Tag Archives: uuemergence

Another model for churches, pt. 6

Part 6 in a series. Read Part 1.

Institutional consequences of belief

I believe that one of the fundamental impulses that has driven me to move towards the concept of missional liberal churches is my experience of institutions as incarnate expressions of religion. In our postmodern world, we hear over and over again people saying how they are “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that they see no need to participate in a religious institution in order to carry out their spiritual lives — so many people are saying this that we are inclined to believe that it must be true.

Yet in postmodern mass society, we are increasingly atomized, separated from one another by divisions of time and space. One of the givens of postmodern life is that most of us no longer have any real roots in a place; the globalized economy means that we may have to move to a new location every few years, or if we are restricted to staying in one location, we may have to change employers every few years, so that we are commuting an hour away from home, now in one direction, now in another direction. For most of us, home life and work life are so separate that the people we see at home are completely different from the people we see at work; and completely different from the people whom we might see when we go shopping, or when we engage in leisure activities. There are very few people in the postmodern world whose daily activities fully integrate home, work, and all aspects of life.

One reason we come together into voluntary associations in the postmodern world is to find something of the sense of community that used to exist in actual communities where people lived, worked, and played together. This reason is added to the other reasons why we might come together into voluntary associations: to clear a metaphorical space for ourselves; to join our voices together to affect public policy; and, in the case of the voluntary associations that are missional liberal churches, to incarnate our religious visions. But those who claim that they are “spiritual but not religious” challenge us to consider whether we might be able to do this on our own, without any church at all.

James Luther Adams proposes that we should look for “God” (the quotes are his), not in individual practice, but in communities:

Charles Peirce, the American logician and teacher of William James, has proposed that an idea becomes clear only when we determine the habits of behavior that follow from it. We have seen that the meaning of the religious-ethical idea of Agape becomes clear only when we determine the habits, personal and institutional, that follow from it.

On the basis of this method of observation we may state a general principle: The meaning of “God” for human experience, and the meaning of response to the power of God, is to be determined in large part by observing the institutional consequences, the aspects of institutional life which the “believers” wish to retain or change. Paul, Aquinas, Luther, Munzer, and Roger Williams all use the words God, Spirit, love. But these realities and concepts assume quite different meanings for these men, differences that can be discriminated in their various conceptions of the appropriate forms of state, church, family, school, and society, and in the corresponding interpretations of social responsibility. Adams, ed. Beach (1998), 160-161

One obvious consequence of what Adams says is that anyone engaged in an individual spiritual practice must be careful to remain self-aware and monitor what habits of behavior are developing from the individual spiritual practice; those of us who remain in religious communities will also receive such feedback from others in that community. but this is a minor consequence.

There is also a major consequence that arises when persons eschew religious community in favor of solely engaging in an individual spiritual practice. As Adams points out, we can determine the meaning of “God” for someone by observing the institutional consequences and the aspects of institutional life which the “believers” wish to retain or change. At the extreme, someone who does not participate in religious community may express by his or her habits of behavior that “God” means only personal experience; thus “God” becomes solely effective in terms of personal salvation, but is rendered ineffective in any kind of redemption for humankind in general. This represents one extreme of American evangelical religion, where the only concern is with personal salvation, and there is no concern with the social gospel or the social efficacy of religion.

Next: Conclusion: missional liberal churches

Another model for churches, pt. 5

Part 5 in a series. Read Part 1.

Metaphorical and physical turf

Earlier, I said that voluntary associations offer space in which human freedom can thrive. Adams tells us that such spaces are both metaphorical and quite real:

In a modern pluralistic civilization, society is constituted by a variety of associations and organized structures. The constituent organizations cannot function if they do not have turf. Even in order to hold meetings an organization must have a place of meeting and also office space. Anyone who has experience in these matters knows that the recurrent and acute problem for many a voluntary association is the payment of the rent and the telephone bill. A ‘warrior’ friend of mine used to say that any organization worth its salt will have to face this crisis repeatedly, the crisis of being obliged to pay the rent or ‘vacate’.”

If we expand the term space metaphorically, we can say that a pluralistic society is one that is made up of a variety of relatively independent and interdependent ‘spaces.’ An effective organization… must be able, standing on its turf, to get a hearing if effective social criticism, or innovation and new consensus with respect to social policy, are to ensue. Adams, ed. Stackhouse, On Being Human Religiously, p. 57.

From this we can see a number of practical implications for our churches. At the most basic level, our churches, as voluntary associations, need a place to meet — physical “turf” — and they need to be able to pay the phone bill and have office space. At a more complex level, our churches are metaphorical spaces where we may “stand on our turf” and have our social criticisms be heard effectively; as individuals in a mass democracy, we have no such “turf” on which we can stand to be heard (that is, not unless we are extraordinarily wealthy). When you look at the budget of one of our typical churches (one which owns its own building), approximately 55% of the budget will be for staff salaries and benefits; 40% will be for building maintenance; and perhaps 5% will be for programming and (if we’re lucky) 5% will go towards social justice.

Many church members will be very critical of this breakdown, claiming that far more than 5% of a church budget should go towards social justice; this on the theory that one of the primary purposes of a liberal church is to promote social justice. However, Continue reading

Another model for churches, pt. 4

Part 4 in a series. Read Part 1.

Different kinds of liberal churches for different kinds of people

If you think about it, there are several different kinds of liberal church. Let me try to enumerate some of them: (1) churches which offer programs — a music program, a children’s program, a support group, opportunities for leadership development, etc. — these are churches whose participants tend to be like consumers; (2) churches which are centered around a person — as in the 19th C., the 28th Congregational Society in Boston was so focused on the person of Theodore Parker that when he died the congregation did too; (3) churches which convey social status — “That’s the church where all the best people in town go”; (4) churches which offer spiritual activities, typically Sunday morning worship services, where such spiritual activities are limited in time to Sunday mornings and in space to the church building; (5) churches which are well-intentioned social clubs, not much different from Rotary Club or the Masons. Each of these is a perfectly valid kind of church.

However, there is at least one more kind of liberal church. These are the liberal churches which function as a kind of non-residential intentional community. In the Emerging Church movement, the parallel to this kind of liberal church would be the missional church; that is, a church in which the people lives out God’s mission for them. The Emerging Church conversations thus describe this kind of church in theological terms, where I have been approaching my description from an organizational perspective. (Of course the theological perspective is inherent in my organizational perspective, for I am describing an organization which incarnates religious visions.)

I prefer to take the organizational perspective, at least to start with, because I think that perspective helps us to understand that I am trying to describe a continuum that stretches from an intentional residential community at one extreme, to an intentional community that functions non-residentially. In the middle are those intentional church communities which sometimes gather together (or at least significant portions of the church gather together) in a residential setting, perhaps an overnight retreat. And in between the two extremes, we can find a wide range of temporary residencies: from churches where the entire core membership of the church lives together in a residential setting for a period of time; and from there we get ever closer to completely non-residential communities, as the various subgroups living together in residential settings decrease in size, decrease in time spent together, and increase in homogeneity. “More residential” does not imply “better”; in fact, a completely non-residential intentional community may be better than an intentional community which tends to exclude persons because of the residential requirements.

And this leads us to consider that intentional church communities do not always incarnate religion in useful ways. Continue reading

Another model for churches, pt. 3

Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1.

Intentional communities

In 1955, James Luther Adams published an article titled “Notes on the Study of Gould Farm,” a short piece on an intentional community in western Massachusetts (Gould Farm is no longer an intentional community and now houses a rehabilitation program for mentally ill adults). In his laudatory description of the community at Gould Farm, Adams could be talking about one of the “new monasteries” that are cropping up today:

For over forty years Gould Farm has been that unique thing which today is called an “intentional community”; it is a deliberately formed community in which people live together sharing, receiving, and incarnating religious visions. Adams, ed. Engels (1986), 254

As Adams describes Gould Farm, we can imagine how his words could possibly apply (although in a less intense manner) to certain liberal churches:

Gould Farm is a fellowship not only for the inner “family” of members who maintain the community. It is open to “outsiders,” to people who in distress of mind or spirit wish for a time to participate in a community of affection that gives renewed meaning and depth to life. Gould Farm, in short, is a therapeutic community. It does not live merely for itself, as many intentional communities have done. It is a “self-transcending” community. To all sorts of people it offers healing, the healing that can only emerge, as William Gould believed and showed, in the atmosphere of harmony and mutual aid which characterizes the true family. The Farm has been a haven not only for those who in sickness of spirit desperately needed the fellowship that is new life but also for those who, like the many refugees from Europe of the past two decades, needed a place in which to get new bearings and a new start in a strange land. Adams, ed. Engels (1986), 255

Adams may well be excessively laudatory in his article on Gould Farm; elsewhere he is quite clear about the pathologies of voluntary associations, and intentional residential communities seem to be prone to more than their share of pathologies. Nevertheless, he description identifies several characteristics we should look for in intentional religious communities:

  • the community is deliberately formed and maintained
  • in the community, people share and receive
  • the community incarnates religious visions
  • the community does not live merely for itself; it is self-transcending
  • there is an inner circle or “family” and…
  • others who need to be part of a community of affection for a time are also welcome
  • healing takes place in the community
  • the community can serve as a refuge

While Adams is specifically talking about a residential community in this article, in practice these characteristics may also apply to certain kinds of non-residential intentional communities. There may be some liberal churches which can boast of all these characteristics; these would be true intentional communities, albeit non-residential communities. Indeed, I would argue that these characteristics should be part of the ideal for a certain kind of liberal church.

Next: Kinds of liberal churches

Another model for churches, pt. 2

Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1.

The “Eccelsiola in Ecclesia”

I’m not interested in quite the same kind of new monasticism that Alisdair MacIntyre appeared to want; when he wrote After Virtue, MacIntyre called for a new St. Benedict, and within a few years MacIntyre had himself converted to Roman Catholicism. Unlike MacIntyre, I don’t see the answer to our problems coming from Catholicism, and indeed I see much of Roman Catholicism functioning as a destructive kind of imperium itself, rather than standing opposed to (or at least critical of) the imperium that is late capitalism and the postmodern nation-state. And while the barbarians are indeed at the gates, or really they’re beyond the gates and are actually in charge of our cities and nations, the social situation today is so utterly different from that in Benedict’s time that it is impossible for us to remove ourselves from society in the way Benedict’s monks did; or in the way that MacIntyre seems to long for.

Instead, I find inspiration in James Luther Adams’s studies of voluntary associations. Adams, with his deep concern for maintaining human freedom, saw voluntary associations as one of the key constituents of a free society which could maximize human freedom. Adams states that “any healthy democratic society is a multi-group society,” that is, a democracy must allow the existence of multiple groups in order to remain a true democracy. Membership in these groups must remain voluntary: “These [voluntary] associations are, or claim to be, voluntary; they presuppose freedom on the part of the individual to be or not to be a member, to join or withdraw, or to consort with others to form a new [voluntary] association.” (Adams, ed. Beach (1998), 183-184) By way of contrast, Adams identifies involuntary associations such as the family and the “state” (i.e., the nation-state); for nearly all persons, you don’t get to choose whether you belong to these two associations or not, you’re simply born into them. Similarly, in some nations, membership in the state-sponsored church is essentially involuntary. But in a truly voluntary association, you choose whether or not to be a member of it, and you can choose to leave it if you wish. Continue reading

Another model for churches, pt. 1

Part 1 in a series

Back in 1981, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre published After Virtue, in which he claimed that moral theory since the Enlightenment doesn’t work. In ancient Western culture, thinkers such as Aristotle presumed that human lives were lived towards some end; but this idea was abandoned by Western thinkers during the Renaissance. As a result, MacIntyre claimed, Western moral theories from the Enlightenment on simply don’t make sense. So this is basically one of those postmodern books that says the Enlightenment project has failed.

This raises the difficult question: How do we live a virtuous life, after it has become obvious that Enlightenment morality does not teach us how to lead a virtuous life? Nietzsche answered the same basic question by telling us that we should go back to the aristocracy of Homeric Greece — which would imply that most of us would wind up as slaves. MacIntyre says, in part, that we should go back to the ethics of Aristotle; but on a more practical level, MacIntyre calls for some kind of new monasticism:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history [e.g., of late Rome] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without ground for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a God, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict. After Virture, 263

I vividly remember sitting in my senior philosophy seminar listening to Richard J. Bernstein excoriate MacIntyre on this point: “He wants us to go back into monasteries! That’s the whole point of this book!” As a leftist, Bernstein obviously wanted us impressionable college students to feel compelled to get directly involved in political process, and in changing the world through direct action; equally obviously, Bernstein thought that any kind of monastery would lead to passivism and quietism. Continue reading

Four types of emergent church

Back in January on the blog Gathering in Light, Wess Daniels offered a typology of emergent churches, and he names his four categories Deconstructionist, Pre-Modern/Augustinian, Emerging Peace Church, and Foundationalist. Curiously, I find myself most in sympathy with the Emerging Peace Church model of emerging church, which Wess describes as follows:

This model of the emerging church stresses the non-conformist tendencies of Jesus, and thus the church should follow in his footsteps through non-violence, love of enemy and caring for the poor. This one may be closest to a kind of new monasticism that has so often been written about in recent times. While there are people from the various peace churches involved in this type of church, there are also people from a variety of traditions who are seeking to contextualize the Gospel within our culture. This group does not accept any one style of culture as being good, thus their non-conformist attitude is directed at modernity and postmodernity alike. They see Jesus (and his incarnation) as their primary model for engaging culture….

As a post-Christian Transcendentalist, my Christology would doubtless differ substantially (!) from those who might claim identity with this model, and doubtless many of them would be less than thrilled by having a post-Christian identify with them. But Wess’s description of this type this comes pretty close to summing up why I consider myself in sympathy with the emergent movement.

Another caveat:– While Wess’s typology is useful for understanding the emergent movement, he leaves out important parts of the movement — e.g., emergent Jews. Along these lines, the real task for emergent Unitarian Universalists is not to fit oursevles into a pre-exiting category, but to articulate what, exactly, we find so frustrating with the existing (20th C., late modern, unreflective, methodologically conservative, smug) practice and theology of Unitarian Universalism as we find it in most of our congregations — to be true to our own unique community of memory, while moving forward methodologically.

30 new congregations in 2008

At Reignite, Stephen reminds us of Lyle Schaller’s advice:

The single best approach for any religious body seeking to reach, attract, serve, and assimilate younger generations and newcomers in the community is to launch three new missions annually for every one hundred congregations in that organization. A significant fringe benefit of this policy is that it usually will reduce the resources for continuing subsidies to institutions that will be healthier if they are forced to become financially self-supporting.

For Unitarian Universalists in the United States, that would mean about 30 new congregations/missions in 2008. (But I estimate we’ll see less than ten new church starts this year.)

Coincidentally, the latest issue of UU World magazine came in the mail yesterday, and it contains a good article on the history of the fellowship movement. The fellowship movement, at its peak, resulted in over 50 new congregations a year:

The tenth year of the fellowship movement proved to be a high water mark for new starts in a single year. Of 55 fellowships organized in 1958, 33 have survived — more than from any other year. But from that peak, a slowdown began. The flagging energy and limited budget of the small staff were partly responsible. Munroe Husbands, the program’s director, had one assistant and a budget of only $2,300 in 1957, with which he was expected to start 25 new fellowships and service the existing ones. But there were also other reasons for the steady decline in new fellowships. Just as congregations reach growth plateaus, so did the movement as a whole. The program had already planted fellowships in the most promising com munities, leaving fewer targets for additional growth.

I’m inclined to question the conclusions of the last two sentences. While there’s no doubt that the movement reached a growth plateau in 1958, was that a cause of the declining number of new church starts, or a result? Inadequate funding for the major growth initiative of the denomination could be a big part of the reason for the decline that occurred in Unitarian Universalist membership from c. 1961, until a small amount of growth began happening c. 1980.

Rather than quibble about the past, though, I’m more interested in asking the question: what do we do now? Can we encourage grant-making bodies within Unitarian Universalism to stop funding existing congregations, and devote all their grant money to “missions” and new church starts? How about encouraging districts to re-allocate services from existing congregations to “missions” and new church starts (OK, given how self-centered many congregations are, that’s politically improbably, but a guy can dream)? How about allocating lots of funding for innovative “missions” like FUUSE and Micah’s Porch, instead of funding advertising in Time magazine? My district, Ballou Channing District (southeastern Mass. and Rhode Island) is going to have a Unitarian Universalist Revival this spring — should we be doing more of that?

What are your ideas? How would you encourage 30 new Unitarian Universalist congregations in 2008?

Emergence in Chicago

Two posts about the same worship service at Micah’s Porch, a Unitarian Universalist emerging church/ mission in Chicago:

David Pyle’s account here.

ck’s account here.

In a comment on ck’s blog, I noted that this sound not unlike what Rev. Hank Peirce was doing in the 1990’s with his punk rock worship services, held at a club in the Boston area. Except that Hank wasn’t “preparing to launch a spiritually progressive church,” he was just holding worship service — oh, and the Ramones are not U2.