Seventy-seven years ago, in 1945, a Unitarian minister named Everett Moore Baker said something. He was speaking to his church which happened to be on Cleveland’s East Side, First Unitarian. He said, “I believe that we have an obligation to make available to more people the religious ideals of our church. I believe that more people will recognize the direct connection between our kind of religious freedom and the individual freedom in democracy.”
His vision was to start a new Unitarian church on the other side of the Cuyahoga river.
His vision caught. Meetings in various people’s homes on the West Side took place. Momentum grew and grew. He and his Associate Minister Wayne Shuttee gave lectures at the Lakewood Community Center, and hundreds of folks showed up.
The eventual result was us, West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, born in 1947.
We were born from evangelism. Rev. Baker was an evangelist. Evangelism is why we exist. Evangelism is in our DNA.
That’s what I want to explore today. What evangelism might look like for us in 2022. The very real and important role it has to play in our Unitarian Universalist spiritual economy.
I know, the sermon’s title is “How Liberals Can Be Happier.” I promise you there’s a connection. Generally, when Unitarian Universalists think about evangelism, happiness really doesn’t come to mind. What comes instead might be memories of offensive moments, when a complete stranger presumes to know about your immortal destiny and forces some religious tract upon you, or worse.
What comes to mind might also be family members or friends who do know you, and they are sincerely worried for your soul, and their evangelism is more about scaring you into unthinking conformity with what they believe, vs. loving you as you are. They know they are applying force, but they imagine themselves as doctors administering necessary medicine, even though it might sting or taste awful. You, on the other hand, feel that their ministrations are wildly misguided, like they are trying to break your arm and your arm is just fine as it is.
There’s a reason why there’s a joke about Unitarian Universalists that starts with a question: What do you get when you cross a UU with a Mormon? Here are some possible answers:
Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.
Someone who knocks on your door to learn about your religion.
Someone who knocks on your door to offer you coffee.
Anything but an attempt to persuade someone that Unitarian Universalism is actually something special–something worth wanting.
Mormons do that sort of thing. But Unitarian Universalists?
Yes, Unitarian Universalists!
Rev. Baker did it. And we should too. We can also do it, I hasten to add, in a way that affirms our spiritual values. More on that in a moment.
Right now, begin with the thought of “community impact.” “Community impact.” Whatever church we’re talking about—of whatever theological persuasion—community impact must be a part of its collective vision. A church’s existence must somehow reduce people’s suffering in the surrounding community, together with increasing their joy. A church must do this, or it’s dead. It’s grown inward-oriented and insipid. It’s not vital and alive.
Now, the longtime trend in Unitarian Universalist churches has been to envision “community impact” as exclusively social justice-oriented. Social justice work happens in so many ways: through acts of charitable service; through educational events that raise awareness; through collaborative efforts with local service organizations; through marches and protests and other public witness events that seek to influence popular opinion; and through lobbying efforts to influence our elected representatives.
Social justice work keeps us busy, and that is a very good thing!
But what I want to say loudly and clearly is that this is only one side of the community impact coin. Somehow we Unitarian Universalists have come to think that it’s only when we are engaged in acts of justice work that we make an impact on the world. I think that is wrong. There’s a lot of suffering in our community that comes from simply not knowing that a church like our exists. There’s a lot of suffering that happens because people are missing out on participating, regularly, in what we have to offer.
What I’m sharing with you right now is a vision of a fully-developed program for community impact with two sides. One side takes the form of social justice work. The other side takes the form of spreading the Good News of Unitarian Universalism.
In other words: evangelism.
But what is the suffering I am talking about, that comes when people don’t know that a church like ours exists?
Loneliness. A sense of dissatisfaction. A sense of disempowerment. Despair.
This past Thanksgiving, I opened up The New York Times and saw an article entitled “How Liberals Can Be Happier” and I read this:
Quote: For many of us, the holidays offer a time of reflection. We look back at the year that’s passed and ahead to the year to come. Some ask a simple question: Am I happy?
That appears to be a more difficult question for liberals than for conservatives. It’s a puzzling but well-established finding: Conservatives are more likely than liberals to report they are happy.
Arthur Brooks of Harvard, for example, told us: “A lot of our happiness is out of our control, based on genetics and circumstances. But some of it we can control. It requires we invest in four things each day.” Those four things, he said, are “faith, family, friends and work in which we earn our success and serve others.”
The liberal-conservative happiness gap, then, may not be primarily about political ideology but rather connections to our country’s three core institutions. Self-identified liberals are less likely than conservatives, on average, to be tied to family, faith and community.
In a separate study of the conservative-liberal happiness gap, the psychologists Barry R. Schlenker, John Chambers and Bonnie explore liberal disengagement from family and faith. They note, “Liberals have become less happy over the last several decades, but this decline is associated with increasingly secular attitudes and actions (e.g., less religiosity, less likelihood of being married, and perhaps lessened belief in personal agency).”
Our research supports that view. In a recent YouGov survey for the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution, we found […] a full 26-point difference in religious attendance between these two groups: 18 percent of liberals said they could be found in a church, temple, synagogue or mosque at least once a month, compared to 44 percent of conservatives.
This view garners further support from the research on happiness. A Pew Research study, for instance, ties the Republican attainment of happiness advantage over Democrats in part to more marriage, greater family satisfaction and higher levels of religious attendance.
That’s some of the article, and from here it moves to its main point: how liberals can be happier. The answer?
Liberals seeking to improve their own lives might look to social institutions [of family and faith] as resources that can help lift life satisfaction.
But a soon as the article gives us this answer, it goes on to say that doing this might be harder than it sounds:
Quote: This would be a challenge, given that support for marriage and faith has dropped more in recent years among liberals than conservatives, and secularization has been concentrated among more left-leaning Americans. In other words, the very institutions that might improve liberals’ happiness are increasingly viewed negatively by liberals.
So: that’s The New York Times article I read this past Thanksgiving Day. Liberals suffer, it basically says, from disengagement with social institutions of family and faith. But such suffering will be hard to heal, since these exact same social institutions are “increasingly viewed negatively.”
Why this last part is so, the article never explicitly answers.
Pretty soon I came up with my own answer: Conservatives enjoy greater access to social institutions of family and faith because, in large part, they take traditional forms, and conservatives are ok with tradition. Liberals could have access to them too, but the liberal imagination about what these institutions could look like often assumes traditional forms, and liberals have outgrown those forms.
The New York Times article itself helps demonstrate this. It starts out talking about the social institution of family, but then, when it gets down to quoting statistics, it narrows down to the narrow variety of family that conforms to the conservative worldview: heterosexual marriage. That’s the sliver of family possibility that they grab hold of. And we know (or ought to know) that “family” can take so many other forms!
There is, in other words, a widespread tendency among most everyone to imagine the social institutions of family and faith in conservative terms. So, the liberal might find themselves saying: I can’t have a family (or take a phrase like “family values” seriously) because I don’t want anything to do with the traditional sort–saying this while all the time unconsciously assuming that only the traditional sort is valid.
Similarly, the liberal will say to themselves: I can’t have faith because I want nothing to do with the traditional sort—church just isn’t for me—saying this while all the time unconsciously assuming that only the traditional sort is valid.
Liberals so often know what they don’t like, but when pressed to say what they do like: they draw a blank.
But I don’t care what your political or theological leanings are. Everyone needs a family, where they are held in bonds of commitment and caring, whether it is biological or chosen or both. And everyone needs a faith community that rallies them to Love and Justice, and reminds them that they are more than their paycheck and they are more than their particular collection of social identities and they are more than their regrets—that beneath all of that, they are fundamentally Children of God, with inherent worth and dignity.
If people don’t have these needed and necessary things, there is loneliness, there is dissatisfaction, there is disempowerment, there is despair.
There is suffering.
Liberals out there are suffering.
I checked out the Pew Research Center to get more of a handle on the statistics. I found this, and I quote: In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.
Furthermore, the data shows a wide gap between older Americans (Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation) and Millennials in their levels of religious affiliation and attendance. Only about one-in-three Millennials say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month. Roughly two-thirds of Millennials (64%) attend worship services a few times a year or less often, including about four-in-ten who say they seldom or never go. Indeed, there are as many Millennials who say they “never” attend religious services (22%) as there are who say they go at least once a week (22%).
Liberals are suffering, especially younger ones.
And we can help. We are poised to help. We are a church most decidedly NOT in the conservative mold when it comes to definitions of valid family and faith, and we are committed to community impact which is about the reduction of suffering and the increase of joy.
What we can do—how we can serve—is through an evangelism that is simply a matter of expanding people’s imaginations about what is possible for family and what is possible for faith. To push back on the rigid conservative conceptions. To get out there and connect with the millions of liberals who don’t know that they don’t know about us. To reach out and say that, yes, the sort of church really does exist where “you don’t have to think alike to love alike.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve described my Unitarian Universalist church to people and the response is sheer astonishment. They are astonished. They never imagined that a church like that could be possible.
But it is possible.
We are the proof of that.
We must reach out, evangelically.
So, what might this look like for us, in 2022? Back in the 1940s, Rev. Baker and Rev. Shuttee started a new church that became us. In later decades, West Shore would pay it forward to start SouthWest UU Church in North Royalton.
My suggestion is not so much about that as simply the following:
Number 1: To stop a moment and truly wrap our minds around what a full program of community impact really is, and to acknowledge that social justice work in the world is not a viable membership growth strategy. It just isn’t. Intentional membership growth requires evangelism, which is its own kind of thing.
Number 2: To allow this expanded vision to invigorate us. To organize around it, develop an evangelism team, invest serious money in its work. If you are interested in starting an evangelism initiative here, reach out to me. Let’s get something started.
Number 3: To get busy. Don’t hang back until something more formal in the church is organized. Instead, take personally the thought that being a member of this church means that you are in a position to heal other people’s suffering by just letting them know we exist and we matter, and then inviting them to check us out. Those other people may be closer to us than we think: for example, our children. If you have children, you will bless their lives immeasurably by bringing them to church even if they complain about being bored. Bring them anyway. Make church-going a habit in their lives and you can feel good knowing that you are truly preventing a certain kind of suffering from happening to them.
Number 4. To erase all the old tapes about how to evangelize. To reimagine what this looks like. Absolutely, our way of sharing Unitarian Universalism can’t be about scaring people, or declaring that Unitarian Universalist is best in general (we are too modest for that), or daring to presume what is best for another person. But what we can share is this: how Unitarian Universalism has proven best for us. We Unitarian Universalists don’t shy away from recommending a favorite restaurant to others. Why can’t we recommend our favorite church to them also, and in the same spirit, as in: This is why I love West Shore, and you may love it too—check it out!
Let me say a bit more about this particular point. When sharing what you love about Unitarian Universalism, I suggest you avoid taking the “let me tell you everything there is to know” approach. That’s anxiety provoking, and people sense anxiety a mile away. Better to relax. Better to just offer a teaser or two that you are particularly fond of. The best is a personal story about something wonderful that came into your life because you belong to this place. Simple.
Also good is to mention a fact that’s distinctive about us and stands out, like our Seven Principles; or that we have a Flower Communion every year and no other church does that; or that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Fulghum (or some other famous person you love) are UUs; or this notable fact: that the classic story A Christmas Carol was written by a Unitarian, Charles Dickens, and his focus in that story on transformation and goodness and giving—which came straight out of his Unitarian faith—eventually changed the way people around the world came to celebrate Christmas. That’s right: the way pretty much most people celebrate Christmas today was powerfully influenced by Unitarianism.
Christmas is our holiday!
Ho ho ho people!
Again, our purpose in sharing Unitarian Universalism is to heal suffering and to increase joy. Let’s keep that priority ever before us. We want other people to know how powerfully we’ve experienced this faith—and perhaps they are in a place in life that makes them ready to receive. Perhaps. We can share it with the same graciousness as we would news about a fantastic restaurant, or a brilliant movie: without any heavy-handedness and only to say: it has brought wonderful things into my family and my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.
I want to close by looping back to this sermon’s title: “How Liberals Can Be Happier.” So far, I’ve pretty much talked about making other liberals happier, the liberals not already among us, the liberals who don’t know they don’t know about Unitarian Universalism.
But what about you and me: the liberals who are here?
What’s in it for our happiness?
I’ll let the Rev. Quillen Shinn speak to that. Quillen Shinn was one of our pre-eminent evangelists of the 19th century, credited with starting at least 40 congregations all across North America. Why did he do it? His answer: “In truth, no [person] knows the full joy of Universalism until he sends it to another; and, in fact, he cannot keep it for himself in its fullness, unless he is sending it abroad.”
In other words:
Joy that isn’t fully shared
Let the joy be fully shared!