Towards a manifesto for emergent Unitarian Universalism

Mr. Crankypants’s post yesterday prompts me to try to put together a creative, positive statement of what emergent Unitarian Universalism might look like. Below you’ll find some brainstorming on the topic. Add your own ideas in the comments.

The context — Emergent Unitarian Universalism recognizes that the culture around us is changing rapidly. We know that our core theological message is a saving message for these postmodern times, and we have no interest in adapting our theological truth to fit these times. But everything else we do is up for grabs — worship styles, organizational structures, hymnody, management, openness to newcomers, everything — as long as it doesn’t compromise our core theological message.

The core theological message — Our core theological message is not a single statement, but a web of ideas. Historically, our core message grows from liberal theology of the Christian tradition. The insights of feminist, African American, and Two Thirds World liberation theologies have become central to us. Based on liberation theologies and other theologies of freedom, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology. We are bound together, not by a creed, but by covenants: We come together in the Spirit of Love to seek truth and goodness, to find spiritual transformation in our lives, to care for one another, and to promote practical goodness in the world. We know that all human beings (indeed, all sentient beings) share the same ultimate destiny, and we know that we have the free will to effect change in our lives and in the world.

We share our core theological message with Unitarians and Universalists and other religious liberals around the world, and we recognize (and value) the global diversity of our message.

Theses for change

Worship services need not take place only on Sunday morning. Ministers, other staff, and lay leaders who resist holding worship services at other times may be viewed as reactionary holdouts from the 1950s.

The emergent generations value mystery and tradition, so traditional church buildings and candlelight and ritual are assets.

The emergent generations often have never been a part of a church or religious institution before, so church leaders must assume a complete absence of knowledge about religion and religious practice at all times.

The surrounding culture is faceless and anonymous, and people are crying out for a sense of community. Thus our churches must stop being institutions and start becoming religious communities.

There is no single recipe for emergent Unitarian Universalist communities; each locale will require different approaches.

Many people today hunger for thirty and forty-minute sermons, although the common “wisdom” among present Unitarian Universalists (including many of us ministers) is for twenty minutes, tops. Having the worship leader provide sermon notes, with suggestion for further reading and study, is probably a good idea.

Emergent worship will include more arts than just spoken words and classical music. New media, performance art, installation art, musics of the world, dance, other movement, are all possibilities. Arts from the history of medieval Christianity — including drama, ritual, chant, and multimedia art — will often be especially effective in Western cultures.

Traditional media (newspapers, magazines) are poor places to advertise. Mass advertising campaigns are dead. We spread our message first of all through word-of-mouth, and secondarily through new media and viral marketing.

We should be thinking in terms of networks and webs, not in terms of hierarchies and centers of control. Don’t look to the denominational headquarters to create emergent Unitarian Universalist church for you. Find webs and networks of others who are quietly, subversively, trying to do it in their own religious communities. Create your own emergent Unitarian Universalist community outside of a traditional (methodologically rigid) Unitarian Universalist church or fellowship. Start a Web site. Hold a conference for emergent Unitarian Universalists. Meet up at General Assembly (no, don’t apply for a formal workshop slot, meet on your own time).

You are a co-creator of emergent Unitarian Universalism, so stop sitting on your butt. Write. Worship. Spread the word.

6 thoughts on “Towards a manifesto for emergent Unitarian Universalism

  1. Christine Robinson

    I like the “no one way”
    How about an “Emergent UU Church Network”
    We are thinking along these kinds of lines and are doing a workshop at GA. (On Video) Why not? I’m not anti-institution, just not waiting for the institution.

  2. Adam Tierney-Eliot

    Thanks Buddy,

    I think you are right on. I must admit, however, that your manifesto leaves me with a feeling of personal inadequacy. Can I, Rev. Adam, do this? I don’t know. Perhaps after Christmas and when this pesky snow goes away and doing the normal churchy things doesn’t seem to take as much time…

    Time will tell, I guess. I just hope that somewhere we have people creative enough to move the liberal church into the new century.

    Anyway, keep the faith!

  3. Dan

    Christine — You say, ‘How about an “Emergent UU Church Network”’ — well, if I get more than two positive comments on this post, then yeah I’m ready to do it.

    Hey Adam — I didn’t mean to imply that ministers have to go it alone! There are the lay leaders and the entire covenantal religious community, and (at least in my theology) the leadings of the spirit. As the Quakers say: Way will open.

  4. ms. m

    No time to comment at length, what with the rehearsals to get the drumming and the choreography prepared for this Sunday’s liturgy. Dance, drama, a band and costumes, designed by 7/8 graders in a “project runway” style competition. At one service. The other services in the next few days will have bells, organ, piano, Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Dylan Thomas, carols – old and new, more costumes, candles and hundreds of people of all ages, many backgrounds bringing friends of many cultures, classes, races, ages….all in one congregation. Hm. Very emergent already. Remind me to tell you of the voiceover sessions for our last animated story – or the recording studio experience with some early elementary students singing the bits we hope to use next Easter…

    Just takes planning, luck and lots of risk! Oh, and that spirit thing.

  5. Steve Caldwell


    For anyone who is looking at emergent church issues and how to reach folks who have no prior knowledge of church, I would recommend getting a copy of “I Sold My Soul on eBay” by Hemant Mehta.

    Hemant writes of his experiences visiting various churches and giving a friendly “outsider” perspective on his experiences (he was raised as a Jain and is currently an atheist). He writes on both the positive and negative experiences during his church experiences as an unchurched person.

    I will have to blog more about this book after I finish it.

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