I loved the ABC television series “Lost.” I found the mystery and non-linear storytelling refreshing in a cinematic world of derivative and predictable plots. This series introduced many notions: (1) Life can be unfair for no particular reason; (2) everyone has “evil” and “good” within them; and (3) Love is ultimately the only pursuit that can provide us fulfillment and meaning.
In the past few years, I contemplated long hours about the state of our world, our nation, and Unitarian Universalism in particular. Our nation teeters on the brink of civil war. A huge portion of Americans place belief in a cult above collective morals and rationality. For years, I have warned of the coming kakistocracy (from the Greek meaning “rule by the least competent), and we seem to have reached that undesirable stage.
I believe America is lost. If true, how do we find our way? I feel that churches can help us in that quest. Despite seeing some horrible human behavior from congregants, I have faith that a church can provide us guidance and help us rediscover our direction. I always felt that Unitarian Universalism could be the conduit for such a church. Frankly, however, my faith in our movement rests at an all-time low.
In a recent online conversation, one reason for my despair formulated itself clearly. When you ask Unitarian Universalists what they value most about church attendance, their top answer is almost always “community.” This makes sense, in that community is the one spiritual activity that a church can provide that individuals cannot provide on their own. Anyone can read sermons, teach their children religion, experience moving music and art, perform social justice, and a host of other functions that a church can provide. But, community is one element intrinsic to a church that would be difficult for an individual to attain and keep for long in their spiritual life.
Somewhere along the way, however, we got lost interpreting these survey results. We went from the conclusion that “community is the most often cited function of a congregation” to “community is the most important function of a congregation.” While this is an easy mistake to make, the consequences of this miscalculation may eventually be fatal to our movement.
To understand this concern, we need to ask ourselves the question, “What is the purpose of church?” Obviously, there are many answers. One of those answers is, indeed, to provide community. But, for what purpose? Any human organization can provide community. The church, however, is uniquely situated to provide community that assists individuals in the pursuit of their spiritual goals on a multitude of paths. In a church, we can explore grace, experience awe, revel in mystery, or parse existence intellectually – all within the context of worship and religious purpose. Again, we can pursue all of these as individuals. A church can facilitate the task by making the quest more manageable, by validating our efforts, and by providing some tools and techniques to keep us from getting lost.
When church becomes a social club, however, we lose sight of its religious purpose. When service in a church becomes more about power and control, we lose our appreciation of true sacrifice and humility. And when accountability is missing, then the church community gets lost in the corruption of human weakness and stays from the path of human enlightenment.