Deeply Religious But Not Church-y

By Annie Gonzalez Milliken



Here is Where to Go

How can one initiative simultaneously support people who want a deeply religious experience and also support folks who want nothing to do with organized religion? Oddly enough, I believe that staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) are doing just that.

The framework of the UUA’s new emerging ministries initiative is simultaneously more religious and less church-y than previous incarnations of support for emerging congregations. With a stronger focus on covenant, mission and spiritual connection and less emphasis on polity and by-laws, we are encouraging new groups to really get religion before getting caught up in structure. Yet, as we broaden the lanes of our path to include non-congregational forms of ministry and encourage innovation we support forms of religious gathering that look increasingly less like what folks think of as organized religion.

As previously mentioned in my post on emerging ministries and the “raised UUs,” when I think about how our new groups and projects might reach millennials, I think about three demographics: those who were raised UU and want to stay with us, folks who want religion but not the conservative politics or creeds that sometimes come with it, and people who don’t want religion at all but want meaningful spiritual community.

Discover stories of people exploring their faith and #LivingUU here

When I attend The Sanctuary Boston on Wednesday evenings, I see all three of these demographics represented. This community is deeply religious, grounded in Unitarian Universalism, and yet is also explicitly open to seekers of all kinds, people bringing any or no religious tradition. Just this past Wednesday we opened worship with a well known UU hymn,“For All That Is Our Life” (#128 in Singing the Living Tradition), as always, we sang an adapted version of the popular Christian song “Sanctuary” to book-end our candle lighting ritual, and then we closed with the contemporary rock song “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine. There was a little something for everyone, but not in a shallow appeasing way. The worship in this community is genuinely moving with encouragement to move with the music or sit quietly as it feels right. The honest and personal reflections and the repeated rituals create space for people to be incredibly vulnerable when it comes time to share joys and sorrows, with the community singing back “walking with you is our prayer.” Though we meet in church buildings the timing, set-up and culture feel distinctly un-churchy. Again, it’s both steeped in religious tradition and totally un-traditional, because we are a both/and faith.

The Sanctuary is not alone in creating this dynamic. With Sacred Fire UU seekers who are not interested in religion are drawn in by the potlucks, community projects and small group gatherings. This organization grew out of an informal meet-up of young adult restaurant workers, musicians and activists and retains some of that secular character. And yet, becoming a member means going deep with liberation theology in the Sacred Fire curriculum and forming meaningful spiritual relationships through small group ministry. Deeply religious, totally un-church-y.

These two examples show some of the diversity that is possible in our changing religious landscape. As I wrote in the first post of this series, we have an authentic religious tradition to share and it intersects beautifully with the needs millennials. And as our emerging groups grow, change, fail, and new ones come into being we will continue to learn better ways to provide support to these endeavors. In serving lifelong UUs, those seeking deep religious experience and those who are fleeing church, we will not only help individuals to find meaningful community, but we will make an even bigger impact on our world.