints of  liberal religion and consolidate them as people who can enact those virtues of liberal religion in their social and personal lives.  These viewpoints and virtues are good news that will make their lives happier and healthier and the world a better place.  Defining those viewpoints and virtues are the work of a preaching life.

Tihs is the external dimension of what the tasks that Peter outlines:
.... discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition. 







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