Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Long Paper: Congregational Ministries in the Changing Religious Landscape



Roger Jones                                                                                           January 4, 2013

Pacific School of Religion:  SRC-9999:  Dr. James Lawrence, Fall Semester 2012

Malibu Study Group (Unitarian Universalist), Reader: Rev. Michelle Favreault, March 2013

Introduction:  Decline in the Mainline

Faith Formation 2020 cites “a steady decline in the number of people attending worship and participating in church life.  In 1990 about 20.6% of the U.S. population was in church on any given weekend, today only 17.3% are in worship.  If current trends continue, by 2020…. more than 85% of Americans will be staying away.” (LifeLong Faith Associates 2009)

Most of the students at Pacific School of Religion (where I am in a D. Min. program) are in M. Div. programs to become clergy in various Protestant denominations.  Many of these ministers-to-be are inspiring, bold, brave and creative.  I would be happy to have them as my preacher and pastor.  Yet all their denominations have had major declines in attendance and membership in the last few decades, leaving fewer full-time pulpits.  A United Church of Christ official told us in chapel that he urges aspiring clergy to be prepared for bi-vocational ministries, or for entrepreneurial ministries outside churches, as fewer congregations can pay a full-time minister.  (Of course, many African American clergy have needed to be bi-vocational and entrepreneurial for years.)

Many mainline congregations are close to closing their doors, or selling their now-oversize facilities, or merging.  Similar trends affect UU congregations in New England, whereas overall we are stable or declining less rapidly.   In the last few decades, the largest mainline denominations have lost more people than even exist in the 160,000-member Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.  Pentecostal and evangelical churches did grow in the same period but arguably are leveling off.  Catholic congregations have grown mainly from immigration of Catholics from other countries, which has more than offset those who have left the faith of their upbringing.

Thinking about Larger Trends


The “Faith Formation 2020” report from LifelongFaith Associates was published online in 2009 and later in a book.  Chapter 1 urges congregational leaders struggling to respond to shifts in the religious landscape to follow three principles:

  1. “Take the Long View” beyond one- to three-year horizons.  These trends were long in the making; just because we’ve noticed them now does not mean it is wise to react too fast.
  2. “Think from the ‘Outside-in”:  Stop looking inside the church for all our answers.  Try to understand our external context, and learn how sociological and other factors create profound change and give us “new risks and opportunities.”
  3. “Embrace Multiple Perspectives”:  Challenge our assumptions and habits; expand our peripheral vision and note new threats and opportunities.

The FF 2020 report (first published in 2009) cites 13 trends of the changing religious landscape.  (Its current website lists Eight Driving Forces.  I list all 13 Trends below, as the last two are not explicitly listed as Driving Forces list.)  Here is a summary, with some notes in brackets. (LifeLong Faith Associates 2009)

Trend 1. Declining Participation in Christian Churches [conservative as well as moderate/mainline, which is sociologically where UU churches fit]

Trend 2. Growth in No Religious Affiliation

Trend 3. Becoming More “Spiritual” and Less “Religious”

Trend 4. Influence of Individualism on Christian Identity and Community Life

Trend 5. Increasing Social, Cultural, and Religious Diversity in the U.S.

Trend 6. Growing Influence of Hispanic/Latino Religious Faith

Trend 7. Identifying a New Stage of Life: “Emerging Adulthood”

Trend 8. The Rise of a Distinctive Post-Boomer Faith and Spirituality

Trend 9. Changing Structures and Patterns of Family Life in the United States

Trend 10. Rediscovering the Impact of Parents and Families on Faith Practice

Trend 11. Living in a Digital World

Trend 12. Educating in New Ways

Trend 13. Increasing Numbers of Adults 65 and Older

Depending on whether these trends continue, and on how congregations and other religion-based organizations respond,  the Faith Formation 2020 report imagines possible scenarios.  In other words, the U. S. religious landscape might look like one of these four:

Scenario #1. Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement in the Church Community

Scenario #2. Spiritual, but Not Religious

Scenario #3. Unaffiliated and Uninterested

Scenario #4. Participating in Church Activities, but Faith and the Spiritual Life Are Not Important [maybe religious, but not spiritual?]

UUA Growth—and Decline as a Share of U.S. Population

In October 2012, USA Today gave Unitarian Universalists a bit of publicity:   “Unitarian Faith Growing Nationwide.”  (Smietana 2012)  Yet in May 2012, our UU World reported that we were not.  In fact, while adult members in UUA churches increased a bit from 2011 to 2012, non-adult nreligious education enrollment declined again. (Bates Deakin 2012). To me, this is not about losing “the church of the future,” as many of us fret sentimentally.  That is, few participating adult UUs grew up in a UU church, and few others will stay in the denomination of their upbringing. This could be, however, an indication of lost opportunities to minister to families, kids and youth.

The Rev. Stefan Jonasson, UUA Director of Growth Strategies, reports that in the past decade a third of our UUA congregations have had net losses:  12.7% reported declines of 10% to 20%.  Another 22% declined in membership by more than 20%.   Since 1960 the United States population has nearly doubled (from 179 to 309 million people), but UUA congregations have declined or stayed the same.  From 2011 to 2012, 28% of our congregations reported growth in membership of 3% or more and 33% reported a membership decline of 3% or more.  Most of the growth was in “larger mid-size” (i.e., program-oriented) congregations (like mine), which have more volatile membership numbers.  Jonasson says that recent losses and gains may not indicate much:  losses are “nibbling around the edges, ” and recent gains may reflect only that a few members invited their friends to go to church with them.

A quick study of the Congregational Records posted online by Unitarian Universalist search committees from congregations now looking for a new minister shows many vital UU faith communities.  Yet most of them have fewer members now than they did 20 or 30 years ago.  Many of them have 150 members or fewer.  Many of them are offering only 3/4 time or ½ time ministry positions, even 1/2 time positions.

The Rise of the “None of the Aboves”

In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The ratio of the religiously unaffiliated now stands at 19.6%.  That is, the largest change in religious participation as a share of our population has taken place among atheists, agnostics, and nothing.  I don’t speak of this group as the “The Nones” — it sounds like “The Nuns.”  I call them the “None of the Aboves.”

The aggregate category of “other faiths” has grown from 4% to 6% of our population.  So the “unaffiliated” are more than three times as large as the grouping of “other faiths.” Who are they, and where do they come from?  About 74% of the unaffiliated report having had a religious background.  Hence, they left something.  According to Pew, the share of Christians in our population has declined from 78% to 73% even as the overall population has grown.  (This category includes Catholics, Protestants of both Evangelical and Mainline streams, plus Mormons and the Orthodox.)  (Pew Research Center 2012)

Yet here is an analysis contrary to the idea that religious decline is a new trend.  Historian Molly Worthen says the “religiously unaffiliated” have been significant in American and European history.  In a recent article, she writes: “Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility.”  Rates of church attendance, she says, were never as good as the Christian Right likes to assert when attacking our secular generation. Before the Civil War, for example, “regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent.” It rose to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and fell “to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.”   Worthen says:  “We know… that the good old days were not so good after all.” (Worthen 2012)

The Pew Forum gives a detailed picture of the None of the Aboves:

In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, the unaffiliated are a diverse group, and far from uniformly secular. Just 5% say they attend worship services on a weekly basis. But one-third of the unaffiliated say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. Two-thirds believe in God (though less than half say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence). And although a substantial minority of the unaffiliated consider themselves neither religious nor spiritual (42%), the majority describe themselves either as a religious person (18%) or as spiritual but not religious (37%). (Ibid.)

Pew says “the growth of the unaffiliated has taken place across a wide variety of demographic groups,” i.e., education level, income, and geographic region.  However, the most striking aspect of the unaffiliated is age-related.  As shown below, the 2012 Pew survey charted people with “no affiliation” by the generational era in which they were born.

Younger Millenials      (born 1990-94):          34% of them are unaffiliated

Older Millenials          (1981-89):                   30% unaffiliated

Generation X              (1965-80)                    21% unaffiliated

Baby Boomers            (1946-64)                   15% unaffiliated

Silent Generation        (1928-45)                    9%  unaffiliated

Greatest Generation    (1913-27)                    5%  unaffiliated

There is no earlier statistic than 2012 for those born in 1990-94, but in every other category shown, these percentages are higher in 2012 than they were in any year back to 2007.

Politically, twice as many of the “None of the Aboves” say they are liberal (but there are still conservatives among them).  Nearly ¾ of them support abortion rights and same-sex marriage equality.   What can we conclude from this trend?  Here are two opposite perspectives:

a)     The growth in the “None of the Aboves” is a cautionary trend for all religious congregations:  it reflects a growing loss in the decades-long American tradition of going to religious services and turning to congregational institutions for spiritual guidance, fellowship, and inspiration.  We should manage our extinction wisely.

b)       The growth in the “None of the Aboves” may hold promise for a spiritually inclusive, religiously eclectic, non-dogmatic and socially progressive congregation.   A UU congregation may appeal to some of those folks.  After all, many of them are not drawn to strict or traditional views about God, human sexuality or gender roles.  Many identify as “spiritual but not religious,” though there is no shared agreement on what that means.  We have special opportunities for ministry now.

Might both conclusions have some truth?  True, religious participation is declining.  Whatever brand of religious community we’re selling, we cannot count on a reliable market for it.  However, as the landscape changes, we have more opportunities for ministry.

The question “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?” was asked of the unaffiliated survey respondents.  While 88% said no and 2% didn’t know or refused to answer, 10% did say yes, they are looking.  So if 10% of an estimated 19.6% of American adults are unaffiliated yet looking, I think that means 1.9% of the population is at looking, or least open to participation.  Unitarian Universalist communities would grow enormously.  The same goes for any denomination, but since we are smaller than the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Jews and the UCC, it would be a bigger boost for the UUA.  Of course, this “looking” question does not even count those who might be surprised to find a religious community about which they can say, “I didn’t know how much I needed this until I found it,” or “I had no idea a congregation like this even existed!”  Both statements come from adults who have joined UU congregations, but I can imagine a happy “seeker” might say the same thing after finding a congregation that has another brand name.

In Reframing Hope, Carol Howard Merritt explores how the signs of decline in the main line denominations “fit into a larger narrative.” (Merritt 2010, 3)  Merritt is now about 40, but has many years of ministry experience as a younger adult in rural and urban Presbyterian churches.  She writes the Tribal Church blog (named after her 2007 book) for Christian Century magazine.

A politically and socially progressive Christian, Merritt cites with joy the decline in the power and growth of Evangelical mega churches.  She celebrates the potential for small and midsize mainline churches to promote nurturing and authentic relationships across generations and to feed the spiritual hungers of younger adults.  She finds younger adults longing for and responsive to the spiritual and liturgical resources of the mainline heritage.  Not impressed with the big scale and production values of mega church life, these folks are progressive and justice-minded. They need mentors who respect who they are and show patience for who they are becoming.   As a progressive woman, she notes that evangelical churches look for people who fit a type:  white, male, conservative, charismatic and corporate.  Hence, she gives thanks for the patience and mentoring she has received in denominational churches, where she discerned and tried out her call to ministry.  She calls herself one of the “loyal radicals”—loyal and grateful to her denomination, but not willing to do business as usual in congregational ministry.

While many conservatives have attacked the struggles over diversity, inclusiveness and justice that have roiled mainline denominations, Merritt implies that such efforts make denominational churches the right kind of community for today’s progressive spiritual seekers.  In other words, if mainline churches can survive a bit longer, they can thrive with a new ministry.  However, it’s unrealistic to expect our congregations to grow to regain their former glory of attendance, finances, or social prominence.  Pastors already must be more entrepreneurial now; many will need bi-vocational ministries to survive.  Merritt points out that African American clergy have long needed to do both of these things to conduct their ministries.

Visits to Rotary and Yoga:  Lessons from the Larger Culture

Last fall I attended a local Rotary Club’s weekly luncheon meeting.  A century-old international service organization, Rotary has led efforts to eradicate polio from the globe and launched numerous local civic-improvement projects.  My friend, 33, is the chapter president and is half the age of most other members.  I was impressed with the group’s warm welcome, the varied careers, and their level of philanthropy and volunteer commitment.  They strike me as familiar, decent mainline Protestant and liberal Catholic stock—as good citizens.  And in my observation, familiar cracks are emerging.  Older retirees are less able to help at hands-on work projects.  Young working parents are not up to the requirement of weekly attendance (if you can’t make your chapter meeting, you can get credit at another time of the week at a local chapter or anywhere in the world).  This chapter often can’t meet its contracted minimum number of meals at its weekly restaurant.

With good cheer my friend led the meeting, cuing all the traditional rituals that may not have changed since the 1950s (Pledge of Allegiance, an invocation, “Happy Bucks” announcement time, which makes me think we should not kill Joys and Concerns in church but add a price tag and make it a fundraiser.)   The crowd included several past chapter presidents—nice that they don’t burn out and run away, but my friend says they don’t fail to correct his mistakes and remind him, jokingly, of the right way things are done.

He says his wife would be an ideal Rotarian (haven’t you heard church members say that about prospective UUs?).  Of course, as a working mom she can’t get away so often.  A promising national Rotary program is called “New Generations.”  Through this, a new chapter can have less stringent requirements, such as only a monthly gathering over a meal (perhaps with children and spouses present) and inter-generational work projects.  I don’t feel drawn to attend weekly luncheons, but I am curious about New Generations and perhaps could help my friend launch a chapter.   As a “not very religious” person, he has expressed interest in coming to hear me preach, but with a new baby the two working parents have not had a free weekend.  That’s okay.  They have local relatives, so they are not isolated.  They have jobs and volunteer work in which they can give to their community and learn leadership skills.  I can’t figure out why they’d need us.

Back in the old days, church was a place where you could meet eligible singles.  I don’t think of church as a social scene anymore, and online dating surely trumps it and most other scenes by now.  Yet at my booming local Yoga studio there was a lot of youthful energy and a mix of singles and couples.  I visited for a few months in 2010, when I was 49–an outlier.   Every session’s teacher was cheerful and encouraging; near the end of a session she or he would offer a talk that could have been a homily; I remember a relevant message before the holidays.  At the end they led us in a blessing.  In the lobby near the merchandise stood a decorated box and a small tree for donations to the local food bank.  In addition to sessions at all hours in the week, the studio offers introductory Yoga classes, teacher training courses, and Yoga-based group travels, all for a fee.   I don’t recall if it was asking folks to sign up for local volunteer work, but a nearby local coffee house does recruit reading tutors for a public school.  To me, all this adds up to a church substitute.  Surely this is the dwelling of some of the “religiously unaffiliated.”  What unmet needs would these clients yet have for what my church can offer?

Merritt offers a “new frame” to see hope in this new landscape.  She suggests our mainline congregations offer grounding in tradition and historical awareness, some tried and true practices of prayer and other spiritual disciplines, and the opportunity to practice relationships in covenant.  We provide spiritual and practical support to one another.   We possess wisdom and experience in social analysis and prophetic proclamation.  We can provide a location and an invitation to fellowship and friendship across generations.  I can think of a single woman in her 40s, new to the area and the church, who has quickly glommed on to a pair of active older women; she jumped in to help at the Thanksgiving dinner at church.  A few years back a shy African American woman in her medical residency joined the church.  Desperately homesick, she worked in our community garden and thrived on the mentorship of two retired members.  It was a pastoral conversation with her that led me to launch a prayer class for several weeks.

Faith Formation 2020 describes Trend #7 as that of “emerging adulthood,” which means that “the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades.  The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage and parenthood are simply less well organized today than they were in generations past.”  Citing a 2006 book by Anya Kamenetz, Carol Howard Merritt notes that “the median job tenure of workers from 25 to 34 is just 2.7 years.” (Merritt 2007) They change jobs and industries more often and “have more frequent periods of unemployment and underemployment.”  This rings true with my experience with younger adults in church, nearly all of whom are smart, creative, compassionate — and living with large debts, poverty-level incomes or both.  I know plenty of congregants, colleagues and my own relatives whose adult children are living at home—still or again—or depending on regular financial support of their parents.  Financial-advice columnists worry that most younger workers have saved or invested little toward their retirement needs.  Stagnant incomes and frequent changes in jobs mixed make this hard.  So does the merchandizing of our consumer culture, and the rapid upgrades on expensive technology.

The Faith Formation Trend #8 is “the rise of a distinctive … faith and spirituality” in the post-Baby Boom generations.   Along with much “uprootedness and change,” this life stage involves what social scientist Robert Wuthnow calls “religious tinkering” among people in their 20s and 30s.  While the “tinkering” image shows curiosity and experimentation, it does not necessarily imply commitment to a religious institution or even longevity in any one location, which we still identify and expect as an aspect of commitment.  This is not a realistic expectation.

Carol Howard Merritt calls younger adults a “nomadic generation,” in her 2007 Alban Institute book Tribal Church (which is also the name of her blog).  “Tribes” typically form “around a common cause or belief… tend to the basic needs of one another… celebrate and remember traditions.”  Tribal churches depend on relationship and are “not pastor-centered, polity-driven, or program oriented.”  They do not focus on the latest trends or try to be “edgy.”  Rather, they focus on “developing an intergenerational network.  The members of a tribal church work to counsel, guide, train and enable young leaders.”  (Merritt 2007, 8)

Changes in Ministry:  Living in a Digital World

Though less prolific than Merritt, I spend hours online every day for my ministry and friendships, and less than an hour per day on the telephone.  Some of this is exciting, but I do miss the old days. To make these high-tech changes I’ve needed handholding from others.

Merritt mourns the loss of the frequent home visits of her early years in a small, older parish, but admits the practice was not a guarantee to attend to the greatest needs in her ministry.  Sixteen years ago, I had a paper stack of phone messages every day and returning or answering calls kept me on the phone for hours.  I shuttled around visiting folks at lunch, over coffee, at in-home committee meetings, or in the hospital ICU. (Another notable change:  parishioners are seldom in the hospital for more than a day unless they are gravely ill.)  Even now, I welcome chats with retired or unemployed church volunteers who stop in on a weekday for some task, if not for an intentional pastoral meeting.  I miss the longer encounters and meetings which helped to draw me into parish ministry.

We can mourn, Merritt says, “Yet the need to minister in our current reality is more compelling than nostalgia.”  The latest Internet wave brings more interactive encounters rather than just sending information.  It “allows communities to form across continents, and even around the globe,” as well as for local commitments to deepen.  The Internet has given her fellowship with people of differing religious and political views, and has helped her to hone thinking, conduct sermon research, exchange prayer requests, and reach a broad audience with her insights.   We must recognize, she says, that “time on the computer is real ministry.”  (Merritt 2010)

“Missing” Unitarian Universalists:  Where Did they All Go? 

There is a Unitarian Universalist diaspora, and it is in our own back yards.  The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association writes:

[The] number of people who identify as UUs is about four times the membership of our congregations (about 160,000 adult members and about 650,000 people who identify as UUs). In other words, for every adult member there are three non-members who say they are Unitarian Universalist.

The second largest gathering of UUs, after General Assembly [which draws about 4,000 registrants to a different convention city every June], is the Southeast UU Summer Institute (SUUSI). A significant number of people who attend SUUSI year after year do not belong to any UU congregation. There are other UU camps and conferences that draw similarly large numbers of unaffiliated people. (Morales 2012)

Some of us may think this trend means our death knell as a brick-and-mortar denomination.  How can we keep our churches going if people stop going to our churches?  How can we embody our values if we have no institutional embodiment of our tradition?  This is a valid concern. However, the fact that our message and values live and breathe in camps, conferences, on-line communities, and friendship networks raises a question:

Do we want to preserve our church only for the sake of its preservation, or do we want to explore new forms for ministering to and making an impact on the larger society and world?

I have not attended a UU summer conference, but some lay and clergy friends do.  One couple of old friends dropped out of active lay leadership in their home church.  They did this out of despair at persisting patterns of unhealthy congregational conflict and behaviors that undermine trust.  It seems they have been driven away from their congregation by its lack of faith, and not by their own loss of it.  Indeed, their family keeps to their spiritual practices and maintains fellowship with UUs through a summer camp.   As their kids reach adulthood, I can’t imagine they will lose the UU values with which they have been reared or their commitment to community involvement.

Speaking of kids and youth, Morales says:

The majority of children raised as UUs do not join UU congregations when they are young adults. However, they continue to identify as UUs and share core UU values. Often they have close friendships with fellow young adults they met at church or at “youth cons.” (Morales 2012)

I’ve known UU teens who were continent-wide youth leaders but now don’t attend church, but I know of others who became UU ministers. I know many children of UU ministerial colleagues, now young adults, who do not belong to a church, even though they might attend a service occasionally.  Yet there are preachers’ kids (PKs) who go to seminary.  I don’t know many PKs who make up the middle ground between the poles of minister and lapsed UUs, that is, younger adults who are regular UU church members and lay leaders.  It could be they are easy to overlook if one is looking only for the disaffected on the one hand and the cradle UUs who are now clergy, on the other hand.

Did we drive younger adults away from us, or did we fail to hang on to them?

Or is this a fair choice to pose?   Recall that 74% of all the “unaffiliated” adults surveyed had a religious background.  Perhaps this fluidity is a just a persistent aspect of the American religious landscape now.  Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville first came to observe and write about Democracy in America, we have been known to have a marketplace of competing congregations, all with their own traditions, spiritual styles, ways of outreach and hospitality, and programs.  As Americans have become increasingly transient and less rooted in one place for the long term, it seems natural that congregation-switching would accelerate.  So would withdrawal from participation.  As we move around, it can be harder to establish a new church involvement after leaving one where you had a sense of deep roots and connection.  Yet this geographical transience, and the personal isolation that often comes with it, points to an opportunity for ministry.  Instead of hand wringing over denominational statistics, we can get curious about needs that we might be poised to serve through our local congregations.

Presbyterian seminary professor Michael Jinkins describes the pejorative attitudes and stereotyping that some older adults display when talking about lower church participation by younger generations, with such accusations or labels as slackers, entitled, short attention span, no ambition, and lacking the idealism, civic duty or activist spirit of earlier young adults (as the older adults remember their generations).   Jinkins attributes this to the sense of anxiety that many older adults in congregations feel regarding the loss of numbers, resources and prestige in the past few decades.  Yet, Jinkins warns, “Anxiety makes a poor counselor, and age alone makes no one wise.”  (Jinkins 2007)

The Dark Night of the Church

Peter Morales, citing organizational scholars and consultants, told the 2011 General Assembly that human organizations decline or fail not so much because of problems they face but because they hold on too much to past success.  Of course, for mainline, mainstream Protestant denominations, successes from the Baby Boom era, like church expansion and prominent social action, remain in living memory.  The founding stories of our faith movements are the stuff of legend in seminary history and polity courses and in an inspiring sermon now and then.  Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner says that “dreams of fame and fortune die hard if they die at all.”  L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson quote him in their recent article, “Dark Night of the Church.”  They give this summary of decline in mainstream denominations and congregations:  “Loss of market share.  Conflict.  Absence of young adults.  Financial crisis.”  (Robinson 2012, 28)

Whether we are facing the fast plummet of moderate Protestantism or the less frightening plateau of Unitarian Universalist membership numbers, the present moment is a spiritual in-between time for mature organizations.  For churches, it is like the “dark night of the soul” which St. John of the Cross identified as part of our individual spiritual journeys.  The dark night is not death and not necessarily depression, but it is a time of uncertainty and of discomfort.  This calls for enough detachment to explore, consider, and create.  It calls for humility.

We are humbled in our presumptions that we always knew how to do this church growth business very well.  We are humbled in our presumptions that our congregations could operate as we always did and continue in our size and social prominence even as the landscape around us has been changing.  Perhaps, Robinson and Owens write, we have allowed external measures of identity to define us—numbers, money, social prominence, and proud peak moments in our history.

In this “dark night of the church,” we can continue to work and serve, and to be confident that creativity is a key resource for congregational communities. We can continue to discern our primary mission as congregations, and practice that mission.  To be the church.  To be the religious society.  To be an authentic religious community in the world in which it now exists, and to be an alert community as the world around us continues to shift and change.

Final Questions:  Surviving or Serving?  Growth or Hospitality?

In 1985 I was 24, in a new city (Springfield, Illinois) and in a first job in a new career.  In retrospect I see that I was starting a spiritual search that included participation in four very different kinds of denominations and traditions.  This journey has included friendships with ministers and members of all four.  (Eventually I put down roots in one of those four traditions–Unitarian Universalism–and found a call to ministry here.)

In that new city, I paid only one visit to a church of the mainstream Protestant denomination in which I had grown up.  It was an elegant, large limestone building with familiar music, dark wooden pews, and reassuring stained glass.  As I slipped into a pew behind an older male-female couple, the lady turned around, smiled at me and gave me her welcome.  “I hope you stay,” she said.  “We need young people.”  I smiled back.  I’ve heard this kind of outreach referred to as the vampire approach—we reach out because we need fresh blood.

Ten years ago, at a district workshop on outreach and hospitality, a UU colleague in his late 50s spoke about his first time in a UU community.  At age 16, having had a Catholic upbringing, he learned about Unitarian Universalism.  Intrigued and interested, he found the local church in his Florida town.   He rode his bicycle there one Sunday.  Perhaps they had no “youth program.” If they did, but I don’t remember that from his story.

After service he visited the church bookstore and met a woman there.  As she got to know him, she learned that he was curious about our approach to religion and that he liked to read.  She handed him a book, asked him to read it, and invited him to come back to tell her what he thought of it.  On a future Sunday he brought the book and himself back to the church on his bike.  He and his adult friend discussed his thoughts about the book.  She gave him another book, and said she looked forward to another conversation.

This routine continued; this friendship developed; this young man later grew into a minister and an esteemed coach and consultant in our movement.  This was not the result of an organized outreach campaign, an advertising blitz, or a sermon series on UU evangelism.  It was a simple, one-to-one gesture of curiosity, patience, and the gift of time.  This is true hospitality.

When I was 16 I had a driver’s license and could easily drive to Indianapolis, 30 miles away from my home.  I’ve wondered:  What if I had found out about All Souls Unitarian back then and taken Mom’s car up there on a Sunday?

            Would I have received the kind of warm welcome—the gestures of curiosity about who I was, what I cared about, what brought me there? 

Perhaps, after shaking someone’s hand, I would have been directed to the staff or a volunteer leader of the “youth program.”   [Message:  This is where and how you fit in.]

Or maybe I would have heard an apology that they did not have a “youth program.” [Message:  Sorry that you don’t fit in.]

Or maybe I would have heard:  Maybe you could start a youth group here; bring your friends!  [Message:  What can you do for us?]

Every time I hear, in a congregational setting, some innocent and well-meaning questions—“How can we attract more [x] people?”  “How can we appeal to them?”—I want to ask Why?   We value diversity, and we value everyone’s individual outlook and personal journey.   If we start with a practice of true curiosity about whoever is standing in front of us in the moment, it will matter less whether they are x or y, whether they like the majority of the congregation or are different in some way.

To me, this is the question about younger generations and our congregations:  Are we looking for what we can offer, and the ways we might serve real people with real needs? Or are we looking to survive as a congregation in the forms and habits we are used to?

Is our goal to serve, or to survive?  Do we wish to pursue growth or hospitality?

Some may ask:  Can’t we do both?  Probably so, but we need to determine which motivation is driving us, which purpose is calling to us.

If we are drawn mostly by nostalgic longings to perpetuate the church we used to know (or to create the one that matches our ambitions or our idealized memories), I fear we will continue to be frustrated and confused, and to miss out on many creative opportunities to enrich our souls and serve our larger community.

If we are drawn mostly by the opportunity to be of service as a community, and we approach that with curiosity, patience, flexibility and perseverance, I am confident we’ll find and summon the resources to follow this calling.

Works Cited

Worthen, Molly. “One Nation Under God?” New York Times, December 22, 2012.

Bates Deakin, Michelle. “UUA membership and attendance declined in 2011. Over last decade, membership has increased, but religious education enrollment is dropping.” UU World, February 2, 2012.

Jinkins, Michael. “Foreword.” In Jinkins, Michael.  “Foreword” to Tribal Church:  Ministering to the Missing Generation , 2007, p. viii. , by Carol Howard Merritt. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2007.

Jonasson, Stefan. Growth and Decline: A Numerical Snapshot. April 23, 2012. (accessed December 27, 2012).

LifeLong Faith Associates. Faith Formation 2020. 2009. (accessed January 2, 2013).

Merritt, Carol Howard. Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010.

Merritt, Carol Howard. Tribal Church. Herndon, VA, 2007.

Morales, Peter. “Congregations and Beyond.” January 15, 2012. (accessed December 31, 2012).

Pew Research Center. “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. October 9, 2012.

Smietana, Bob. “Unitarian Faith Growing Nationwide.” USA Today, October 2, 2012.

Robinson, Anthony B. and Roger Owens. “Dark Night of the Church.” Christian Century, December 26, 2012: 28.

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