The Next 95 Theses
Offered by the Revs. Kristin and Christian Schmidt during the service Sunday October 29, 2017
500 years ago this week the Reformation began, with Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses identifying problems and solutions he proposed for the Catholic Church. Today, the winds of change move through the world and shape our faith and congregations in new and exciting ways. We have some thoughts about the future and what it means for Unitarian Universalism. Here are the next 95 theses:
1. 500 years after the first Reformation, another Reformation is happening right now.
2. Unitarian Universalism as we have known it (tied exclusively to brick and mortar congregations, white-centered, class exclusive, ableist) is dying, but it is simultaneously being reborn in ways we already see and ways we can’t yet even imagine.
3. We can help shape and be shaped by this new Reformation, or we can ignore it and let it pass us by as our institutions fade away.
4. This re-form-ation is a good thing. But because we have no idea how things will ultimately turn out for church, and because many of us like things like strategic plans, measurable improvement, and not taking big risks, it is also scary.
5. Part of both the good and the scary is that many congregations will die (indeed, we’ve already seen this in New England).
6. Part of the future of church is innovative gatherings: online, in bars, in virtual reality, in houses, in the streets.
7. Another part of the future is in brick-and-mortar congregations that, while not identical to the ones we have long known and still see, will have a lot in common with them.
8. Any religious tradition, including Unitarian Universalism, that fails to embrace both of these things, the innovative and the traditional, is doomed to mediocrity or extinction.
9. Unitarian Universalist congregations have long struggled to attract people who were raised in our congregations and welcome them as adult members. Any tradition that can’t keep its young people in the fold has a serious problem.
10. Children aren’t the future of the church; they are the church.
11. The histories of Unitarianism and Universalism teach us that people and movements may die, but the spirit and ideas at their core are reformed and reborn, again and again.
12. What became Unitarian Universalism was born of the first Reformation; the second Reformation will change our faith and our communities in ways we cannot predict.
The Principles and Sources
13. The Seven Principles, written thirty years ago, have served us well. But they were never meant to become the static document they are today.
14. A commission will consider the principles and sources over the next several years. We would all do well to listen to what they have to say.
15. Our First Principle is fraught with misunderstanding. Inherent worth and dignity does not mean that everything everyone does is good, or that all people are good, or even that every single opinion deserves respect. It means that by virtue of being a member of the human family, every single one of us is inherently precious, not because we earn it, not because of anything we do or don’t do, but simply because we were born.
16. Every person has inherent worth and dignity, but not all behavior does. Our communities grow in health and maturity when we learn how to set healthy boundaries with love and respect.
17. Being kind is more important than proving we are right.
18. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen without effort; it’s time to make it a priority in our faith, and put our resources behind it.
19. We can no longer afford to overlook the “responsible” part of a “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
20. It’s time to consider how the democratic process has sometimes failed us, both in our congregations and in our world.
21. Our form of governance exists to serve us, the people. We don’t exist to practice a particular form of governance. It’s hard, but we can’t let the tail wag the dog.
22. Making decisions by consensus is not somehow better than making decisions through a vote. Used incorrectly, strict consensus models allow a very small group of people to prevent an entire community from making a decision. Even the Quakers don’t use consensus. They actually operate by something called the “sense of the meeting” and when just one or two people stand between the community and a decision, those who don’t agree are explicitly asked to “stand aside” allowing the will of the people to move forward.
23. Ultimately, the church’s job is not to make everybody happy. The church’s job is to help people grow into wholeness and our world grow into justice.
24. Are we really working towards a world with peace and justice for all, or is that just something we say?
25. Our “respect” for the interdependent web isn’t enough; our actions and commitment are needed now.
26. The Sources, written 30 years ago, could use their own update.
27. We are surrounded by prophetic voices in our own time, calling us to justice and love, but we have to get out of the way of our own egos to follow their call.
28. Appropriation must stop now: the Western world has a long history of colonizing world religions for its own use in irresponsible and destructive ways.
29. It’s time for us to take a more critical look at how we approach Christian and Jewish sources, including how we have too easily conflated them.
30. The wider world of humanism outside of our own congregations is calling us to engage it. Vibrant humanist voices and communities are rearticulating humanism in a way we need to hear.
31. If we are to truly own our sixth source, our congregations must more fully embrace earth-centered traditions.
Confronting White Supremacy, Racism, and Oppression
32. If racism is the original sin of our country, then white supremacy—that is, holding white cultural values and norms and whiteness itself as both normative and ideal—is the original sin of our religious tradition.
33. Therefore, a Unitarian Universalism that isn’t focused on confronting racism, oppression, and white supremacy will decline and die, and it deserves to.
34. That decline is not inevitable, but reversing it will require great effort and change.
35. If we are to thrive into the future, we must be in accountable relationships with people from marginalized communities, both inside and outside of Unitarian Universalism.
36. Diversity alone isn’t the goal: liberation, inclusion, and integration is.
37. The white supremacy embedded in our national and religious institutions won’t change for the better unless we work to make it so.
38. That work must be deeply intersectional in nature, and it must be led by diverse people working together.
39. We will fail many times in this work just as we do in other things, and yet we must keep trying.
40. There isn’t a clear step-by-step guide for how to do this work, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid it. We must let go of the need to be good at everything we try if we are going to grow and thrive.
41. Our rituals and practices as a congregation reflect our implicit theology. One of the things our worship reflects is a conviction that what each of us has isn’t really inherently ours. We give and receive an offering as a symbol of the debt we owe to a universe that gave us life and showers us with blessings unbidden and unearned.
42. Our practice of including stories and readings from many different sources is a reflection of our conviction that many cultures, religions, and societies have truth and wisdom to offer.
43. Truth may be too big and beautiful to be contained in any one religion, but there is a different kind of spiritual growth available to those who go for depth in one tradition rather than breadth by dipping only their toes in many.
44. The future of Unitarian Universalism will see people making deeper commitments to spiritual practice and trying things they never thought they would for the sake of growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
45. While every one of us is precious and has inherent worth, our tradition does not teach that humanity as a whole is necessarily good. We ignore the reality of evil at our peril, especially in these times.
46. Liberal religion that cannot name and forsake evil both in the world and within ourselves will not survive.
47. The theist-atheist debate is a red herring. However we understand the nature of the transformative power we experience in our lives, whatever words we use or don’t use to name it, that’s what church is about.
48. We don’t own lamps for the sake of the lamp. We have lamps because of the light they give us. Church is the lamp. The change it makes inside us and in our world is the light. In the words of Theodore Parker, the lamp, the church, is transient and the light, the change that happens inside us and our world, is permanent.
49. For the entire history of our religious tradition, we have been a people of words.
50. Words are important, but religion, faith, and worship are about a lot more than words.
51. The future of church is one in which congregations engage a diverse array of language: traditional and new, from many sources, and with many cultural, class, and ethnic perspectives.
52. Former UUA President William Sinkford’s call for a “language of reverence” more than a decade ago was controversial: it shouldn’t still be so today.
53. There is a difference between language that is harmful and language that simply doesn’t resonate with us personally.
54. Using mostly sources or music created by white men in worship (or in anything) is not in keeping with our values, no matter what our personal preferences may be.
55. Literalism kills. Metaphor and story give life.
56. The word God doesn’t have to mean whatever you think it means, and no one needs to justify their opinion about the God hypothesis.
57. Our language matters, but our actions matter more.
58. Impact matters more than intent. Having good intentions matters less than the impact of our words and actions.
59. If children can’t understand a sermon, the sermon is the problem, not the children.
60. If we don’t talk about hope, we won’t have it.
61. If we don’t name and talk about evil, we can’t hope to stop it.
62. If we don’t talk about forgiveness, we can’t receive it.
63. We exist for more than one hour a week on Sundays, and so should the way we live out our faith.
64. Singing the Living Tradition, our hymnal, is 24 years old. It’s time for a new one.
65. Every service of worship should include joy, grief, forgiveness, and challenge.
66. To be meaningful, worship must be both timeless and responsive to today’s needs. As a former seminary professor used to say, the best sermons are written with sacred text in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
67. Worship is one of the last places in our society where people of all ages can be together for a shared experience. It is one of the last places where people don’t have to be segregated by age.
68. The 1950s model of dividing people according to their age group for church is dying. The future of worship will be profoundly multigenerational.
69. If children aren’t engaged in worship, the worship is the problem, not the children.
70. If children aren’t moved by music, the music is the problem, not the children.
71. Worship is also one of the last places in our society where people sing together.
72. The future of worship will be profoundly participatory. It will include a lot less music we just sit and listen to, and a lot more congregational singing!
73. Worship is for everyone, which means some parts of it won’t be right for any given person.
74. If you experience something that doesn’t resonate for you, that’s great! That’s the part you get to give to the person sitting in the pew next to you, or behind you, or in front of you. Worship is as much about being spiritually generous as it is about recharging our own batteries.
75. Remember our tradition’s sacred freedom of the pulpit: you’ve called us to speak the truth as we see it, with love. You haven’t called us as soothsayers but as your pastors, teachers, and prophets. We take this seriously.
76. Remember also our tradition’s sacred freedom of the pew: you’re free to disagree or ignore anything we say.
77. Every person has a unique set of learning styles. The future of worship lies in engaging all five senses more and using words more sparingly. The irony in us naming this amid 94 other theses is not lost on us!
78. Budgets are faith statements: what we give to is what we love and what we become.
79. If budgets reflect what we love, then it looks like a lot of churches love their buildings a whole lot.
80. And yet, people are more important than ideologies or property or things, however historic or beloved those things might be.
81. In these changing times, all churches will have to decide how best to allocate their resources.
82. We here at the UU Church of Berkeley will need eventually to evaluate whether our buildings, our location, our pews, our classrooms, our services, our staffing structure, our everything are still serving our purpose or if others would help us serve our purpose better.
83. It took too long for the UUA to elect a woman president. Let’s not wait so long to do that again.
84. Unitarian Universalism works best when lay and ordained people alike work together and are all empowered by their communities.
85. The UU allergy to authority is way past its expiration date.
86. If we are going to survive and thrive in this new Reformation, we have to do more than point out the weaknesses of the governance structure du jour.
87. Like so many other traditions, UUs have so many committees and meetings it can feel like we’re meeting to death. Making decisions through slow-working committees worked well in the 1950s when many households had one adult who didn’t work outside the home and could volunteer 30 hours a week at church. Most people today don’t have that kind of time.
88. Our way of being church isn’t working for us now and it will only get worse until we figure out how to streamline decision-making.
89. Part of that streamlining will need to include actually following the people we elect to be our leaders. The Board is the leading body of the church. Ministers are non-voting and ex-officio members of that Board, and are charged with helping support and empower their vision for making this church better. Until we get on the same page and start empowering their leadership, we are doomed to a future of frustration, inaction, and unfulfilled promise.
90. Early Unitarian congregations understood themselves to be in relationship with one another and spelled out how they would hold one another accountable. It’s high time we resurrect this part of our tradition that balanced congregational autonomy with the accountability of a larger community.
91. Our congregations aren’t the UUA; the UUA is our congregations.
92. Also, Unitarian Universalism is bigger than the UUA — and that’s a good thing.
93. If we are going to live out our faith and live into our promise as an Association, our congregations must work together. Whether it’s pastoral care, religious exploration, social justice, or just fun and fellowship, the future of church will see congregations working together.
94. It’s best to approach all matters of church and religion with humility, so … any or all of these theses could be wrong.
95. And for our 95th thesis: remember that new truths are always being revealed, so write your own!