If I’ve learned anything from serving and visiting several congregations, it is that survival is not a mission. Religious institutions either have a saving message or they don’t. They know why they exist or they don’t.
When I see a thriving congregation, I see one that is continually asking itself why it exists at all. Why pay the electric bill? Why shell out cash for bricks and mortar? Why be located here rather than there? What need do we fill?
For Christian churches, the foundational mission is getting the good news of Christ out to the suffering. For Unitarian Universalist congregations, the mission is getting the good news that there are other ways of being out to the suffering. But this is an abstraction. The mission is somewhere in words such as “community.” “Celebration.” “Transformation”—of self and the planet.
The Principles of Unitarian Universalism require us to concretize our commitments to the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion for all; and that free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Good mission, difficult to concretize.
All those commitments muddy the waters, and the people roam hither and thither, repeating their mission like a mantra, until it is meaningless. Focus!
A humanist congregation such as the one I serve, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, has a slightly different mission. We must bridge the gap between the religious and secular worlds, working in both an increasingly multi-faith nation and an increasingly secular nation. But, still, the foundation is community and celebration and transformation.An explicitly humanist congregation must get out the good news that meaning and purpose lie in embracing reason, science, and the humanities. Yet we have to leave space for all those alternatives out there.
A humanist congregation provides a safe place to share dangerous ideas: Is meaning and purpose up to us? Can humanity solve the problems we create? Is “god” a complex answer to a simple question?
Community implies rites and rituals to mark life’s pattern, but it also focuses a number of people in the work of creating justice for the planet and all its creatures. A congregation works at both the micro level—the individual—and the macro level—the complex reality of the earth and its cultures.
Survival is not a mission. Religious institutions either have a saving message or they don’t. They know why they exist or they don’t.
Scrambling to keep up with the changes in culture and demographics is not enough. That’s method, not mission. No mantras, just some clear thinking.