Is community the reason for community for Unitarian Universalists?

This and the next couple of non-lectionary blog posts are going to be about community, and particulary the role of community as the end (rather than as a feature) of Unitarian Universalist communities, er, congregations.

Having community is a frequently-mentioned reason for Unitarian Universalist congregations, and the Unitarian Universalist Association — formally a credentialing, coordination and program-providing entity — often serves as a kind of meta-community. But  is being a community the best use of the community itself? I think not. For one, it makes it, by definition, self-serving. (For example, the phenomenon of the Phoenix General Assembly is putatively an attempt to escape self-centeredness, but the discussions have been deeply inwardly facing.) For another, it means congregations have even more competition, not only from clubs, but social networks and very well honed marketing campaigns that depend on creating a sense of belonging through consuming. If it’s all about the community, then churches have to compete with Facebook, play groups and Apple. Good luck with that.

Liberal congregations, with the high value placed on non-coersion, tend to go that much farther and get very fuzzy about the goal of the organization. Add in the unresolved tension in Unitarian Universalism between the social left and the libertarian left (much less the right) who have very different goals, even within congregations, so much more muting the ability to create a community with achievable goals: those values put into practice.

Instead, far too often, we have larger congregations where membership exists in the context of identifying with the minister (a variation of the marketing phenomeon, really) or smaller congregations based on personal friendships. That’s not a formula for inclusion or meaningful being, much less growth. Indeed, formerly lauded goals, like human brotherhood (world community) have been conspicuously missing in the last ten years.

And other groups, social networks and companies are there to fill the gap. Worrying.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Thanks for this post… we’re missing much about the reality of being alone. I get the feeling we market community as a solution, but the reality is ultimately we leave life alone, we know it, and I don’t think UUism speaks often to that reality. At least publically. It might be very different pastorally to those and family in the moment.

    I lived in a heavily gay community in Illinois in the 80s at the depths of despair over AIDs and found gay friends in very conservative Churches who stayed in those Churches despite those rainbows over at Unity Temple and I think in part that was because when death becomes so tangible, brutal, and common; one needed more than community.

  2. Mind meld, mind meld… I have been thinking about this very thing and wondering the same things. “Community” was the big word about ten years ago and I feel that tire has gone flat. I didn’t know why – I thought it was just me getting more intensely religious and evangelical in my goals – but now that you’ve identified market forces and social networks as a factor in how we create community, I have to recognize that I myself don’t find “community” in congregations any more (as a worshiper, not as a minister). And I’m not interested in that goal, really. I have a theatre community, a colleague community, and many friends. What I need and want from church is religious life: discipleship formation, prayer, rites of passage, Communion, study, and shared mission. Whether or not those things have to occur in a bricks and mortar structure (to use the latest lingo) is another question.

  3. I know you’re talking about this from a UU perspective, which I can’t share — but I still want to throw in my two denarii, and in particularly I’m thinking about PeaceBang’s response.

    I can’t have a religious life without a community. I can’t have prayer and worship (which must involve a communal aspect), or discipleship (because we are formed in human relations), or study (learning through dialouge is more about a personal learning style for me), and in particular the rites of passage. You can’t have Communion without the community, particularly if we talk about the Body of Christ. Yeah — I can’t have a religious life without the religious community, even if it is at times artificial. (Even most religious orders live in community; the anchoritic/eremetic model is fairly rare.)

    Okay, back to your discussion of UUs and community.

  4. More and more, it seems to me that community is not an end purpose, but a means. For me it is a vehicle for my Christian faith, because I can’t be the Body of Christ on my lonesome. On my own, I’m just an amputated thumb.

    Not too long ago I served a liberal church outside the UUA where the senior pastor had increasingly made “being community” the reason for the congregation to exist. And as time moved on, the word “God” in his sermons began to replaced by the word “Community”.

    From first hand experience I can say that when your Community becomes your god, you have entered dangerous territory. Communities can become fickle, self-glorifying, and inward focused. Such communities can call themselves inclusive, but what is everybody being included in? When we are included in becomes vague there are strange things that slip into the communal center: conformity to the preacher, cliquish circles of relationships, and/or a message of exceptionalism (as in we-this-community aren’t like all those other people out there).

    As I feel a bit more seasoned in my spiritual journey, I find that I need something more than only community. I need a faith community where spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, rite) can be explored and engaged; and where the Spirit of God can challenge me and others to grow into becoming something more than we were before.

  5. I don’t think “community” should be the sole goal of a Unitarian (or any) congregation. But I think that it’s a critical integral feature. If you don’t have it, you don’t have a church.

    I had a severe immunilogicial reaction to a cancer drug that landed me in the hospital for a week, now recovering nicely thank you. Every single person save one who visited, supported by wife, and brought us food when I got home was a connection via the church. Social networks, Facebook, play groups and Apple don’t visit you in the hospital or bring over food.

  6. We liberal Friends give you a run for your noney in overuse of “community” in our official pronouncements. A few years ago I was finally peeved enough to write a blog post suggesting a new Friends testimony _against_ community.

    In my experience, the problem is that “community” has become a rhetorical crutch. The people who use it often know better; I think the often turn to it to avoid hassles. My mother is in the early-to-mid stages of Alzheimers. I’ve learned that there are certain words that will trigger one of her mini-epic stories. If I’m calling her in a squeezed moment–between kid bedtime rituals say–I’ve learned not to say them. When I accidentally do I sigh, tell the kids they get to take a long bath, and sit down.

    I wonder if it’s the same in our religios communities. You could say “body of Christ” and then have the three-hour conversation with a wounded ex-something-or-other about how our denomination’s use of that phrase differs from whatever it meant in their childhood church…. Or you could say “God” and have a three hour conversation on the meanings of various vocabulary words with a semi-professional grad student offended by the idea of words…. Or you could just say “community” and save yourself the aggrevation as everyone agrees not to care what you mean by it.

  7. I had been thinking about this and then this morning at our new church since moving they explicitly stated that this was the reason for the church. Community. Which I get can be a very nice benefit of a church, but my stomach sort of sunk that this was their raison d’etre. Sigh.

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