Tag Archives: uuemergence

No assumptions

Thinking about UU Emergence (an awkward term, but there it is) means thinking about what will draw emerging generations to our churches. I remember when I was a 20-something attending a UU church, many of the cultural references in sermons had no emotional resonance for me: I didn’t get why the Korean War was fought, I didn’t remember the day JFK was shot, etc. Fast forward two decades: now I read Beloit College’s very useful Mindset List, which attempts to help us older folks understand the worldview of this year’s 18-year-olds:

Beloit College’s Mindset List® for the Class of 2011:

Most of the students entering College this fall, members of the Class of 2011, were born in 1989. For them, Alvin Ailey, Andrei Sakharov, Huey Newton, Emperor Hirohito, Ted Bundy, Abbie Hoffman, and Don the Beachcomber have always been dead…. [etc….]

Beloit’s list is a little tame. Over on the blog Charlie’s Diary, Charles Stross and commenters offer their own additions to the Beloit College list, often from a U.K. perspective:

Nobody they know expects to ever hold a job for more than three years.
Homosexuality has always been legal. Abortion has always been legal….
Nobody they know who is under 36 and not already a home-owner expects to ever be rich enough to buy a house….

Not that preachers can’t make references to Watergate and Sid Vicious, it’s just that we can’t assume that anyone will know what we’re talking about. Maybe that’s a more general issue with postmodern culture: there are fewer things we can assume that everyone knows….

Wintry thoughts

It’s one of those winter nights: blowing snow, freezing fog, not a fit night for any creature to be out. It’s a good night to sit at home and think somber thoughts….

I had lunch today with another minister; she’s in her twenties, and like me has times when she despairs of Unitarian Universalism — the churches that go into complete denial when faced with the stark choice between changing and dying; the worship services that lack meaning and spiritual depth but which cannot be changed because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”; this denomination that continues to shrink relative to the growing population of the United States. Perhaps worst of all, she pointed out that Unitarian Universalists, for all our blather about social justice, give less money per person in charitable donations than any other denomination.

We talked about how you can accomplish “culture change” within the institution of the local church. Can change occur from within Unitarian Universalist churches? Or is there too much inertia within the system to allow for meaningful change? We didn’t come to any conclusions, but we agreed on the need for change:– it’s change or die, change or lose most of Generation X and the generations after them. I don’t care what you call that change — the term “UU Emergence” is useful only because it points people to the rich conversations that have already happened in evangelical and Jewish circles — but whatever you decide to call it, change has to happen.

How to do emergent theology

while there are still those people who want to do systematic theology, those people typically live in the world of academia, or wish they were living in the world of academia. Systematic theology has become theology for other theologians and scholars. From where I stand, it is theology that has lost its connection with the reality of my world.

So where do I stand?

  • In the Buzzard’s Bay watershed in southeastern Massachusetts. (Systematic theology ignores watersheds and bioregions because it grows out of assumptions that theology applies in the same way to every watershed.) We are a postindustrial landscape where parts of the landscape contain intense concentrations of toxic wastes. We are in a postagricultural landscape where sprawl eats up farms and cranberry bogs. All this shapes the theological tasks of healing and redemption.
  • In a diverse community of human beings who don’t always fit neatly into the binary American categories of race. (American systematic theology, when it recognizes race at all, has a tendency to divide human beings into black and white binaries.) The Native and African American communities blend together. The Cape Verdean community may be Black, or it may be Portuguese, depending on who’s doing the looking and the talking. A White person could be an Anglophone or a Lusophone or a “Hispanophone.” All this shapes practical theological anthropology in ways seemingly foreign to the academic theologians.
  • In a place where religious discourse is divided between by conservative Catholic rhetoric on the one hand, and conservative atheist rhetoric on the other hand. (Systematic theology never seems to touch on the realities of the religious discourse in which we engage in the workplace and the wider community.) Our few liberal religious groups have silenced themselves by morphing into social groups who do not talk about religion. All this shapes theological discourse — talking openly about liberal religion is a radical act because doing so is a refusal to accept the generally accepted rules of religious discourse.

So how do you do theology when you’re so far away from systematic theology? A few academic theologians give us ways to do theology that matters. I have found Anthony Pinn particularly useful. Pinn writes as an African American humanist theologian who sees through the usual stereotype that “all African American religion is Christian.” In his essay “Rethinking the nature and tasks of African American theology: A pragmatic perspective ” (American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, May, 1998) Pinn writes:

…[M]y effort [is] to move beyond a strictly polemical discussion of Black Theology toward a more constructive and pragmatic posture that is based on three pragmatic moves. The first movement entails my rethinking conceptions of religious experience in ways that recognize the multiplicity of religious experiences. Thus, theology is done with a knowledge of and acquaintance with the variety of religious expressions. In this regard, the reader will recognize the intellectual shadow of both William James and Charles Long within this first move. The second move seeks to think through theology as empirical and historical discipline. Understood in this way, theology becomes a way of seeing, interpreting, and taking hold of African American experience. This thesis is expressed through an examination of theology’s objective and goals, using in large part Victor Anderson’s notion of “cultural fulfillment.” The third move entails reflections on methodology within African American theology. I argue for a critical, pragmatic commitment that gives priority to experience (and the objective of fulfillment) over “tradition.” William R. Jones and Gordon Kaufman provide the framework for this third movement in my pragmatic critique of African American theology.

Recognize multiplicity of religious experience: know how religion is actually done in the world around you. Understand theology as empirical and historical: observe, then interpret, before you theorize. Give priority to experience: leave the academy behind and get out into the world.

I think all this feeds into “UU Emergence,” that is, getting religious communities to deal directly with postmodern realities. There is no grand narrative any more. Instead of timeless systematic theology, tell stories about who and where you are now. There is no one religious movement that will take over the whole world. Instead of universal religious forms, let locality shape liturgy. There is no single genius who can speak for all humanity. Instead of trying to find a top-down authority that knows all and sees all, observe and feel and describe and build networks of mutuality with others. There is no one book of theology that will solve everyone’s theological problems. Instead of trying to write universal systematic theology, write ephemeral blogs.

Maybe it all comes down to getting out and walking around the place you live (I do mean walk, and not drive). I think I’ll do just that, right now.

UU Emergence overview

Here’s a brief excerpt from the sermon I preached last night at our 300th anniversary bash. In remarking on the many changes our congregation has seen over the years, I gave a brief overview of how we’re incorporating Emergent Church theories and techniques into our worship services. After the service, a 20 year old man told me he liked these Emergent Church ideas, and that they express the needs of his generation (at least, as he experiences those needs). Based on his response, I thought it might be worth sharing this excerpt here.

Over the past two years, the Religious Services Committee and I have been experimenting with new ways of conducting worship services. In initiating these changes, I had been inspired by the innovations of the Emergent Church movement.

The Emergent Church movement started when a number of evangelical Christians realized that an entire generation of Americans, Generation X, was drifting away from church. The majority of Gen-Xers were steeped in a postmodern mindset that questioned authority; questioned absolutes and demanded multiple points of view; was more interested in aesthetics than ontology; and loved the feeling of ancient and medieval religious forms. And so the Emergent Church movement created worship services that questioned authority by bringing the preacher out of the unassailable pulpit and down on the floor among the congregation; included many voices in the worship service, not just the preacher’s voice, to present more than one point of view; emphasized the arts and new media rather than systematic theology; and brought the feel of ancient and medieval religion into their services. And because the Emergent Church movement knew that Gen-Xers did not grow up in churches, they explained every element of the worship service.

I had been inspired by this Emergent Church movement, and the Religious Services Committee and I started using some their ideas in our worship services. We brought the minister out of the pulpit for parts of the service. We began using worship associates, so you’d hear more than just one voice. We’re working on including more arts in worship: poetry, and fabric arts, and lighting up our Tiffany mosaic, and putting art on the cover of the order of service. Fortunately, we already have this neo-Gothic building, so we already have that medieval feeling. And we have begun explaining every element of the worship service.

None of this has changed the eternal and permanent truths of religion; indeed, all these changes in our worship service are evanescent and impermanent, and will be swept away by future changes. But in the mean time, we have begun to attract people in their 20’s and 30’s to our worship services….

UU emergence: opening a conversation for 2008 and beyond

I know bloggers are supposed to do year-end reviews in their last posts of the waning year, but I’d rather look ahead and anticipate the new year. And what I see emerging right now is that religious liberals are finally taking post-modernism seriously. By “taking seriously” I mean that some religious liberals are doing more than just reading, writing, or preaching about post-modernism — they are actually trying out post-modern ways of doing church. (If you know nothing about this phenomenon, check out the Wikipedia article on emerging church first.)

For the last dozen or more years, some Christian evangelicals and a smaller number of Jews have been seriously engaging with post-modernism. They have been deconstructing and reconstructing the shape of liturgy and worship, experimenting with alt.worship, non-linearity, chanting, contemplative prayer, and integration of non-traditional arts into worship experiences. They have been experimenting with post-modern ecclesiology, trying out old-new forms such as house churches, minyanim. Post-modernism has been emerging in traditional congregational settings in mainline churches as well, where people have been experimenting with medieval and older forms of worship/community such as walking labyrinths, vespers services with candles, etc.

Through all this, religious liberals within Unitarian Universalism have mostly been sticking to the old, tried-and-true models they have been accustomed to for the past couple of generations. Partly this is because Unitarian Universalists already incorporate many aspects of what the emergent church people see as post-modern — we have by our very nature been more willing to accommodate ourselves to the surrounding culture; we have never had a hierarchy try to force us into uniform belief; we have long valued dialogue and alternative points of view; we have insisted on social justice work as integral to who we are since at least the late 1900’s; and we have been open to personal narratives as a way of doing theo/thealogy (as opposed to relying solely on systematic theologies).

Now it’s time for us to take the next steps. It’s time to let go of our dependence on the forty-year-old liturgical forms we got from second-wave feminism; and perhaps it’s time to question our basic Reformation forms of worship and become more aware that our Christian religious roots allow us to tap into a rich array of liturgical resources, dating back thousands of years. It’s time to let go of our over-dependence on hyper-rationality, and allow the possibility of trans-rational (yet not necessarily supernatural) ways of thinking and being.

At an organizational level, I’d suggest we need to move beyond mid-20th C. committee structures for running our congregations (since after all the surrounding culture no longer supports those structures — there are no more “wives” who can volunteer forty hours a week at our churches). I’d like to see us be more open to the possibilities of fully integrating house churches, CUUPS worship groups, and other non-traditional structural forms into our congregations (and while “small group ministry” is a baby step in this direction, we could go much further).

And I think it’s time to seriously question modernist notions that there is one form of Unitarian Universalism that is good for everyone the world over. Since we love them so much, we think that in order to be a True UU you must be able to recite the “seven principles” (which are a product of middle-class First World Unitarian Universalists from the U.S.A.), sing “Spirit of Life” (a second-wave feminist song that may not adequately integrate womanist and mujerista insights), and love the flaming chalice (which is a U.S. Unitarian, not a Universalist, symbol). Grand narratives about the “right way to do things” no longer serve us well.

All this suggests that we Unitarian Universalists need a network equivalent to the Christian Emergent Village, and Jewish Emergent. Notice I said “network” — this is not going to be a top-down hierarchically-structured organization; this is not going to be denominationally-sponsored; this is not even going to be a movement. It’s going to be a conversation of diverse people in diverse settings coming from diverse perspectives — who will come up with diverse solutions to the problems that postmodernism poses to liberal religion and religious liberals.

For the sake of convenience, let’s call this UU Emergence. If you want to participate in the conversation, post something on your blog (if you have one) and tag it “uuemergence”. If you post something on your Web site, include the word “uuemergence” so that search engines can pick it up. (If you don’t have a blog or Web site, then haul your butt over to WordPress.com and start yourself a blog for free!)

And keep your eyes peeled for announcements about a UU Emergence gathering at General Assembly — or even at your next district gathering — so we can all meet face-to-face….

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 Continue reading

Oh my goodness, is this another rant…

For once, Mr. Crankypants is somewhat proud of his stupid alter ego, Dan. Back on December 6, Dan wrote about the new Jewish independent minyanim as reported in a New York Times article (link). Dan commented on how some of us have noted the similarities between these minyanim and some of what was going on in the Unitarian Universalist young adult movement a dozen years ago, back when Dan was still a young adult (Mr. Crankypants refuses to admit that he will ever be anything but a young adult).

Turns out that back on November 26, the Jewish blog Synablog noted the same New York Times article, and drew the connection between the minyanim and the evangelical Christian emergent church movement (link). Synablog’s post is titled “Emergent — Yes It’s Happening Among Both Christians and Jews.”

It’s happening among the Jews and the evangelical Christians, but of course not among Unitarian Universalists — who are theologically liberal but methodologically rigid — who seem to be ignoring the fact that the world is changing rapidly around us;– rapid change which requires that Unitarian Universalist worship services and the very structure of all religious communities must change as well.

The radically inclusive theological stance of Unitarian Universalism has kept us growing, ever so slightly, in this postmodern world;– but we continue to aim our advertising and our worship services squarely at the people who are already here. We do religion as if it were still the 1950’s, when civic religion ruled, when everyone got the basics of religion from the surrounding culture, when a town could vote the town’s only Jew as “most Christian citizen,” when you didn’t have to market your church because the surrounding culture acted like a dumptruck that backed up to your front door each week and dumped off tons of potential church members (with no effort on your part). Today, Unitarian Universalists live in a 1950’s time warp: Let’s just forget about the postmodern generations, they don’t really belong here anyway (and besides, who wants all those young adults in our churches?).


Oh my. Has Mr. Crankypants been ranting again about the same old topics? Given how methodologically rigid Unitarian Universalists are, ranting would seem to be a waste of Mr. C.’s time, except that it is sooo satisfying. There’s something about throwing a good hissy-fit that just makes you feel good all over….

But what if you don’t like electric praise bands?

Anyone who is interested in church growth should probably read Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith by Diana Butler Bass (Harper San Francisco, 2006). Bass studied liberal mainline Protestant churches that are currently experiencing growth, and documented what is helping them grow. (Since Unitarian Universalist churches are essentially mainline Protestant churches with a post-Christian theology, Bass’s findings for the most part apply to us.)

Her findings challenge the usual advice given by church growth experts, who tell us to copy the big evangelical mega-churches in order to grow. For example, in a chapter titled “Contemplation” Bass recounts how some successful mainline churches are introducing more contemplative, silent time into worship services. She writes:

Some church growth specialists think that successful churches entertain people during worship — the more activity, the more noise, the more loud music, the better. From that perspective, silence is boring and an evangelism turnoff. Quiet churches cannot be fun churches. Contemplation is not a gift for the whole church but something practiced only by supersaints. As a fellow historian reminded me, “The [Christian] tradition has always reserved the contemplative life, and contemplation itself, for the very few.” After all, contemplation leads directly to God’s divine presence. Such “unmediated access to divine energy” can be spiritually dangerous for novices in faith! Following this logic, it is best, I suppose, to keep everyday Christians distracted with overhead projectors, rock bands, and podcast sermons.

From my point of view, if you want to have a big projection screen and project the words to hymns on it, or if you want to have an electric praise band in worship, go right ahead. But it’s good for me to hear that there are other ways to update a worship service, since I just can’t bring myself to organize an electric praise band for our church.

In her book, Bass also discusses how new understandings of hospitality, healing, testimony, diversity, and beauty have influenced worship services in mainline congregations. A provocative book, full of ideas for creating more vital liberal congregations, and worth reading for religious liberals trying to figure out how to implement church growth without copying evangelical techniques.

What about memorial services?…

Memorial services are on my mind at the moment, because I’ve led two memorial services in the past week and a half. Weddings are on my mind, too, because at church we are in the midst of reviewing our wedding policies. So today when I started thinking about how to create more engaging worship services, it suddenly occurred to me that common, ordinary Sunday worship has to be connected with memorial services and weddings.

Maybe I need to explain why they need to be connected. A memorial service, a wedding, and a regular Sunday worship service all deal with the big human mysteries: life, death, birth, suffering, hope, grief. Take hope and grief as examples. Regular Sunday worship is a time when people can, among other things, reflect on their day-to-day hopes and griefs. A memorial service is a time when people can, among other things, grieve the death of someone they loved and hope for a continuation of life. A wedding is a time when people can, among other things, grieve over losing a son or daughter or friend or sibling to a new household and a new more important relationship; and of course a wedding is a time of hope and joy.

Thus you can see that weddings, memorial services, and regular Sunday worship services share important themes. You could also add christenings or child dedications, and confirmation or coming-of-age services to this list. You could also add special services such as Christmas eve candlelight services. The same theological and religious themes run through all these types of services. That says to me that if you want to change regular Sunday worship services, or if you want to add other new worship services to your worship line-up, any changes should be linked to all the other special services your church offers.

Think about it this way. Every church is going to have a few people who are “twice-a-year attenders,” people who rarely come to regular worship services. But these people do attend Christmas eve candlelight services, they do come to weddings and child dedications and memorial services. And, with a fair amount of regularity, a child dedication or a memorial service touches one of these twice-a-year attenders deeply enough that he or she starts coming to church regularly. When that happens, doesn’t it make sense that the wedding or memorial service look enough like a regular Sunday worship service that that twice-a-year attender feels comfortable?

For example: as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I feel that means that as a minimum every service I conduct has to have something like a sermon. I feel that the sermon is perhaps the most distinctive part of Unitarian Universalist worship; after all, we claim to be people who think hard about religion, which is related to our claim to be people who disdain empty ritual as a kind of idolatry. Further, a Unitarian Unviersalist sermon (at its best) is really one installment in a long-term constantly evolving dialogue between the minister and the congregation, thus acknowledging the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. (Not that I’m a big fan of sermons myself — I don’t process auditory information particularly well, so I tend to drift off during sermons — but I recognize that sermons are central to my religious tradition.)

So a memorial service that I conduct will always have a reflection or homily on the deceased person’s life. A wedding that I conduct will always have a homily about marriage and the couple’s path to marriage. Child dedications are usually too short to include even a homily, but I do make a point of explaining what we are doing when we dedicate a child. And so on, for other special services.

To stick with the specific example of sermons for a bit longer, all this means for me that any alternative worship service I want to engage in on a regular basis has to contain something equivalent to a sermon. Maybe you can change the form of the sermon a bit, but any sermon has to be the original, thoughtful creation of the worship leader, something that engages the congregation in a long-term dialogue. To go beyond the specific example of including a sermon, any alternative or special worship service that I do has to feel enough like a regular Sunday worship service that if you attend one, you won’t be entirely at sea attending the other.

In short, I think it’s time that those of us who are advocates of alternative worship in Unitarian Universalism address these questions: Will your brand-spanking-new alternative worship format be able to handle memorial services and child dedications? –and– What is so central to Unitarian Universalist worship that it must be included in any alternative worship service?