Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Back to the Future– Re-thiking and re-learning congregational mission and purpose with major cultural shifts and progressive religious decline

This article comes from the Alban Weekly, an email from the Alban Institute, of which I’m a member.  It’s by a well known mainline church consultant whose lectures and workshops I have attended.  Of course UUSS is not in decline but poised for new growth and a renewed mission in the larger community.  But Unitarian Universalism has barely held steady over recent decades as other liberal denominations have lost hundreds of thousands of members–or not replaced the members who have passed away.

This is an excerpt of the article, which is adapted from one of his books, Adapted from A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Back to the Future
by Peter Steinke

At a workshop I was leading, a woman stood up and said, “If 1950 were to return, my congregation would be ready.” Succinctly, she summarized a nagging problem for many churches. The context in which congregations now find themselves is quite different from 1950. “How we do church,” though, has been quite persistent: Become a member of the local congregation, contribute money and effort, participate in communal events, volunteer time and goods, and worship regularly or at least several times a year. This pattern of “church” continued for decades in North America, but then things changed quickly.


There once was a world where the church functioned according to what some have called the “attractional” model (others have named it the participatory model). People come to a place, consume the spiritual goods, and serve as patrons to “meet the budget.” But a shift has happened. North American culture has taken new turns.

We are living in a new context where old certainties are disappearing, old institutions are less dependable, old assumptions are questionable, and old neighborhoods are less cohesive. Logically, if not spiritually, we may even have to allow for the possibility that these dislocations could be part of God’s new creation. It may be God working through the unknown …. taking history into unexpected turns.


The challenge of change for a congregation on a steady downward slope is precisely to redefine and redirect its mission. They have to realize that decline is not an end to mission. Yes, they are mere shadows of their past. Yes, rethinking mission is difficult, for congregations are burdened by big or deteriorating buildings, smaller staffs, a paucity of young families, and a shortage of hope. But expansion is not the sole gauge of mission orientation. One problem with this thinking is the belief that, for congregations, all things are equal. But congregations are not in the same place, same stage, or same circumstance. That’s not reality.


Congregations may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result—but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation!


Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey and the learning that takes place. Maybe a word of caution should be stamped on all programs: “Not transferable.” Transition time is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning.
… The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons. Congregations need to remember that no handbook is available on freelancing mission. Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey.

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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. http://growinguu.blogs.uua.org/numerical-indicators/growth-and-decline-a-numerical-snapshot/ (accessed December 27, 2012).

LifeLong Faith Associates. Faith Formation 2020. 2009. http://www.faithformation2020.net/uploads/5/1/6/4/5164069/ff_2020_chapter_1.pdf (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.” uua.org. January 15, 2012. http://www.uua.org/documents/moralespeter/120115_congs_beyond.pdf (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.



UU Sermon: Epiphany of the Face
 
January 6, 2012                                                             
Unitarian Universalist Society, Sacramento, California
Roger Jones, Associate Minister
 
Hymns  
SLT 100 (I’ve Got Peace Like a River), SLT 38 (Morning Has Broken), STJ 1010 (Oh, We Give Thanks), SLT 315 (This Old World).  Vocal duet:  “Simple Gifts,” congregation sings third time.

Pastoral Prayer

Now I invite you to a time of contemplation in word and silence.  This time will be followed by music.

Please settle your mind and spirit.  Notice your hands resting. Notice your feet and bodies, resting in the Spirit.  Notice the breath of life coming through you…as I offer these words.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.

Give us hearts full of gratitude for the gift of life, and the blessing of this new day and this new year.  May this new year come as an invitation, an opening to possibility.  May we strive to greet the days ahead with serenity and courage, patience and compassion, curiosity and wondering.  May we be surprised by joy.

As we seek a fresh beginning, we know we cannot ignore the past.  We may grieve damaged relationships.  Let us release ourselves from the prison of resentment.  May we take a few more steps in the direction of healing and freedom.

At this time we may be thinking of loved ones we have lost to death—those lost recently, and those whose absence we mark at this time of worship.  Pat Setzer passed away last Monday after a long decline; she will be missed.  Other names of those we have lost are on our hearts.  Let us now speak their names into the space of our sanctuary.

We reach out in care to those facing a family crisis, medical challenge, financial distress, heartache and loss, and burdens of the body, mind or spirit.  At this time, life is ebbing away from Bill and Dorothy, two longtime members and loyal elders of this religious community.  Let us say the names of any of the others who need our love, and whose faces we can see in our minds.  Either whispering to ourselves or calling out our concerns for others to hear, let us now speak the names on our hearts into the space of our sanctuary.

Life has its light moments and joyful milestones also.  We give thanks for the moments of celebration, and we invite those names or events to be spoken into the space of our sanctuary. Alice, going into Americorps for a year of service.  Hillary, going to Germany to study this semester. …

May one another’s good news give all of us reasons for joy.

Let us remember the divine spark dwelling within us, and let it shine.  May we notice the needs and hungers of others; may we hear the lamentations of our human family.  We pray for the simple gift of a world at peace.  We long for violence to end, and we mourn the lives lost and bodies injured… here in this region, around this country, in all parts of the globe.      When we can make a difference, let us reach out.  When we have the chance to speak out, let us say what must be said.  When we can offer help, let us extend a hand. When we need help, let us ask for it, even when our voice is trembling.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.  Blessed be, and amen.

 

Sermon

For Christmas I received a booklet of sticky notes entitled Commandments.  On the cover:  Moses in red robes, on Mt. Sinai, holding two stone tablets up in a lightning storm.  Open the little book, and on the left side, a pad of gray sticky notes, shaped like stone tablets.  Each one has the heading: “Thou Shalt.”  On the right side, a pad of notes that say:  “Thou Shalt Not.”  Could be handy for those with kids.

Though these two little pads hold more than 10 Commandments, this gift got me thinking about those commandments of Bible fame.   Jewish tradition is filled with commentaries, debates and stories about how to apply and live the Commandments, and which are most important.  And the Jewish teacher named Jesus got a question or two.

As reported in the Gospel of Luke, a religious scholar demanded to know what was most important for obtaining  eternal life.  “Well,” Jesus answered, “What’s written in God’s Law?”

[The man responded:] “That you love … your God—with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.  “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”  Looking for a loophole, the man asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead [in a ditch]. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road…, but when he saw [the man] he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite [, another] religious man [,] showed up; he also avoided the injured man.   A Samaritan traveling the road came to him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, [cleaning] and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’   

“What do you think? [Jesus asked.]  Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”  “The one who treated him kindly,” the religious scholar   responded.  Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”[i]  [Luke 10:25-37]

 

This old parable has generated much reflection and many interpretations.  A striking aspect, of course, is the hypocrisy of the holy priest and Levite, passing on by the hurting man.  But the story has a big surprise after that.  In any story told among Jews, a Samaritan would be an unlikely hero.  Samaritans were a strange, different tribe.  They were hated and feared. They were OTHER.  To hear that one of them would be merciful, generous, neighborly, and self-sacrificing.  That would get your attention.  So:   Why did he choose to be a neighbor, to care for this man in the ditch who was from a different belief system and culture?

Perhaps the Samaritan had an epiphany.  A spiritual experience, a moment of insight.  Today, January 6, is called Epiphany in the traditional calendar of the Christian year.  One kind of epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being.  But another kind, a more universal epiphany, is a sudden revelation, an insight.  I call it a cosmic kick in the head.   It’s when we see what we didn’t see before, and we are transformed.

This helpful Samaritan—what was his epiphany?  Perhaps it was as simple as this:  he looked on the face of that wounded man.  He didn’t turn away, but looked.  The priest and the Levite were too busy to see him; they crossed the road.  The Samaritan saw him in the face.

The late philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has said that the face of the other is an epiphany.  It is a revelation.  It is a moment of ethical challenge.  He explains that our human bodies are vulnerable and life is precarious.  Our identity comes from our dependence on others, our dependence on one another.  At the same time, Levinas says, our human nature can be violent; we have an impulse to exploit, harm, cheat, even kill.  Yet we also have the power to be merciful, kind, and generous. The human face communicates our vulnerability, but it also communicates an ethical demand: Do not kill me.  The epiphany of the face is humbling.  When we look on the face of the other, it speaks to us:  Do not kill me.  Do not let me die.  Do not let me die alone.

Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1906 to a Jewish family in Lithuania, and he died in 1995.  He moved to France for graduate studies and became a French citizen in 1930.  He spent much of the Second World War in captivity.  After the war, his philosophical teaching focused on ethics.  He argued that in philosophy, ethics is more important than truth-seeking.  We don’t need to know the nature of existence to sense our ethical duty to other people.  One’s ethical relation to “the other” comes before one’s relationship to the world, even before one’s relationship to himself or herself.[ii] (Levinas 1986, 21)

Are we basically good, or bad?  Are we worthy, or unworthy?  These are questions of human nature and identity, not of ethics.  They are not the first question of philosophy, for Levinas.  The first question, the first challenge to us from philosophy must be:  What is my duty to the other?

Levinas says that “the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness is, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace.”[iii] (Butler, 134)

University of California professor Judith Butler, writing about Levinas, explains:  “The Other’s face … at once tempts me [as a human being] with murder and prohibits me from acting on it.  The face operates to produce a struggle … [the] struggle at the heart of ethics.”  (Butler, 135)

Levinas says this demand is the heart of our identity;  “I am defined [he says] as … a singular person, as an ‘I,’ precisely because I am exposed to the other.”  It is because I am [inescapably answerable] to the other that makes me an individual.” (27)

Levinas was a secular thinker who identified with the tradition of Greek philosophers.  Yet he was Jewish, and he did write commetnaries on stories in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures.  Whereas traditional theologians might say the Bible is about the relationship of humans to God, Levinas would say that the stories in the Bible are about human beings encountering one another, face to face.  They are about the question:  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s keeper?

Levinas says yes.  He reports:  “There is a Jewish proverb which says that ‘the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs.’”

In the story about Jesus, the scholar starts out selfishly: how can I get eternal life.  Jesus reminds him of Jewish law:  Love God all that you can and love your neighbor as yourself.  The next question is not:  Who or what is God?  And it’s not:  How much shall I love God?  The question is:  Who is my neighbor?  Jesus tells a story, and there’s not an easy answer to be found in it.

In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Al-yo-sha Karamazov says:  “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”  He takes responsibility for his duty to the other, but refrains from imposing it on anyone else, from demanding of others ethically as much as he demands from himself.   

Once during a dialogue, another philosopher asked Levinas, if we aren’t  “ethically obliged to struggle for a perfect world of peace?”  Levinas said, “Yes, but I seek this peace not for me but for the other.”  This, he said, is his standard for himself. (31)

I’ve often wondered about the difference between ethics and morality.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  In any case, to Levinas they are not the same.  As I understand him, ethics is about a primary personal duty to the other.  Though morality “is … founded on an ethical responsibility,” it is about “a series of rules relating to social behavior and civic duty.  [Morality] operates in the [political and social] order [for] … improving our human survival.”

Levinas explains:  “If there were only two people in the world, there would be no need for law courts [or other social structures], because I would always be responsible” for the other.  “As soon as there are three, the ethical relationship with the other” involves community structures and political systems to balance competing needs and claims.  (21)

Ethics is not a rule of conduct or “a manifesto.” (29)  It is a struggle, a search, and a call.  We can feel it and hear it when we look upon the face.

Judith Butler says the face of the other speaks to us, “Speaks in a voice that is not its own.”  It speaks “in something other than language.”

She says:  “We need to hear the face as it speaks to know the precariousness of life that is at stake.” (151) This is the epiphany.

Butler recalls:  “In the Vietnam War, it was pictures of the children burning and dying from napalm that brought the US public to a sense of shock, outrage, remorse and grief.”  Seeing those pictures, seeing the precarious lives in whose deaths our fighting was involved, this country turned against our involvement in the war.  The public was not meant to see those pictures, Butler says; we were to see only images chosen to be portrayed as the face of the enemy, not images of as the face of suffering real people.

She writes:  “Media representations of the face of the ‘enemy’ [often remove or] efface what is most human about the face.” (Butler 2006, xviii).

Butler notes that in our recent wars in the Middle East, government and media have shown us few faces of civilian families destroyed by our weapons.  They have spoken few of the names of the civilian dead.   Now we use drone aircraft for waging war, which is undeclared but real.   A drone is a remotely flown plane for surveillance and for bombing.   Most often from the government we hear of terrorist leaders killed by drone strike; in the media we see a face pic of an enemy.  Yet, as activists and eyewitnesses are learning and trying to tell us, this new arms-length mode of smart combat can eviscerate as many civilian bodies and end as many children’s lives as the old fashioned kind.

Levinas has described ethical responsibility “as insomnia or wakefulness.” He says this is “because it is a perpetual duty … that can never slumber.” (30)

To be ethical, to love neighbor, is to be watchful and vigilant.  Love of neighbor “cannot sleep.”

Yet, Levinas writes, it is common for us to drift off to sleep, to give up watching.  It’s a choice commonly made.  Yet he says:  “Even if I deny my … responsibility to the other… I can never escape the fact that the other has demanded a response from me before I [assert] my freedom not to respond.”  (27)

This makes me think of panhandlers on the street.

Perhaps it is a common sight for you, as you walk, drive or bike around, to see men and women begging for money by the side of the road, at intersections, or on sidewalks near stores.  Perhaps you or someone you know has been in that situation, has been so desperate that panhandling seemed like the only option left.  Holding up a cardboard sign:

Please help.  Need food.  Homeless.

 Have kids.  Have AIDS.  Veteran.  Hungry. 

Thank you and God bless.

I can imagine that when we encounter this reality, we experience a wide variety of reactions.  Among us here is probably a range of opinions about how to respond when asked for money.  Some of us don’t want to say no.  We tell ourselves:  it’s not much money to me, and it can mean a lot to them.  Some of us feel we just can’t spare the money; things are that tight.  Some who work hard every day resent a person standing outside collecting money every day.   Some are afraid of getting scammed.  We may worry about financing an active addiction.   We may suspect that a given panhandler is not really homeless; what if he has disability income and a facility in which to live?   With a diversity of perspectives among us, this can be a rich and challenging topic of conversation.  For the record, here is my approach.  It’s not the perfect one, just the one I use.

While I may offer food if I have some, and I’ve bought meals for some people, I don’t give money to those begging for it.  Instead I direct my donations to local organizations that have a mission to help.  I trust their expertise in making good use of the money.  I let their staff decide who really needs what.  I trust them to set limits.  I trust them to wrestle over the question:  How much is enough?

So if I am walking down the sidewalk, and I get a request for money, I say, “I’m sorry, sir,” or “I’m sorry, ma’am.”  And I try to look at them.  Or, sitting in my car waiting for a red light to change, if a beggar is holding a crude sign six or eight feet from the window, I make myself look.  I look them in the face. I greet their eyes, nod once, or smile.     Of course a smile is not what they are soliciting, but it can’t hurt.  And looking into their face reminds me that they are human.  It challenges me.  It gives me questions I can’t answer.

Philosophers and spiritual teachers give us challenging questions.  They do not give us airtight answers. Often they can sound unrealistic, even utopian, in the ways they challenge us.

Levinas admits that he is accused of being utopian, of being unrealistic:  “’Where did you ever see the ethical relation practiced?’ people say to me.”

He replies:  “This concern for the other remains utopian in the sense that it is always… other than ‘the ways of the world.’”  Even so, he reminds us, “there are many examples of [this concern] in the world.”  (32)  Concern for the other is not the way of the world, but there are many examples of it in the world.

Even if our ethical relationship is utopian, he says, this “does not prevent it from investing our everyday actions [investing them with] generosity or goodwill towards the other:  even the smallest and most commonplace gestures, such as saying ‘after you’ as we sit at the dinner table or walk through a door, bear witness to the ethical.”

Reading philosophers is hard for me–learning a new vocabulary, wading through their wordiness, straining to make sense of a dense book.  Fortunately, some philosophy can be lived and felt without words.  We can practice our ethical awareness by looking at the face of the other, whoever that might be, however we might be given a glimpse of that face.  We can feel what the face has to say, without words, without language, with a voice we hear in our hearts.

When it comes to ethics, we can start with what is revealed when we encounter the face:  face to face, vulnerable human being to vulnerable human being.

Our actions matter.   We are bound together in vulnerability and in our need.  We need one another more than we know.

Blessed be, and peace.  So may it be.  Amen.


[i] Luke 10:25-37 from The Message translation by Eugene Peterson.

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke 10:25-37&version=KJV;MSG;NIV

[ii] (Levinas 1986)

[iii] (Butler 2006)

 

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2006.

 

Levinas, Emmanuel and Richard Kearney. “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas.” In Face to Face with Levinas, by Richard A. Cohen. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986.

 



A Changing Church in a Changing World: Final Post, 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.

 



Summary of My Blog Postings on the Changing Religious Landscape

Can We Thrive in the Changing Religious Landscape?  First of a Series

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-EB

Are We Protestant?  Is this “Christian” Faith Formation Research Relevant to the UUA?

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-FG

The Changing Religious Landscape includes Declining Attendance in the UUA

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-ED

The UU Religious Landscape:  More about Growth and Decline in the UUA

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-EK

Summary of 13 Trends in the Religious Landscape plus 4 Possible Scenarios (some scary!) for the Future of Religious Life in the U.S.  URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-Fl

Details of Trends & Forces Affecting the Future of Faith-Formation:  A Changing Church in a Changing World

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-EO

Emerging Adulthood and Younger Adults and “Tribal Church”:  Trends & Forces Affecting the Future of Faith-Formation—Trends #7 and #8

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-Fx

The Hot New Trend in Religious Identity:  Nothing in Particular

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-F5

The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated:  Threat, Opportunity, or Not So New?

– Post 1 of 2.  URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-Fh

The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated:  Threat, Opportunity, or Not So New?

— Post 2 of 2.  URL: http://wp.me/pe51o-Ff

Navigating the Road Ahead:  With Anxiety or Humility?

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-FC

Final Post, Final Questions:  Surviving or Serving?  Growth or Hospitality?

URL:  http://wp.me/pe51o-FO



Are We Protestant? Is this “Christian” Faith Formation Research Relevant to the UUA?

To see the big picture means learning about the context in which we are working, to see ourselves and our organizations as participants in larger social trends.

By studying trends and forces that affect our work, we can think together about the systems we use, live in, and perpetuate, and think together about how to articulate the changes for those we serve and those we serve with in our churches.

Lifelong Faith Associates is “committed to helping congregations develop lifelong faith formation for all ages and generations, increasing the capacity of leaders and communities to nurture faith growth.”  Its report was discussed at the LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators Association) Fall Conference in 2009.

The report’s main audience and area of focus is Christian communities and the report’s language reflects this.  However, it’s relevant to UU congregations, even those where Christian theology has a small presence.

Historically and sociologically, UUism is Protestant.  As part of the Main Line of American religion, we do reflect the dominant culture, and changes in culture affect most Main Line churches in the same ways.  While theologically we may be closer to a Reform synagogue, by and large a Jewish congregation preserves its distinctiveness from the dominant culture.  Indeed, it’s hard to convert to Judaism.  UUs have thin boundaries with the larger culture.

What I share with the report’s authors is the vision and the hope that our faith communities can shape lives from birth do death, can promote worship, service, learning, community-building and wholeness in human relations—both in our churches and in the communities where they are located.



Navigating the Road Ahead: With Anxiety or Humility?

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). [1]

Jinkins calls this defamatory, but attributes it to the sense of anxiety that many older adults in congregations feel regarding the loss of numbers, resources and prestige that their denominations and congregations have experienced.  Yet, Jinkins warns, “Anxiety makes a poor counselor, and age alone makes no one wise.”[2]

Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales, citing organizational scholars and consultants, told the 2011 General Assembly that human organizations decline or fail not so much because of challenges they face but because they hold on too much to past success.

Of course, for mainline, mainstream Protestant denominations, the founding stories of all our faith movements are the stuff of legend in seminary history and polity courses and in an inspiring sermon now and then.  Furthermore, successes from the Baby Boom era, like church expansion and prominent social action, remain in living memory.

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.”[3]  Considering multiple studies of American religion, they give this summary of decline in the mainline, or the in mainstream denominations and congregations:  “Loss of market share.  Conflict.  Absence of young adults.  Financial crisis.”

Whether we are facing the fast plummet of moderate Protestantism or the less frightening plateau of Unitarian Universalist membership numbers, it is clear:  Things have changed for us.  First, we must recognize this fact. Next, we must recognize our anxious longing for a clear explanation and a prescription.  Then we must explore.

This moment is a spiritual in-between time for organizations.  It’s like the “dark night of the soul” which St. John of the Cross famously identified as part of our individual spiritual journeys.  The dark night is not spiritual death and not necessarily clinical depression, but it is a time of uncertainty and of discomfort.  This calls for enough detachment to explore, consider, and create.  I think it calls for humility.

We are humbled in our presumptions that we knew how to do this church growth business very well.  We are humbled in our presumptions that our congregations could operate as we always have and continue in power and local prominence even as the landscape around us has been changing.

Perhaps, the authors 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.


[1] Jinkins, Michael.  “Foreword” to Tribal Church:  Ministering to the Missing Generation. Alban Institute, Herndon, VA, 2007, p. viii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson. “Dark Night of the Church.”  Christian Century, December 26, 2012, p. 28.