Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Worship: Another Case Study.

The Reverend Dr. Victoria Weinstein spoke of the purpose of worship in the service at the end of her candidating week at Swampscott-Greater Lynn, in the Commonwealth.   Go and watch the video.  It's only about 13 minutes long.

Like Kent Saleska's sermon in the last case study, it is artful.  The metaphor of birthing is right on the money for a mother's day sermon, and for a sermon at the start of a ministry, and for the process of being changed irrevocably by the new, for which you are not ready.

Her point, however, was that the purpose of church was to give us a context in which we can practice and develop competencies in compassion, solidarity, courage, intellectual rigor, etc.  And she placed herself squarely in the midst of the shift that is going on in Unitarian Universalism right now.

We are moving from a model of the church that exists to provide a community for the members, a care co-op, a child faith development co-op, a chaplain co-op to changing the people by equipping them in some way.

Victoria calls it developing competencies; I have called it developing virtues.  The Missional tendency is even more explicit: the purpose of the church is to find people to "send out" into the world to works of mercy and justice.

As I talk with ministers and seminarians, this sense of the church appears to be rising.  The old sense of creating and celebrating a particular community seems to be passing away.

If so, this is a big deal.  Just off the top of my head, I can think of four different conceptions of the liberal church in my lifetime.

There was a stage when UU churches were places when smart people gathered for intellectual exploration of life issues, in an atmosphere freed of religion dogma.  On Sunday, the church thought deep thoughts.  

There was a time when UU churches were one went to connect to the rebellious and counter-culture trends in the society -- you could meet more radical, committed and interesting people there than anywhere else in most small cities and towns.  On Sunday, the church learned about the world.

There was a time when UU churches served as a place of a forming community, a community more welcoming and supportive than any where else.  Sunday mornings felt good, like home, like a comfort.

And now, Rev. Weinstein quotes Annie Dillard that the ushers should be handing out crash helmets on Sunday, because the sleeping God might wake up and send us to where we are going to be uncomfortable, under fire, and off balance.

And if you think that Victoria is tough and demanding, read these words by Will Willoman, who is a big deal in Christian scholarship.  (hat tip to Wendy Bell, who passed it along.)

I think that our ministers and seminarians are moving to this "equip them and send them out" model of ministry and church.  I don't think that our congregations are in the same place.  I think that the average person in the pews does not appreciate being seen as a self-centered spiritual slacker, a surly serf in the Kingdom of God.  

So, building and sharing a vision of the liberal church and its worship is becoming really crucial.


  1. Stephen Cook9:54 PM

    I think you, Tom, and others who observe that congregations will resist change from an orientation of "service to me and those like me" to one of "service to the world in need--and start right here in town!" are right. Congregations have tolerated a social justice committee (by many names) of activists who, in the name of the church, will do that work--especially for suffering humanity far away--but are often too invested in the intellectual/social/religious club many congregations have become.

  2. Anonymous5:41 AM


    I see a future for UU in layering this missional aspect over the other functions of a church - in fact I'd go so far as to say that adding mission and drive to the mix is unlikely to fly unless the other needs that drive people into the church to begin with are being addressed.

    People start going to church because they need something - whether it's social time, intellectual stimulation, religious ed for their kids, pastoral care, whatever it its. People leave when they've gotten their need satisfied - unless there's something more to capture their imaginations and get them invested there. Mission, transformations, spiritual growth from within out into the community can be that next level. But it builds on the foundation of safe, interesting, supportive community - and churches where that piece is missing or malfunctioning are going to have a much, much harder time with dynamic mission....

    (I may change my mind about all of this after seminary, of course. The world will probably be different in a few years.)

  3. Clyde Grubbs3:21 PM

    Congregations are different, some more spiritual self development coops, some witness to the beloved community by service projects and educating the next generation, some assume the intellectual stimulation ideal is eternal.

    The preacher can try to match her gospel to congregations implicit mission, but congregations over time become "Rev. Prophets" church, but mostly because of turnover, not conversion of the previous culture.

    Love the missional visional framework, but it takes more than a fancy dancer in the pulpit.

  4. "There was a time when UU churches were one went to connect to the rebellious and counter-culture trends in the society... On Sunday, the church learned about the world." Really? Or the church learned about the marginal trends in American society? After having read or listened to many sermons, I feel that most UUs know practically nothing about "the world" (the real world, that is). But they know a lot about religious America and about American politics. There are exceptions, of course. Not many.


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