Representing UUism … I think

I’m gearing up to be a guest on a local radio program (on a low-power local station that says–on the side, of course–we have ‘tens’ of listeners at any given time) to represent the Unitarian Universalist point of view. With me will be the minister from my home congregation and perhaps a member or two of the congregation. I’m a little worried about how I represent to those ‘tens’ of listeners. We live in an area where there are most likely at least two hundred people who might attend a UU church if it were a) convenient, and b) religious.

There is only one UU church in this region and we are it. Since I started attending nearly 9 years ago, our population has changed quite a bit–in faces but not in numbers. I live 20 minutes from the church in a community that has a church on every corner downtown, as well as a number of very large churches cropping up on the edges of town (where more property is available) and in the surrounding areas.  Heck, there’s even a Baptist church in my own backyard. There is a private religious university in the town I live in and a number of different churches in that denomination.

People in this area want to attend church. They want to worship and they want to contribute to a vision of a better, kinder community.  Doesn’t that sound like the kind of place where Unitarian Universalism ought to flourish?

We are having a visitors Sundays service this weekend (there’s also a weather warning so I wonder how that will impact our turn-out), which is being urged by our membership committee.  As well-meaning as they are, I think we are not ready for this right now. I don’t know what our congregation has to offer these people other than warm hospitality–which we are pretty good at.

I joined the worship committee a few years ago because I felt that our services were anything but worship. I wanted a little more reverence, a little more pomp and certainly some circumstance. It was a blessing that when I walked onto the committee, I was met with a group of people who felt the same and were scrabbling with ideas to create a more dignified (is that the word I’m looking for?), more complex, more challenging and yet more sustaining worship experience, especially with regard to those 30 Sundays each year which are lay-or guest-speaker led.  We have made great strides, together, I think. And yet….

I’m not inviting anyone to visitor’s Sunday … on purpose. Those people who I know to be UU in their heart of hearts (the ones that tell me, as the host of the program I’m about to be on said, “I’m probably more in line with you guys, but I’ve found a place I can make a difference at the church I currently attend”), are not interested in driving 20 minutes to worship. Many of them are like the host I just mentioned, not looking for creed or dogma, but looking to do good work, to help, to create the beloved community. And so, they attend church where they are because it is a close fit and they have found a way to make it work for them. The gentleman who will interview us on Monday goes to his church, sleeps through the sermon, but keeps going because they let him build houses each year for Habitat. This is where and how he worships.

Our church isn’t ready to receive this type of UU in a non-UU church. We aren’t walking the talk … yet.  And, until we can talk the talk that motivates us to walk the walk, I fear we will continue to peak people’s interest, but not keep them returning to our church.

Another person I know to be a UU at heart attended our church a few Sundays and even attended our first-hour adult discussion group.  When I asked her why she wasn’t interested she said what I’d been feeling for some time: “I never really understood what you all were worshipping during the worship service.” 

So, if we aren’t ready to give voice to what we worship and we aren’t ready to give back to the larger community, what is there to attract all those people in this area who long to be involved in religious life–both in worship and in service?

Responses would be appreciated, but, honestly, I’m just thinking out loud and wondering, just wondering, if there is anyone else out there grappling with similar questions.


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4 Responses to Representing UUism … I think

  1. uuMomma says:

    Wow. Just wow. Thanks to all of you for something to ponder. Thank you, Rev. Welles for your insight. And Paul, for linking me with this question on your blog. And lgh–that was fantastic. I have been saying that I use God for shorthand for what I worship because it satisfies people, easily, without me having to define it in language that will never even come close. But, lgh, you have come as close to describing it as anything I have seen thus far.



  2. lgh says:

    Here’s what I said about worship some time ago:

    It is a difficult question to address, along with the “how do I invite people to pray” question, because of our diversity. One UU minister I know once said “we just have to get over this aversion to the word god and grow up.” Maybe. But, then, does that mean all the UUs who are non-theist have to decamp? I don’t have a good answer to that, so I’ll just keep muddling along…


  3. Perhaps the answer can come from the definition of “worship”. Here’s one set I found via Google …

    # idolize: love unquestioningly and uncritically or to excess; venerate as an idol; “Many teenagers idolized the Beatles”
    # show devotion to (a deity); “Many Hindus worship Shiva”
    # the activity of worshipping
    # attend religious services; “They worship in the traditional manner”
    # a feeling of profound love and admiration

    I’d personally throw out the “idolize” one, and the “a deity” part of the second one. Perhaps you can make something out of the “profound love and admiration”.


  4. Judy Welles says:

    I grapple with these questions constantly, and I’m a UU minister. My congregation is warm and wonderful, we are growing slowly but steadily, things basically are going well. But I find myself wondering what our newcomers perceive or assume about what or whom we worship. It varies from week to week, but there are some weeks when it seems clear to me that what we are worshiping is our own community.

    You know how multi-faceted a UU congregation is likely to be. You know that not everything that is said in one service is going to ring everyone’s chimes. So when we offer a prayer (introduced with the words “Will you pray with me?”), I know that some in the congregatin are thinking “No, I certainly won’t” while others are thinking “Thank God she invited me!” Frankly, I can’t say truthfully that when I lead worship, it is worship of God. But I don’t think it needs to be in order for people to experience grace, love, comfort… whatever it is they came to church in search of.

    One thing that seems to work for us is to have pauses and periods of silence in our services. We UU’s are so word-obsessed; I think the words get in the way of the spirit sometimes. We have some former Quakers in our congregation who have said to us “Too many words!” We neeed some silence.” People need some time in silence to settle down, open their hearts, and experience the aforementioned grace, love, comfort, etc. A congregation can learn to experience silence for a fairly long time with some practice, and with a courageous worship leader who extends the silence a bit past the common comfort level week after week until people get it.

    Although I continue to invite people into prayer when it is a prayer I’m about to offer, I also invite people into silence by saying “Let us give one another the gift of silence for a while.”

    Good luck. Keep trying.


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