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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Megachurch pastor: UUs just don't do transformation.

Boston Globe religion reporter Michael Paulson describes a visit to the only evangelical megachurch in the Boston area, Lexington's Grace Chapel, in a blog post that ends with this fascinating observation by the church's senior minister, Bryan Wilkerson:

I asked him about the theological rigor of the congregation, since one of the raps about this kind of church is that it can sometimes seem like a community center, with high production values and preaching that is affirming and comforting but not challenging. He said that the preaching at Grace is very Christian in content, and said the congregation seeks a "high commitment" from its members, including not only attendance at worship, but also enrollment in a course, membership in a small group, and service to the community.

Wilkerson volunteered that he is sometimes asked how contemporary evangelical churches differ from Unitarian Universalist congregations. This was not, to me, an obvious question, or even a comparison I had ever thought about, given how theologically and politically different UUs and evangelicals tend to be. But as I thought about it, I saw the similarities — a low bar to entry (you can believe anything or nothing and be welcomed through the door), a strong emphasis on community, and an absence of much liturgical ritual or iconography. Wilkerson said the difference is that, although both UUism and evangelicalism welcome anyone, the evangelical congregations seek to transform participants into Christian believers. In other words, he said, in either an evangelical or a UU congregation, "you can come as you are," but in an evangelical congregation "you don't stay that way."

This strikes me as keenly perceptive because it points to an aspect of Unitarian Universalism that we UUs seem deeply ambivalent about. Is it a feature or a bug that Unitarian Universalism is the religion you may already be practicing on your own without knowing it? Could it be that, despite all the self-congratulatory rhetoric you may encounter at our General Assemblies about how Unitarian Universalists are "saving the world" by "nurturing our spirits," we're not really transforming people? I've thought about this as the difference between churches that shape people into religious liberals and churches that welcome people who have already been shaped into cultural liberals. A very old joke says that Unitarians believe they're too good to be damned — which can seem like a strong selling point or a profound blind spot, depending on your point of view.

I wonder if the anxiety animating concerns about "ministerial excellence" that American Theological School Association President Dan Aylshire alluded to in his keynote address at the UUA's recent Excellence in Ministry summit is rooted in our general and widespread uncertainty about the transformative purpose of the church. Are you okay just as you are? And, if you're not, does the liberal church have some essential insight or method that can transform you? (Or, if you insist on a strictly social definition of sin, is modern civilization okay, or does the liberal church have an insight that can transform its flaws? And if the flaws in society are so minor as to require only a slight nudge or tweak here and there, involving no particular heavy lifting on any of our parts, just how necessary is transformation?)

Finally, although I am undoubtedly misremembering all sorts of things about his presentation, I recall listening to the recording of Paul Rasor's address at the 2007 General Assembly, in which he said that early Universalists took a deeply countercultural stance that American Unitarians by and large never took. The early Universalists were true sectarians, whereas the Unitarians were establishmentarians, and Rasor toyed with the idea that a revitalized "sectarianism" could give Unitarian Universalism focus — high expectations of members, a clear critique of the prevailing cultural ethos, and a transformative social practice. (See Doug Muder's report on Rasor's lecture.)

I'm probably a poor candidate for sectarianism, but I'll also acknowledge that one reason I remain committed to a Christian vision of the world is that Christianity does offer a strong critique of personal and social sin and a vision of personal, social, and cosmic transformation — and this vision can catch fire even in the most establishmentarian of churches. I'm not so sure that contemporary Unitarian Universalism has similarly compelling resources at its core.

What do you think of the evangelical megachurch pastor's observation?

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 17 December 2008 at 10:42 PM

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December 18, 2008 09:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

There's something to it, I think.

I've been going to UU churches off and on my whole life, really liking the idea conceptually but finding when I went that the.. spirit moving in the place was so tamed, so calmed. No one wanted or expected anything of me, there were good ideas but there was no force in them. It was like "Hey, let's get together and talk about things we like."

So when I actually converted to Christianity, I ended up going Episcopalian. Again, I'm a pluralist and I like so much that the UU stands for - but it lacks religio - the bindings, it keeps things so broad it loses focus so that everything is fine.

And that's fine for some people, but I want to be changed and I think the discipline we gain by saying "these are our limits, this is who we want to be, etc" gives power to the experience of the believer and that of change.

Reform Judaism often has similar issues (which is what I was before I converted.) It's hard to get riled up about 'being good and tolerant.' And that's too bad, but the way it is.

Bill Baar:

December 18, 2008 11:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

I've noted the similarities too and attribute them to our Americaness. The Mega Church and UUism are unique American religions and religous styles.

My Church would probably see the transformation as cultish.

And anything smacking of Christianity isn't going to catch fire in my Church (I suspect that's true of most midwest UU congregations but I'll stand a correction).

I do see a transformation though, whether my fellow members see it or not, and transformation comes from participation in Congregational life.

So many UUs are estranged from something and many take pride in it... it's all they talk about... but I think as one becomes active in a Church Community the estrangement disappears (even if you keep talking about it).

In that sense, we are transformed. I just wish at some point more would recognize it, and once grounded; recognize how similar we are to others we once felt so estranged from.


December 18, 2008 11:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Aha, another Unipalian! I find it appealing (speaking as the spouse of an Episcopal priest) that Episcopalians are establishmentarians whose commitment to the lectionary and other tradition-oriented aspects of Christian life keep them in constant, sometimes awkward conversation with the gospel's deeply countercultural message. Most of the time, of course, they're not especially inclined to go countercultural, but the seeds are overtly there.

bluish seminarian:

December 18, 2008 11:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hmm. As a lifelong UU, this type of transformation (and it's sibling, conversion) often leaves me outside. A come-inner may have an "ah-ha" moment when finding Unitarian Universalism, but I am like a fish in water - I don't know any other way to be. I have been deeply shaped by my UU upbringing. Would I be a different person if I had not been raised UU? yes! Is this transformation? yes! But for me, it is a slow growth, and deep change. Whenever someone says that UUism doesn't transform people's lives, or that we have no vision of a transformed world, I bristle.

We do ourselves a disservice we compare ourselves to an evangelistic faith grounded in a theology that calls upon the individual "transform" themselves into a Christian, expects that this type of transformation can happen in an instant, and then asks that this moment of conversion be revisited time and time again as a person rededicates themselves to Christ. This type of transformation is synonymous with salvation. It is a totally different view of transformation, and it cannot be disconnected from the theology that informs it. I don't need to be saved in this way. I don't need to be saved at all. To a Christian ear, this sounds like hubris of the worst kind. But that is a willful misunderstanding that is used to discredit liberal religion. "Transformation" and "Salvation" are not the same thing, and I fear that when our evangelical brethren tell us that we don't transform people, what they really mean is that we don't save them properly.


December 18, 2008 12:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bluish, I'd think that lifelong UUs still need to have some notion about how embracing Unitarian Universalism makes a difference in the life of an individual and for the good of the world.

I'd agree that religious liberals don't have a doctrine of conversion (although James Luther Adams thought we really needed one), but we also have a terribly flimsy doctrine of the church. Without one -- without an understanding of what it is that congregational life equips one to do -- we always run the risk of being a club.

Bill Baar:

December 18, 2008 01:08 PM | Permalink for this comment


Mine has a covenant that's held up over time (since 1842)

Being desirous of promoting practical goodness in the world, and of aiding each other in our moral and religious improvement, we have associated ourselves together—not as agreeing in opinion, not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character, but as seekers after truth and goodness.

I'd argue improvement yields growth and transformation but I'm sensitive to the Congregations distaste for something that smacks of Christian conversion or transformation, or God forbid fundamentalist's born-again.

But it has been a covenant that's kept us from being more than a club.


December 18, 2008 01:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, I meant to single out your earlier observation. I especially think you're right about this: "I just wish at some point more would recognize [the transformations that involvement in congregational life brings about], and once grounded, recognize how similar we are to others we once felt so estranged from."

I'm trying to point out the tension between a transformative vision of Unitarian Universalism and what we might call an accommodationist vision. The slow-change approach to personal transformation, which has very deep liberal roots in Unitarianism's "salvation by character," stands in real contrast to Evangelicalism's moment-of-conversion approach, but I think even slow transformations need some driving vision.


December 18, 2008 02:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have found in my congregation, many people looking for something more transformative and not finding it. I am also in that category. I would love it if we would take more stances and expect more out of membership, but everytime I suggest these things, they are brushed off. If it wasn't for the whole "Jesus as Savior" (which I can never believe in) issue, I would probably attend another denomination.

tom Stites:

December 18, 2008 02:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

Congratulations to Philocrites for raising important questions too infrequently posed:

"Are you okay just as you are? And, if you're not, does the liberal church have some essential insight or method that can transform you? (Or, if you insist on a strictly social definition of sin, is modern civilization okay, or does the liberal church have an insight that can transform its flaws? And if the flaws in society are so minor as to require only a slight nudge or tweak here and there, involving no particular heavy lifting on any of our parts, just how necessary is transformation?)"

Now if only our ministers would preach on these questions, and somebody would create and distribute an adult ed curriculum for discussion of them in groups, maybe transformations would speed up some. I know I need more transformation than I'm getting.

Lizard Eater:

December 18, 2008 05:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting. Last year, our Worship Committee had a retreat and our first piece of business was to put into words our vision. I anticipated a good deal of discussion, disagreement ... but instead, after just a bit of discussion, we came up with this simple thing:

"The purpose of Worship is to inspire meaningful transformation together."

It was unanimous and the words came together from everyone present. Absolutely no dissent, and this from a diverse group -- atheists, "God" folks, and everything in between.

We liked the ambiguity -- personal/world transformation -- but at the heart, everyone was thinking about personal transformation.

Being without a minister, our services don't always meet our vision. But it's our vision of what worship should be.

Bill Baar:

December 18, 2008 05:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

One of my disagreements with the peace making draft is it's scalability down the individual when it talks about inner peace of the person.

I really think we need a little inner turmoil and conflict to grow, to transform... save inner peace for end-of-life.

Eric Posa:

December 19, 2008 12:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

The best definition of religion I've ever seen: "Religion is a means to ultimate transformation." The definition comes from Frederick Streng; he was a religion scholar, leader in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue movement (until his death 15 years ago), and longtime Unitarian Universalist. Streng got that the point of religion was to change life somehow--maybe your individual life, maybe your religious community, maybe the larger social order. If you're not seeking transformation, in some way and on some level, you're not religious.

The bad news is, I think Pastor Wilkerson is sometimes right, that UUism does not just view all people as acceptable as we are now, but can encourage people to feel self-satisfied with the current state of our spiritual and ethical lives. And when we slip into that tendency, we open ourselves up to the criticism that we're not a real religion, but a "meta-religion" (or some such trivializing term).

The good news is, I'm seeing more and more exceptions to this tendency in recent years. More and more people are talking about how Unitarian Universalism, and/or their home church, changes lives. The change can be slow and gradual, but as long as change is intentionally sought, through the practice of Unitarian Universalism, towards attainng ultimate ends in life, then our religion can be vital--and it can prove the Pastor Wilkinsons of the world wrong.

The Eclectic Cleric:

December 19, 2008 09:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

Don't know whether it's really worth posting here so deeply within the comments or not, since I doubt anyone will actually see them anyway. But I've been toying around quite a bit with the 19th century idea of "a promiscuous assembly of believers and seekers," which suggests that you can still have a low entry barrier to membership in the "congregation," but at the center of THAT community is a covenanted "church" which IS high commitment, in that it requires regular attendance, membership in a "covenant group" (we're calling ours "Chalice Circles,") financial and volunteer support of the institution, and service to the larger community. And yes, we are talking (and hopefully doing) "transformation" here. But the difference, as I see it, is that the Evangelical Christians are trying to make you just like them, and we are trying to help you become just like yourself: "the kind of person God (or the Universe) intends for you to be." And this is really not that different than the traditional Protestant doctrine of a general and a specific vocation, but the more important thing is the way that we EXPRESS this message consistently to newcomers on Sunday Mornings, and how well we can embrace that much-spoken-of mission of "radical hospitality" -- in any event, that's what we're trying to do here in Portland Maine, notwithstanding my own personal diagnosis of Stage IV Lung Cancer -- entering my 11th month and still going strong!


December 20, 2008 12:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

Life-long Unitarian Universalist here. My faith has transformed me, has saved my life, has made me a better person. (Yeah, I've got a long way to go before I'm actually a good person, but church keeps my transformation heading more or less in the right direction.) And this transformation comes from the core of our faith. My Universalist faith tells me that, in spite of my many and varied flaws, there is something in me that is worth saving and that will be saved no matter how badly I screw up -- that alone has saved my ass more than once. My Unitarian faith tells me that I have free will to make the world around me a better place -- that keeps pushing me forward, trying to create the kingdom of God (which Bernard Loomer says is the same thing as the Web of Life) in my heart and in the wider world, here and now.

So I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and my faith shapes me and transforms me and keeps me sane and whole (most of the time). And my faith is strongly critical of the imperfections in the wider world, and of the imperfections within me, and pushes me to transform the world and myself for the better. My faith doesn't let me "stay that way"; therefore Wilkerson is full of, umm, you know, beans.

((P.S. I used to work just half a mile from Grace Chapel. They have good traffic control on Sunday morning, I will say that for them.))

Paul Hudson:

December 20, 2008 12:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

What says Mr. Crankypants about them beans?


December 22, 2008 08:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

Note to the uninitiated: Paul Hudson is asking Dan Harper what his cantankerous alterego, "Mr. Crankypants," would say. A good question!


December 22, 2008 04:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's an interesting article, and an interesting observation. But I don't think it's valid – on either count. First, the view that the bar of entry is “lower” for both evangelical Christian and UU churches seems clearly false to me. As one who has observed many religions, it seems to me that the affirming, comforting and welcoming nature of Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam compare quite favorably to that of evangelical Protestantism, even if the messages are slightly more complex. In fact, the only religion I can think of (though I'm sure there are others) that it not particularly theologically welcoming to outsiders is Judaism.

But the part of his observation that frustrates and offends me – partially because this observation rings true to many UUs – is where he implies that UUs are not transformed by their associations with their churches or their religious communities. This “you can believe anything you want” philosophy flies directly in the face of the 4th principle (A free and responsible search for truth and meaning), and while a person can join a church “as they are”, that person should expect to to “not stay that way”. Otherwise, the church isn't doing a very good job in meeting that person's theological and spiritual needs, and perhaps it's time for a different church.

Yes, in practice, UU churches do a far poorer job in transforming the beliefs of our parishioners than do the evangelical churches. But we don't sell the same simple message to everyone who enters our doors. We join the church to have our beliefs challenged by others, and to allow our philosophy to be altered in unexpected and challenging ways.

The difference is that, regarding the supernatural nature of God, Jesus and the Word, the evangelical church member holds a very similar set of beliefs as that of the member sitting in the next row. That is not the expectation of the UU member. The UU church member should put his or her beliefs up to internal and external examination and should revise those beliefs responsibly as experience and personal interactions dictate. To a UU, what you believe is less important than how you got there and where you are going.


December 30, 2008 07:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

I wonder how much of the UU ambivalence towards transformation stems from the fact that many of us have negative experiences where transformation has been hitched to spiritual coercion. I'm thinking of gays/lesbians who've been told, "You need to be changed." There are parallel statements that have been made towards dissenting Christian thinkers, non-Christians, women who do not conform to traditional gender roles, etc.. I suspect that we are shy about transformation, because we worry about it being a form of hurtful manipulation.


January 2, 2009 12:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

To start, I will refrain from feeding any of the UU stereotypical joke-lines, as I am not a UU. As far as I find the ideas somewhat interesting, and upon my studying of your philosophical viewpoints, I must share a couple of points:

1. "free and responsible search for truth" directly opposes the coinciding UU dictate of "truth is always changing". This makes the organizations system fallacious, and it is hard for me to fathom how someone who would continue to attend a local fellowship would seriously read the UU's earlier premise of "everyone has the ability to reason"!

2. As your post is about the transformation of its congregates, I will simply agree that, from a philosophical perspective, this is what the search for truth is. However, the experiences I have with the UU locally is that of a group of people sitting around talking about nothing, and feeling better about it. As the search for an immutable capital 'T' Truth is untenable for the UU, this amounts to little more than a very selfish conclusion and digresses the group to little more than a narcissistic bunch of gatherers on a given Sunday morning.

As I do not wish to offend you or your readers, I hope this reasonable couple of points is clear enough and is not personal. On my-trying-to-be objective study of the UU's roots, it seems it is an American religio-leftist invention to combat authority at a time when a large group of society did not wish to attribute paternity to the generation before them, all the while practicing to fit in with that generation before!
Happy searching!


January 3, 2009 02:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

I am not a member of UU. What I treasure about them is that I could be. I am a practicing Pagan Priest. The local UU has let me use the local church for a handfasting in the past. I go to the local services when I need to regain the feeling of greater fellowship that I used to feel as a young Lutheran. I would go more often were it not for transportation issues.
I agree it is part of the function of any church to help people who need spiritual guidance. This does not have to involve dogma. One may simply help the seeker find the path that will resonate with him on the deepest levels. That is a lot more time-intensive than preaching, but it bears better results too.

Paul Maurice Martin:

January 5, 2009 08:49 AM | Permalink for this comment

If looking for "transformation" means trying to make others accept your doctrine, it seems to me that a great thing about UU is that it doesn't do this.

If transformation means rolling in the aisles and doing a Satanic possession act - again, hooray UU for staying out of that megabusiness.

But if it means the sort of transformation that William James discusses in The Varieties of Religious Experience
(am I misremembering, or wasn't he UU?) then it seems to me that UU does aim for this one, and again, hooray UU.


January 5, 2009 09:10 AM | Permalink for this comment

Paul, William James was not a Unitarian, although he does discuss Unitarians with faint derision in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Colin Bossen responds to my post at his blog by discussing William James's distinction between "once-born" and "twice-born" spirituality. Bossen writes: "It seems to me that the difference between the evangelical Christians and the Unitarian Universalists might simply be that we Unitarian Universalists have a ‘once-born’ religion and the evangelicals have a ‘twice-born’ religion."

Bossen makes a more interesting point, too:

Providing a place for people who have been marginalized by society because of who they are ends up being transformative for all people involved. In order to be welcoming to people who are not like ourselves we have to change. The goal, however, is not to change people but to create a space where they can be themselves. The end result is individual transformation but that is not necessarily the goal.

I would simply point out that an ethic of acceptance ("you're okay the way you are") is a very modest doctrine of the church (i.e., our ideas about what the church is for), although I think it is the operative doctrine in the UUA today.


January 5, 2009 11:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

And anyone, anywhere--or God, in His heaven-- will be fine with others entering their abode and not conforming to the standard norms? Said sojourners are not expected to be in harmony with the present culture, that they are able to stay the way they came?
If I am a perverted child-molester, by the logic of the past two posts, I would be free to retain my 'urges' in the local elementary school.


January 6, 2009 09:34 AM | Permalink for this comment

Mashmouth, I could only sort of understand your first comment, but I certainly would not endorse the notion that "truth is always changing." However, I would say that religious liberals are right when they argue that human understanding is always partial and limited, and that a degree of skepticism is always warranted about anyone's claims to know the absolute truth. The Truth may be unchanging, but our understanding of it is always in flux.

Your second comment, though, is not concerned with philosophical truth. Instead, you're now concerned with (traditional?) moral standards — and, I presume, are unhappy with our acceptance of homosexuality.

I have no interest in getting into a side argument about the ultimate justification for a conservative or liberal moral system. But I think it is important to point out that the UUA's Principles do explicitly offer standards of conduct that would condemn a child-molester. The violation of another person's dignity runs against what UUs stand for, and provides a pretty good basis for condemning abusive behavior.


January 6, 2009 02:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

Most of the people who attend my church are liberals who have some sort of strong emotional relationship with conservative religion, usually involving their family. They see UUism as a sort of self-help movement for refugees from unsuccessful forced conversions. So they are generally very resistant to any sort of transformation.

In my view, UUism provides valuable support for many people. There is nothing at all wrong about this.

But the vast majority of religious liberals find happiness in liberal churches which are more transformative. UUs are constantly comparing themselves to Evangelicals. They rarely ask what UUism offers that the UCC or the Episcopalians don't. I think freedom from transformation is a big part of the answer. So, since most people seek transformation, we are destined to be a tiny niche community. We should not assume that because most people want something else, we are doing something wrong.

The only sad aspect is that children of UUs, not having a strong relationship with conservative religion, usually don't fit into our congregations as adults.


January 6, 2009 03:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Here in the UK the kind of evangelical megachurch you reference is not so common. I think the transformation that the evangelicals seek is that they want you to die to yourself and embrace a saviour - the transformation that we Unitarians should be seeking is to be more often the better version of ourselves. Ours is less dramatic, but it feels less misleading.

Colin Bossen:

January 6, 2009 10:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

I would simply point out that an ethic of acceptance ("you're okay the way you are") is a very modest doctrine of the church (i.e., our ideas about what the church is for), although I think it is the operative doctrine in the UUA today.

I think that Chris is right that this is the operative doctrine in the UUA today. I am not, however, quite certain that it is a very modest doctrine. Rather it strikes me as a powerful carry over from our Universalist heritage. "You're okay the way you are" has strong echoes of the concept that God loves everyone. If we combine/extend the two we end up with something that sounds like "because God loves everyone everyone is welcome in this church." That to me is an important message because many religious communities in this country preach a message that could be approximated as "in order to obtain God's love and be welcome in this community you must fit these set of standards, if you were born queer and can't fit those set of standards without denying part of yourself you are out of luck."

Also, in response to mashmouth I'd simply point out that Unitarian Universalists make a distinction between creed and covenant. We don't demand that people subscribe to a specific set of beliefs to be a member of our communities. We do, however, hold them to a certain standard of behavior. If people fail to meet this standard of behavior their ability to participate in all of or portions of the life of the community can be reviewed. Such things can protect children from child molesters and ensure the overall safety and health of the community. The operative words here, however, are safety and health.

Have written the above I won't respond to mashmouth's line of reasoning further.

Jeff Wilson:

January 6, 2009 11:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Lots of really interesting comments in this thread. I just want to point out that "you're OK the way you are" is indeed a Universalist holdover, but it doesn't adequately capture the entirety of the classical Universalist worldview. There were two parts, both of which were explicitly meant to be transformative. The first is the realization that one is a child of God right now, just as one is, and needs do nothing to achieve salvation: it is a freely provided gift of love. The second, and always linked, part of this worldview was that having awoken to universal love, out of gratitude and humility one was expected to work on correcting one's faults through discipline and soul-searching. One worked hard at self-transformation, not to win God's love (which is unconditional), but to better meet the this-worldly standard that the loving God asks (not demands) of us, especially because moral failure has negative repercussions for God's other loved children (i.e. everybody else). We might paraphrase this Universalist attitude as "You're perfectly good enough for God as you are, and therefore you're good enough for us--come in. But now that you're here, you _can_ in fact be better than you currently are, and we are all working together to become so. Please join us in this work."


January 12, 2009 04:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think we are or should be a "transformation-optional" faith. With UUs, not having much of a rule book except for a need to be tolerant, most people can come in without having to change themselves.

But here is where I think UUs may fall short:

What do we have to offer the person who wants to be transformed, a person who is broken in spirit and is looking to change, but is uncertain how to go about it?

That's where traditional faiths succeed. The ancient religions evolved in a period where life was very hard for most people. They provide a structure within which people can get answers (perhaps false one, but answers no less) that address and alleviate their suffering.

I don't get that from a typical Sunday service at a UU church. I do get that from Buddhist practice. I see the infiltration of Buddhism into UUism as perhaps a way to address this lack.

On the other hand, perhaps the reason I have not fully embraced Buddhism is that I'm reluctant to be transformed so fully. But also, I feel more on an equal basis with a UU minister. I value the flexibility and egalitarianism I find in the UU church.

Doug Muder:

January 13, 2009 10:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

The difference between a UU and an evangelical church shouldn't be that they're transformative and we're not. I'd rather the difference be this: The evangelical church provides (or imposes) its own goals -- where the transformation should lead -- while the UU church assumes that you come with aspirations and helps you achieve them. The evangelical church tells you what kind of person you should become, while the UU church helps you figure it out.

Now, a lot of the time we fall way short of that. We can lapse into an everybody's-fine-the-way-they-are attitude, where we support each other in ignoring all of those pesky aspirations. And we're not very good at teaching spiritual technique and practice: If I know what kind of person I want to be, how do I get there? How do I make my good intentions effective in my life?

That's where I see room for improvement. Someone comes to a UU church with a desire to be better and a vision of what that might mean (or someone who has been a UU for a long time discovers such a desire and vision) -- what are we going to do for them? How do we help them achieve their aspirations?

Peter Bowden:

January 15, 2009 12:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

I just returned from a trip to Texas consulting and leading a training for UUs on small group ministry. We had a great discussion about mega churches, growth and spiritual change sparked by this post (I brought it with me).

Bottom line from this conversation: Yes we want our congregation to serve as a catalyst for personal change and we know small groups with vision, leadership and a back bone can do this. Unfortunately too many of our group ministries are of the jelly fish variety - no back bone and floating out in the abyss....

Lisa Williams:

January 16, 2009 08:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

I've thought about this as the difference between churches that shape people into religious liberals and churches that welcome people who have already been shaped into cultural liberals. A very old joke says that Unitarians believe they're too good to be damned — which can seem like a strong selling point or a profound blind spot, depending on your point of view.

Yep. I stopped going to a UU church after one particular Sunday during which the sermon contained a self-congratulatory reference to UU churches as being superior to the local Catholic church, who would (I paraphrase) "require people to believe what they believe before passing out government cheese." Notably, the town this was preached in was a town where the local Catholic Church ran the only food bank, at which I can assure you no one was quizzed on their perspectives on the Holy Trinity before filling up a bag with canned goods. The UU congregation, by contrast, had not bestirred themselves to serve the poor in this way. At the same service, during the open sharing period, one congregant urged the crowd to feel fellowship with their "Muslim and Buddhist brothers and sisters."

That Sunday helped me crystallize what I had been feeling for awhile into an insight I could act on. The insight? My church had become an incoherent grouping of poorly thought out upper-middle-class likes and dislikes.

I finally realized that choosing a church on the basis of the fact that it was filled with people who shared my politics was a dead end, because I'd come out of church the same way I went in. What was the point of that? I could stay home and read the op-ed page of the New York Times (and have a bagel with cream cheese, too) if that's what I wanted.

Desmond Ravenstone:

January 17, 2009 11:44 AM | Permalink for this comment

Last weekend, I attended my congregation's Worship Committee retreat; during the conversation, we touched on how the worship experience might facilitate "change" or "transformation" in people. Ruminating on that, and perusing the comments above, this thought occurs to me...

Evangelicals seek to transform people from the outside in. Perhaps we should more actively seek to help people transform from the inside out.

Okay, elaboration time. Evangelicals tend to think of a "cookie-cutter" image of how Christians (if not everyone) ought to be. They impose narrow standards of conformity, sometimes slipping into outright cultism (read Kip McKean's International Churches of Christ)

Why don't we consider helping people find the best within themselves, and encouraging them to bring it out? To be more loving, more open, more honest, etc.? To "be not conformed to this world, but be transformed in the renewing of your mind"?

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