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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 UUA.org 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?

Posted by Philocrites, December 17, 2008, at 10:42 PM | 33 comments

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