Our Mission: Transforming Shared Values into Action in the World

A sermon by Tiffany Reed

Tiffany Reed found her spiritual home at First Unitarian in 2010. She serves on the Prudential Committee as the Stewardship Liaison and provided counsel to our recent capital campaign. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she spends her days providing strategic support to a team of consultants, as well as working directly with nonprofits across New England to help them reach fundraising goals and fulfill their missions.

Audio Recording

To listen to the talk by Tiffany Reed, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box:

Sermon Text

Good morning. Thanks to so many of you for being here.

Many of you probably remember from previous church meetings that I get a little bit of anxiety when it comes to public speaking. I speak in front of groups all the time for professional purposes but don’t do it often for something that I’ve written, creatively, from scratch, that’s not technical, etc. When I was asked to speak at a summer service, I said yes because I thought I would push myself to do something that made me uncomfortable, and second, because I knew as soon as I was asked exactly what I wanted to speak about. I was working professionally with a client at the time that was causing me to reflect a lot on my own religious path, and on the religion we share as Unitarian Universalists, and I wanted to share some of what they are doing and how I think it applies to us, with you.

I think when I was asked to speak, folks were hoping or thought that I might talk about social justice or the responsibility we have as mostly middle-upper class, white people to dismantle white supremacy and other institutions that uphold inequality in our society. And I think this talk is about that – and I hope by the end, you think so, too. Today I’m going to talk to you, broadly, about mission – and along the way we’ll talk about the decline of Christendom, the idea of being a missional church, and how, I believe, we should leave behind anxiety over money in pursuit of finding justice in the world.

Recently I had the privilege to work with the Right Reverend Ian T. Douglas, Bishop Diocesan of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Before being elected Bishop in Connecticut, he was a theology professor, so he’s a theology wonk.  I learned something really interesting the first day I sat down with Bishop Ian. He mentioned this phrase, “post-christendom.” It’s a mouthful. So, this is the history portion of the morning. Christendom is, or was, the all-encompassing social, political, cultural, and economic system that places the church centrally to the life of a people and nation – essentially, the privileging of churches as institutions in our society. One of the ways that we see this, practically, is this building and where it is located – and I think it’s even more evident in small towns in New England, when you go to the village green or town center and find six churches sitting there, prime real estate. Other examples are Blue laws, which were widespread for many generations, and along with them, the sacredness of Sunday mornings – Sundays were for church.

Prior to the 1960s, churches in America thrived – most children were socialized in a Christian society, and the Church had vast influence over education, law, politics, and of course, morality. The 1960s brought about cultural change and a change to religion that one scholar noted might, at some point in the future, be viewed as “as profound as that change brought about by the Reformation.” Much of the progress that we associate with the 1960s – the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, the Sexual Revolution – threw religious institutions into a world in which they no longer knew how to operate or where they stood. Theologian Alan Roxburgh calls this “the unraveling” of Euro-tribal churches in North America – Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics,… and Unitarian Universalists. So what does post-Christendom look like in American society? Primarily, we have fewer people in the pews, and we collect less money in the plate. Churches are no longer privileged institutions – soccer practice happens on Sunday mornings. One of my closest friends brings her daughter to gymnastics while I bring mine to Sunday School.

Some churches are struggling now more than others. Our church is blessed in that our pews are full. Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves of that; we have a significant youth religious education program and a full church on Sunday. In my work, about one-third of the business we do is with churches and dioceses, and it is far more likely that a church I encounter does not have a Sunday School. I couldn’t find any statistics on it, but I would guess that only 25% to one-third of churches today have a functional Sunday School. In the US, as a rule, young families are not bringing their children to church. That’s not the case here. But we are facing a financial struggle; we don’t receive enough philanthropic gifts to sustain us as a Church without utilizing our endowment. I think we all recognize this is a problem, and we see its effects: we aren’t staffed the way a church of our size should be; we have deferred maintenance, even after running a successful capital campaign; and I know there are programs folks wish we could do, and causes we wish we could support, that don’t happen due to financial restraints. That is how we are experiencing post-Christendom here at First U.

So, over the next few minutes I’m going to use the word God a lot. But I want those of you in this meeting house who don’t believe in God or a higher power, to try to ignore that word. Because I think the ideas work if we substitute “seven principles” for God.

So, it’s in this context that Episcopalians in Connecticut are considering the following questions – questions a version of which I think we are asking ourselves here at First Unitarian: “How might God be calling us to be a new kind of church in the 21st century? What is God up to in your community? How can the Church better empower you to join God’s mission in your neighborhood?” These questions have their roots in a theological belief called missiology. So now we’ve reached the amateur theological discussion you were promised. Missiology is something even Ph.D. theology students struggle to define, but it relates to carrying out the mission of God in the world.  Bishop Ian and other theologians call this era we are in a “new missional age” – because, as I’m sure you can imagine, claiming that we are in an era of post-Christendom can be somewhat anxiety-inducing to folks in the pews. So what does it mean to be in a new missional age – or for a church to be “missional”? The Rev. Dr. Donald Carson defines a missional church as an “authentic community of faith that primarily directs its ministry focus outward toward the context in which it is located and to the broader world beyond.”

Bishop Ian, who you can hear speak quite eloquently on this topic on youtube, would say that being a missional church means focusing on participating in the mission of God in the world, and not maintenance of an institution. Alan Roxburgh talks a lot about “traveling lightly and following Jesus into the neighborhood,” which is what our reading from Luke is really all about. In his book, Joining God, Remaking the Church, Changing the World, Roxburgh encourage the exercise of “walking the neighborhood” – go out in groups, and map your community. Talk to the people there. Sometimes it feels like we are so busy in our church that we have lost touch with our neighbors. Part of this mapping exercise is for them to look for God working in the world, and to try to join that work. It’s about asking what your community needs, and how you might work together as a community to address those needs – to do “god’s work.”

A lot of churches today are so focused on filling pews, and raising money, that they forget about why they are there; they forget about their mission. In my work, we talk to ALL our nonprofit clients that aren’t churches about mission ALL THE TIME. Your mission is what raises money – it’s the only way to raise money, by talking about your mission and its impact over and over again. But it’s interesting because when we talk to churches, mission doesn’t come up as much. And that got me thinking about our mission, here at First Unitarian.

First, I want to remind us of the reason that we are all here. This talk really wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t talk about First U’s mission statement:

“The First Unitarian Church of Providence is a safe harbor that welcomes liberal religious seekers. With intention, energy, commitment and love, the people of this diverse faith community gather to:

  • replenish and expand the spirit and the mind throughout life’s journey
  • honor each other’s gifts and minister to each other, and
  • transform shared values into action in the world.”

I would argue that now is the time to focus on the third piece of our mission statement – if the title of today’s talk hadn’t already given that away.

Although I could be wrong, I think we’re all here because we believe in the seven principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

In the Episcopal Church, the Church’s mission is God’s mission; that being “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” … that doesn’t sound that different from the mission that the seven principles encompass. Isn’t restoring all people to unity at a minimum, having respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part? Wouldn’t that mean a community with peace, liberty, and justice for all? It would mean having justice, equity, and compassion in all human relations and that each human being was recognized as having worth and dignity, not just in theory or words, but in practice.

I was raised Episcopalian and came to First U, not for the seven principles or the mission statement, but because I was drawn to the idea of a liberal religious tradition. I wasn’t really sure what Episcopalians were doing in the world, and UUs talk a real good game. But I’m hoping that this year and in the years to come we can work towards becoming a missional church – an authentic community of faith that primarily directs its ministry focus outward toward the context in which it is located and to the broader world beyond. It is my hope that we can leave behind the anxiety over money and full pews – not in pursuit of bringing or joining God’s mission in the world, pe se – but in pursuit of joining with others working to bring justice into the world. For this to be our primary focus in all that we do. We’re working on it. Our involvement in passing gun control legislation, our public support for the black lives matter movement, and of course, our becoming a sanctuary church. But there is still work left to do.

Rev. Dr. Thandeka will be joining us soon. Her Love Beyond Belief program – here I’m quoting you, Cynthia – will help us to review and transform everything that we do — in worship, in our meetings, in our communications with one another — to infuse all of it with love and to heal the brokenheartedness. By participating in her program, we will join a coalition of congregations who have experienced her program so that we can share information and create a greater force out into the world (writ large and small) and our communities. When Cynthia shared that with me, I was reminded of something the author and public speaker Glennon Doyle has said in response to people who write her who want to find their purpose. Glennon’s response is: “What breaks your heart? That’s your purpose. Find the people working to fix it and join them.” Now, we’re already here together – I suspect with a bunch of broken hearts. So let’s turn that heartbreak into our purpose – our MISSION.

In fact, I would argue that if First U focuses on that – finding the heartbreak, going out into our community and serving alongside our neighbors, living the seven principles – the anxiety over finances may seem not only insignificant but might simply go away. Donors respond to a strong mission; and I have no doubt that by working to realize justice in the world, by opening our doors and becoming truly a part of our community – finding the people fixing the problem and joining them – we would grow our own community. And if not…? Putting our shared values into action in the world is far more important a pursuit than simply maintaining an institution. Randy Ferebee, in his book Cultivating the Missional Church: New Soil for Growing Vestries and Leaders, says that if the church is to have a future it needs to move: from the center to the margin, from majority to minority status, from being settlers to sojourners, from privilege to plurality, from an emphasis on control to witness, from maintenance to mission, and from being an institution to that of a movement.” Here at First Unitarian, may it be so.