Wednesday, March 12, 2014
The Survival of the Liberal Church
Recently my Assistant/Intern Jerrod Oltmann asked me who I meant when I said things like "liberal religion". The answer, of course, is that I use the term broadly. I mean the liberal Christianity of the United Church of Christ as well as the more amorphous liberalism of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I also see liberals in a diverse number of traditions not my own. Basically, if you see the conversation between "secular" (I use quotes here because life is sacred no matter what compartment you choose) and "sacred" (or the church, or theology, or merely seeking deeper meaning) as a two-way thing, then I think you are at least open to the idea of the liberal religious tradition. The goal, I think, for all of us, is to integrate all our sources into one understanding.
Of course, there is more to this than reading or reflecting on one's own. For me, truly formative religion happens in the context of a faith community--formal or informal. There needs to be intention and accountability. There needs to be a real and living language that forms the foundation for our thoughts and conversations. Otherwise that ubiquitous pretty sunset is just oddly moving. The moment passes and we go back to the same Habitrail we left. Religion--liberal and otherwise--is a building. You need a crew. You also need to work at it or it will collapse (or never get built) and then you will be standing like a confused idiot in the rain...talking only to yourself if you even bother to listen.
I have made my life in the context of the church. I just have. I work for a church and have for a long time. Before that I worked for other congregations and attended others. I have sat in many seminary classrooms. A large portion of my friends do the same kind of work. Many non-clergy folks I know and love spend a great deal of time and effort keeping their particular faith community running and healthy for free. Others just attend when they can and that's fine, too. For all of us in these categories there is something that makes us come back and connect to the larger community and--yes--to the Divine (however you want to parse that word).
Of course, I also have friends who don't belong to any community of faith. That's OK. I don't judge. I really don't. In fact, if you are one of those people, I like hanging out with you because we get to talk about music and politics and beer and kids which is awesome! Most of these sorts of people I know have found communities elsewhere. However, I have never met a person who wouldn't have had their lives enriched or improved by belonging to some kind of congregation. Most of the people I know would be best fit into a liberal one.
Why don't they all go run off and join a church? The answer isn't as simple as busy lives and youth sports. There is other stuff going on. Much of it the church brought upon itself over the centuries. If you watched the first episode of Cosmos, for example, you know that religion hasn't always been that tolerant or, you know...liberal. People remember this. They remember their own experiences, too. Sometimes the biggest enemy of liberal church growth is other churches. We are not the same, but how would people who don't go to church know that?
Others just go on what they see in the media. News reports love the fundamentalist. It is so clear and easy to say "all churches believe X". Why bother with subtlety? Sitcoms, movies, books and TV dramas throw in a minister or dedicated layperson whenever they need some shorthand for intolerance or prudishness. Sometimes we are lovably uptight. Sometimes we are evil. Rarely are we depicted as the hero. Almost universally we are depicted at least as "squares". Perhaps shockingly, the hippest and coolest people I know are clergy and other church people. This isn't just because I am a minister, either. Believe me.
All this is just to lead up to one of the challenges we face. By "we" here I mean the liberal religious. It is a challenge that I face as a leader and pastor to a particular congregation. How do we welcome people who don't even know we exist? How to we bring people in not for the sake of the institution but for the sake of those very people? It is a struggle with no one answer. After all, what makes us strong is our diversity as well as our depth.
I read this article this morning. There are literally thousands like it on the web but for some reason it stuck with me. You should check it out. What do you think? If you go to a church, or synagogue or mosque (obviously the article is written from a Christian perspective, but many of the ideas have parallels in other faiths), does this approach make sense to you ? If you are not part of a faith community, does this look like the problem? Have you thought about joining a liberal congregation?
I would love to know what you think. If you have no thoughts to share, I would love for you to keep thinking about this issue. We are, after all, talking about the health and survival of the liberal voice in contemporary conversation.