Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Liberal Alternatives

I started this post some weeks back as a half-baked rumination by a non-clergy-person in response to a couple of posts by Christine Robinson. In the first of those, she suggests that
Most UU churches, it seems to me, benefit from being much more forthcoming about their denominational label.
Anyway, my post sat around in the drafts for some time, and now comes news that UU membership in the U.S. is continuing to contract. This offers what we in the news business call "a news peg" for moving this particular post forward.

I want to add one more wrinkle to the discussion.

Today people looking for a liberal, eclectic, non-doctrinal (or at least less-doctrinal) and progressive church experience may have choices besides joining a Unitarian Universalist church. They aren't everywhere, but the fact that they exist at all is intriguing to me.

They also exist on a spectrum.

At one end of that spectrum is a place like DairyStateMom's church. On the surface, it's a highly traditional Presbyterian church that is explicitly Christian in its practice and belief.

Yet parishioners with whom I've talked there talk quite openly about their own "spiritual journey" and an openness to "individual belief" there; the church institutionally is at the forefront of the efforts to open up Presbyterian ordination standards; and it is there that I've been introduced to the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, whose take on Jesus is certainly a radical departure from Christian orthodoxy.

The Easter sermon I heard there a few Sundays ago never sought to frame the resurrection in terms that had to be taken literally. And a year ago, the senior pastor focused her Easter sermon on Emily Dickinson's life story and her poem, "Hope is a Thing with Feathers."

I have said that, had I stumbled into a church like hers 30 years ago when I was unchurched and had not yet encountered Unitarian Universalism, I might very well have wound up joining it and never becoming a UU. Or, to put it slightly differently, if my 24-year-old self were to stumble into her church today, I might have found it comfortable enough to embrace.

Now, knowing all that I know now, I would find that at least a little bit regrettable, because I so value the much broader interfaith exposure I've gotten in UU churches.

One of the blogs listed down the side here is by Tennessee Presbyterian Minister John Shuck. As progressive and welcoming as DairyStateMom's church is, The Rev. Shuck's church is clearly further down at the left end of the spectrum, theologically and culturally, from hers. Except for the fact that its preaching is much more consistently centered on the life of Jesus, it would in fact come close to passing for a UU church, judging by its embrace of theological diversity and progressive social witness. If I found myself living in that part of the world, even as a UU, and it was closer than any UU church, I could see myself quite at home there.

Finally, there are across the country various progressive, often (but not always) non-denominational churches that while they primarily identify with Christianity, make it very clear that they welcome a wide range of belief and even non-belief. I haven't been to any of them in person but would happily go given the opportunity.

(Off the top of my head I'm aware of one in Wilmington, Delaware; in Florida [I think Miami], Evanston, Ill., and Grand Rapids, Mich. There's also a small Anglican group based in Milwaukee that operates in a similar vein, although to what extent it is an established church organization as opposed to just the vision of a few idiosyncratic organizers is not at all clear to me.)

It might be interesting to compile a comprehensive list of such places and map their location against the locations of existing UU congregations. I have no idea whether they tend to flourish where UU congregations are scarce, or if in fact they end up clustering in more or less the same places where there are UU churches as well, but filling some kind of felt need for some people that UU churches, for whatever reason, don't meet.

I don't think this is necessarily a zero-sum game. I am not saying these liberal alternatives keep UUism from growing or are some kind of "competition". And I am not saying that we should make our churches either more like or less like these other liberal alternatives. But in thinking about why UUism is shrinking rather than growing, it might be useful to see what insights we might gain from their presence.


  1. I would be interested in seeing David Owen-O'Quill's response to Christine Robinson's assertion about sticking with the UU moniker in congregations' names.

    Micah's Porch Community Church in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood was David's brainchild and mission. He, an ordained and fellowshipped UU minister, never presented to the people of Wicker Park as UU but as progressive. His message to them has been a more universalistic message of God's universal love. The website of Micah's Porch does not use any of the capital-u words anywhere. Even is talking about Dave's former church, a UU congregation in Corpus Christi, it is referred to as a justice-oriented church without any reference to UU.

    David's opinion that we discussed various times is that the denominational label either means nothing or is a hindrance to young adults and the unchurched, who were his primary "target." I think Christine is wonderful and innovative and insightful in many ways, but I have my doubts about this opinion of hers.

  2. Interesting to note, too, that many of the rapidly growing "seeker" churches and megachurches in the more fundamentalist/evangelical vein don't carry a denominational name, even when they do belong to a denomination. Up the road from our home is a place called Grace Church, used to be "Grace Baptist Church". To my knowledge it is still affiliated with the North American Baptist Churches (which as I understand it are as conservative as the SBC, if not more so)...


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