From One Chalice to Another

This month, June 2017, has marked 20 years since my first mission trip to Brazil. I’ve been reflecting lately on how a certain symbol remains important for me, even though my theological and denominational outlook has changed considerably over the past two decades. 

In 1995 I joined First Christian Church in Moberly, Missouri. This is a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, the mainline branch of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. I joined by transfer from a non-denominational church in the rural area where I grew up. The symbol of the CCDOC is a red chalice with St. Andrew’s cross, representing the denomination’s practice of weekly communion (aka ‘Lord’s supper’) as well as the Scottish Presbyterian background of some of the founders of the movement. When I was received into membership I was given a lapel pin with this symbol on it.

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First Christian Church of Moberly was one of my supporting congregations when I first went to Brazil on a mission internship in 1997. It was one of around 10 congregations of varied denominational backgrounds that chipped in to make that fateful first trip possible. Wearing the chalice pin on my jacket lapel for the duration of my short-term mission service served as a tangible connection for me to my home congregation. So, imagine my chagrin when, one day, one of my fellow mission interns looked at my lapel and mentioned liking my ‘little martini glass.’ I was annoyed. 

In retrospect, this incident reminds me that what can be a meaningful and even powerful symbol for one person can be essentially meaningless for someone else. 

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That second chalice, just above, is the new one in my life. Like the chalice lapel pin I received earlier in life when I joined a church, this chalice was given to me when I signed the membership book at

Beacon UU in Summit, NJThe flaming chalice is a symbol of Unitarian Universalism. In my home congregation we light the chalice each Sunday as services begin, putting it out at the close. This is a practice shared by many UU congregations, as well as by some Unitarian groups around the world. The symbol was originally created to represent the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee during WWII, and over the years it has been adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations.

I’ve entered a new chapter of my life, and it feels like I’m really starting over with a new fellowship, but at least some of the symbolism is familiar. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, though, I wonder if I’ll always miss my previous affiliation.

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Shrinking Churches and Part-Time Ministers

As I see it, movements grow well with charismatic leaders regardless of their level of education, while on the congregational/parish level a certain level of professionalism is required for long-term sustainability. It is primarily for this reason that I sincerely doubt that the vague excitement I see in mainline Protestant and Unitarian Universalist circles around ‘lay-led’ congregations is warranted. 

In my time among Christian Churches and Churches of Christ I encountered plenty of congregations that were ‘lay-led.’ In some cases these were relatively new churches that formed when a core group of people came together around a shared vision. Most of the time these were not new churches, but rather the ‘faithful remnant’ of congregations that declined due to internal strife, demographic change in the neighborhood, or the failure to bring in a new generation. Although many such little churches I visited were good-hearted and earnest, they were all just barely treading water in terms of growth.

Another model that perhaps holds more promise is that of the part-time minister. I’ve long been an advocate of bivocational ministry, although there are drawbacks. Bivocational ministers serve a religious community and also support themselves with another job. For such a scenario to work, more of the burden of ministry has to be shifted to members than would be usual in full-time ministry situations. If this does not happen, the bivocational minister risks burnout, and the congregation will not make any real progress (it might even lose ground).

The video below provides a glimpse of a small mainline parish hanging on with a ‘mutual ministry’ model that includes a part-time minister. Whether such efforts will pay off in the long run remains to be seen, but for shrinking congregations, few other options appear to be available.

Launching New Unitarian Universalist Communities

Several years ago I was catching up with an old friend, and he told me about how he and his wife and joined with a few others in investigating the possibility of starting a new congregation. They were conservative evangelicals, and as word got out about their interest, church planting ministries actually started approaching them (rather than the other way around). Some had detailed statements of faith and a number of strings attached to the money, while others sought only affirmation of a few core tenets of Christianity. My friend said he was surprised by just how many church planting ministries are out there, and how much money they seem to have. I’ve thought about that conversation from time to time, and wondered what it would be like if mainline Protestant churches, Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Ethical Societies spent as much time, money, and energy on extension programs. I was pleased recently to learn that a group calling itself ’Launchpad’ has undertaken to raise funds to promote Unitarian Universalism.

They plan to:

  1. Develop new Unitarian Universalist communities in small-town East Tennessee
  2. Organize a dynamic new Unitarian Universalist community in urban Atlanta
  3. Build a strategic model for further developments all over the country

They have raised a bit more than the $15,000 they were seeking, which is really great, but that number still seems low to me. It seems like that money will be spread pretty thin.

Personally, I’d love to see something similar come together to promote specifically non-theistic communities, like Ethical Societies or Unitarian Universalist Humanist congregations. In any case, check out the promotional video for Launchpad below.

Christianity Is Wasted On The Young

The title of this post is a little misleading, but hopefully it will make sense very shortly. 

If you’ve read my blog for very long you should already know that I enjoy the academic study of the Bible, and that I also enjoy working with it creatively. You should also know that I’m a Unitarian Universalist Humanist who understands the very human origins of the Bible. Earlier on, one of my concerns with being involved in Sunday Assembly was that – as is also the case with Oasis and Ethical Culture – regular quoting of the Bible from the lectern would not be welcome. I wasn’t sure how important that would be to me in the long run, but knowing that I intend to eventually return to full-time ministry, I didn’t like the thought of having that restriction placed on me. So, with all that, it might seem a contradiction to some that I think it’s a bad idea for Unitarian Universalist congregations to adopt elements of Christianity in an attempt to be more ‘welcoming’ to theists. 

In ‘My Visit to The Land of Teenagers,’ Rev David Gushee writes about an experience he had spending a week on retreat with the youth group of his Baptist church. His observations, some of which I’ll share here, correspond to what we’ve already been hearing from those who study demographics and trends. The new generations coming up know less and less about the Bible and have a far weaker connection to any religious tradition than their parents or grandparents did in their youth. 

On the religious front, of the two dozen kids on our retreat, I asked, and only about half expressed any real familiarity with the Bible prior to the retreat. Some of the kids who admitted lack of familiarity had grown up in church, but apparently hadn’t been taught much. But to the credit of our church kids, they also brought a bunch of friends with them who had no religious background or experience.

The Bible isn’t an easy text to dig into. It’s actually 66 ‘books’ which were written, edited, re-edited, organized into chapters and verses, then copied and re-copied before being translated into modern languages. There are contradictions and interpolations, but also clear affirmations of genocide, misogyny, homophobia, and slavery. All this makes for a challenging read, to say the least. Those who undertake to peruse the whole thing and manage to do so often find themselves leaving religion behind as a result. Many, however, read through eyes of faith and overlook or explain away what offends or confuses. With kids today, I think the former is a far more likely result than the latter.

At least for the South, this feels new to me: the completely “unchurched” kid, with no community, family, or cultural force giving them any familiarity with the Bible or Christianity at all. So as I was trying to teach a Bible overview in five sessions, I had to adjust on the fly and start almost entirely from scratch: Here is how the Bible is organized, here is how the system of book/chapter/verse works, here are the main sections of the Bible, here’s the whole Israel and the Church thing, etc.

Rev. Gushie tackles this ‘problem’ of scriptural illiteracy from the perspective of someone who values the Bible and believes that knowledge of it enhances life (as well as offers eternal salvation). For him it’s an issue of working out how to convey the contents of this book, along with certain interpretations, to a new generation that’s more about memes than scripture memorization.

So those of us attempting to communicate Christian faith to a new generation are facing a situation where Christianity is for a majority no longer the “language spoken at home.”  Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, and the meme of the week are this generation’s native language, while everything else is a second or third language.

This observation is precisely the sort of thing that Robert Sloan lamented in his ‘But if Not: The Miracle of The Dunkirk.’ In it, he argues that in prior generations knowledge of the Bible was so common that quoting only a few words were enough to convey a message. What he failed to understand, though likely he wouldn’t care, was that the generations now alive on the earth do share common elements of literature, art, and culture in general that can be referenced to quickly communicate ideas. For those the age of my teenage children, memes fill that gap quite nicely.

Over the brief couple of years I’ve been associated with Unitarian Universalism I’ve heard and read comments to the effect that congregations should be embracing ‘the language of reverence’ and some elements of Christian worship in order to be more accessible and welcoming to theists. This attitude is frankly baffling to me, given what I see in younger people nowadays. 

The Christian churches have to struggle to educate their increasingly skeptical and disinterested youth on the contents and meaning of the Bible in order to pass along the faith. Fewer and fewer kids are buying it, leaving church behind as soon as they head off to college and frequently not returning even when they later start their own families. Why bother with an organization that is antiquated and irrelevant? While Unitarian Universalism hasn’t exactly been growing exponentially, at least it is not inhibited by a requirement to cite a particular text or a static tradition.

Let me state it all again, hopefully making it more clear:

Adopting Christian forms or faith within Unitarian Universalism in order to grow and be of genuine influence would be counterproductive because today’s youth knows less than previous generations about the Bible and would require extra teaching to get the idea and to be shown any relevance, while instead memes and contemporary music are most meaningful to them. This is an obstacle for Christian churches but not for UU congregations.

There are, of course, UU congregations that maintain a historic tie to Christianity. That is their right, and I believe they can be successful in fulfilling their missions. Like their mainline and evangelical counterparts, UU Christian churches will need to explore betters ways to communicate biblical content and messages. In the meantime, other UU congregations can pursue a more humanistic path with broader appeal.

UUism has access to all art, literature, history, and science. It can speak through contemporary cultural forms a message of human rights, social and scientific progress, inclusion, affirmation, and community. As for style, we can do even better than the contemporary evangelical churches with their praise bands. Like Sunday Assembly, we can sing and celebrate the music of this generation and those that came before, finding in them expressions of our shared human values and experience.

If we want to welcome along the younger generation along with the rest of us, we should speak the language of our common, shared culture. It’s that or join the mainline and evangelical denomination in their desperate march toward insignificance.

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NYC Pride 2017

If you had told me 10 years ago that I would go to hear Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, preach before then marching in a Pride Parade, I would have furiously denied the possibility of any such thing ever coming to pass. And yet, there I was yesterday. 

My teenage son asked me a few weeks ago if I could take him to a Pride parade in New Jersey where we live, but he asked at the last minute and there was no way that was happening. I offered instead to take him to Pride in NYC at the end of the month, and he gladly accepted. Though he brought along his camera and took quite a few pictures, what I share here are just a couple I took with my phone.

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The scene above is from Bishop Gene Robinson preaching. There was a scripture reading prior, and his homily talked about the lame man who was healed and then made his way into the temple celebrating. This was a talk about being forced to sit at the door and not go inside, something he says that lgbtq folks have had to do for years. Later in the day I had a chance to chat with him while we waited for the march to begin, and I found him to be funny and personable, which are of course excellent traits to find in a bishop.

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The Flatiron Building has long been one of my favorite landmarks in the city. My son and I marched with the folks from the Collegiate Churches, as I have a few friends at Middle Collegiate Church from my participation in Pub Theology. While I’m a Unitarian Universalist and a Humanist, I thought this was a fitting and suitable group to join. Perhaps next year I’ll march with them again, or else see if an Ethical Society, UU congregation, or non-theist group is available instead. Then again, maybe I’ll just pick a spot and watch the parade go by. 

The Elusive Unitarians of Brazil

When everything lined up for me to take my first real vacation in nearly 4 years, I opted for Recife, Brazil. This city is located in the northeast of Brazil, a part of the country with which I was not yet familiar. The timing was great, as it June this year marked my 20th year since that first fateful mission internship. I was pleased to learn that the only Unitarian congregations in all of Brazil are located in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, and I looked forward to attending one of them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy.

One contact I’ve had for some time is now located in California. He’s an ordained minister with the Unitarians in Brazil, but since he’s not living there right now there was no way to meet up with him. He eventually gave me the email address of someone there, but after a few emails she stopped responding. I thought even this wasn’t a problem, because although I would rather have had a contact there ahead of time, I could always certainly just attend a service.

Except not.

A couple of days before the Sunday I was to attend a service, I checked the church website and found the message above. It reads:

Attention: As a result of the problems caused by the rain on the chapel building, the Sunday services will continue to take place at the farm of the Santana family over the coming weeks. The schedule will continue the same.

The ‘rain’ to which they referred was the cause of historic flooding in the northeast which has killed some and left many homeless. Seeing that the building was damaged it was understandable that they’d be meeting in another location. Though I emailed the church for more information, no one ever responded. Having no idea where the ‘Santana family’ has their acreage, I simply couldn’t attend a service.

The Unitarian churches in Pernambuco began in the mid-20th century. What I’ve been able to piece together was that an American man married to a Brazilian woman got Unitarianism going there. Theologically liberal in the Christian tradition and modeled after the ‘high church’ services at King’s Chapel in Boston, the Unitarian congregations in Brazil are not neutral or agnostic as is Unitarian Universalism in the United States. This is something I suspect to be the case around the world.

Since it is unlikely that I will be returning to Recife anytime soon (though I had a wonderful vacation there), it’s regrettable that I couldn’t seem to track anyone down or find my way to a service. The Unitarians of Brazil are so elusive that it makes me wonder if, in fact, they were avoiding me.

Perhaps I’m happier not knowing the answer to that question.

Sanderson Jones: Things Are About To Get Awesome….

What follows is the latest word from Sanderson Jones, co-founder of Sunday Assembly. Although Sunday Assembly NYC didn’t make it, I still heartily endorse this movement. I also hope someday it can get a second chance in the city that never sleeps. – AG

Hello everyone,

How you doing? Here in London we are baking under a sun that we are just not designed to handle.

The heat inside our office is matched by the hot hot heat we are still feeling after the Sunday Assembly Conference in San Diego. Connecting with dedicated Sunday Assembly organisers from across the world turns the thermostat in your heart and soul up to the max.

Steven Soden, one of the lead organisers in San Diego had this to say afterwards….

“This community that we have created has exceeded my wildest life’s dream of real human connection; of wholehearted participation in service projects; and of life lived with eyes wide open in full awareness and with deep gratitude.

Each year I am high with the knowledge that there are so many good people in the world who are guided by the desire to do good and who will strive to leave their indelible mark of service and kindness upon human history.  

As to the future, I truly believe we are at the forefront of a model for the celebration of life that will be emulated for eons and that we have a responsibility to make our best effort at it every day.”

Steven Soden, Sunday Assembly San Diego

Preach, Steven! Preach!

Being with the Sunday Assembly is the perfect antidote to the relentless sad news that is striking our timelines. Organisers and participants see that the work they are putting into their communities is creating the world as it should be.

Fresh from the conference we are determined to SHINE A BIG, BRIGHT LIGHT THAT CAN CUT THROUGH THE GLOOM OF WORLD EVENTS.

We’ve got plans for 2017, bold ambitions for the years to come and a grand vision that we’ll be striving towards for the rest of our lives. That vision: a world where everyone lives life as fully as possible.

We’re going to channel this passion for building and supporting secular communities into a whole series of activities across the world. Keep your eyes and ears on our newsletter, blog and social media because we want to communicate to you:

  • How we’re growing the Sunday Assembly movement
  • Ways to help you live your life as fully as possible
  • Why we believe building welcoming communities is the vital mission of our time
  • Ways for you to help make this vision a reality
  • How you can celebrate your one wild and precious life

We’re going places, we’re creating communities, and we’re going to need all the help we can get!

Stay tuned for next week’s email where you’ll learn how we got to our plans. WARNING: it will be personal and it will be real, because before things get awesome, sometimes they have to be hard.

Keep on being incredible.

Love,

Sanderson