What are you? Church vs. Congregation


What term do you use to describe your community?

On his blog Chop Wood, Carry Water John Blevin’s writes about this question and shares some messages from the UUA’s leader discussion list.

According to one of the messages quoted the breakdown of how UUA member congregations are named is as follows:

  • 504 contain the word Church
  • 307 contain the word Fellowship
  • 151 contain the word Congregation
  • 106 contain the word Society
  • 40 contain the word Community
  • 27 contain the word UUs
Starting in 2000, of the 64 new congregations, only 15 have Church in their name.

And in there, at least from around New England, are lots with the word “Parish.”  In my region we have a number of congregations with names like “The First Congregational Parish of Somecity Unitarian Universalist.”

As someone working with a wide range of congregations as a speaker, consultant and coach, issues around these words confront me constantly.  I tend to speak about all of our churches, fellowships, societies and congregations collectively as “congregations” as in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.   However, I will say that I still use the word “Church” a good deal.

I know…  Some people aren’t comfortable with this word. Some are recovering from a previous  “church” experience. Others come a tradition that do not use this term at all. I’ve spoken with many people coming from Jewish families who have trouble with the notion of going to a church.

I think it is helpful to discuss this language in as much as it keeps us from our real work and ministry.  In Blevin’s post he quotes UUA Moderator Gini Courter who says…

To the extent that a conversation about our name focuses our attention on “who we are/are not” rather than “who we are called to be”, it’s a poor use of our time and energy. Even worse, it’s a distraction from the real transformational work of the church/fellowship/congregation/society/community.

6 thoughts on “What are you? Church vs. Congregation”

  1. A “church” is a Christian place of worship. When they see a building labeled “church”, Christians and non-Christians all expect it to be a Christian place of worship. Just look it up, or if it’s faster, ask a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Hindu what goes on in a church.

    Gini thinks we could use our energy for better ends than debating what we’re called. Don’t we do that already? Why should we waste so much energy explaining that, yes, Christianity is part of our heritage, but there is so much more to it now. No, you don’t have to believe as Christians do, though such beliefs are welcome.

    Why not call our places of worship something like “Emerson Unitarian Universalist Synagogue”? It’s about as accurate, and we would get a change of pace explaining that, yes, Judaism is part of our heritage, but there is so much more to it now and no, you don’t have to believe as Jews do, though such beliefs are welcome.

    I call our congregation a “church” only when I need a shorthand way to establish its legitimacy as a religious sect among Christians who don’t know anything about us. It’s a cheat, admittedly, but I use it because I know Christians will move past the name and start focusing on substance. But will everyone else feel the same?

    1. You raise a great point about “cheats” and when we use language because it serves us in the moment. While I don’t want us pouring all of our energy into a name debate, names do matter. Many of the congregations I facilitate retreats for seem to be gravitating toward visions of being larger centers for intellectual, spiritual and religious growth and learning. I love elements of these visions, but I don’t want our congregations to morph into generic community centers. With every choice there are gains and losses. I’ve been following the name change of the radio program “Speaking of Faith” to “On Being” — see http://blog.onbeing.org/post/1161086997/change-is-stressful for most recent comments on the change.

    2. Re the tongue-in-cheek proposal “Emerson UU Synagogue”:

      What happens in the Sunday services/ worship/ celebration of life of the UU congregation often rather much resembles the form of what happens in Christian worship. When what we do together more frequently resembles synagogue services, then a switch from church to synagogue might be reasonably considered when deciding on terminology.

  2. I have never heard or read of a synagogue which became a Unitarian congregation.
    Our roots are biblical and classical but only Christian (mostly Congregational) churches became Unitarian
    in what I have read. No Mosque ever became Unitarian either. So, I have come to believe that we are
    unique in a perspective that the meaning of life is to live it, not to be saved from it, and that our response to life is the measure of the value of life. I appreciate being with others who avoid Christian talk of salvation, divine interference in their lives, and the errancy of science. To watch the Hubble revelations of the heavens is a spiritual practice for me and makes my existence seem wonderful. I can coexist with others who want a faith based upon some power unseen which can speak to them. But for me gravity and sunrise are enough.

  3. The word church has long if not always been an ambiguous and contentious word even among Christians. It is used variously to refer to an organization, a mystic communion, a free association, a hierarchical authority, a building, a belief system, a group ritual activity, and so forth – whether local, national, or universal – whether geographically, theologically, mystically, or otherwise delineated, Christians will argue with each other whether this or that use of the word is correct or acceptable, some deciding to use different terminology.

    Before we completely chuck the word church, consider: if you didn’t know the language(s) used in one of our services and wandered in off the street, would you find this word with a heavily Christian history appropriate to use when you told someone where you had been? Did the architecture or the seating arrangement say church to you? Did the order of service say church to you? Did the use of printed bulletins/ orders of service/ programs say church to you? Did the presence of greeters or ushers say church to you? Did the music say church to you? Did the use of bound hymnals or the projection of lyrics onto a screen say church to you? Did the sound, format, and placement of the sermon/ homily/ talk/ reflection say church to you? Did the passing of the offering basket say church to you? Did the minister’s wearing of a Geneva gown and/or a stole say church to you? Did the presence of a pulpit say church to you? Did the ritualized elements of the service say church to you? Did the way people approached you (or didn’t) say church to you? Did the sacrament of coffee hour say church to you? And on and on…

    The array of Christian models for all this stuff is pretty broad. Yet, a large portion of Christian meetings and meeting houses would be recognizable as church by the outsider similarly plopped down among them. It also seems likely to me that, while some of our congregations might not instantly be classified as a church under such a test, a very high percentage would.

    If it walks like a duck…

  4. Even since I was a young child growing-up in a UU church, I’ve used both “church” and “congregation” interchangeably. It’s funny that you bring this up because questioning if we are a “church” or not never occurred to me until last year when my evangelical-turned-UU boyfriend asked me what to call the place where we go for “UU stuff” on Sunday should be called. To him – this was clearly not the stuff of proper “Christian Church”.

    I turned and looked at him like he had 7 heads – “Umm… Church…..?” The whole question seemed really strange to me. I had never considered it before.

    It would make me really sad if we let hard-line Christians co-opt all our religious vocabulary. And in this case, if we abandon the word ‘church’ then we’ve done the work for them. I read something earlier today about a radical Christian that was questioning whether or not President Obama’s faith (United Church of Christ) could even be considered “Christian” because of its liberal theology. That sort of aggressive appropriation of vocabulary is dangerous.

    I think it’s really important for us to hold on to these words. Not only does it speak to our own Christian heritage but it also helps broaden the definitions of religious words that are apparently at risk of being co-opted by fundamentalists.

    We have just as much right to call ourselves a ‘church’ as any other house of worship – and if by doing so we push people to look more liberally at religion via the liberal use of religious terms – than we have really done ourselves a favor!

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