This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Reinventing Unitarian Universalism: Three Spiritual but Not Religious Communities

A few years ago, Sunday Assembly and Oasis were seen as the future for church-like communities, with a strong lean towards Humanism and atheism, reminiscent of the Ethical Culture movement. I certainly was "all in," volunteering for the now-defunct Sunday Assembly NYC, and even serving on its board. However, a new trend is emerging, as highlighted in a recent Religion News Service article: the rise of unaffiliated "spiritual communities" that are reinventing (in my opinion) the essence of Unitarian Universalism.

Vinings Lake, led by Pastor Cody Deese, exemplifies this new wave. Describing themselves as an "ever-evolving spiritual collective," they hold Sunday gatherings reminiscent of Christian services but without the dogma. They embrace inclusivity, welcoming people of all or no faiths, and present Jesus in various interpretations. Their values emphasize inclusion, non-judgment, radical generosity, and fighting for justice, seeing the Bible as a collection of inspired works open to interpretation and application in modern contexts. If you are familiar with Unitarian Universalism at all, you're already seeing the strong similarity. 

Aldea represents a similar shift. Like Vinings Lake, it has transformed from an evangelical church into a community bound by shared values rather than rigid beliefs. Their approach dismisses the idea of conversion, focusing instead on a spirituality that is inclusive and non-prescriptive.

Heartway, led by Pastor Danny Prada, also reflects this movement. Prada describes a personal journey of doubt and deconstruction, leading to a community where the emphasis is on experience and practical spirituality, rather than on traditional beliefs and dogma, whether conservative or progressive. This is akin to a common saying in Ethical Culture and the general ethos of Unitarian Universalism: "deeds before creed." These new communities represent a significant shift in spiritual gatherings in relation to traditional evangelical churches, elevating values, inclusivity, and personal spiritual journeys over established doctrines and traditional religious structures.

Vinings Lake, Heartway, and Aldea are communities that prioritize values over strict doctrine. They are committed to inclusion and diversity, actively engage in social justice efforts, and draw wisdom from various religious and spiritual traditions. These groups view Jesus as a model for spiritual living and hold lived experiences as sacred.

In these communities, teachings are approached differently. For instance, the leader of one group bases his teachings on the Bible, but it is viewed as a collection of inspired writings rather than a definitive answer book. Conversely, another leader focuses more on human experiences than any specific religious text. All three pastors incorporate elements from traditions beyond Christianity, reflecting their inclusive approach.

At Vinings Lake, the practice of Communion is uniquely interpreted. Known as “the table,” it is a part of their services where attendees are invited to partake in bread, gluten-free wafers, juice, or wine, which are placed on a table in the center of the room. This practice is marked by minimal preamble, allowing participants the freedom to interpret and engage with the event in their own way. In Unitarian Universalism we have a ceremony of lighting a candle in a chalice at the beginning of services. We do not, however, typically define the meaning of the flaming chalice, leaving it to the individual, much the same way as "the table" at Vinings Lake is personally interpreted.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) could offer valuable support to unaffiliated spiritual communities like those formed by exvangelicals and nones. These communities, still shaping their structures, could benefit from the institutional framework of the UUA. This includes establishing safeguarding and accountability measures, and providing student curricula based on spiritual values rather than specific beliefs. Each community, whether it's Vinings Lake with its board of directors, Aldea with a leadership team, or others led by core leaders, could find the UUA's resources helpful.

For example, the UUA has developed comprehensive curricula, such as Our Whole Lives (OWL), which provides honest, accurate information about sexuality. OWL is designed to dismantle stereotypes, build self-esteem, foster healthy relationships, and improve decision-making. It covers a wide range of topics, including relationships, gender identity, sexual health, and cultural influences on sexuality. OWL's approach includes accurate information presented in age-appropriate ways, emotional learning, guiding values, activities for clarifying values and decision-making, and a safe, supportive, diverse peer group. This program, while secular, promotes key values such as self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice, and inclusivity, respecting diversity in all its forms.

However, the UUA may not align perfectly with these new spiritual communities. The UUA, despite its perception of being relaxed and open, maintains its own traditions and a certain level of formality, especially regarding ministerial roles. For instance, congregations must adhere to strict rules, such as a two-year no-contact period with ministers who leave their position. The process of becoming a minister involves numerous steps, including ordination and fellowship, which may be viewed as overly bureaucratic and formal by these emerging communities. This level of formalism and the inherent bureaucracy in UUA might not resonate with groups that prefer less structured or more fluid organizational models. Therefore, while the UUA offers valuable resources and frameworks, its specific approach and regulations might not be a perfect fit for every community.

As we observe the evolving landscape of spiritual communities, it's evident that the emergence of groups like Vinings Lake, Aldea, and Heartway signals a significant shift in the realm of collective spiritual experience. These communities, breaking away from traditional religious structures, are forging a new path that emphasizes inclusivity, personal growth, and a broader, more accepting view of spirituality. Their approach, which combines elements of traditional worship with a progressive, open-minded ethos, resonates with a growing demographic seeking a spiritual connection free from the confines of dogma. While the support and structure offered by organizations like the Unitarian Universalist Association could provide valuable scaffolding for these emerging groups, there remains a delicate balance to be struck between institutional support and maintaining the fluid, non-hierarchical ethos that defines these communities. The journey of these spiritual collectives, navigating between the old and the new, mirrors the evolving nature of faith and community in our contemporary world, highlighting a collective yearning for spaces that honor diversity, encourage questioning, and celebrate the richness of human experience in all its forms.