Can You Say “UU Evangelism?”
A sermon by Jane Page delivered on December 1, 2002 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro.
I want to be a UU Evangelist! My partner Greg asked me, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
In fact, a Yahoo internet search using the words “UU Evangelism” produced 28 matches. “UU Evangelist” produced another 66. There is a UU Evangelism Project with materials you can order from UUA. And, many Unitarian Universalist ministers are openly proclaiming themselves as evangelists! Then WHY do some of us shudder at the word evangelist. Probably because the term has stereotypically been used with the likes of less than noble fundamentalist preachers. The character Elmer Gantry is the type that comes to mind. I haven’t seen that film in ages, but a quote in a sermon by Robin Zuckerman reminded me of that fiery preacher. She tells her listener’s,
If you’ve read the searing Sinclair Lewis novel or seen the melodramatic Burt Lancaster film, then you’ve met Elmer Gantry, the engaging, but scandalous Midwestern shoe salesman turned charismatic preacher in the 1920’s. The quintessential revivalist showman, Brother Gantry, with rolled-up shirt sleeves, preaches hellfire and brimstone, thumps his Bible, performs alleged miracles, and leads repentant sinners to conversion through his touring tent ministry.
With mesmerizing eloquence, Gantry exhorts one crowd: “Sin, sin, sin. You’re all sinners. You’re doomed to perdition. You’re all going to the painful, stinkin’, scaldin,’ everlastin’ tortures of a fiery hell, created by God for sinners… unless, unless, unless you repent.”
And the people all said, — “AMEN”
When I was nine years old, I was “saved” when a visiting evangelist came to our revival at First Baptist Church here in Statesboro. Of course the first order of the day was convincing me I was lost. Fears of dying in my sleep without having made that all important decision and proclaiming it publicly had haunted me a bit. But it wasn’t fear that encouraged me to step forward. It was the glorious good news that Preacher Robinson was sharing with us. We had a wonderful savior and friend in Jesus. Someone that would be there for us and look after our every need. Someone who loved us supremely. So much that he gave his life for us. And he was standing there at the door of my heart – knocking – knocking -knockng. And all I had to do was let him in.
At nine, I had bought into all that was taught to me in Sunday School and church. I had not yet reached the stage of reasoning that developmental psychologist Jean Piaget calls Formal Operations which would enable me to think more abstractly about various possibilities.. My more concrete inductive logical reasoning however was pretty good. And I figured that if salvation was working so wondrously well for all of these folk at First Baptist Church, then it would work for me too. And it did for a while.
But like most of you, I have a questioning mind. And when my mind moved into that gear as a teenager, the old answers didn’t work. Now, I went through years of feeling guilty about initially doubting and later plain old disbelieving many of the things that were taught to me. Preacher Robinson’s Good News just wasn’t good for me anymore. And it wasn’t until MANY years later that I heard the Good News of Unitarian Universalists. And I heard it on a cable television show on the religion network. The Good News I heard was that there were others like me and that they were a part of a wonderful religious movement called Unitarian Universalism. Now it’s a shame that I did not hear this sooner since there was already a UU congregation in Statesboro at that time. But these folks – like many of us today – kept to themselves religiously – and when at work and at play told no one about Unitarian Universalism. WHY? After all, folks talk about other things they are involved in – clubs, sports, charitable organizations. Things like that just come up in conversation if it’s something you are really involved with. You know, like one of our members sharing with me at school the other day about the fun she had with the GSU women’s group at the wine and cheeze party. So why do we keep our religion in the closet?
It seems that most Unitarian Universalists are so afraid of seeming to be proselytizing that they don’t share anything.
Our Universalist parentage would say, “Ya’ll didn’t get that from OUR side of the family!!”
Listen to this excerpt from a chapter written by the Rev. John C. Morgan and published in the book Salted with Fire edited by Scott Alexander. In this narrative, Morgan attempts to exemplify the challenges and strong evangelical commitment of the Universalist circuit rider.
The Reverend George Rogers (1804-1846), was an intriguing, often humorous Universalist evangelist who spread Universalist ideas and institutions far and wide. During his ministry, Rogers preached in almost all the states of the union and ventured into parts of Canada as well…
It is to his first evangelistic journey that I turn as a way of illustrating how these early circuit riders functioned. In December, 1834, Rogers began a missionary trip to the “West” (Ohio). His mode of travel was horseback, and he recounts stories of snow and dangers throughout. In the first part of his trip, he preached wherever he could: Easton, Reading, Bethlehem, Wommelsdorf (where he spoke in English to a Ger man congregation), Pottsville, and Reamstown. Finally, he preached at a German Lutheran Church in Lancaster, where a mob rushed the place, attacking the vestryman and attempting “to strangle the sexton.” This meeting was canceled, and Rogers continued to Harrisburg, then a city of 4,000, where he preached in the Unitarian church, “not to large congregations, for it is a place of no small amount of bigotry.” Rogers did note, however, that in Harrisburg many of the Lutheran pastors tended to hold Universalist views privately.
In Pittsburgh, Rogers sought out friends and spoke at the courthouse in spite of local opposition, believing himself to be the first Universalist preacher to do so. Local clergy arrived to protest his visit; rocks were thrown through the windows, and some were broken. Rogers informed those gathered that their behavior gave evidence against the religion they purported to believe. “Let me tell you, my friends,” he said, “you have mistaken your man; I am not thus to be stopped: I would preach the love of God at the martyr’s stake.” Soon, 200 people came to another meeting.
Rogers’ evangelistic style, and that of others, illustrates a number of important lessons for us today. First, and most obvious, there was a heartfelt, saving message these circuit riders had to share. In a day when we hesitate to travel more than twenty minutes to church, their commitment puts us to shame. Second, the style worked to spread the good news and provide visibility. It was controversial in nature, but it shared our gospel with others wherever it might be heard. Third, it was dependent on a charismatic figure. And fourth, it emphasized personal evangelism, leading to a change of heart and behavior.
Many of us do have good reason to steer clear of proselytizing though.
But there IS a difference in proselytizing and evangelizing. As the Rev. Tony Larsen wrote, “Sharing is different from shoving.”
To proselytize is “to induce someone to convert to one’s faith.” An evangelist, according to the Random House college dictionary is “a person marked by zealous enthusiasm for or support of a cause.”
And if that is the case – a UU evangelist I will be.
Evangelism literally means to “spread the good news.” I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is – do we have good news to share. I say we do.
I was attempting to do just that along with Pauline DeLaar and Greg Brock at the Georgia Southern Religious Awareness Fair on Thursday, November 14. Although students didn’t exactly rush to our table looking for us to share, I did manage to hand flyers to them as they passed by. Many of these flyers may have been thrown in the trash; but perhaps the students at least lookedat them at a bit and became aware that we existed. And that’s a start.
A newspaper reporter from the Savannah morning news came by and interviewed me. She asked, “Are you attempting to SELL your religion here?” My response was, “No.”
Our efforts were toward making folks aware of who we are and aware that we are here. I told her that we were not to convert. But many of these students have rejected the religion of their youth and therefore felt that they had to reject all religion. We wanted them to know that they could question and change their ideas about their beliefs as well as explore other possibilities and there was a religious movement in which they could do just that. We weren’t proselytizing but we were certainly evangelizing!
Now, admittedly, Unitarian Univeralism may not be that easy to explain to folks who have lived their lives believing that a religion should lead you to absolute truths. Here’s a UU joke for you. What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist? Someone who knocks on your door but can’t tell you why he is there.
But just because it may be challenging, that doesn’t mean we should avoid sharing. I really took on a challenge recently when I presented a message exploring marriage and its alternatives to a room full of mostly conservative Christians during Religious Awareness Week at Georgia Southern. Most of the follow-up questions were from students with very fundamentalist perspectives. Interestingly enough, the questions dealt more with Unitarian Universalism and what we believe than they did about the topic of marriage. So this was a good challenge for me as a candidate for the ministry because I had to respondon the spot and hopefully not offend these well meaning folks. But most of us will not be in situations like that. And we can prepare a little bit about how to respond. Then when we do bring up what we heard at church or at our potluck, or whatever and are ASKED about Unitarian Universalism, we can feel comfortable in providing a response.
A few summers ago, I attended a Leadership Training Conference in which the participants had to practice explaining GLSEN (which is the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) when asked about it on an elevator. Basically that meant you had very little time – depending of course on what floor you were on. After a little practice, most of us were able to meet that challenge in a respectable manner. Some folks felt more comfortable memorizing something and while others were able to share from a more impromtu perspective. In any case, we were challenged to get the major points across. Perhaps this “elevator exercise” would be good for Untiarian Universalists to practice as well.
Rob Alexander shares in his sermon that he usually replies to queries about UU with this 15 second explanation.
We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all living things, and the right and responsibility of each individual to seek truth and meaning along their own spiritual path. That means that we may take our lessons from the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism Hinduism, Native American spirituality, or any other moral teachings that can help us in our daily lives.
That explanation appeals to me because it shares what we ARE rather than what we ARE NOT.
I’m not suggesting that everyone write that phrase down on a card and memorize it because his statement may not adequately reflect what you deem as important in Unitarian Universalism. But I do believe that each of us needs to THINK about what is important and what is good and share that good news.
After my presentation to the University students the other day, a young lady walked up to me and said, “You know this UU sounds exactly like what I am. I didn’t know that any religion existed like this.” As she was sharing this with me, another student walked up and asked what time our services were. So I’m especially glad that I presented information about UU because of these two students who were looking for a spiritual community. But I’m also glad that I shared withothers who were content and satisfied with their faith because theyalso need to know who we are. As Rev. Joanna Crawford stated in a sermon delivered last month:
We have to share the good news of our church and our religion not only with folks we hope that will come visit us, but even those polite souls who have already found a church that best fits them. We do not have to duck our heads when asked “What church do you go to?” or “What do you believe?” Our goal should be not just to grow our church or grow Unitarian Universalism, but to educate the world about who we are.
And I agree!
Yes my friends, I AM going to be a Unitarian Universalist evangelist! I hope that doesn’t bother those of you in this congregation. And in fact, I hope that you will join me to the degree you feel comfortable in sharing our wonderful good news.I’d like to close with a little meditative, contemplative time. I invite you to close your eyes, and consider these questions: (modified from some asked by Melora Lynn Crooker).
- What do you think is good about Unitarian Universalism? What do you think is uniquely good about Unitarian Universalism?
- Think about your own beliefs and values: What do you believe? What is important to you? What do you care about?
- How are your beliefs and values reflected in your actions?
- If someone asked you, “what is Unitarian Universalism?” how would you answer?
As you open your eyes, I’ll close this meditative time with the words of Universalist Preacher John Murray:
“Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine.”
(Sing) “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” – Sing with me.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
“Ths little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”
AMEN and Blessed BE.
© 2002 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.