Community makes the church, or church the community?

When last I wrote about community, I ran down the idea of churches being community for their own sake. Churches for the sake of community only makes sense where people live in settings so dense or so atomized that community has to be constructed. Other, functional habitations have communities apart from churches, and these organize around public spaces, work places, shops, schools or other institutions. (Online communities are worth their own discussion.) Churches and other religious congregations can be a part of that mix, but when it bears more of the burden either the community becomes tinged with a self-selecting theological color (think of city-sized megachurches) or the congregation sanctifies the social preferences (dare I say prejudices) of its membership. Unitarian Universalists, having congregations too small to make their own weather, sometimes or often fall into this second category. The evidence is the rhetoric of refuge. That “this congregation is a liberal outpost in a conservative town” — little regarding other congregations a bit less liberal or regions far more conservative — is a common trope. And since these preferences come with class and generational markers, they aren’t as welcoming as they like to believe. Not necessarily unfriendly, but as a forty-something, geek-esque, child-free gay urbanite, they’re often boring, irrelevant or twee. Too often I feel like the unwilling recipient of a child’s mud pie and being asked to taste it. (No.) And in this regard Unitarian Universalists are very much like other congregations that try and welcome Hubby and me. I’ve given up hope of just stumbling on a church that will function for us both, and that we can function within.

Because of our polity, Unitarian Universalists tend to think that religious community is squarely the product of covenanted congregations, with a strong attachment placed to the overt and explicit covenant between members (and between them and God.) This is also reinforced by custom and — in no small way — the law and regulations behind determining what makes a church a church. (IRS regs and tax court rulings make illuminating if perplexing reading.) But if pressed we find evidence of valued religious life in religious gatherings, camps and meetings. We worship (or have worshiped) in college chapels and in military installations. There are invocations at Rotary and in demonstrations. Some ministers have their study groups, and others have volunteer service camps. Either serving or being served, we know of hospital and hospice chaplains. And some use social media to deepen their religious lives. There are alternatives to the congregation, conventionally conceived, new and old.

What many of these have in common are that they are existing communities where religious activity is introduced for the spiritual needs of its participants. Whether an old form or new, perhaps it bears repeating that a church — even with a subtle and implied covenant — can exist in the communities we already have, rather than setting up a church to have the community we lack.

By Scott Wells

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

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