Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Post-Denominational World

Another interesting question from the UUA staff:

Are we entering a “post-denominational” world? What does that mean for our
faith as it relates to our Association?

It seems to me that our current religious landscape  (no "entering" about this.  It's here) is a landscape where very few people (and almost all over age 60) care about the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Disciples and Northern Baptists.   Nor do they care much about the differences between Southern Baptists and other conservative denominations like the Church of God.  The Protestant landscape, it seems to me, has been reduced to the "Bible Believers" and the "Bible Interpretors", with the Episcopalians and Catholics standing a bit outside.  (I know that Bibles Belivers do interpret.  But they don't think they do.)

There are only a few UU churches who fit into this mash-up, and I don't think it is in our best interest to pretend that we do.  I totally get it why you don't find a denominational label on the Willow Creek Megachurch.  Their constituents don't care.   They are a bible believing Christian church; that's all that matters.

Most UU churches, it seems to me, benefit from being much more forthcoming about their denominational label.  Ours does signify something unique.  Now, I'm all for our new churches having more contemporary sounding names than "First Unitarian Universalist", which is way too long anyway.  But it's my humble opinion that we are best served by keeping our denominational affiliation as a second line.

When it comes to ministry and post-denominationalism, I think it is all to the good that many of our ministers are educated in "Bible Interpreter" seminaries.  I was myself, and it was a rich experience.  As a "stay inner" UU, it gave me an important opportunity to understand the religious landscape so many UU's come from.  I taught me a lot about what makes us unique and in what ways we are just the same as everybody else.   I believe that new ministers who are less steeped in UU culture do better in our denominational seminaries.  But these days, most people make these decisions based on geography and financial aid.  That's a reality we are not going to change.


Robin said...

I am admittedly a UU seminarian at a non-UU Bible-interpreting seminary, but I do believe our refusal to interpret the Bible any more (much less believe in it) makes us increasingly more irrelevant in a post-denominational world. It leaves us with--well--only a denomination. Which doesn't really work considering we are an association of congregations (and not a denomination at all). Our ancestors were anti-doctrinal because doctrines were extra-biblical. Our ancestors were anti-denomination because a denomination could so easily corrupt the word of God. I acknowledge that these days we operate more like a denomination now that we don't have a hermeneutic nor a text to interpret, but if we are living in a post-denominational reality, where does that leave us? Post-UU?

PeaceBang said...

Thanks, Robin. That's exactly what I was wondering.

Cynthia L. Landrum said...

I don't see us as refusing to interpret the Bible, Robin, so I can't agree with what follows from that premise.

Christine, I think you're right on. I think in a post-denominational world, if we're in such, UUism has more relevance than ever. We're in a multi-cultural, interfaith world, and we're doing the work of growing a multi-cultural interfaith movement. And if we can get the message out that we're something different, our branding ourselves makes sense. The problem is that most people hear "Unitarian Universalist" and think "oh, another Christian denomination" not realizing how out-of-the-box we are. And in a post-denominational world, being seen as just another denomination isn't helpful.

Cynthia L. Landrum said...

(Spent Easter Sunday doing some real Biblical interpretation laying out just what makes liberal Christianity so different. And my Christians & Humanists all seemed to love it. They're hungry for it. We've co-hosted the Jesus Seminar a few times, too, and again the folks here are jazzed about that work, as well as non-Christian aspects of UUism.)

RevEliot said...

I like your interpretation Christine. However, the question I must live with is slightly different. As someone who serves a church that definitely does fit into the Christian "mash-up" I wonder what this means for us.

If the UUA does continue to label itself as something "other" (which it may have to do, I'm not judging here) where does that leave UU Christian churches?

Joel Monka said...

Cynthia said, "The problem is that most people hear "Unitarian Universalist" and think "oh, another Christian denomination" not realizing how out-of-the-box we are." I couldn't disagree more. I don't know ANYONE who has actually heard of us who considers us a Christian denomination! In fact, we're famous for NOT being recognised by other churches as Christian; we're talked about in popular culture as not being Christian, and I don't mean just by Garrison Keilor. Here's a piece about us from the September 1972 Mad Magazine article, A Primer On Religion In America":
Chapter 8 The Minister
This is a Baptist Minister.
He is delivering a sermon.
It is a very important sermon.
It is all about non-religious people.
He tells about people who worship idols.
He calls them Paganists.
He tells them about people who aren't sure there is a God.
He calls them Agnostics.
He tells about the worst people of all.
People who don't believe there's a God.
People who are threatening to destroy religion as we know it.
He calls them Unitarians!

Jiun said...

This is an intriguing discussion! It seems clear that there are UU ministers and congregations that are "Bible Believers" (however few), some that are "Bible interpreters" (sounds like the majority), and some that are "Bible no-thank-you-ists" (I needed a term and non-biblical didn't sound as awkward)... and some congregations that are a mix, and you're trying to find a way to make them all welcome, and keep the "UU Brand" somewhat meaningful to the outside world.

Big job. Tough job.

Wish you the very best of luck!

Robin said...

Cynthia, I was responding to this post by Rev. Robinson, which said that UUs are not bible believers, nor bible interpreters (and that we are somehow outside that binary or "unique"). I agree with you that we are (or should be) in the Bible interpreter camp. If we don't reclaim our rightful place in Protestantism (we are so protestant we have managed to protest ourselves out of Christianity), I do believe we will die.

Robin said...

One more question: in a post-denominational world, does a "brand" or being "unique" matter? I'm a life-long UU who is sick of being unique. I just need a place that welcomes all to worship God and serve my neighbor. I need that place to have good worship, and a good mission. That's all the "unique" one needs these days, since good worship and good mission are hard enough to find. And novelty doesn't make for good worship, in my humble opinion.

Jiun said...

Robin, what if your congregation isn't interested in worshiping god, doesn't consider the Bible to be all that relevant (outside of a few spicy stories here and there), and would be horrified at the thought of being called "protestant?"

Do they still get to be UU's too?

Robin said...

I don't know. To tell you the truth, I don't really understand why they would want to be, to be honest. And I grew up in a congregation like that.

RevEliot said...

This is an interesting conversation...

I just want to clarify one point in my own case lest Jiun think the church I serve is in the "Bible Believer" camp.

The interpreters to my mind include a large portion of the Christian faith. The congregation I serve is UU and United Church of Christ (UCC) definitely interpreters. I assumed that Christine's Bible Believers are those who apporach the scripture with more of a literalist bent. I am not sure you would find that approach in the liberal church writ large, much less in the UU Christian churches...

Cynthia L. Landrum said...

@Joel, I can't count the number of times people have thought we were the same as Unity. Or the number of times people just said, "What's that?" People who haven't heard of us just hear "church" and assume church=Christian. I guess the difference is when you say "who has actually heard of us" and I'm talking about people who haven't.

@Robin, I think we need to stay in the business of interpreting the Bible, but that's not our only business. I'm also a life-long UU, and if we weren't this unique blend of Christians and non-Christians, I wouldn't be interested. I'd be glad if we weren't unique if it meant that others had joined us in this place of inclusive theology. It's not the uniqueness that's important, it's what it represents, which right now is a fairly unique place in the larger culture.

Stephan said...

I think you are right, Christine; those who have a general Christian identity do not need to make a point of it; we are a little different and do need to establish some particular identity or be lost in a branded world.