The Reverend Dr. William R. Murry
President, Meadville / Lombard Theological School
Arthur M. Judy Lecture
Prairie Star District Annual Conference
Saturday, April 28, 2001
There is a story about a brand new Anglican priest who, feeling trepidation at the task he was about to undertake, asked his bishop what he should preach about. The bishop replied, “Preach about God and about 20 minutes.” Well, I am going to talk about growing vital congregations and about 40 minutes.
Like all of you, I am sure, I want to see our religious movement grow and become more vital, and the only way that can happen is for our congregations to become more vital and faithful to our tradition and to liberating faith. Such congregations are those that minister effectively to each member, that have a constructive influence in their communities, and are growing numerically not because of expensive advertising campaigns but because the word is out that these are congregations that are meeting the spiritual needs of its members and are transforming their lives and the larger communities as well.
This morning I want to discuss the qualities of that kind of congregation, and to do so I want to use a text from the writings of the great 19th century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, whom Henry Steele Commager called “Yankee Crusader.” Parker wrote: “Let us have a church for the whole person: truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart; a church which, like lightning in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark.” We have adopted a portion of that statement for the unofficial motto of Meadville/Lombard Theological School — the part that says: “truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart” — because those three qualities are the qualities we want our graduates to have. And those three qualities are what I want to emphasize this morning.
First, then, a vital and faithful congregation will emphasize truth for the mind. We need churches and ministers who are concerned about and dedicated to the responsible search for truth and meaning, as our fourth principle puts it. Throughout its history liberal religion has been committed to seeking truth even at the expense of cherished doctrines and beliefs. Our religious ancestors believed that the way to truth involved reason, the use of our minds and our critical thinking capacities, and they insisted that reason be applied to religion as well as to other areas of life. William Ellery Channing, in his Baltimore sermon of 1819, the sermon that did for Unitarianism what the Declaration of Independence did for the 13 colonies, insisted that revelation alone was not sufficient for true religion and that religious truths should be subjected to our God-given reason. If they are not reasonable, they should be abandoned. This insistence on reason led Channing and others of course to question doctrines that did not stand up to critical thinking, such as the doctrine of the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the doctrine of human depravity.
However, we are living in this postmodern era when many people have forsaken reason and instead are seeking truth and meaning in the irrational, the magical and the supernatural. Millions of people use electricity and computers but believe in the magical powers of signs and exorcisms in their private life. To continue to use our critical thinking capacities in religion is to go against the grain of our culture, but I believe very strongly that we must continue to include critical thinking in our approach to life in general and to religion in particular.
Even Unitarian Universalists seem to be turning away from reason and critical thinking. At a UU ministers convocation several years ago the ministers were trying to hammer out a statement of the things we hold in common, and much to the dismay of many of us, a majority rejected the primacy of reason as one of our common values.
How can we know what is true unless we test our beliefs through our experience and through critical thinking? The consistent use of our rational abilities has made possible enormous advances in our understanding of the world and of human nature. Religion must not be exempt from the best method we have of ascertaining what is true. We should not leave our thinking caps at the door when we enter our churches.
But let me clear that I am not suggesting a return to the sterile rationalism that has characterized our movement at times during its history. It should not be a matter of either reason or emotion; both are necessary to life as a whole and to religion. I believe that reason should be in the service of feeling, and feeling should be in the service of what is reasonable. Ours is a religion of the head AND of the heart. A religion of the head only lacks the three most important things in religion: commitment, caring, and community. But a religion of the heart only can become mere sentimentality.
One of the reasons we need to emphasize truth for the mind is that what we perceive to be true and meaningful changes from one generation to the next, and we need to continually re-examine our convictions. The myths and symbols and stories and beliefs that spoke to people in the first century or in the 20th century may not speak to us today in the 21st century, and so we need to continue to engage in the responsible search for truth and meaning. Our commitment to being a religion without a creed recognizes the fact that what we believe to be true and how we express it changes.
I was brought up as a Southern Baptist, but as I studied religion and philosophy I began to doubt many Southern Baptist beliefs. When I learned, for example, how and when the Bible was written and that what the gospels claimed to be the words and deeds of Jesus were written long after his death and represented the legends of a pre-scientific people that had grown up after his death — I knew I could not remain a Southern Baptist. I looked for a religion that was able to admit the truth about Jesus and the doctrines of Christianity, and that is when I found Unitarian Universalism.
Jesus is represented as saying, You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free. The truths I learned freed me from conservative religion and the guilt and fear that go with it. Truth for my mind was and is liberating.
Truth for the mind is important, not only in religion, but in every area of life. A democratic society desperately needs people who think critically, who can see through the sham and hypocrisy and the soul-destroying values of our society.
If we expand Parker’s statement to include truth AND meaning in the manner of our fourth principle, we open up a new dimension, one that is very important for a vital and faithful congregation. Several years ago Dean Kelley wrote that “the business of religion is meaning.” People come to church looking for a deeper meaning to their lives than simply making money, climbing the corporate ladder, raising children, having fun, or decorating their house. People come to church looking for meaning and purpose in their lives; they are looking for something to live for, something more than our materialistic culture offers them. They often call it spirituality, but a deeper meaning to their lives is an essential part of it.
In my book, A Faith for All Seasons: Liberal Religion and the Crises of Life, I suggest that once upon a time people believed that their lives were meaningful because they were part of a divine cosmic plan. Their lives became meaningful by doing the will of God and thus becoming part of God’s purposes for humankind. Most of us don’t believe that any more, and so we have to make our lives meaningful by the way we live. In the book I suggest that there are at least two ways in which we do that. One is by savoring each moment and the other is serving others. And on the latter I quote Dag Hammarskjöld who said: “Only what you have given is salvaged from the nothing which some day will have been your life.” And Alfred Adler who wrote: “Every human being strives for significance, but people always make mistakes if they do not see that their whole significance must consist in their contribution to the lives of others .... Life means — to contribute to the whole.”
I remember a woman in my former congregation who came to me asking what she could do to fill the void in her life. She was a widow in her mid-50s, and she spent her days working as a secretary and her evenings alone in front of the TV set. I mentioned that our church library was in disarray, and she took up the challenge and helped to re-organize it. She then tackled our bookstore and transformed it into an important part of the church. Today she works in affordable housing. She found meaning in her life through service to others.
I believe very strongly that our Unitarian Universalist religious perspective offers insight into the question of meaning. I venture to say that each of you has found life more meaningful as a result of your religious commitment. Vital congregations help their members find a deeper meaning to their lives, a spiritually grounded sense of meaning and purpose.
There is another dimension to Parker’s request for churches that emphasize truth for the mind. Like myself most Unitarian Universalists were not brought up as Unitarian Universalists; we discovered this faith as adults, and many of us don’t know much about it and would like to know more. Our churches need to feed the minds of their members. Many people are hungry to know more about our history and what we stand for today. Our churches need to be schools of religion and theology.
The study of theology and religious ideas is not the province of theological schools alone any more than ministry is something only ordained ministers do. Our churches should have strong adult religious education programs. Many people are eager to know more about what Unitarian Universalism means and what we stand for. We have an exciting and important history and we need to know more about it. UU historian David Robinson has written: “Like a pauper who searches for the next meal, never knowing of the relatives whose will would make him rich, American Unitarians lament their vague religious identity, standing upon the richest theological legacy of any American denomination. Possessed of a deep and sustaining history of spiritual achievement and philosophical speculation, religious liberals have been, ironically, dispossessed of that heritage.”
A vital congregation is a teaching congregation. Everything that happens in a vital congregation is educational. But I mean education in the broadest and most inclusive sense possible — it includes not only knowledge about religion, knowledge about Unitarian Universalism, but also education for living. Let me use Maria Harris' words to say what I mean. She writes, Education is for the continual “remaking, recreating, reconstructing, and reorganizing of our human experience, giving that experience meaning and helping us decide where to go and what to do next.” It is learning to live more in a way that is more truly and fully human. We call it spiritual growth as well as the growth and expansion of the mind.
William Ellery Channing used the term “self-culture” to describe what we are talking about. He begins his important essay on “self-culture” by stating that we have the power to determine and form ourselves. This was a revolutionary idea to most people at the time because they believed that God determined the kind of person they were and that there was little if anything they could do about it. Channing said, “Of all the discoveries which (people) need to make, the most important ... is that of the self-forming power treasured up in themselves .... There is more of divinity in it than in the force which impels the outward universe; and yet how little we comprehend it! How it slumbers in most people, unsuspected, unused! This makes self-culture possible and binds it on us as a solemn duty.”
By self-culture Channing meant moral, religious, and intellectual growth and the cultivation of aesthetic sensitivity. For him and for the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Margaret Fuller, personal and spiritual growth was one of the goals of life. Margaret Fuller said it this way: “Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow.” And Channing put it this way: “Progress is the very end of our being.” A contemporary of ours, not a UU, Bob Dylan, said, “He who is not busy growing is busy dying.”
I think of truth not only as cognitive, not simply as something mental or intellectual, but rather as something involving the whole person. Truth is not simply what you know or believe. It is even more importantly the kind of person you are. Do you live truthfully? Are you true to your values and principles?
To live in truth in this sense is to be a whole person, a fully human being.
That leads me back to the point that the whole church is religious education, that every thing we do is religious education. Take the worship service. That may be more than an educational experience, but it is an educational experience. Are children in your services every Sunday for the first few minutes? If not, then we may be teaching them that they are not part of the real church. And we are teaching adults that ours is an adult religion, and that it’s okay to separate families when they come to church. Are children included in other church activities — pot lucks, social events? If not, what are we learning about our religion and about being fully human?
But children are not the only people in our congregations who are in danger of being treated with something less than the worth and dignity that we affirm belongs to everyone. What about elderly people? Does your congregation have ways of honoring them, special ways of letting them know they are important even if they are no longer in leadership positions the way they once were?
In each of the congregations I served we had a program called “Reflections on a Lifetime,” in which every couple of months one of our elderly members prepared and presented his or her life story with an emphasis on their religious odyssey. It was one of the most popular things in the church and it was great learning experience for everyone involved.
What are we teaching people by our building? Is it accessible. Is it kept clean and attractive? Is the furniture in the classrooms in good condition? Do you welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people with the same open arms you welcome straight people? How about people of color? Are they standing alone or with one another during coffee hour?
The culture of a congregation teaches a lot about the congregation and about our religion. I used to tell my congregation the following story every 2 or 3 years to remind them of the importance of the way we treat newcomers. When I was a first year seminary student I was very unhappy as a Southern Baptist and was looking for something else, so I went one Sunday morning to the local Unitarian church (this was before merger). I heard a terrific sermon, but it was the most unfriendly church I had ever attended. No one spoke to me as I went in; no one spoke as I left. No one invited me to the coffee hour. I don’t even know if there was one. There must have been about 75 people scattered in the fixed pews of the Gothic building that seated over 400 but they didn’t seem friendly with one another either. I went back a second Sunday and had the same experience and decided that was not the religion for me. I was lost to Unitarian Universalism for 20 years as a result.
Every one of us needs to feel that we belong, that we are a part of a group of caring, people, people who share our values and ideals. Only when we belong to such a group can genuine whole person learning take place. Education does not mean only cognitive learning; it refers to emotional learning as well. Psychologist Kurt Lewin has said that learning is made possible by finding and accepting a new belonging. Until this happens, nothing is learned. Community is essential to learning. Spiritual transformation does not occur in a vacuum.
Worship should be a forming, re-forming, and transforming experience. The central act of worship in our tradition, our sacrament if you will, is the sermon. I believe we should learn something from every sermon. maybe not new knowledge, but a deeper understanding or a new way of looking at things. We also learn in this broader sense from the music, the prayers, the readings, from sharing of joys and concerns — everything that happens in a good worship service will contribute to our spiritual growth.
Things like support groups can also contribute to our search for truth and meaning. I think of a man who joined a men’s support group in my former congregation in the mid 1980's. He had just retired from the last of several important positions in the government including being an Assistant Secretary of State, and he had served on a number of important boards. But he says he never really knew who he was until he had spent several years in that men’s group where he learned to get in touch with his feelings at a depth he never had before. He learned how to express thoughts and feelings he did not know he had. He was transformed.
That, I submit to you, is a form of truth.
So I am saying that vital and faithful congregations will emphasize truth in all its senses — truth for the mind and truth in living. Vital congregations will have outstanding adult religious education programs, but they won’t stop there. They will be teaching congregations and they will be conscious that everything they do teaches something.
Second, Parker referred to “good works for the hands.” Vital and faithful congregations will be deeply committed to and involved in social justice work. Unitarian Universalism has always emphasized community service and social responsibility. Theodore Parker himself was such a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery that his home was part of the Under-ground Railroad and he even kept a gun in his desk and vowed to use it to protect runaway slaves if necessary. Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront on such issues as the rights of women and the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. We have worked for peace when we believed a war was unjust; we have called for economic justice and for an end to racial injustice in all its forms. We have said that true religion leads to concern for people who are oppressed and impoverished. We have said that the dictum to love one’s neighbor means to be concerned about that neighbor’s physical well-being. We have said, “deeds, not creeds” defines our religion.
My favorite people in the Bible are the Hebrew prophets like that old herdsman, Amos, crying out to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” And Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
What concerns me, however, is that we are often long on words but short on action. We discuss social issues and we pass resolutions, but how many of us as individuals and how many of our churches really do very much?
I don’t mean for one minute to discourage us from discussing issues. We need the educational component of discussion before we can act, but we should not stop with talking and passing resolutions. We need to roll up our sleeves and go to work. Bill Schulz calls this a theology of dirty hands.
During the last 20 years or so people have come to our churches seeking spirituality and spiritual growth. Like most people in our materialistic and hedonistic culture, they have neglected the spiritual aspect of life, and they quite rightly want to change that. However, many, perhaps most, of these do not see the relationship between spirituality and social justice. They assume that spirituality is a matter of the inner life only.
The late Roman Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen told about a priest who cancelled his subscription to the New York Times because he felt that “the endless stories about war, crime, power games and political manipulation only disturbed his mind and heart and prevented him from meditation and prayer.” Nouwen says, “That is a sad story because it suggests that only by denying the world can you live in it, that only by surrounding yourself by an artificial, self-induced quietude can you live a spiritual life. A real spiritual life is exactly the opposite: it makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes a part of our contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.”
Our lives have both an interior and exterior aspect, a private side and a public side, yet the two are intimately related. There is a rhythm to our lives, a breathing in and breathing out, a giving and receiving, a rhythm of being and doing, of spirituality and action. Spirituality belongs to our interior life; ethics and action to our exterior life. But the inner and the outer are intimately related. Our words and actions proceed from our interior self. Spirituality is the inward side of action; ethical action is the outward side of spirituality.
I believe very deeply along with Henri Nouwen that a true spirituality does not stop with inward renewal but goes on to involvement with the world. Spirituality leads to a concern about the well-being of others, about poverty and injustice. Spirituality is not an end in itself. True spirituality leads to a fuller, deeper humanity. True spirituality leads to social action. As James Luther Adams, the greatest UU theologian of the 20th century, put it: “A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion.”
Again, our history is helpful. As I said earlier, Channing and later the Transcendentalists talked a great deal about self-culture by which they meant something close to what we mean by spiritual growth. Self-culture or spiritual growth, however, was not an end in itself. It led to social change. It impelled Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody into education reforms; it led Margaret Fuller to work for the equality of women; it led to Thoreau’s civil disobedience and to Parker’s commitment to abolition and to women’s rights.
The division in some of our congregations between those who seek spiritual growth and those who advocate social justice work is based on misunderstanding both. Spirituality without social concern is superficial and inauthentic, but social concern without a spiritual dimension is empty and leads to discouragement and burnout.
The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century tract of spirituality, put it this way: “(People) cannot be fully active except they be partly contemplative, nor fully contemplative without being partly active.” And Don Wheat, retired UU minister, said, “I measure the spiritual authenticity of a congregation by the concern it expresses for those who are oppressed and suffering.”
What kinds of social justice work can congregations do? On the one hand, of course, we can do things like work in soup kitchens that feed the homeless. We can collect food and money for food for Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets for poor families. We can tutor children who are having difficulty in school. We can send used clothing to third world countries. We can do these and other acts of charity. And that is important.
The problem with charity, however, is that it does not change the conditions that led to poverty, hunger, homelessness, etc. We need to be involved in justice seeking as well as in charitable acts. We need systemic change, changes in the structures of a society in which people are allowed to be poor and hungry and homeless and to be without health insurance.
Again Theodore Parker put it well: “There is a hole in the dim-lit public bridge where many fall through and perish. Our mercy pulls a few out of the water; it does not stop the hole, nor light the bridge, nor warn men of peril. We need the great Charity that palliates effects of wrong, and the great Justice which removes the Cause.”
But can we really do anything more than charitable acts? We all know that these days unfortunately the major political decisions that affect our lives and the lives of all Americans are influenced to a large extent by those who give the big money to the campaign coffers of politicians. Yet in most cases the only way to effect change is through legislation. It’s hard to find the motivation to try to do anything when you don’t feel that your efforts will make a difference.
Perhaps I am naïve, but I still believe that letters and phone calls to Congress people and state legislators make a difference, and that if enough people care about something they will get the message and do what we the people are asking. And I am especially committed to interfaith efforts — groups like the Interfaith Alliance and interfaith groups on the local level.
In the Washington, D.C., area we had some success by joining together with other congregations. First, the UU congregations joined together to form the UU Affordable Housing Corporation which lends money to non-profit organizations that build or rehab houses and apartments for low income people. UUAHC borrows money from UU’s at low or no interest and loans it at low interest to organizations that cannot get commercial loans or that can’t afford to pay commercial rates. The organization has played an important role in enabling several hundred families to have better housing. I believe you now have a similar project in the twin cities.
That is not an example of influencing legislation, but it is does suggest that where it is possible to join together on issues, we can do much more together than we can as an individual congregation.
In terms of effecting social change, interfaith coalitions have more clout because they represent more people. We UU’s may differ in theology from other churches and synagogues, but we share many social justice interests in common. As long as we don’t try to push issues like abortion and gay rights in interfaith coalitions, we can work together with Catholics, Protestants, Jews and people of other faiths to help make our society a more just and equitable place.
“Good works for the hands.” Vital congregations will discuss social issues and will find ways to help people and communities through charitable acts, community service, and through social justice work. Vital congregations will regard social action as the extension of their emphasis on spirituality and spiritual growth.
Parker’s third characteristic of vital and faithful churches is “Love for the heart.” Love has always been central to the Biblical tradition to which we belong. Jesus said the commandments could be summed up in two admonitions: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. About the only thing I like that the Apostle Paul wrote is his great chapter on love, which ends with these words: “Now abide faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”
The great humanist psychotherapist and social critic Erich Fromm called love “the answer to the problem of human existence.” Fromm goes on to suggest that there are four basic elements common to all forms of love. These are care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.
A vital and faithful congregation is a caring community where people have a deep respect for one another and for each person’s unique individuality, have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of one another, and take responsibility for one another. Let me elaborate briefly on these.
In a congregation that is a caring community, when a member is ill or has suffered the loss of someone they love, when they are despondent, when they have lost their job, or when they are facing surgery, or when they are struggling with a health problem — in all these instances the religious community needs to be there in some form in addition to the caring presence of the minister. In some congregations caring is institutionalized in the form of a caring committee or a pastoral care committee in which dedicated and trained members respond to members in need. This is ministry of the laity and perhaps in no other aspect of church life is the ministry of the laity or shared ministry more important or more evident in our congregations.
Another way some of our congregations institutionalize caring is through small groups such as support groups which meet frequently and in which people share in confidence some of their frustrations and disappointments as well their successes. In the best support groups people really do support each other; they really do give encouragement and understanding and emotional help. In a word, they really do care. But other small groups can become caring groups too, even though that may not be their primary purpose. Adult religious education groups, for example, can also become caring groups, especially if there is time each time they meet for sharing personal matters, and especially if the group meets for more than a few weeks. And those congregations that place each newcomer in a group with other newcomers for a year-long orientation — those groups can become the focus of caring.
I think that the sharing of joys and concerns in the Sunday worship services is a very important part of the service. It helps to make us aware of those who are experiencing a crisis and helps develop a caring congregation. But we must make it clear to the congregation that this is not a time for announcements! It is a sacred time when we become aware of what people we love are experiencing, and it is a time that means that later we will have an opportunity to demonstrate that we care about those persons.
My favorite image of the church comes from the Jewish tradition. It is familiar and you may have heard it before, but it bears repeating in this context. It seems that a rabbi was talking with God about heaven and hell. The rabbi asked what each of them was like, and so God said, “Come, I will show you hell.” They went into a room which had a large pot of stew in the middle. The smell was delicious, but around the pot sat people who were famished and desperate because they all held spoons with very long handles which reached the pot but were too long to get the stew back into their mouths. So they were starving.
“Now I will show you heaven,” said God, and they went into an identical room with a large pot of delicious smelling stew, and the people had identical long spoons, yet they were all well nourished and very happy. “The difference is simple,” God said. “You see, they have learned to feed one another.”
I love that illustration because it not only suggests that we care for and about one another but also that we can feed one another’s souls, that we nourish one another spiritually.
A vital and faithful community is not only one in which the members care about one another but in which they also care about others outside the community — the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, and the hungry, as I have already suggested.
Thus a loving community will respond to the needs of others both within and outside the church, and it will be a community in which each person respects every other person because of the person they are, with all their faults and frailties as well as their abilities, their weaknesses as well as their strengths. One of our seven principles refers to acceptance of one another in our congregations. I think that means that we accept one another as we find them, not as we would like them to be or even as they would like to be.
And love includes knowledge of one another. Not the shallow and superficial relationships that pass for friendship in too many cases today, but a knowledge of the other person at a deeper level, the kind that comes from sharing one’s innermost thoughts, one’s hopes and dreams and frustrations and failures, that comes from sharing what it is that gets you up in the morning, what it is that gives you joy and satisfaction, and your values. That kind of knowledge leads to respect and to caring.
In his book, Effective Church Leadership, Kennon Callahan writes this about why people come to church. “People come to church longing for and hoping for ... [a] sense of roots, place, belonging, sharing , and caring. People come to church in our time with a search for community, not committee.”
He goes on to suggest that people come to church seeking four things: individuality, community, meaning, and hope. And the task of church leadership corresponds to these. The leadership tasks are:
First, to help people in their search for individuality and identity — their need to rediscover and reclaim power in their own lives and destinies. Callahan believes that people today feel powerless. The decisions that affect their lives are made by large government or business organizations. This sense of powerlessness leads to a sense of anonymity and submissive inactivity.
Callahan believes that the work of congregations in relation to the search for identity involves helping people gain a deepening sense of selfhood, of distinctiveness, of being a unique and worthwhile person. It also involves helping people recover a sense of autonomy and personal power.
The second task of the church and its leaders today is to help people build “communities of reconciliation, wholeness, caring and justice.” Callahan believes that individuality is discovered and fostered in community, and community means giving and receiving care and sharing with other people. As church leaders we are called to create communities where anger and resentment and estrangement are overcome, where people grow spiritually and become more truly and fully human.
The third task is to help people find a sense of meaning in everyday life. Callahan sees people struggling against a sense of insignificance in their lives. They want to feel that their actions make some difference, that they have a contribution to make, that they can live worthwhile lives, and that they are of value in the scheme of things.
The fourth task of church leadership today is to help people find a sense of hope. Callahan says it is the leader’s task to guide people into a sense of mission, helping them to envision a possible future in which at least some of their ideals and longings find fulfillment.
These four tasks are things we can do in our congregations — things we are already doing, many of us. They are things a loving, caring congregation does.
To talk about loving and caring congregations is also to talk about the congregation as a community. Every one of us needs to be part of a community. There is something within us that recognizes that we are not whole persons alone, that we belong to and with others. There is something within us that eternally yearns for a greater sense of connectedness, that yearns to reach out and deeply touch others, throwing off the pain and loneliness of separation to experience unity with others. We are social creatures, and we need one another not only for company and for physical survival and sustenance but also for spiritual reasons. We need one another to nurture our spirits, and we need one another for our lives to be meaningful and worthwhile. We cannot attain our full humanity unless we are part of a community. The need for individuality is only one half of what it means to be human; the need for community is the other half. As the Xhosa people of southern Africa say: “I am because we are.”
A liberal religious community is not simply an aggregate of individuals; it is a group of individuals who are drawn together by their commitment to common values and principles and who have covenanted with one another to walk together. It is often said that UU’s are highly individualistic and our congregations are simply groups of individuals and not genuine communities. There is truth in that statement, but it need not be so once we realize that our individuality is not smothered by our being in covenant with others, but that on the contrary true individuality is possible only in community.
Do you know why geese fly together? I am told that by flying together each goose gets an aerodynamic lift that enables it to fly faster and higher. Each goose functions better when they all fly together and of course when each flies better the whole flock does better.
I think it is the same with human beings: we each function better as individuals when we are part of a community.
Let me conclude by briefly addressing the question of HOW to achieve these goals. The worship service of course is crucial. Sermons and lay led services can emphasize the importance of caring for one another, of serving the community and of addressing the social problems of the nation. The sharing of joys and concerns, as I’ve said, can be very important as well. Sermons can discuss what Unitarian Universalism stands for and interpret the meaning of our faith.
One of the keys to creating vital congregations lies in the creation of small groups. People today are coming to church seeking connection, seeking a substitute for the intimacy and sense of belonging they once found in extended families, small towns or intimate neighborhoods. Many of them never thought they would ever find themselves in a church, and they are suspicious of religious institutions and have no loyalty to any one of them. But they are hungry for fellowship and meaning.
Members of long standing are less likely to need to belong to a small group, or rather they probably already do in one way or another. It is the newcomers who need to be in a group in order to feel they belong and to get to know other people. I like the model developed by All Souls, Tulsa, which they call Roots and Branches. It works like this:
Every newcomer goes through a four session program called Roots, led by the ministers who both impart information about UUism and All Souls Church and who help the people become better acquainted with one another. The program is understood as an educational experience but fellowship is also central.
The next stage is for those who want a deeper relationship with the church. They move into a Branches group, which is led by a layperson selected and trained by the ministers. The ministers also select and write the curriculum — the group dynamics part as well as the substance.
There are two more stages. In the first the group selects a mission they want to engage in. The mission can be some kind of service to the church or it can be social service mission. The final stage is to engage in the mission. By this time the people in the group should feel closely connected, but working together on a common task they have agreed upon binds them even more closely together. This whole process takes about a year.
This approach has a number of important benefits: it is the best way I know for a church to grow; second it is a way of doing what I have been talking about — becoming a caring community, an educational community and a social justice community. In a word it is a specific way in which a congregation can become a means of transforming individual lives and the community as well.
Let me close by paraphrasing Theodore Parker: Let us have congregations that emphasize truth for the mind, that practice good works for the hands, and that teach and live love for the heart. The congregations that do these things well will be vital, faithful and growing congregations. Nothing less than congregations like that is worthy of our religion.
(Copyright © 2001 Rev. William R. Murry)