Expanding Our Concept of Congregation

“I am evangelical Christian who no longer attends church,” said the 28-year-old interfaith leader who spoke at the Thanksgiving Service. I was sitting with him and other faith leaders at dinner.

“Well, not church with a building and such,” he explained. “Most of my religious journey is online. Think about it. I can hear the best religious speakers of our time whenever it works for my schedule. I can chat and even plan meet-ups with other Evangelicals or my interfaith friends. It’s expanding the very nature of congregational life!”

He went on to share a story about a minister who has started a “bar ministry” in New York. Every week the minister gathers with 10-12 people in a bar for Bible reflection and conversation. “Ten people doesn’t sound like a lot,” our speaker said, “until you realize that 50,000 people watch his online sermon weekly.” Afterwards they click on Bible passages and reflection questions. They read others’ comments and journeys. Then, they gather in their own bars (or coffee shops or homes) in their own cities with their own friends to discuss the message and share their lives through their faith journey.

I wasn’t surprised by his story. I have already seen how the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) is changing. It has always been a “church without walls,” in that it was a “congregation” for Unitarian Universalists who didn’t have a physical community close-by. Now, CLF is transforming into an online sanctuary and spiritual community not unlike the bar ministry. It is a site where people – some with UU congregations in their backyards and others who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism – attend services online, find spiritual partners and join a prison or military ministry. As you explore their website, “Talk to a Minister” even pops up on your screen.

In a recent report to our Board of Trustees, our web gurus showed how our website – with its sermon podcasts, latest reflections, and opportunities for spiritual practice – is being explored by people who will never enter our sanctuary. Yet, our community is helping them grow their soul.

Yesterday I opened a letter from Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He is challenging Unitarian Universalists to begin thinking of ourselves as bigger than our congregations. While congregations would remain our association’s base, says Morales, we are invited and encouraged to recognize all of the invisible people sitting at their desks or traveling on a train or taking their daily walk all while listening to Vanessa’s message.

Imagine one day traveling to Australia or Kansas or Chile or Zimbabwe (you fill in the place) and striking up a conversation with a local. You share that you are from New Jersey. They smile, “That’s where my congregation is based.” Conversely, if you who are reading this blog are from somewhere else, imagine being visited by someone in our congregation!

It feels like a paradigm shift. Some of you might be shaking your heads and saying, “This is beyond me.” Others will be ready to seize the opportunity. Regardless, I look forward to seeing you – whether it’s ten of you at a bar, 300 on Sunday morning in the sanctuary, or 50,000 through our website!

About Rev. Emilie Boggis

Emilie is Minister of Congregational Life at The Unitarian Church in Summit.