Unitarian Universalist Evangelism: Sharing, not shoving.

UU Evangelism CoverEvery so often the I Am UU team gets some push-back about our use of the word “Evangelism.” It has developed a bad connotation for a lot of people who think of “Evangelize” as synonymous with “Proselytize.” The words are related, but prosthelization is about trying to convince someone and convert them to your way of thinking. Evangelism is just sharing something with someone because you think it might be good for them. It is about engaging people, and not ensnaring them.

Over on the Facebook page, John Bushnell shared his view on Unitarian Universalist evangelism:

A while back some folks were talking about movies.  So I mentioned one I recently saw, sharing a few things I liked about it.  I didn’t try to convince people that they had to enjoy it too; I realize some people have different tastes.  I was doing movie evangelism–sharing my experience and values.  I didn’t expect to persuade (proselytize) anyone to change the types of shows they see.  Yet I thought a few might enjoy the movie if they knew what it was about.  I approach UU evangelism the same way.  I share my experience and values.  Some appreciate learning about UU-ism (often for the first time.)  Others don’t, so we talk about something else.

That is a great way to look at the kind of outreach that we advocate here:  share your ideas, and let people know that you are part of a community that affirms and promotes a set of Principles that help guide you.  If they aren’t interested, you let the conversation move on.  That shows respect for their personal dignity and their search for truth and meaning in their life, both by offering to explore ideas with them and by allowing them to say no.  The invitation, the offer to share and to listen, shows your respect for them by suggesting that your community has room for them and that their voice is welcome.

This attitude of presenting without the expectation of a specific outcome is valuable even when we have an idea that our partners in conversation are actually interested in learning more.  In being comfortable with them turning the conversation to other topics, we allow our friends to choose how much information they take in at one time.  So many of those who come gradually to Unitarian Universalism are coming from places where they felt controlled or injured by other religious organizations, and it’s important to remember that they may be very sensitive to even mild pressure to adopt another’s point of view.  They may be very interested yet still want to break away from the conversation quickly.  Because we put effort into actively respecting their feelings, we can allow them to dip their toes in with no creepy undertones suggesting that we’re waiting until they look away to shove them in clothes and all (and ruining their cellphone in the process).

Equally important to sharing our version of faith with others who might be interested in adopting it, sharing with people who will never have any intention of joining has its own benefits.  I have never been Catholic, nor Methodist, nor Jewish… but I have a vague framework of cultural references that help me to place them within our social structure.  People of many faiths share enough of their beliefs and practices that outsiders know how to relate to them.  This leads to greater acceptance of their rights to hold beliefs that not everyone agrees with.  We need to be among those faiths in being recognized so that people can have a generalization to work from.  Every mention of a UU project or program or goal informs the world’s opinion of what Unitarian Universalism is.  Each time we casually mention the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, the Our Whole Lives curriculum, or the work social action groups do with Habitat for Humanity, we add another brush stroke to the collective mental painting of what UU stands for, and we increase the likelihood of finding allies.

In promising together to affirm (confidently stating that something is true) and promote (to actively support the growth or progress of) our set of guiding Principles, we’re agreeing that our intention is to publicly encourage others to consider accepting these ideas and acting on them in their own lives.  Each time we share, we are planting a seed that could lead to a little more compassion, an additional action toward greater justice, or one more voice speaking up for the disadvantaged.  We are shaping the world we live in.  Outreach is essential to fully living up to our Principles.

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7 Responses to Unitarian Universalist Evangelism: Sharing, not shoving.

  1. C.C. January 28, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    Hmmm… I am among those who are averse to religious language, and the word “evangelism” is no exception. I do understand the distinction between it and proselytizing, though, and I agree that evangelizing is definitely preferable and more positive. However, to me, “promoting” the Principles is about actively supporting their growth and progress within my own life, not necessarily about encouraging others to live them in any way other than by shining example. Once you begin to advocate “encouraging” their acceptance, I perceive it as crossing the line from “mere” evangelism into proselytizing.
    Which is to say that I do not agree that living up to our principles means “we’re agreeing that our intention is to publicly encourage others to consider accepting these ideas and acting on them in their own lives”, because if it *is, I’d rather not live up to that at all.

    Another “valued voice”,

    • Thomas January 28, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

      Of course you have every right to your opinion, but that opinion needs to become the minority opinion, or we aren’t going to last another 50 years, nor should we. We need people who actually believe that Unitarian Universalism is good for the world, and believe it strongly enough to want to share that.

      Peter Morales wrote of evangelism that:
      “It arises from the deepest place of our sense of what is sacred, of what it means to live religiously. Evangelism is the natural result of a deep belief that we Unitarian Universalists have something important and precious to offer.”

      The bylaws don’t tell us what definition they use for “Promote”, but since we are already “affirming” the Principles, it seems pretty clear that the step after that is to encourage the rest of the world to use them as a guide for interaction. Indeed, isn’t that the point of social action and the Standing on the Side of Love campaign? We want other people to see our Principles as good guidelines for sharing our planet with one another. Or, most of us do.

      • C.C. January 28, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

        Thomas – I could be misreading your tone, but you seem angered by my viewpoint. Why is that? (It could be because you mistakenly misinterpret my words to indicate that I do not believe that “Unitarian Universalism is good for the world”. That’s not the case.)

        I agree with much what you state here, but I believe that allowing the rest of the world to “see our Principles as good guidelines” can be done by living that example, without necessarily talking it up and “selling” the faith. I hope that I inspire others to live these values by living them myself. I am aware that many UU’s disagree and favor a more aggressive method of sharing the “faith”, but personally, I can’t embrace that. It makes me uncomfortable, just like I don’t care to be aggressively evangelized to. I write and co-edit a UU blog (which is shared with many in the larger community), I am active in my church community, and when anyone asks, I tell them what we are about. I just don’t “advertise”.
        And while I understand your pronouncement that if everyone felt the way I do the church would not be sustainable, I disagree with the notion that it means that we *shouldn’t last. I fail to understand why people choosing to live the Principles without vocally selling them to others makes UUism *unworthy* of longevity.

        ~ C.C.

      • Thomas January 28, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

        C.C.: I’m not angry. I am disappointed. There are always Unitarian Universalists who find a post about outreach on a blog and try to tell the author to stop rocking the boat and just let our movement die. That’s not what they think they are saying, of course, but it is what will happen if we don’t get excited about our faith.

        It doesn’t matter how many good works you do, or how many lives you change; if you never tell anyone that you are moved by the Principles of your faith, then Unitarian Universalism will stay a secret club until it folds. Our good works don’t actually spread our values. Ideas require communication.

        No one is asking for aggressive action of any sort. The use of that word makes it clear that you didn’t get the point of this post at all. We should tell people that our actions are informed by the Principles we share with our faith community. That isn’t aggressive sales any more than saying, as Mr Bushnell talked about. “I really liked this movie. You might get something out of seeing it, too.” We do that all the time with restaurants and books. Why don’t we care as much about our churches?

      • C.C. January 28, 2014 at 11:08 pm #

        I did get the point of the post, and I was pointing out why many UU’s might feel differently, as well as taking exception to the notion that we are *required by our covenant to evangelize. (Nowhere did I suggest that others should not feel or act differently than I. My initial response was not a criticism of those who choose to evangelize, and I do not see them as “rocking the boat”.)
        To me, telling someone about a movie I liked (or a church I love) is one thing. I would stop short of stating they “might get something out of it, too.” I’d think that, if they liked my description, they’d know whether they might get something out of it, it’s not my place to assume that for them. I suppose that’s just my way.
        And I believe that our actions *are a form of communication. People who know me are often surprised that I am affiliated with a church, because I am not “religious” in the traditional sense. They *ask me about my church, and I tell them. But if I were to volunteer the information “unsolicited”, as though assuming it’s something they might be interested in, I do not believe they would be as receptive and interested to hear it (primarily because I know that if I were on the receiving end of such communication it would turn me off).
        I understand you, I simply feel differently. One of the great things about UU is that that is not only okay, it’s welcomed.

  2. G J January 28, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

    Because my life was changed by Unitarian Universalism, and because it happened to be one of the only options for my family to safely attend church, because it was the first church I ever attended that allowed women to speak, because it allowed me as a woman prohibited from achieving an education by my previous church, to rise to District Board level and also become a Lay Preacher, but mostly because I lived within fifteen minutes of the local UU church for twenty years without even knowing it existed, I gently tell anyone who will listen how grateful I am, how energized and enriched my life has been by my faith.

    I will tell the story of how empowered I have become, how much I have grown, how incredibly I have been supported by the UUA. Call it what you will, but simply telling people how much my church means to me is a powerful way of spreading love to those who might not hear about it any other way. If everyone had freedom to search and grow and seek, then fine, evangelism is not needed. But if like me, you know there are still hundreds of thousands of people who are being controlled by their churches and actively repressed by harmful dogma, then you will gently share the good news and let those who are interested ask for more.

  3. Michael Hipps February 9, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Before I came to UU, I was a member of the United Church of Christ. A pastor friend of mine described the UCC as, “as far left as you can go before you become a UU.” LOL Well, you know what happened to me.

    What I didn’t realize until I got to UU was that, for many, UU is an escape from instead of a journey toward. Many people who get to UU have been severely damaged by other religions (primarily Christian) and so escape to UU as a place to heal and rebuild. Unfortunately, I don’t find (at least in my four years as a UU) our congregations a place to have that healing conversation. Instead, I think a lot of people are met by many people who ALSO ran from their damaging religious situation.

    Fortunately, for me, I had years to heal and to regroup and decide where I wanted to be spiritually and religiously. Our congregation recently had what I call the “E Word Controversy” when someone objected to our congregation being referred to (in an internal document) as filled with committed, evangelical Unitarian Universalists. I was stunned when, no matter how you tried to explain to some people that the phrase didn’t mean proselytize or anything requiring people to suddenly pass out pamphlets on street corners, people seethed in anger and some yelled and left the congregation. It was nearly impossible to have a respectful, convenantal conversation.

    I agree that if we as UUs don’t start turning outward and start healing from prior religious damage our wonderful denomination will just fade into oblivion. I would hate to think that that will happen by the time I die. But, if it does and I’m one of the last ones left, I promise to turn the light out.

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