Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Next 300 Years of Unitarian Universalism

This is the background, and elongated print version, parts of which I preached as a sermon given March 25, 2007 at Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa.

This sermon began a few years ago at a conference here in Tulsa held by my alma mater, Phillips Theological Seminary, and comments by my professor and faculty adviser Dr. Brandon Scott whom I know many of you have either heard in person or seen lately on the DVD curriculum, Saving Jesus. I remember two things Brandon said that night—one, that he has come to a point in his life and career where he spends a lot of time trying to think not of the answers as much as what are the two or three most important questions he should be spending his life on; and second, that we need to be thinking, imagining, and preparing based not on three-year strategic plans but on three-hundred year visions.

Now if Brandon were here today listening to me he might question how I’ve paraphrased him, but since he’s an historical Jesus scholar, I say turnabout’s fair play.

What I am sure he recommended that night, though, was the book by sociologist of religion Rodney Stark called “The Rise of Christianity: How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries.” (Princeton University Press, 1996; Harper Collins paperback, 1997) It is a primer in 300-year imagining. It is also a hopeful and challenging work for any of us who might today find ourselves feeling obscure and marginal religiously. As we well might. For as Catholic priest Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine, recently wrote of Unitarian Universalism that it is “now almost institutionally extinct.” (“Metaphysical America,” First Things, Mar. 2007, p. 28)


Welcome to the ice age of UUism. And certainly our percentage numbers in comparison to the population within the United States, continue to drop, half of where they were 50 years ago I believe. And there has, of course, been a decline from the days of yore when the churches in our movement were the principal players in the creation of the nation and its institutions and values. Which is one of the main reasons, I believe, for pondering these matters with a look to the future and whose values will be taking hold.

The book lays out a natural matrix for how the numbers of followers of Jesus within the Roman Empire could have grown steadily and exponentially from an estimated number of 1,000 in the year 40 of the common era, that’s say a decade after the death of Jesus and the beginning of the stories of his being raised to life by God, to 1,400 in the year 50 when Paul is beginning to write his letters to Jesus communities (when Paul dies in the early 60s there are probably only 2000 Jesus as Messiah followers in all the Empire), to 7,530 followers fifty years later in the year 100 which is after the pivotal destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans and after the composition of much of the New Testament, to 40,496 fifty years after that in the year 150 when you begin to have the spread of diverse forms of communities such as the Gnostics and when a self-identity is becoming rooted as something else than Judaism, and then to 217,795 Christians fifty more years in the year 200. I think, by the way, that 200,000 plus number is also in the ballpark for how many Unitarian Universalists, adults and children, are listed as current church members within the UUA.

I am going to pause at this year 200 to point out that there were still then fewer than 1 percent Christians within the Roman Empire; actually Stark’s estimate has it at 0.36 percent at that start of the third century. They weren’t as numerous then, in the first few centuries after Jesus, as what we often think, looking back as we often have done only through the lens of Hollywood at depictions of Rome and the early church. And I doubt things went as neatly as they might appear on graphs of statistical estimates, but over time it shows what happens when growth is exponential and sustained at just an estimated 3.42 percent a year, or 40 percent a decade. I say “just” because this kind of rate per year is often attainable and exceeded even by American churches in such an unchurched culture as we have in our world today, and it has been attained a few years even by Unitarian Universalism—we didn’t, however, sustain it for more than a year at a time and never for a whole decade.

Spread out over 1,000 plus congregations, an annual average rate of 3.42 percent doesn’t translate into that much growth per congregation, but not all congregations are alike in growth capabilities and so the ones who are get offset. It’s one of the reasons why growing church associations put so much resources into church planting—creating new healthy congregations is the number one way to grow total numbers. But we don’t do that. Others have. Stark is a scholar of new religious movements, particularly Mormons, and their rate of growth has matched what he lays out for the early Christians. 300 Years from now I wonder at the title for the book about who in America went from being an obscure marginal movement to the dominant religious force.

So up to the year 200 Christians weren’t as numerous as what we often think they were, but keeping the same steady rate of growth for the next 100 to 150 years they soon would be more numerous within the Empire than we often think they were. By 250, the numbers reach 1.17 million or now 1.9 percent of the Empire, and by the year 300 they number 6.29 million or up to 10.5 percent of the Empire. By 350, this rate results in 33.8 million Christians or now 56.5 percent of the Empire. Although before this date you had the case of Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea in the year 325, forming a kind of preliminary church state connection which some Emperors tried to minimalize after Constantine, Christianity still didn’t become the official religion of the Empire until the close of the fourth century, after a majority of its inhabitants have become Christian.

On the one hand, to those who look at the rise of Christianity as purely supernatural and occurring inevitably because of God’s will and miracles, Stark’s book shows how it could have happened otherwise. And on the other hand, to those who think the Empire became populated by Christians only because of the Imperial actions of Constantine, Stark points out that the actions of the Emperors were probably more a response to Christianity than a creation of it. He certainly seems to have been a suspect convert. In fact, Stark has written that Constantine and the Emperors did more harm to the nature of the original Christianity, you might say, to the essence of what got them there, than any benefits of being an Empire Church. As we will see, they took the edge off of it, and only now in our lifetime, as we have truly entered an Unchurched post-Empire end-of-Constantine era of Christianity, is the edge beginning to come back. Which is why we need to learn, for our next three hundred years, what we can from those first three hundred years of the pre-Empire Church about what it really means to be a church influencing lives and the world. The real concern is not the rise of numbers itself, but what propelled them.

This emphasis on the first 300 years of the communities following Jesus has long been a central concern of Unitarians and Universalists. It is what led us into being known by those names. We point to how our theological heresies were only heresies after the first 300 to 400 years. We are more at home in the earlier times. You might say we can claim to being the truly traditional or conservative Christians. (I can understand why you may not want to…but believe me, it’s a good conversation starter).

I also don’t want to fall prone to the error of primitivism and a mistaken belief that all things early early on are best—we have certainly benefited from many of the theological and other developments that have arisen after those early years, but because of the hinge of history we are in with the rise of the quantum or postmodern age and its primary means of communication and culture and effects, it is crucial to see again what is transient and what is permanent in what should guide us forward. Being replaced is the Modernity and Enlightenment age and values that gave rise to our very forms and institutions of free church as we have known them. Just as Unitarian minister Theodore Parker said in his 1841 sermon on The Transient and The Permanent in Christianity, the church that did for the first century didn’t for the fifth, and what did for the fifth didn’t for the fifteenth, and what did for the fifteenth didn’t’ for the nineteenth century. We know now, that as change itself has changed, what did for the 1990s doesn’t even for the 2000s. But, interestingly, because of the recent changes what worked for the year 70 might for the year 2007. It’s called “Ancient-Future” thinking.

It’s not necessarily or primarily about theology either, though I have a bad habit of seeing all things through theological lens. Occupational hazard. A big part of the problem for Unitarian Universalist, and mainline to liberal Christian churches as well, as we face the current crisis and the future uncertainty, is that we think the big changes are all about theology, about message, what we think. Theology is an important motivator, but no matter whether we are a UU Christian oriented church in Massachusetts or Michigan or Oklahoma or a UU church of some other dominant or mixed orientation in these places or somewhere, our challenge has been and is the same—how in a changing culture in and around and through us do we change ourselves so that we are able to meet lives and culture where it is in order to continue the mission of healing lives and bringing wholeness to that interdependent culture of which we are a part. Or, since studies show that 9 out of 10 people in effect choose to die rather than to change habits leading to death, how do we entertain ourselves during extinction, or at best ineffectiveness?

This “ancient-future” change challenge isn’t the same for all churches. For UUs, and other progressives, theology about God and Jesus and the Bible, etc. is actually pretty well reflective of the non-creedal focus and pluralism of those first 300 years. Our leading of the way in scholarship has helped us from the start in this regard. It is, and should be more, one of our gifts to the world. Presenting this gift has been one of the reasons for being for my employer, the UU Christian Fellowship, since its founding in 1945. However, for the more conservative and so-called evangelical churches, they are finding that their challenge is often theological on these questions; in order to meet the new and changing pluralistic and tolerant secular culture they are being faced with being bound up by medieval answers and ideology. They are having to learn theological change, and in many places already are doing so. But where they have it easier to change, by and large, than we do is that their sense of being church, of purpose and mission driven and flexibility on forms of the church, is more in line with the nature of the early church’s 300 years.

We have forgotten history’s lessons, even within our own church tradition’s history, that theological change itself is often a response to changes in organizations and their wider cultures. Since my title today is the Next 300 years of Unitarian Universalism I thought it would be interesting to do some reading about what was going on in our founding churches in New England some 300 years ago. Back then, in and around 1707, the conflicts were actually about changes in church structure and membership and worship (You might be interested to note that it was the liberals or innovators who for example wanted to bring back in ritual and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer which the original Puritans had deemed too Catholic, and they wanted to form new churches to reflect this new change, and others were opposed and wanted to keep things the way they’d been and in some places as a result more authority was placed over churches, and in some places authority was lessened and more innovation allowed.) All that conflict over the form of the church sowed the field for the next generation’s beginning theological liberalism from which we often point to as the beginning of Unitarian Universalism in America. I think a closer look shows where the real innovation and beginning took root and the importance of examining the very forms of who we are.

Instead, our thinking what it means to do and be “church” still pretty much is what it has been since the 1500s, and 1950s, with some tweaking of late.

Too often still our default mode of Church is a set-apart place you go to, a building, usually the same building for many years, and in which you receive certain things from, which you then take back to the world out there, it is hoped in a good way; church is the Sunday morning for an hour or two thing, focused on being a spectator to a sermon or other presentations led by others, often those with learned degrees; or church is an organization, with bylaws its scripture, a kind of machine that needs to be kept well-oiled with time, talent, and treasure, as we say; and maintenance of all that, including maintenance of its leaders, becomes the mission, and the purpose of “getting in” (hear that phrase) newcomers is to share the load. Energy is spent on trying to “attract” visitors and “hold” them and “orient” them to the ways and works of the church. It is a Constantinian Empire, Newtonian Machine Universe approach to church that would be foreign to the early followers of Jesus who would see it more like what occurred in the various forms of Temple religion, and its anathema to many today who want to rage against the machine not manage one. I don’t think it will be sustainable much longer the further in we go to the wormhole of the new era.

See if these characteristics that marked that rise over a 300 year period sound an echo in our world. I am sure they didn’t hold true for all communities in all places then; and that there were, as now, unhealthy expressions of faith. Reading Paul’s letters to the communities shows they were anything but pure models of spiritual health; that’s one of the things that gives me hope. They didn’t wait for perfect before spreading out and reproducing themselves in new places and ways. But they seemed to know, to have the spirit in their bones of the truth that the aim of any healthy organism is to reproduce itself, even in a new environment, and the healthier the DNA of the organism the more inevitable will be its growth; it can’t help it; and so what we might call church planting or incarnational mission today was natural for them, their community wasn’t successful, not being its true self even, if it didn’t multiply. That’s the difference between an organic movement and organizations. And something we lost over the years as UUs.

Let’s take a quick journey back to those 300 years before Constantine to consider how the model of one rise might be a guide for taking action now that will be aimed at the next three hundred years. See if then echoes now.

Epidemics and death ravaged the world of the early followers of Jesus, time and time again. There was great commercialization and increasing urbanization and ecological damage and resulting dislocation of peoples from families and from the land and traditions. There were constant wars and militarization. There were many new religious faiths intersecting. Old religious structures were destroyed. Women and widows and children were particularly marginalized and oppressed and abused. Ethnic cultures dominated and competed and if you weren’t in the right ethnic group you were endangered.

Into this world came the early Jesus communities. They offered relationships of social networks, what we might today call “fictive families.” They had an ethic of radical love for one another and hospitality to the stranger, continuing in the best tradition of Judaism in which they were originally embedded and in which many still saw themselves, Jew or Gentile. When others fled the epidemics, they had the commandment to stay and risk and nurse their fictive families and strangers. This actually increased their survival rate and widened their communities and relationships. They provided leadership positions for women, and slaves, and regardless of ethnic background. Offering such a community of relationship for women and children actually led to growth in their birth rate.

They established themselves in places of great urban unrest, of instability, in the seaports where there were crossroads of faith and diversity and people seeking a connection to the divine. Places of desperate lives and danger. They were often made up of what might be considered the middle class, artisans, craft workers, people of some wealth who would host the gatherings in their homes, but who were willing to share their wealth and social network and greater still their identity with those who did not have what they had. In times of persecution, they were willing to be martyred—the original meaning of martyr is to witness—not just because they saw it as a way of entering the afterlife, but because it had a real here-and-now effect; someone would be thrown to the lions for the spectacle of the Empire; it not them, it would be someone else; they became known as the ones who would take the place of others so they might live. It was part not of their creed; they didn’t have one; but part of their story. There weren’t as many of these persecutions and types of witness as Hollywood and tradition has seemed to portray, but the effects of those that did take place were known by and influenced many, to deepen their own commitment or to be drawn toward the community.

They were counter-cultural communities, in high-tension with the values and actions of the Empire but not completely cut off like some sects; offering a way of living that was much different from all that was around them, but still in, even if not of, the world. You could tell their difference. And they offered a new way of being religious that still carried the familiar stories and traditions of what had come before. Their communities, their networks, their relationships (hesitate to call them their churches) were low maintenance and high mission. There weren’t for many years the set-apart places considered sacred while other places of gathering were not considered sacred; they were mobile, de-centralized; without budgets or bylaws as well as buildings of their own; they let their lives be their message and didn’t for many years have texts that were considered sacred. They were stronger after each crisis because they were present in them. They had no advertising or web sites; just their lives and their ultimate faith that they were commanded to share their good news of how God had been and was active in the world by sharing their goodness in acts of compassion to those whom others wouldn’t consider their neighbor or family.
Stark writes: “Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the marketplaces (although there may have been much of that going on) or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility. It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the ‘invincible obstinacy’ that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the “good news.”” (Rise of Christianity, 208, HarperColllins)

By intense community, or what some now call communitas to differentiate it from the kind of inward-focused community, think of the kind of bonds that are formed when you are on a service-to-others-oriented trip like going to New Orleans, or fixing a meal and eating with the hungry in your own town, time and time again until you are fed by them, or find yourself in deep conversation on important matters and the time passes at a party with someone you’ve just met, or on silent retreat. Think of that as not something your church does, as a program, but as its essence or reason for being. Now think of channeling all time, talent and treasure toward that or events like it. What you have is both the Jesus movement of the first century and the emergent church movement of the 21st century.

By ‘invincible obstinacy’ think of what it means not to surrender your religious heritage or language even when others tell you you don’t have any right to it because you don’t think or believe a certain way, or that you are going extinct or powerless and have no place at the table of the real religions where all the action is.

And by invitation, think of not just inviting someone to come be a spectator at worship and pick up some literature to think about it; invite them to see you and be with you in action in the community. Or do like Stark said Mormons have done. Their studies showed that knocking on doors only got new members 1 in 1000 tries (of course they don’t do it for that, but for the bonding and faith-building for those who do it) while they got new members 50 percent of the time when they created a dinner and invited a friend or relative to come eat and talk with church leaders or other members.

Perhaps above all, in Stark’s book’s title, the phrase used is “Jesus movement” not Christian Church. Organic. Dynamic. Ready to risk. Built on relationships and not rules. It’s time to breath in the air of a movement again and look for a thousand different ways we can plant ourselves in our communities, either by “from scratch” new incarnations like we are doing in Turley, with a model of where two or more are gathered it is church, building community space first and then gathering the church within it, or by existing established churches shifting resources to mission teams and small groups who are charged with being present in the community, sowing seeds that might someday multipy and grow to become more than the originating church itself. Movements are to think big, go small, and turn themselves inside out to follow their mission. I think of the church that gathers at 3 a.m. to be there for those who finish their shifts at that hour, or the church movement that designs itself to never have more than 16 members in any one group but to have groups all over the place, or the church that instead of trying to attract people to come from an apartment complex by knocking on doors or leaving tracts and invitations for them, actually pays the rent for a couple for a year to live in the apartment complex and meet and serve others there and form a church within the complex.

Three hundred years later, you never know what the results will be. That vision, that history and hope, keeps me going. There is nothing magical about 300 years by the way; remember that 300 years back then in many ways is not the same pace as 300 years now. Maybe a span of 50 is the new 300! It is more a symbolic number, just out of reach enough so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can plan your way toward it. Planning is out! Preparation is in. One example of our recent UU short-sightedness I think was the reaction to the beginning of a new church in the Dallas Fort Worth area called Pathways. A lot of planning went into that and when it didn’t meet expectations of numbers of members, more in the 70 range than the 300 range for its starting, it was then labeled by some a failure, a waste. God we need more wastes like that. Part of its difference was to be an intentionally great expectations kind of church with a high standard of mission for each of its members. I tell you that in 300 years a plant with 70 such prepared folks, particularly if prepared to be church in a new way, might become the most numerous. It’s happened before.

The alternative church goes by many names today. Emergent. Organic. Incarnational. Missional. Ancient-Future. Submergent. Under-the-Radar. Beyond-the Box. To name a few. So many labels for folks who hate being labeled. Another reason Unitarian Universalists should feel at home there. And there are even more forms and expressions and experiments of it (ask me about the church in Denver called Scum of the Earth). But they have one thing in common—they know, as did the early followers of Jesus, as did James Luther Adams in our reading, that there is a Spirit that bloweth where it listeth and maketh all things new, even if it takes the ancient models to make them new again and sustain them for what the future brings, and for how they shape the future.

My prayer this morning for Unitarian Universalism is that it be guided into that always emerging Spirit not by fear or a culture of scarcity or superiority or complacency, but by love for others not here and a culture of abundance, so it will risk dying to what has been in order to help others live. If we are to go extinct, let it be in a blaze of mission and not by self-suffocation. And since Unitarian Universalism is no separate body more important than the local body, that prayer is for your church, and since your church exists in the covenant each of you enters into with it, that prayer is for you.


8 comments:

Jaume said...

Ron, my understanding is that the problem with Pathways was not the 70 members, but the big amount of money spent to have 70 members in one place. It is the ratio, not the quantity. How many fellowships with 70 members around the country would have been created with so many thousands of dollars, just by supporting local initiatives and talent and opportunities rather than one big hyperchurch in one unlikely site?

Ron said...

Jaume, hi and thanks. I understand that reaction and as you will read below I think we need to do a lot more grassroots stuff, but not at the expense of seeding bigger churches too (though I lean with those in the church planting millieu who believe that "regional" churches will be a thing of the past). But, re: Pathways in particular, from what I have heard, the people on the ground in the DFW area who gave most of the money to the start don't seem to have minded how the results are turning out; they understand it was a learning curve, one that I am sure is still going on. My point is more about the time-frame and the healthy DNA that was planted there (though in hindsight I am sure there were things that could have been done to make the early on stages less committee-denominational and more entrepenuerial). Let's see in a few generations what the Pathways group is generating and having an impact on, based on 70 people who have exhibited the high-bar of membership expectations of a growing church compared to some other 70 folks in the average UU congregation whose membership consists primarily of signing a book to get voting privileges and pastoral care privileges.

My deeper response to the UUA's growth "strategy" is that we need to adopt something similar to the 2020 vision of the Disciples of Christ and their 1,000 new congregations in a 1,000 different ways approach. Certainly without getting any funds from any UUA organization, (hence a high-ratio of resources to impact) my church plant start here has had a great impact locally and is an experiment I think worthy of support, but I think it is healthier to actually stay away from much over denominational attachments too early on. But I believe in putting in more money into projects like Pathways, with lessened anxiety into the system, as long as their is a healthy DNA and the goal is not to start a new church but to start a church-planting church. We need to put more money into big projects, more money into mid-size existing churches that want to replicate themselves in spin-offs, and into teams of people who want to go the emergent/organic way. Which means we need to shift major resources from maintaining what we have done in the past, worthy as it might have been, and re-start the UUA as a church planting and supporting institution in the 21st century, with an eye toward the 24th century.

david owen said...

Jaume, Ron,

One of the mistakes with the idea of planting a mega-church is that whoever was the idea person behind it didn't understand the nature of what it takes to build a mega-church. From their plan they essentially wanted to create a church with a lot of programs.
The reality is to create a mega-church you need to create a movement that will start 50 visionary congregations (with visionary leaders, DNA, and around $100,000 in funding) From that you can expect a spectrum, where 5 years later about half will no longer be in existence, and 2 or 3 will be very large and perhaps a mega-church (over 2,000.)

Evangelical Mega-churches are an outgrowth of a movement mentality focused on a specific mission to reach the nations for Jesus. You cannot create a church with a bunch of programs and expect missional results. And you certainly cannot expect to create a mega-church by planting a single congregation - it just never works that way. I believe one of the necessary steps toward growing and having real impact in the nation is that we need to rediscover what it means for our lives to be a part of God's mission on this Earth. Missional results only come from a strong mission, not a bunch of programs.

In my current church-planting experience I find that most UU's don't have the inclination, nor even the language to seriously engage mission. Even though most UU's talk about wanting to make a difference, (sadly and ironically) mission seems like a lost part of our faith.

Peace,
Rev. Dr. David Owen
www.micahsporch.org

Ron said...

David, so true on all accounts. Thanks so much. Always so much more to add. And the only addendum I might make about mega-churches is that so much of where they got their "mega-ness" from was transfer growth, boomers who didn't want to stay in the churches of their parents either locally or if they moved to a new site, but wanted something more in tune with their boomer culture. Their critical mass does allow them to do some mission, and in some cases to do the kind of church planting that you describe, though around here at least that seems to be hit and miss.
So one of the difficulties inherent in any dream of a UU mega-church, which I don't think is anyone's dream really anymore, is that there isn't anywhere to transfer in from to build toward critical mass for the outward push. You know what I mean? :).

So I think maybe a kind of pre-70 or pre-150 CE approach is the way to go, and focusing on those UUs who are on the fringes and younger who get mission or might get it, or who at least don't have their eyes glaze over when talking about it. But then there might be a theology piece to all of this after all, which we skirt, and as you say is at the heart of the passion of others. I've always said like Rick Warren in Purpose Driven Church I too am Great Commandment and Great Commission oriented; it is just that my Great Commandment covers all that particular scriptural passage which includes Jesus' answer with the parable of the "Good" Samaritan, which Warren's theology by and large doesn't, and that the Great Commission for me is to make disciples who make disciples of precisely that kind of radical Great Commandment.

But I digress. And btw hope all who visit here will bookmark your sites too.

Robin Edgar said...

Surely you mean the next 46 years of Unitarian*Universalism and even that estimated longevity for U*Uism may be quite optimistic. ..

Ron said...

Robin, who knows the future? According to George Barna, some of the biggest changes are likely to occur by the year 2025--see his book Revolution and my post on it here on the blog. The 300 year cycle was in keeping with Rodney Stark's cycle when commenting on the rise of Christianity in its first 300 years and how that rise occurs. What do you think about the sermon's points about what it will take, adopting Stark, for UUism to have not only a next 300 years but for them to be greater than the past 300 years of its church life?

Robin Edgar said...

Well it would help if U*Us actually paid attention to the Spirit that bloweth where it listeth rather than trample all over it, and even deny it's very existence. . .

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