How to Shop for a Church, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

Start Date

My friend and colleague from the Southwest District who has served the C UU Church on the River in Memphis, TN, for more than 20 years, tells �The Parable of the Patient List,� in his Berry Street Essay from a few years ago, �When you go into the pastoral care office at Methodist Central Hospital in Memphis you will discover along the wall the file folders identified by denomination.  Now religion is big business in my home town and to this day I confess that I get a little rush of pride seeing Unitarian Universalist in bold black letters along with the Catholic and Baptist and Methodist and other major religious groups.  In the file folders are computer print outs of the chaplain�s patient list by religion.  Now the strange thing is that the print out for the UU file consistently contains several names of patients who are not associated with our congregations.  Ah, I thought, UUs who didn�t know they are UUs until they felt compelled to say something in admissions when asked for their religious preference.

             Well, once in a state of evangelical frenzy, I decided to call on some of these folks while I was at the hospital.  Perhaps, since they identified themselves as members of our faith community, I could actually interest them in coming to church.  The visits were very unsatisfying.  The patients seemed shocked that I called on them, perplexed by the very mention of any words that began with the letter u and uninterested to hostile regarding the prospect of visiting the church.  The conversations were so strange and unproductive that I decided I would have better luck calling folks to the flaming chalice at a tent revival.

             Later I discovered the real source of the confusion.  I brought home the patient list in the UU folder to study the information in more detail.  It was then that I found that under the church heading there were a number of interesting designations on the print out.  Along with Unitarian for our members there were these

entries: church unknown or none or no preference or unavailable or undefined.  For some reason, the chaplain put on the UU patient list all the people who claimed no religion or whose religion was in some way in doubt!

             Now I know the real reason why there is a UU folder on the wall in the pastoral care office.  It�s where all the names of the patients with no religion go.�

            Or the church where people can believe anything they want to? That�s the stereotype, and most of us can understand why. After all, we have to take a survey when we want to find out what it us our congregations DO believe! And even then, we let you choose more than one designation, even if it�s mutually exclusive! I want to give everyone a truth serum communion, then hand out the survey. I�d like to do that on a national basis, actually. See what people REALLY believe! I know there are a lot of people who believe strange things, but I won�t mention any of them, because, well, we try to be respectful, and among us we have a lot of different beliefs.

            People go to church for a lot of different reasons besides what they believe. In fact, one of my colleagues had their intern do a study to find out why people joined their church and found out it had very little to do with belief; it had to do with a sense of belonging, with feeling comfortable, and I imagine that probably included being comfortable theologically, but not having to believe alike, necessarily. Other studies show that some people look for church when they are in crisis or transition and are looking for a special kind of community, a faith or spiritual community where they feel a kinship.

            I think that one of the reasons that the mega churches are so successful is that they seem to offer that as well as easy and quick fixes to those crises. There is great comfort for many, obviously, to be in the company of thousands and to be told what to believe, and that if you profess to believe the same thing, your problems will be solved. On one of the conservative church signs was this advice-�Trust yourself less and God more.� The problem for me, of course, was that I immediately wondered, how I would know what God wanted me to do? Who WOULD I have to trust to tell me what God wanted. The Bible? Which version? Is it really that simple? Why don�t we all agree then? And so on...

            So obviously, if I was looking for a church, that�s not one I would try. Yet if we ARE looking for a church, how do we find one that fits?  And if we have found one where we have become part of the beloved community, how do we reach out to share the good news that we do have a message here of standing on the side of love, of religion that helps us through life while calling us to help others transform the world?

The poet Tom Barrett, writes about a temple in a way that makes me think of the church:
What�s In The Temple?
In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.
The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.
If she stands still it will catch up with her.
Pause with us here a while.
Put your ear to the wall of your heart.
Listen for the whisper of knowing there. 
Love will touch you if you are very still.
If I say the word God, people run away.
They�ve been frightened--sat on �till the spirit cried "uncle."
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can�t name.
They know he�s out there looking for them, and they want to be found, 
But there is all this stuff in the way.
I can�t talk about God and make any sense, 
And I can�t not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.
I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God.
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur, 
And sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
You see there the consequences of carelessness, 
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.
We don�t build many temples anymore.
Maybe we learned that the sacred can�t be contained.
Or maybe it can�t be sustained inside a building.
Buildings crumble.  It�s the spirit that lives on.
If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, What would you worship there? 
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?
Go there now.        � 1999 Interlude: An Internet Retreat

            Not everyone needs the Temple any more, or perhaps they find that sacred need in more secular form in other forms from sports to my namesake Severance Symphony Hall-certainly a spiritual experience and temple like! And even bars for some where everyone knows your name after all, or just the opposite, the church of recovery, AA or other recovery movements -also very spiritual and church-like. Some people find that need in work or hobby, in nature, or in individual meditation. Some find it in the close community of friends and family.

            Many started out in church or synagogue but grew away, some when no longer forced to go by parents, others more gradually. Some began asking theological questions about the very existence of God or the inconsistencies of the Bible stories at an early age and were always being hushed up. Others began realizing that they didn�t believe parts of the Apostle�s or Nicene creed repeated as liturgy every Sunday.  Some saw hypocrisy in saying that people believed one thing on Sunday and then acting like it didn�t matter the rest of the week. For some people it was like the story of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, all part of  childhood myths that you outgrow.

            The great Communist leader Karl Marx said, of course, that religion was the opiate of the masses, but it turns out, that religion is still around, and communism was the opiate and IT failed! Sorry, Karl.

            I believe that some of us feel the need for a religious community, a beloved community and some of us don�t. What�s a beloved community? We knew Martin Luther King had used the term, but back in the early part of the 20th century, Idealist philosopher and teacher Josiah Royce probably was the first: �Through the long centuries of human history, there has been building a Beloved Community.  All souls that love, all souls that aspire, strengthen its bonds.  Precious unto us are the names of the true and the brave, who have toiled and suffered for the sake of the Beloved Community.  Precious unto us are the nameless and the lowly who have served it with single-hearted devotion.  Of them are the treasures of the common life. There are no strangers in the Beloved Community, none against whom doors are shut and harsh words spoken.  For they who belong to it are bound together in one living body, apart from which there is no life.�

            I would define it as a religious community gathered in the name of sacred love, to promote love, to love one another, to love oneself, to love the world, to celebrate love and in doing so to promote justice peace, and environmental and spiritual harmony.

            Author John Updike puts it this way: "Church services have this wonderful element: people with other things to do get up on a Sunday morning, put on good clothes, and assemble out of nothing but faith - some vague yen toward something larger. Simply as a human gathering I find it moving, reassuring and even inspiring.�

            The problems for many people who have been away from church is how to find one that they would be comfortable in? How do you shop for a church? Or conversely, how do we be a church where people would want to join and how would they find out about us?

            Forrester Church, the former co-minister of the largest UU church in the world in NYC, and author of many interesting books, who recently died, talks about what else he thinks churches are for, using traditional language and then updating or translating it into UUism:

     "...So that is what churches are for: the salvation of sinners...  I define sin as brokenness. We are divided within, estranged from others, and alienated from God, by whatever name we call the spirit of life and love. Salvation, in turn, means wholeness. Salve in Latin is be well, be hale, tripping over the Teutonic word group- whole, hale, hallowed, holy. We are saved not from this world but in this world...Churches are places where we first are reminded of all the ways in which we and the world need healing, and second, invited to join in the healing work."

            For those people who have been turned off by traditional religion, for those who are on a religious journey searching for spiritual meaning and expression, for those who want an intellectual element mixed in with a spiritual one, for those who want a place where they can work for a variety of social justice causes, for those who want a place for their children to learn about religion in an open loving way that includes  the world�s religions, and a place for their children to learn about sexuality, for those who want a place where all sexual orientations are welcomed and part of church leadership, this may be the place for you.

            I don�t think most people know the difference between a Methodist Church and a Presbyterian Church.  The 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reports on 227 national church bodies. Statistics in the yearbook reflect "continued high overall church participation, and account for the religious affiliation of over 163 million Americans.  This year, church bodies reporting the highest membership losses were the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 3.28 percent to 2,941,412; American Baptist Churches in the USA, down 2 percent to 1,358,351; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, down 1.92 percent to 4,709,956 members.  The editor thinks the decline in membership may be due to �an increasing secularization of American postmodern society, and its disproportionate impact on liberal religious groups,� but advises caution in assessing the causes of decline.  I think it�s because people have been turned off by traditional doctrines and no longer believe them! Many traditional have become intellectually irrelevant.

1. The Catholic Church, 68,115,001 members, up 1.49 percent.
2. Southern Baptist Convention,16,228,438 members, down 0.24 percent.
3. The United Methodist Church, 7,853,987 members, down 0.98 percent.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5,974,041 members, up 1.71 percent.
5. The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no membership updates reported.
6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., 5,000,000  members, no membership updates reported.
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,633,887 members, down 1.62 percent.
8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.
9. Assemblies of God (ranked 10 last year), 2,899,702 members, up 1.27 percent.
14. The Lutheran Church-- Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,337,349 members, down 1.92 percent.
15. The Episcopal Church, 2,057,292 members, down 2.81 percent.
23. United Church of Christ (ranked 22 last year), 1,111,691 members, down 2.93 percent.
            We, the UUA are at 221,035 including children and youth, down slightly.

            The  growth experts tell us that the worship service is, of course very important in choosing a church. The preaching, the quality of the music, the setting, all play a crucial part to first impression, and of course, that�s sometimes all we get. A guest walks in, looking for a church, for a beloved community to satisfy a spiritual hunger, perhaps because of a crisis, a transition in their life, and we have one chance.

            Shopping for a church with all the choices of those other churches, why would someone come here? Can we remember back to why we chose East Shore as our church? Or perhaps further, back why we chose Unitarian Universalism as our religious home? Even though many of us have taken religious surveys, we still may not really be sure what it is we believe; we may not have the words or concepts for our theology or even lack of one! And yet that is one of the attractions, I think. This church is not ONE theology; oh the survey says we are predominantly humanist, but we are open to a variety of ways of religious expression.

            When you shop for a church, of course, you have to find the worship and the minister�s sermons meaningful, maybe even inspirational. You don�t always have to agree with them, because I don�t claim infallibility or that God tells me what to say. What I preach is a matter of my theological opinion, but it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of everyone in this church.  I try not to be partisan though feel called to be prophetic about certain issues I feel strongly about. I�m a strong believer in social justice, but believe the worship service must also nurture the spirit.

            When one shops for a church, one usually looks for a  place that is welcoming to all of all ages as well as sexual orientations and we try to do that, though we need to provide more activities. We need to offer new kinds of music, new kinds of ideas. new kinds of decorations which relate to UUism. That�s challenging for some of us.  What is the true mission, the vision of this church? When was it created?

            When a new guest walks in the front door what do they see in the narthex that tells them about who we are and what we stand for? We have our greeters table and do an excellent job welcoming people, but it must continue after the service, and then after a person joins!

            So if I was shopping for a church, as someone who�s been turned off by traditional religion, but still wants some sort of religious community. I�d be looking for a  church where I felt welcomed and comfortable, where the worship inspired me, but didn�t turn me off with traditional theology or music, where the Sunday school program served the needs of my children and occasionally my children and I could worship together at special services. I�d want to laugh occasionally and yes, maybe cry, too. I�d want to be able to take some classes to learn more about religion and about UUs, and maybe some small groups. I�d want some family activities.  I�d want a variety of music. I�d want people with whom I have a lot in common as well as some who were from me, but were open minded about it. I�d like to be around people of all ages. And most of all, I�d like to be a part of a beloved community that might challenge me to live a changed  life for being a member of it, of being transformed by the love preached and lived by others as well and by the call for the transforming of the world as well.  I would want to be a part of the celebration of the Spirit of Life which calls us all to be changed to live our lives, transformed by the love which passes all understanding and is at the heart of all religion which brings many names. Let love be our guide; everything else is details.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets  the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and  one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. �Vaya con Dios� is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is �Go with God,� So I adapted it to say �Vaya Con Su Dios,� �Go with your idea or interpretation of God.�

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

Opening Words

A. Powell Davies was the senior minister of All Souls Church in Washington D.C. after W.W.II. Davies, a powerful orator, was the founder of 13 churches in the area. In a sermon he once preached: 'Do you belong to a religion that says humankind is not divided- except by ignorance and prejudice and hate; the religion that sees humankind as naturally one and waiting to be spiritually united; the religion that proclaims an end to all exclusions- and declares a brotherhood and sisterhood unbounded! The religion that knows we shall never find the fullness of the wonder and the glory of life until we are ready to share it, that we shall have hearts big enough for the love of God until we have made them big enough for the worldwide love of one another.

         As you have listened to me, have you thought perchance that this your religion? If so, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world in which you live; the fearful cruelties, the enmities, the hate, the bitter prejudices, the need of such a world for such a faith. And if you can still say that this of which I have spoken is your faith, then ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?'"

Event type
Worship Service