"Values" are overrated
I think what might be the most unhelpful of the orthodoxies of modern Unitarianism is that what really matters is "values."
As we have become more doctrinally diverse we have seen "values" as the only thing that can unite us. So we can agree on nothing religious, so we decide we will just agree on basically liberal values of tolerance, gay rights, the environment, etc. We have begun to think this is what matters most in our religious community.
You can see this in the language that has been coming out of the leadership of the American UUs recently. This statement from UUA President Peter Morales has caused a lot of discussion. In it he notes some interesting points including the fact that a lot more people in America identify as UU than actually go to congregations, and a lot of people who grew up in UU congregations don't continue to attend as adults. This, in a sense, is the inevitable consequence of defining Unitarianism in terms of values. People have got the values, so they no longer see the need for congregations. You don't really need a congregation to maintain your liberal values, except, perhaps, in a very conservative environment.
I'm not entirely clear what "congregations and beyond" means but it is interesting to note this concluding statement, "The central conviction driving this proposal is that our core values appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations." (emphasis added). There is also a lot of talk about the increasing number of "nones" in America i.e. those who are not affiliated to any religion. The argument seems to be that these "nones" share the values of Unitarianism therefore this is a great opportunity to appeal to the "nones" and to attract them to Unitarianism. Peter Morales has said "they are us."
I like and respect Peter Morales, but I think there's a mistake in the thinking here. Here in the UK there are many more "nones" than in the US. The majority of the "nones" share the values of Unitarianism. Indeed I'd say that a good proportion of the British public share the values of Unitarianism, and yet British Unitarianism continues to decline. Why is this?
Because (if you'll excuse the sexist language) man does not live by values alone. Although people want a religion that does connect with their values, values are not the "product" that they want to buy (if you'll excuse the marketing language). What actually transforms people religiously are stories, rituals and practices, not values and principles.
That's why I think its a mistake when we think in Britain that what we really need are "principles" like the seven principles of the UUA. We don't need principles; we need stories. No religion is built on principles alone, they're primarily built on stories. The life of Moses, the life of Jesus, the life of Mohammad, the life of the Buddha, the myriad stories of Hinduism, these are the real building blocks of a religion. That and practices: communion, confession, meditation, prayer, worship, devotion, study.
There is nothing wrong with trying to reach out to the "nones." Indeed I would agree it is missionally vital. But I think talk of values is not going to do that. "Come here to hang out with people who share you values" is not an attractive invitation, because it doesn't offer anything.
More powerful is "come here to find liberation from your fears" "come here to find a deeper joy" "come here to find salvation" "come here to find God" and even "come here to have your values challenged, to be freed from the sin of your materialism, narrow-mindedness, anger and selfishness and re-orientate your values to a radical way of compassion, peace, non-violence, simplicity and love."
In other words evangelism should not be "come here to remain the same" but "come here to be changed." And yes, this might put some people off, but the religious path is a challenging one of personal growth, but that path must be our ultimate goal, otherwise, what's the point in what we're doing anyway? And even if you are measuring by a purely pragmatic church-growth outcome, the evidence is that the "come here and be changed" message does attract a lot more people than the "come here to remain the same."
Sharing the basic values of the liberal majority is a helpful bridge to our outreach. But it's not enough on its own. We also need to show what is distinct about the religious path, about belonging to a Unitarian community as opposed to not belonging to anything. We need to offer religious practices, rituals and stories that create human meaning and transformation. Until we do that, I don't believe the "nones" are going to be bashing our doors down to come and share in our values.