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Dealing With Theological Diversity in Local Congregations
General Assembly, Membership Growth & Outreach

General Assembly 2004 Event 3070

Presenter: Rev. Christine Robinson, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque, NM

The world has changed. In the 20th century the successful Unitarian Universalist (UU) niche was, "Unitarian Universalists are free to believe whatever we want to." In the 21st century, the successful niche for UUs will be, "Unitarian Universalists live our faith and grow in faith in religiously diverse congregations."

With the above introduction and after an opportunity for participants to briefly describe the spectrum of religious diversity in their own congregations, the Rev. Christine Robinson assured the participants that UU churches "will only thrive if we address religious diversity." She pointed out that 50 years ago we had a church-going society. It was expected that most went to church. Now we have a high percentage of unchurched. There is no longer strong pressure to go to church. We have to do more to attract and keep members.

Robinson said that there are three ways to deal with diversity: repress it, tolerate it, or embrace it. She used a metaphor of family dining to tell us how it plays out.

First there is Grandma's table, where Grandma puts the food out, and all are expected to eat it—all of it. No fussing. New things are not tried unless it is Grandma's idea.

Next there is the permissive family, where the only food served is that which everyone likes. If Junior does not like broccoli, then broccoli is not served at that table. Again, new things are not tried very often.

Finally, there is the smorgasbord. A wide variety of food is available. The family members are encouraged to try things, but it is all right if they do not like something and leave it on their plate. New foods can easily be entered into the mix, and the diners are free to sample when and if they choose.

The presenter and participants gave examples of how their congregations strive to offer a smorgasbord to attendees at their congregations.

Robinson described three types of religious diversity: spiritual, developmental, and theological. Spiritual diversity is based on the differences in what we do—our practices. Examples include: sitting meditation, prayer, Sunday worship, Solstice ceremonies, small group spiritual sharing, and journaling. Spiritual practices are not just what we do on Sunday morning. Some congregations welcome a variety of practices and are organized to encourage such diversity. Some are not.

Developmental diversity is based on differences in the age of the participants, whether they are newcomers or long-time members, and whether or not they are undergoing one of life's transitions. Transitions include changes in family circumstance, the various developmental passages of life, crisis, and changes of faith.

Theological diversity is based on difference in belief. Atheists, deists, theists, agnostics, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, and Transcendentalists are but a few of the groupings in this category. Robinson asked the participants to self-identify into three groups:

  • No Use for God—atheists, humanists, agnostics who lean against believing in any kind of spiritual reality. Buddhists, who don't relate to a spiritual realm. "This world and only this world" world-view.
  • Traditional God—traditional personal divinity with many names such as God or Goddess, Allah, etc., who works in the world and with whom we can be in contact through prayer.
  • Divine Power—abstract divine force: a Higher Power, the divine as a force in the Universe which is not perceived as personal. Agnostics leaning towards believing in something, some natural mystics, process theologies, deism, Taoism, and some kinds of Buddhism.

Although in this workshop the first group was somewhat smaller than the other two, Robinson said that in other presentations to UUs, these groups have been of nearly equal size.

As people undergo faith transitions they are tender, sensitive. Often they change churches as a protective measure. If our congregations welcome religious diversity, individuals can grow and change without leaving. We must provide a safe place for people to be heard. Small group ministry helps demonstrate a congregation's diversity and can assist in providing comfortable space.

Reported by Dick Merritt; edited by Joyce Holmen.

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