Beyond the Old Church Model

Liberal religion is not an institution; it is a movement in history, a set of values and a way of life.”  Dana McLean Greeley proclaimed those words as the opening statement to “The Free Church in a Changing World” in 1963.  The report, written by several Commissions of the recently formed Unitarian Universalist Association, reflects on the role of tradition, the free spirit, and leadership during a time of rapid change.

Today the digital revolution is changing how people connect, collaborate, learn, protest, and make decisions about our lives.  While bringing people together in new ways, the population of the United States is more socially isolated than ever before in human history.[i]  Jobs, education, family structures, and systems which once seemed solid are in the midst of flux.

Unitarian Universalist communities are remarkably suited to engage with the issues of our times.  The liberal religious values of acceptance, justice, equity, compassion, and use of the democratic process require our constant care and practice in the Sanctuary, on the streets, and through new media.  This is a critical time for us to be bold in creating new initiatives beyond the old church model.

In order for our religious movement to thrive in the digital age, we need to embrace the tools of our time and the collaborations they allow.  Social media, online video, and other web technologies are allowing new forms of community, education, and activism to emerge.  With instant access to friends, information, and media of every kind, the digital is increasingly appealing, engaging, and relevant.  Instead of waiting for newcomers to find and visit us, we have the ability, and now a calling, to meet them where they are, and that is online.  Increasingly, online connections are the first step toward real-life gatherings and community-building.

Expanding our ministry more fully into online spaces is a massive undertaking.  Many ministers and religious educators do not have expertise in these new technologies.  Fortunately, the communication tools that call us forward into the future also enable us to collaborate in new and exciting ways.  We do not need to do this alone.  Given the scope of the challenge, we probably cannot do this alone.

What is the greatest challenge for Unitarian Universalist leaders?  It is not the ministry landscape opening up before us—we are perfectly suited for it.  Rather, it is our long established patterns of working and ministering in isolation, of not living out the promise of our association.  In order for our religious movement to thrive in the next decade and beyond, Unitarian Universalists must be more generous in sharing resources with one another, collaborating in new ways, and creating ministries beyond our front doors.  Only then can we be true to our shared vision of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

[i] Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades. Author: Miller McPherson, Lynn SmithLovin, Matthew E. Brashears, American Sociological Review © 2006

5 thoughts on “Beyond the Old Church Model

  1. Ron Stevens says:

    Great points, Amy! I think one of the obstacles is there in the first sentence… coming to think of UU as a “movement” instead of an institutional association of diverse congregations. Possibly the beginning of that process will need to be a coming to terms with what the “free church” really is, or rather, what a mature and genuine freedom really is, and what are our mutual expectations within a freedom-enabled faith community*. The current conversation about “congregations and beyond” hopefully will bring us to a better appreciation for the differences between the institution and the movement. It may eventually require some form of “extra-UUA” think-tank and/or public relations effort to give some degree of coordination and evangelistic impetus to such a free-church movement.

    (*Mark Morrison-Reed tackled this very well, I think, in a recent interview: )

  2. Rev Paul Beckel says:

    Amy writes: “…it is our long established patterns of working and ministering in isolation…”

    I concur, and I confess: I am a minister, a public speaker and public figure…but I am an introvert and when I was a kid I imagined myself as a “one-man-band.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a person like me was attracted to our movement. Happily there are a lot of people NOT like me here too…but I and many others will need to stretch our comfort zones to be increasingly hospitable and effective in ministry in an increasingly connected ministry zone (Earth).

    Maybe I will be able to think of this stretching as a spiritual discipline.

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