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When asked what objections she had to the institution of marriage, Gloria Steinem is said to have replied, “None. I just don’t want to live in an institution.”

In church parlance, I’m an institutionalist, meaning I believe it’s important to sustain the structures that make it possible to do the real work of the church. But that doesn’t mean the church has to be An Institution. A church becomes An Institution when it focuses so intently on its buildings, its long-established programs, etc., that it thinks those are the real work of the church. It forgets for long stretches at a time the purpose for which all those institutional structures were created.

One of the buzzwords I hear in my travels around the UU Growth Lab and blogosphere is “missional.” Some of the most interesting, passionate, grounded Unitarian Universalists I know want us to be a more “missional church.” I’m constitutionally suspicious of buzzwords, and one of the things I do when I’m trying to get under a buzzword to any truth that may lie beneath is to ask, “What questions guide a person who is [buzzword]?” In other words, if you’re doing church in a missional way, what question or questions guide your decisions?

It seems to me that the central question one asks in a missional church is: what does our religion call us to do in the world?

And then you answer by going and doing it. From there it follows that the task of the church is to inspire and equip people to carry out the mission. Institution-building is a key part of the process, but only as a means to realizing the mission. I must be a missional church person, because this is the question I want to be asking and answering daily.

Here’s one (non-UU) minister’s statement of what his church will look like when it’s made the missional shift.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure I want to say that the shift he describes here didn’t work. Why it didn’t is of more interest to church-planters; for people like me who serve a church that’s been around for 60-plus years, the challenge is not to “start it the way you dream it” but to make a change that will stick. That is a complex question (more on it soon), but the answer starts with the question I posed above: ask what our religion calls us to do in the world. Keep asking. Do it. Do it some more. Ask “Was that really it?” Repeat. Deepen.

To see one way UUs can put the missional question at the center of a ministry, read about Ron Robinson’s ministry in (to! with!) Turley, Oklahoma.


Starting on October 1, I’ll be part of a group committed to doing the practices in the book 100 Ways to Keep Your Soul Alive, by Frederic Brussat. The book’s back cover describes it insipidly (“a care package for the soul”), but the brief readings and accompanying practices belie that glibness. We’ll do one per day.

If you want to join in, look for the Facebook group “100 Ways to Save Your Life.” For some reason having to do with maintaining the privacy of people’s posts, it’s a closed group, but if the moderator has set it up the way he intended to, you’ll be able to request entry.

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