Why Unitarian Universalism should grow

“This is why I’m an evangelical Unitarian Universalist, without apology,” said Tandi Rogers, program specialist of the Pacific Northwest District. “I wake up in the morning, and I read the news each day. There is hurt in the world, and there is hurt in my back yard. If only Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Anthony Weiner had taken OWL,” or Our Whole Lives, the lifespan comprehensive sexuality education program offered in many Unitarian Universalist congregations. The audience began to laugh, but Rogers stopped them.

“I’m being absolutely serious,” she said. “OWL is one example of how we spread our message in the world.” More than teaching basic facts about sexuality, Rogers said that OWL teaches about human relationships and good boundaries. “I want everyone to have the opportunity to take OWL—because my life, my children’s lives, have been changed because of OWL.” She said offering OWL to more people was a good reason for us to grow.

Rogers was speaking with the Rev. Howard Dana in a General Assembly workshop Thursday titled “The Unitarian Universalist Great Commission,” which addressed the question of whether there is a theological basis for growth, or whether growth is merely an institutional imperative.

Dana, the minister of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Pa., added his three reasons for being a Unitarian Universalist evangelist. “I am a Unitarian Universalist evangelist because it actually saves lives,” he said. Second, Unitarian Universalism “teaches us how to be people of the world.” And third, he believes that the world needs more Unitarian Universalists. “We’re good for the world,” he said, and not just because we do social justice work.

While Rogers is a Unitarian Universalist evangelist, she said that she’s careful which congregations she recommends to people. “I want people to go where they’re going to be set on fire,” she said. She said that congregations that are nothing more than social or political groups should “give up the Unitarian Universalist name. Because when people go there, they don’t find what they’re looking for, and they’re going to get scared away.”

“We first and foremost have to be a church,” Dana insisted. That means making religion and spirituality be top priorities for our congregations.

Rogers added that she doesn’t recommend people to congregations that are full of conflict. “Do you know the phrase ‘throwing chalices’?” she said, referring to conflict between people who mean well but who are nonetheless destructive. “That’s what I’m talking about.” She told a story of how a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson rediscovered Unitarian Universalism a few years ago, attended worship at a congregation in conflict, and left, never to return. “We have no business letting the tyranny of the minority, or the tyranny of the wounded, take over our congregations,” she said. This statement was greeted with murmurs and nods of agreement from the hundred or more people in the audience.

Rogers suggested one area where Unitarian Universalist could pursue evangelism. “If I were in charge of the universe, here’s what I would want us to do: education,” said Rogers. “If we took our great commission, our place in the commons, as education, what would that look like?” She gave some possible examples: we could attend school board meetings, establish scholarships in our local communities, staff tutoring programs, etc.

Then she asked people in the audience to talk with one another and come up with ideas where Unitarian Universalists could find our “great commission.” I spoke with Frank Corsoro of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Va., and Craig Rubaro of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, N.J.

Corsoro said, “I think the great commission is how to live out our values of multiculturalism” in the communities where our congregations are located. He added that we should also figure out how to incorporate that into our personal lives.

Rubaro said, “That amazing sense of welcome is our Unitarian Universalist specialty. If we’re going to reach more people, we’ve got to talk to more people.”

And as for me, what do I think our “great commission” is? I think Rogers and Dana expressed it best: Unitarian Universalism changes lives, saves lives, and makes the world a better place. That alone is an adequate theological basis for growth.

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