Faith Matters: Congregational life as spiritual practice

  • Lay Preacher Daniel Tinen in the Unitarian Church of Bernardston. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Lay Preacher
Friday, November 10, 2017

The people who keep churches, temples and mosques alive have a lot in common, despite their different theological beliefs.

They’ve all volunteered to support institutions that try to improve the world through improving the people in it. They sing in choirs, prepare meals and coffee hours, teach children and maintain the landmark buildings that may have stood for hundreds of years. They come up with the funds to support a minister, priest, imam or rabbi. When there is no professional leader around, they arrange or even lead the services. In the typically small spiritual communities of Western Massachusetts, volunteers often balance the books, print the orders of service, find the music, and attend all kinds of administrative meetings. This seems like prosaic day-to-day work, but it is a kind of spiritual practice. If such people disappear, our country will be the poorer for it.

Religion, at its best, is a vehicle for growth and empowerment through community. In a world overwhelmingly controlled by powerful commercial interests, we need allies to challenge the status quo that sees peoples’ worth only in economic terms. Being part of a congregation whose beliefs are compatible with yours helps you exercise and maintain the core of your ethical life, and that helps you make a better world. Spirituality without religion is fine, but it is missing an opportunity to empower itself. In a healthy religious organization, it’s easier for people to learn to be full human beings than if they work by themselves alone.

Most people of faith know, for example, that hunger won’t disappear by simply praying it away. So they take action in two ways: in the short term, they may organize food drives, community meals or cafes; in the long term, they criticize economic injustice in our society from the position of moral authority that organized religion gives them. People in churches of all flavors and stripes know deep down that if we don’t lift up the intangibles that give life meaning, we risk feeling overwhelmed, and burning out in our activism. The great religions of the world call us to a balance between the inner quest for transcendence, and caring for the world.

Congregational life isn’t always easy, because no matter our aspirations, people are imperfect. When conflicts arise, there’s an incentive to resolve them amicably because everyone is a volunteer and we need each other. That realization of interdependence is also a spiritual practice. With the decline of organized religion, fewer and fewer people have this kind of practical experience of the civility and discipline required to keep a voluntary organization together, and our society degenerates into factions shouting at one another.

Members and friends of our local Unitarian-Universalist congregations in Greenfield, Bernardston and Northfield hold a variety of beliefs, ranging from atheism through liberal Judeo-Christianity to Buddhism and beyond. But we are united in our belief that humanity has great potential for good, and that supporting our small but historic institutions helps to nurture that potential to bring about positive changes, both personally and in the world at large. When we investigate the deeper issues of life in community, in a constant search for what is best within and without, something grows within us.

Freedom of religion is a great gift, but it’s meaningless if it’s not exercised. Whatever your beliefs, being part of a faith community that’s right for you can enrich your life and empower your values in the wider world. People who join with others in a free and responsible search for meaning, in a framework “that reveres the past but trusts the dawning future more,” transcend ancient theologies to experience life as an exciting exploration of the real wonders that surround us and the web of interconnection between us.

— Dan Tinen is a singer, musician and sound engineer who has been active as a member of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Greenfield for 19 years. He leads services at the Bernardston Unitarian Church and First Parish in Northfield on a regular basis, including this Sunday, Nov. 12.

About the Unitarian Universalist congregations of Franklin County

There are three independent, lay-led UU congregations in our area. Each features a variety of speakers, programs and music weekly and welcomes visitors to their historic buildings on Sundays:

First Parish Northfield at the corner of Main Street and Parker Avenue, begins services at 10 a.m.

All Souls in Greenfield is at the corner of Hope and Main streets, with services on Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

The Bernardston Unitarian Church is on Church Street, with services at 11:30 a.m. and coffee at 11 a.m.

For more information, check their web sites: