Like everybody of my era, I started thinking about Unitarian Universalism by thinking about the problem of how to define what we believe. The basic problem of UU identity. And like most of my generation, I adopted "the covenant, not creed" answer to that problem. That quote by John Wolf - "I am not sure that I believe in God, but I sure believe in the church" was important to me.
That led to the belief that the congregation was the place of definition of Unitarian Universalism. With that, congregational polity became the "thread that you follow", to use William Stafford's metaphor, through the history.
But not only congregational polity as a principle, but religious community as what we offered to people. Become a Unitarian Universalist and let your life be transformed by belonging to a religious community, a group of people who gathered together to celebrate their relationships and to practice mutual care and support.
That is a powerful message, and attractive to people who hunger for community, which turns out to be a smaller group than we thought.
My dissatisfactions rose with that understanding of Unitarian Universalism, which I think is still the common denominator way we think of ourselves.
A community is less than humanity, so it is partial. Building a religion based on making comfortable and supporting communities leads to consumerism. It does not challenge people. It makes all ministry pastoral at heart.It's prophetic witness becomes us vs them. It either reinforces an unspoken set of assumptions as normative within the congregation, or it becomes a masochistic testing ground of how much disruptive difference the community can endure.
Most of the critiques of contemporary Unitarian Universalism from younger ministers and laypeople echo these concerns. They say that Unitarian Universalism is self-satisfied. My hypothesis is that the "religious community" as defining UU function is the problem. It is an answer to a real problem, but not a good answer.
So, how to re-imagine UUism?
I needed a starting question.....
I started on this path at a Large Church Conference that was held in Boston. I don't think that I really qualified to be there, but I remember asking Stefan Johanson if he could explain what transformation people should expect if they joined a UU congregation. How does becoming a UU change a person? Not, what benefits does a person get from being a UU? I had heard that discussion lots of time, but "how will this change me?"
I had come to the conclusion that if we did not know the answer to that question, that our efforts to grow were going to fail. Not only were our efforts to grow going to fail, but that we were failing in some fundamental way because we didn't know what we were doing, or even trying to do.
If we did not know the answer to the question "how does UUism change people?", then we had become a religion about itself.