Following is the sermon I gave at the CMwD Assembly last Sunday. The theme for the District Assembly is the title of the sermon and that was what the contest asked us to speak to. If it resonates with you and you would like to use parts of it, please leave me your email in the comments section and I will talk to you about it. Thanks!!
Church of the 21st Century: Shaping Our Religious Future
When I read the theme “Church of the 21st Century: Shaping our Religious Future”, my first reaction was, “well how in the world can a bunch of UUs ever come to an agreement on that?!”. There must be at least as many views as there are UUs. Probably even more since some of us have a hard time settling on just one option. I also had the reaction of “I don’t know – what do I want our church to look like?”. That second reaction is the one that caused my head to hurt a little. How many faiths have the option of actually choosing the path they, as thinking humans, want it to take? It suddenly took on a monumental feel. Then I thought, I don’t think I want this responsibility – this is way too much pressure. But, as noted by many people, “if not me, who?”
Who do I want to shape my churches religious future? I want to. I want to be able to shape it with my thoughts, feelings, and faith. I don’t want it to be shaped in response to others lead. I don’t want to be a reactionary church. It is up to us to decide the course of Unitarian Universalism that is why this question is so very important.
We need to do this. We are a faith that is floundering along. I say floundering because while we are here – there is very little coherency and growth. We have stayed at a pretty constant level of membership for years, despite the ever increasing population growth. It has been cited that in a typical church, eighty percent of new members drop out within the first year. This is appalling. When I became a Unitarian over seven years ago, I felt that I had found a home for my family and me. I wanted to tell all my friends and family the wonderful opportunities Unitarian Universalism had to offer. I felt, and I will use this word, evangelical about it. I wanted to go spread the good news. Good news with a little g and little n. I wanted people to realize that there is an alternative to born-again Christianity or stagnant religions mired in their own rigid traditions. I saw Unitarianism as a way for me to grow spiritually in an encouraging, safe place. My children were going to learn the vast diversity of religions and beliefs the world holds, while developing their own faith statements. Why wouldn’t I go shout it from a mountain?
Then the reality of our reserved nature set in. Sure we are willing to put ourselves out there for a variety of political, social, and environmental issues, but talking about our religion seems to shut us up. Why? I know many of us are very nervous to talk about our beliefs. Some of us come from backgrounds in which religion was so forced upon us, that we have no desire to inflict our views on anyone else. Many of us have not spent the time to really understand what Unitarian Universalism means and how that fits into our belief system. Some of us fear having to defend our beliefs when we aren’t really sure exactly what we do believe. I could go on and on, but, as a whole, we are reluctant to get out there and, to use a phrase from our GLBT folk, be loud, proud, and out.
This, though, is exactly what we need. We need to be loud, proud, and out. When I look to the future of Unitarian Universalism, I want to see a church that is noticed. One that when people look at it say, “this is a home for me.” One that takes a stand on issues and is referred to in the media as a force to be reckoned with. I want a church that isn’t afraid to talk about itself and reaches out to all those in the community. We have rightly been called a thinking religion, but now it is really time to walk the walk. We need to reach out from the comfort of our living rooms and be heard.
How many of you are tired of hearing the religious right dominate US culture? How many of you are tired of religious liberals being maligned in the press? We have no one to blame but ourselves. We need to take control of what is being said and lead by example. I truly believe that we have so much to offer, but are continually misrepresented. When I look to the 21st century, I want to be part of a religion that is proud of its diversity, strength, and freedom. I don’t want to be part of one that sits back and waits for people to come to it. I don’t want to be a fringe group. We are, at heart, a group of people that has so much to offer and we are wasting our talents by working behind the scenes and not being noticed for all the amazing work we do.
This begs the questions: How are we going to get there? How are we going to shape this religious future?
I believe that we need to start within the home. To be able to proudly and loudly speak about Unitarian Universalism, we need to have a decent understanding of the religion. Ours is not an easy religion. We do not draw from one source. We are not hierarchical, with someone telling us what to believe. Ours is a faith that is unique to you as it is to me. Because of this, we have to do a little more leg work. It is up to each of us to develop our own personal beliefs. While we draw on many sources and principles, in the end, each of us has the responsibility to decide what is meaningful to us. To some, this may be extraordinarily challenging, but to be a religion worth shouting about – we need to be comfortable in speaking about our personal beliefs and how Unitarian Universalism fits in and supports them. We need to take the time and do this spiritual homework. We also need to be brave enough to share it with our family and friends.
Second, we need to more fully embrace our children, youth, and young adult programming. I hear over and over again that one of the main reasons people begin to attend Unitarian churches is now that they have children, they want them to grow up in an open church community. I have heard many people note how wonderful our religious education programs are. I agree with this. What I feel we are lacking, though, is a way to continually engage all our youth as they graduate from the elementary years through college and beyond. How many families have let our children decide to quit attending services when they reach a certain age? How many college kids don’t even bother thinking of attending services through their university years? Or how many children, after graduating high school see no real value in continuing to attend services when they are on their own? We lose so many valuable members in high school. If they do return, it isn’t until they have started their own families. That is a lot of talent, enthusiasm, and diversity lost. As congregations, we need to closely examine how we value our youth and how we engage them in all aspects of church life. I would love to see the UUA follow suite and reestablish its commitment to the Continental UU Young Adult Network (C*UUYAN). As parents and friends, we need to help our children feel valued by the church and actively encourage them to continue attending and participating, even after they leave home. Youth are invaluable in strengthening and enriching our faith. They need to be included in the life and planning of the church. They are the ones that will grow UU into the next century.
Finally, we need to get out there and get noticed. We need to become comfortable promoting ourselves. We have a lot to offer the world and we need to not be shy in shouting it. There are so many avenues and ways for us to get our name out there; we need to take advantage of them. I am not just talking about the UUA’s new marketing campaign. I am speaking within our communities we need to take active roles in the name of Unitarian Universalism. We need to be part of the conservations in what will make our communities successful. I would love to see us be the ones that are called when the news needs a broader perspective. Obviously, not everyone is a religious conservative. We have just as much right to be heard and understood. Our opinions should matter just as equally. We can not sit on the side lines and let other people decide how we will be portrayed and whether or not we will be called. Many of us are trying individually or within other groups, but what we need is a committed effort by the faith, our church. Only then will people begin to really understand Unitarian Universalism and what it has to offer the even wider community. That is what I would like to see as our religious future. I would like to see our religious future as being dynamic, exciting, diverse and relevant. I want the world to see Unitarianism not as a fringe liberal religion, but as one where we all are accepted into a place that values everyone, encourages everyone to spiritually grow, and works for the betterment of the world, regardless of who is in it. One that is active and engaged for them and the community.
I challenge each of you to, as Gandhi so well said “you must be the change you want to see in the world.” Now is the time for you to step up and participate in the future of Unitarian Universalism. Only through your grass roots work will the faith continue to grow and survive. We need to be the leaders we imagine. I really believe that through each of our efforts to be loud, proud, and out will we share the good news of Unitarian Universalism and be a force to be reckoned with.