What do you think churches should do?

While some of your favorite sites are down -- a very severe storm blew through metro Washington, D.C. last night, disabling an Amazon cloud computing center in the 'burbs -- let me ask a question that has been bothering me since the UUA General Assembly: just what do you think the purpose of a church is? Not the UUA, but the particular church. Opinions requested.

If you got a huge amount of money earmarked for Unitarian Universalism…

The pop news is buzzing about the current $540 million Mega Millions jackpot so many people hope to win. I don't play the lottery because the odds are stacked against you and the life stories of those who win never seem that happy. But in our imaginations, we can imagine that much fresh money arriving for Unitarian Universalism. Or not: perhaps that too would feed dysfunction.

But what might be done with another $54 million.

Or what might you accomplish with $5,400 to do something new? Or $540? $54? It seems to me you need a goal and a plan before the resources do any good. But what might that be?

A good (humanistic?) "sermon" with fish and loaves

Software Freedom Law Center executive director Eben Moglen lays it down about the freedom of ideas and the stewardship of human minds and the free access those minds need to information. Also, a fascinating review of the development of United States copyright law with respect to early immigration and religious freedom. (Made me think about proto-Universalist George de Benneville.)
Eben Moglen

"Eben Moglen on Origins of Copyright and Patents" (Oggcast, 2009) You may jump past the prolog and start listening at 4:13.

Do listen: a model of visioning for religious humanists and food for thought for producers of cultural goods (like preachers.)

Who's really central in the UUA?

After a quarter-century as a Unitarian Universalist, I can say with conviction that our largest problems have little to do with money or even membership, but with deep unresolved issue of identity. The continual plaints -- and curiously distributed -- circle about who is or is not welcome, with tones more fitting for a Dickensian workhouse door. Mewing and poormouthing is sure to bring a comfort SWAT team -- which even more obvious online -- which soothes the complaint but (1) doesn't discover if it was based in fact nor (2) does it resolve the underlying tension.

Nor do I intend to; indeed, I think the Ship of Simple Solutions sailed a long time ago.

The question I ask above -- Who's really central in the UUA? -- is quite literal and is a response to calls for selling the UUA's historic and central properties and finding other accommodation. One failed idea would have kept the offices in metro Boston, but other calls would have '25' move to the less-expensive middle of the country. I don't advocate for this, considering the disruption to staff and their experience, the doubtful cost savings and the loss of morale from a move (however framed) made from lack.

But I also like to fiddle with UUA data and want learn more about optimization and mapping. So using this method, I figured out the geographic center of the UUA membership. That optimal point, as the crow flies, for all UUA congregation members to meet up. Well, not all. I've only included the North American congregations and have excluded the non-local Church of the Larger Fellowship for obvious reasons. And the data's a year old. But that shouldn't put us too far off.

So where? A field outside of St. Anne, Illinois, about 75 miles due south of Chicago. (But I suppose Gary and South Bend are more economical options.)

Western Conference Unitarians are entitled to say "I told you so."

And that then would make the congregation at the center of the UUA the Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Park Forest, Illinois. Congratulations! (But is there room for 160,000-odd people for coffee?)

On curation

The historical approach to data the liberal churhes take -- certainly an approach I've seen in my own life -- begins and ends with collection. The liberal religionist is commonly described as a seeker, and the faithful life of such a seeker is to collect. Collect ideas about other religions, collect experiences, collect options and -- oh my back! -- collect books. Collect these things as proof of the endeavor, and perhaps even as a social marker to show you're moving up. (A feature of class re-location within Unitarian Universalism, but that's another subject.) The older concept was to distill the best of what you found and apply the finding as Good Living or Applied Ethics or Pure Christianity. The Capital Letters signal a Guiding Light. (Wait, that's also another subject.)

Today that's almost completely unraveled. The age of ministers who led that kind of thinking is (almost) gone. Postmodern thinking and identity politics makes it suspect, at least in our circles, though there are still feel-good preachers, lightly draped in historic Christianity but preaching Prosperity Gospel who show the power of the phenomenon. But it isn't ours.

Instead the collection feeds on itself, like an episode of Hoarders. For the better part of a generation, new Unitarian Universalist congregation have been expected to be collectors of collectors: an esoteric mass of esoteric seekers. In theory, this might be fine, provided there are the resources and leadership to let people grow and mature, but that would be a mammoth undertaking, even with the best planning. For years, new congregations have grown to peak at a scant few dozen members with little evidence of sustained on-site professional development help.  This model isn't working, and the failings are at the roots.

The new successful restaurants in D.C. have certain common themes: they're well-designed for ease of access, are inexpensive but are driven by volume and have stripped-down menus. If you don't want a hamburger or cupcake or rice bowl or frozen yogurt and you're at that kind of eatery, then you're out of luck.

When I think of good websites at which to learn or get information, I recall certain themes: they stick to a core offering, it's easy to register and other content is kept to a minimum. Good ones get talked up.

Both examples deal with curation, which I promised to speak on. I suspect the role of religious leadership is no longer to stack the rafters with great ideas, but to project a compelling religious vision, and guide people through that vision as cleanly as possible.

It isn't your responsibly to illumine every side-path or option. Your responsibility is to keep the main path clear and guide as many people as ably and well as possible through it, while respecting their overburdened calendars and wallets. It's your responsibility to talk down junk and uplift mature ideas. Preach a gospel, be able to describe it in simple terms, defend it and stick to it.

If that means two or three Unitarian Universalist congregations in close quarters with different -- even conflicting visions -- so much the better. People will figure out there they need to be.


Welcome baby â„– 7,000,000,000

So, the seventh billion human being alive was born today -- more or less -- the U.S. Census estimates the world will reach seven billion next March. Not much of a difference to me.

There were just over half that many when I was born, and in four decades time there could easily be more than nine billion.

Even if one is skeptical about human-generated climate change, peak oil or environmental degradation, just the amazing heft of that many people demanding the current level of resources seems an improbable effort with that many more people. And shouldn't the poorest and most vulnerable reasonably demand easier and more reliable access to food and water? energy and communication? housing and just government? education and health care? And just plain old peace?

Orienting resources and talent to this problem seem like key questions -- and questions that persons of faith should take seriously. An aesthetic or esoteric faith fails morally when it treats the welfare of billions as an added optional extra.

The language of faith cries to be free

In the open-source software world, advocates make a distinction between "free as in beer" and "free as in freedom." While free (of cost) beer is nice, the freedom to share, modify, extract and even profit from (depending on the license) is truly precious, and has allowed an ecosystem to develop around not only software but cultural and (a favorite) other projects. Even beer.

But Christians I've read, looking towards the same phenomenon have used another similie: "free as in grace." This suggests an alternative to free in economic, practical, intellectual or utilitarian terms. If something is compellingly true, and has its origins apart from human initiative -- let me put that out there tentatively -- then that truth demands cooperation of those who hear it to liberate it for the sake of liberation. So, I think of evangelistic tracts which long before free culture movements have been distributed "free as the Lord provides." (Free here being largely financial, but the fact the sponsor comes from the Free Churches isn't lost on me.)

But see also of the Jewish liturgical Open Siddur movement. Or the DVD I picked up yesterday at a Chinese grocery -- and is the proximate reason for this blog post -- from a Buddhist mission. (Alas, the videos seem to be of a monk speaking one language I don't understand, and subtitled with a different language I don't understand.)

There's not much English on the case. But I can read "For Free Distribution -- No Copyright."  And that's a good enough reason for me to take it back so someone else can profit by it.

I've written on this subject several times, please consider reading

The prospect of appealing humanism

It's become quite the rage for non-theist, anti-theist and (so-called) freethought movements to use public advertising -- say, on buses or in the subway system; this is certainly true here in Washington -- to make their case.

I just wish it was a better case, which to my Christian ears sounds a lot like "You can be good without having an adolescent's view of God." Far from edgy or patently true, these ads seem -- well -- smug or petulant, as if the image of the cranky, smug, petulant atheist didn't get enough play.

And that's all well and good if your goal is stronger church-state separation, say, but if the goal is to be an appealing option to inherited religiosity or brunch culture, it needs to have a story and a way for persons to identify with it.

In short, dust off a copy of the long version of Cosmos. While it's three decades old, Carl Sagan et alia has done a better job than anyone I can think of to sidestep the question of God -- the right approach -- and posit the idea of being human in the "forty thousand generations" of human development, and then to place our world in the context of a fascinating and almost unimaginably large universe.

It's still quite thrilling -- and a meaningful humanism -- and available through the instant view service of Netflix, if you're a subscriber.

How to make a radical Christian

A fair point, with the fearmongering about radical Muslims in full tilt.

You could start by reading Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You. (text, Project Gutenberg) It stands in a thread of radical Christian discipleship that reaches before Tolstoy to Universalist minister Adin Ballou -- a point of pride -- and afterwards to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who each made non-violent resistance a household word. (Well, a household compound word.)

And it takes some cool, deliberate, principled and sacrificial action when you think of what went on in Congress today. Millions of American Muslims are pilloried for actions of a tiny handful. Such grim attention --  a cultivated double-standard -- persons of other faiths don't have to suffer.

Pilloried by Representative Peter King, a man who has defended terrorist organizations when it suited him. For shame.

Good Muslim friends: others can see through this cruel folly.

Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent

I wrote this three years ago, and on March 1, 2014 -- for some reason, perhaps Google searches -- it was the number one item read here. So I thought I'd give it some attention.

I'll keep this short.

I have a maxim I live by: if something you desire or rely-on continues to fail you, hurt you or inhibit you, get rid of it. The initial pain is nothing like the eventual relief. A collorary: you can't change some situations, and eventually you'll wonder why you thought you could.

I keep running into this phenomenon with Unitarian Universalists, in no small part because there's so little choice. Most areas have a single Unitarian Universalist church. There's only one functioning denomination (and a few independent movements, which I shall discuss in coming weeks) and its theological breadth seems narrower than when I joined my first church some quarter-century ago. There's an implied bargain: accept the status quo, or leave. But don't you dare make a fuss on the way out. Certainly, on the Christian end, the United Church of Christ has been the winner in that bargain.

I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship -- and this is the first time I've mentioned this in public -- because it was the only game and I had fond memories and friendships, but I let my membership lapse because its offerings were skimpy and quietist, and its direction haphazard. I let my membership in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association lapse because its programming was never directed toward my professional needs or station, never offered meaningful services, not to mention being shockingly expensive. And I'm more-than-usually weary of the Unitarian Universalist Association itself because it confuses busyness with services, and the current leadership -- well, some -- is engaged in a power-centralizing campaign. Monopoly, with appeals to emotional and professional dependence (perhaps not so much with the UUCF), makes for a bad bargain at the grassroots. If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I'll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave. I didn't come to Unitarianism or Universalism for its threadbare institutions or the opportunity to conform.

I still think we can do better. But not if there's some existential fear that, without current Unitarian Universalist institutions -- I'm thinking of the appeals surrounding Meadville-Lombard, but not exclusively -- the whole movement will drift into the Void. Indeed, I think we would fare well without some. Call it a Lenten meditation on self-reliance, and to a degree, self-respect. We can do better.

And I gather some people have figured this out, when I read Bill Baar's comment in a recent blog post where he states that "I'm aware [that some districts] are contemplating a life post UUA." Or when I read Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Elz Curtiss in the comment following or at her blog, Politywonk, lay out the moral and historical situation from the Unitarian side.

Just keep telling yourself we can do better and remember it needn't be with what we have now.