The year ahead: Good things to watch for in Unitarian Universalism

I’m a Universalist at heart, and Universalism is a hope-filled faith, so as I look ahead to 2011 I can’t help but seek out signs of hope within Unitarian Universalism. Here are some of the things that give me hope for the coming year:

Community ministry: Most of our local congregations continue to stagnate and even decline, and they are not very good advertisements for our faith tradition. But our Unitarian Universalist community ministers are out doing all kinds of good work in the world; they serve as hospital chaplains, military chaplains, directors of non-profit organizations, social service providers, etc., etc. These are the people who are out there letting people know who we are. We have to figure out how to support these people without locking them into the weird narrow conception of congregational polity that now dominates us.

Three experiments in new congregation starts:

This coming year, I’ll be watching three very different approaches at starting new congregations. Each of these three new congregations does not fit the typical model of new congregation starts within Unitarian Universalism — no fellowships here, no existing congregation supporting a new congregation, no extension ministry, no support from the Unitarian Universalist Association. One is a project to revitalize a moribund church; another focuses on serving the wider community rather than members and friends; and one an entrepreneurial church start common in other denominations but not within Unitarian Universalism.

1. Scott Wells is thinking about how to do a new church start in Washington, D.C. While there are plenty of UU congregations on the Beltway, it’s clear the District could use another UU congregation (or two, or three). Scott has a good day job, so he doesn’t need to earn money from this project. He doesn’t have a church Web site up yet, so the best way to follow Second Universalist is via Twitter.

What I like best about what Scott is doing is this: he has recognized that many of our major metropolitan areas are grossly underserved by Unitarian Universalist congregations. In many metropolitan areas, we Unitarian Universalists have saturated the suburbs with our congregations, but have ignored the city. I will be curious to see what kind of congregation emerges from Scott’s effort. Although I’d love to see him create another big congregation, I’d be just as happy if the outcome was a house church or a family size church (under 50 average attendance) because I’d love to see him spark the creation of lots of UU house churches in major metropolitan areas.

2. Ron Robinson has been working away in Turley, Oklahoma, for some time now, building up what he calls “A Third Place” — I’ve been reading his blog, formerly titled Progressive Church Planting and now titled The Welcome Table: A Free Universalist Christian Missional Community. Robinson has a different conception of what a congregation can be. In a recent online UU World article, Don Skinner writes: “Robinson identifies A Third Place with the growing ‘missional’ movement in evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity, which focuses a church’s ministries externally rather than internally.”

Not surprisingly, Robinson doesn’t draw a salary at A Third Place; his wife, a medical doctor, is the primary breadwinner; Robinson also earns some money from a couple of part-time gigs. This allows him to work within a very unconventional organizational structure, and to build a community that isn’t a typical Unitarian Universalist congregation. As Robinson has written on his blog: “The world needs all kinds of churches, or varying manifestations of the church.” I’m watching Robinson because he is willing to think outside the box. We need more people who are willing to try things that are this well thought-out, and this radically different.

3. The new congregation start that I’m most interested in is in Norton Massachusetts. The old Unitarian Universalist congregation in Norton had almost died out when they decided to use their beautiful building and their substantial endowment, and start all over again. Here’s how their minister, Christana Wille-McKnight, describes what they’re doing:

“This church has been around for literally 300 years. But over those years, the congregation has essentially died out. The few remaining members dream that the church will one day grow and thrive again. They have hired me as their full time minister to restart the congregation with a new mission, vision and practice, while still retaining the ideals of Unitarian Universalism.”

If the Norton congregation succeeds in this venture, I hope they will inspire dozens of other essentially moribund congregations to think outside the box, and start something new and vibrant and alive.

Unitarian Universalism overseas: Again this year, I’ll be watching the ongoing emergence of Unitarian Universalism in Africa. Uganda Unitarian Universalists have been standing up for gay rights in a very hostile environment; Kenyan Unitarian Universalists are somehow managing to survive the political chaos in their country; and movements in other countries seem to be hanging on or doing well. There is good stuff happening in African Unitarian Universalism. I just hope that we U.S. Unitarian Universalists can manage to help support the Africans without taking them over. Eric Cherry, Director of International Affairs at the Unitarian Universalist Association, seems to be doing an excellent job of keeping that balance of helping out without taking over, and his office will be well worth watching in the coming year.

The rise of the “nones”: “Nones” is a term popularized recently by sociologist Robert Putnam, and refers to the increasing number of people who, when asked what their religion is, reply “none.” The “nones” tend to be younger. They also may have an interest in religion, but they equate all religion with stereotypical American Protestant evangelical religion, and so decide that all churches are bad.

Every once in a while, I see one of these “nones” come into our congregation here in Palo Alto. Some of them, when they realize that they don’t have to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, actually decide to stick around — and although some of them remain extremely wary of the whole idea of organized religion, others decide to jump in with both feet. Some of them are humanists, but some of them are unconventional Christians or Buddhists or syncretists or something you can’t really name. This coming year, I’m going to be paying increasing attention to the “nones” and trying to figure out how to welcome them in when they show up in our congregation.

More social networking: Already, some ministers are saying that they are more likely to connect with people in their congregations via Facebook than via email. This doesn’t mean that email is going away, but it does mean that communication channels are getting increasingly fractured.

My real question is how are we going to use social networking most effectively? Yes, I use Facebook, and email, and even the phone and paper letters. Yes, I post my sermons on the Web before I preach, and embed links and footnotes into them, so that if you listen and read online at the same time, you get an enhanced sermon. But how can social networking enhance the growth of face-to-face community? — I’ll be watching this year to see how we address this question.