The historical approach to data the liberal churhes take — certainly an approach I’ve seen in my own life — begins and ends with collection. The liberal religionist is commonly described as a seeker, and the faithful life of such a seeker is to collect. Collect ideas about other religions, collect experiences, collect options and — oh my back! — collect books. Collect these things as proof of the endeavor, and perhaps even as a social marker to show you’re moving up. (A feature of class re-location within Unitarian Universalism, but that’s another subject.) The older concept was to distill the best of what you found and apply the finding as Good Living or Applied Ethics or Pure Christianity. The Capital Letters signal a Guiding Light. (Wait, that’s also another subject.)
Today that’s almost completely unraveled. The age of ministers who led that kind of thinking is (almost) gone. Postmodern thinking and identity politics makes it suspect, at least in our circles, though there are still feel-good preachers, lightly draped in historic Christianity but preaching Prosperity Gospel who show the power of the phenomenon. But it isn’t ours.
Instead the collection feeds on itself, like an episode of Hoarders. For the better part of a generation, new Unitarian Universalist congregation have been expected to be collectors of collectors: an esoteric mass of esoteric seekers. In theory, this might be fine, provided there are the resources and leadership to let people grow and mature, but that would be a mammoth undertaking, even with the best planning. For years, new congregations have grown to peak at a scant few dozen members with little evidence of sustained on-site professional development help. This model isn’t working, and the failings are at the roots.
The new successful restaurants in D.C. have certain common themes: they’re well-designed for ease of access, are inexpensive but are driven by volume and have stripped-down menus. If you don’t want a hamburger or cupcake or rice bowl or frozen yogurt and you’re at that kind of eatery, then you’re out of luck.
When I think of good websites at which to learn or get information, I recall certain themes: they stick to a core offering, it’s easy to register and other content is kept to a minimum. Good ones get talked up.
Both examples deal with curation, which I promised to speak on. I suspect the role of religious leadership is no longer to stack the rafters with great ideas, but to project a compelling religious vision, and guide people through that vision as cleanly as possible.
It isn’t your responsibly to illumine every side-path or option. Your responsibility is to keep the main path clear and guide as many people as ably and well as possible through it, while respecting their overburdened calendars and wallets. It’s your responsibility to talk down junk and uplift mature ideas. Preach a gospel, be able to describe it in simple terms, defend it and stick to it.
If that means two or three Unitarian Universalist congregations in close quarters with different — even conflicting visions — so much the better. People will figure out there they need to be.