by Nick Andrea
What are the characteristics of an ideal spiritual or religious community? I’ve been chewing on this question as the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve visions for its next iteration in the world. I’ve identified three important characteristics. I’m sure there are more, but these were the first I thought of (I will use the terms “spiritual” and “religious” interchangeably in this article):
Strong relationships lie at the heart (no pun intended) of any successful organization because it is those relationships that allow the organization to be stronger as a collective than it could be as a set of individuals. It is also those relationships that most draw its members to continue returning, year after year. We are a social species. Those institutions that purport to serve the highest truth should place this quality at the center of what it offers.
When strong relationships exist within a community it finds prominence in the social lives of its participants. Spiritual community was once a fact of life for most people in America. That fact has dwindled drastically in the last 150+ years. For all that, however, religious communities remain the last standing bastions for several important communal functions in our culture. First, they are a place where people can commune with the truth of life and death, together. The search for truth and meaning is daunting. Enlightenment is on the far shore and the river is very wide to cross. It is best if we do not ride this boat, alone. In fact, I’m not entirely sure the truth can be found entirely on one’s own since it is transpersonal in nature.
Second, the relationships within spiritual communities tend to be of a unconditionally giving nature. People offer one another jobs. They babysit each other’s children. They serve soup to the homeless, build houses for the Appalachian poor, and cater big events, together. This level of unconditional giving is rare in the business and even the secular non-profit communities, where relationships are characteristically more transactional than transformational.
Service to the Community
Unconditional service to the community is another of the primary roles still filled, almost exclusively, by churches and other spiritual organizations in our society. Our communities exist to make the world a better place, inspired by our spiritual outlook – in other words, the truth that transcends the petty, worldly concerns that drive the secular branches of society. Because we believe there is something of value beyond the material world we perceive with our five senses, we give freely of our time, money, and energy without asking anything in return.
Moreover, the fruit of spirituality should always be service. The more we grow in connection to all that is, the more we will naturally want to give, as we increasingly see ourselves in the eyes of others.
Genuine Spiritual Practice
An ideal spiritual community should share a genuine spiritual practice together. My view is that a practice can be said to be spiritual because it elicits powerful devotion in its adherents. It purifies their perception of the world to where they see indescribable beauty and oneness everywhere they look. And, not merely as a thought, but as a lived experience that imbibes us with so much love for the creation that we want to cry. Those tears of devotion are the engine that drives religious people to powerfully transform the world, to transcend the barriers that have, hitherto, kept it sick.