Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Atheism & Spirituality — Sermon Excerpt March 23, 2014

Spirituality has to do with renewal, when we take our worn lives and cultivate a new enthusiasm for what is ours. It’s about building bridges of connection between our solitary self and others. It’s about finding your place in the family of things, in the family of life.

When I meet people socially they often ask what I do, where I work. I usually tell them. In reply, they might say, “Oh, well, I’m an atheist.”

Their tone implies: If you’re angling to invite me to services, Mr. Minister, I’m off the hook! But I say, “Oh, good. I have plenty of atheists in my congregation! Agnostics too.”

. . .

I like to think of a UU congregation as an inter-faith community. We strive to welcome differences of theology while celebrating common ethical values. But it’s not easy.

It can feel vulnerable to speak from the heart, to express your personal views. When we dare to speak from the heart, it calls for trust and courage. When we ask another “What do you believe?” it calls for the practice of curiosity and a discipline of respect. Let us help one another to practice courage and respectful curiosity.

At our best, we can be an intentional inter-faith community. What holds us together in our diversity is a set of shared values, and a set of promises, which we call a covenant.


Listen to the whole sermon, and find others, at

Time of Darkness and Light– UUSS Sermon from Sunday, December 15, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Music:  Hymns:  #226 “People, Look East,” #118 “This Little Light of mine,” #1008 “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place.”  Solo:  “The Dark” by Mary Grigolia, sung a capella by Rev. Lucy.

Litany of Darkness and Light    (see at end)


I sat looking out the kitchen window well before 7 in the morning, just last week.  I felt the chilly air seeping in, and a mug of warm tea in my cold hands.  I was ready to watch the morning light emerge, was waiting for the sunlight to change the look of everything.  But I felt sadness.  The tea had caffeine—how long would it take to change my mood, if it could?  This mood was not of deep grief, and not a heavy burden of depression on my shoulders, yet it was a decidedly not-fun feeling of sadness.   I said my morning prayer anyway.

I gave thanks for the gift of life and the new day, for a night’s rest in a warm, safe place.  I lifted up the names of parishioners who need good wishes or prayers, brought their faces to mind, plus those of colleagues, friends, and relatives.  I stated my intentions for living the day with gratitude, generosity, curiosity and kindness.  The light was now making the street visible, and showing the colors of the cars parked on it.

Then it occurred to me:  that pre-dawn darkness was just the right place for my sadness.  The shadows could receive it.  The shadows could let the sadness move, in its own gentle way.  Had it been 7 AM in June or July, the sun would have claimed the whole scene by now.  It would be urging me into the many tasks of the day:  Get going, look alive!  But the morning darkness of December seems to say, “Take it easy and slowly–I am taking it easy and slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

Soon it was bright and clear, and my day was on its way.  And it went fast.  The night came in the middle of the day—5 o’clock.  Wait!  I’m not finished with my day yet!

For years I have resisted and resented the early evening.  I’ve dreaded the shrinking hours of daylight, starting in early November, when we set our clocks back an hour.

But as this December Solstice approaches, I try to appreciate what can happen in the dark.  I would like to mention a few of the gifts of the time of darkness, but first I want to say:  it’s not a gift for everyone, no matter what a preacher or a poet might say.

Like many people, a friend of mine has a clinical, biological reaction in the winter darkness, called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  It does not help that she lives at a latitude even farther north than we do, and it’s cold there, for a long time.  You know what they would call the chilly weather we’ve had this past week?  Springtime (without the mud).

She sits under a special kind of lamp every day, to give her body and spirit some extra rays of light.  In retirement she has the time to travel, so she spends a few weeks in the winter visiting friends in warm, sunny places.  When she can save up enough money and find a cheap deal, she takes a trip to a warm country.  Not speaking Vietnamese, she made her way around villages in Vietnam by pointing and smiling.  In the sunshine of Egypt a few years ago, she heard people speak with hope right after the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.  She enjoyed the January summer of Argentina, taking in the spray of Iguazu falls, the marvel of a glacier, and some penguins in their stiff cuteness.  Rather than cursing the dark and cold, she follows the sun.  Of course, this is not an option for most people, and she gives thanks for the privilege to do so.

It’s important to note that seasons of darkness and cold can be very hard on the spirit, hard on the emotional health of many people around us.  It may not only bring up grief or painful memories of past experiences, it may bring depression that weighs on our minds and even on our physical bodies.  This can happen to people young or old, in any occupation or stage of life.  When other ways of dealing with the shadow side of this dark time don’t seem to help us, it may be worth seeing if anti-depressant medicines, psychotherapy, or a 12-Step recovery group can make a difference for us.  Whether as individuals or as families, we can look for professional resources and community support as we pursue emotional healing, personal growth, and the ability to accept the gift of life with joy.

Personal growth can happen in the dark times and places.  Seeds will sprout in the cool dark of the earth, and begin their journey toward the light.  As a tree stretches toward the sun, it also grows downward, inward, into the dark earth.  We can be like the trees.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “In winter we lead a more inward life.”

Another friend of mine lives not so far north, so the weather’s not as cold and the nights not as long.  Yet the winter darkness does mean a change of her pattern of living, toward a more inward life.   She spends more time under the covers, reading a book propped on the pillow next to her.   In the living room she brings out candles and a string of holiday lights.  They remind her of our inner light, of an eternal spark.  Believing that winter is the best time for exercise, she puts on layers and goes out for a brisk walk.  The leaves crunch underfoot, the air chills the skin of the face, the nose runs.

In winter, she says, we need exercise to stimulate our endorphins.  Of course, we can be tempted to medicate our mood by drinking more alcohol and eating more, especially sweets and other carbohydrates.  But the boost we might feel by consuming alcohol and sweets can have a down side.  It can make us feel worse—edgy–after the boost wears off.   This December I am taking some of her advice.  Of course, I may never stop my holiday consumption of cookies, cake, fudge and anything else any of you might wish to make for me.  But I’m eating more almonds and pecans and not forgetting my veggies.  And I am having less alcohol, and drinking less often.   I’m not crazy about green tea, but I’ve been drinking so much of it lately that soon I may turn the color of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

One Unitarian Universalist family I know has created their own Solstice tradition.  With candles and cloths they make an altar of their table.  They bake a light brown, round ginger cake—dense and only an inch thick.  They serve it on a large round plate with a rim glazed with dark blue like the sky, and specked with stars.  They pass the cake around, each one cutting a piece for the next person, who indicates by nods and silent gestures how large of a piece to cut.

As the cake is served, what is revealed underneath it in the center of the plate is a round red sun.  The sun returns!  For Solstice dinner, they eat only foods with round shapes, evoking the sun.  They read prayers to the divine light and sing chants to the source of returning warmth.  The parents hide little suns around the house and the kids go searching for them.  By finding a likeness of sun, they are bringing the sun back, helping it return.  This family does not rely on the dominant culture to tell them what they need to do or to buy for making spirits bright—they create their own traditions.  Any of us can be creative.  We can join with nature and with other people to create our own light, and share the light, now in the dark of winter.

For many people, winter is a time for making soup and other warm foods, and eating more of the fresh foods that our season brings out.  In California we have so many winter crops.  Those in cold climates now can benefit from quick transport of fresh foods, but in the old days they kept food in the root cellar, and dried meat and beans from the summer crop.

Back home in Indiana, my mother’s fridge held many frozen foods for our winter meals, and this was fine.  But around the corner from our house, my uncle and aunt had shelves of clear glass jars with green beans, tomatoes, corn and other produce they had canned in the summer.   My uncle Roger had been a cook on a ship in the Navy during the Second World War.  As a boy I helped him in the kitchen, including his major undertaking of putting up all that food, with Mason jars boiling in big pots of water and other steps for cleanliness and safety.  That was a summer activity, but the memory of it warms me in the winter.

Now I can see that we were storing sunshine in shiny glass jars.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

The darkness can help us to see the truth… that we are not in control of everything.  We can be so busy in our lives, have so many expectations.  So many technologies at our fingertips and conveniences in our daily experience can lull us into thinking that there is an online menu tab for peace of mind or an iPad application for wisdom, courage, and grace.

The world does not revolve around any of us, including me; nor does earth rotate at my command.   Its creation is a miracle and a blessing. The operation of the heavens is a wonder.  And it all goes on without my permission or involvement. It will go on without me.  The darkness comes and goes—my cursing it or my blessing it affects only the condition of my own spirit.  The season’s advice to me:  you need not be in control, and in fact you are not in control.  Let the darkness hold the future.  Let go!

We can be intentional about living in the darker season. This is why candles appeal to us:  the darker it gets around them, the more they show their beauty.   Looking at a candle flame, or a string of lights on the tree or around the window, we can think about the meaning of light, and the bringers of light—like our nearby star, the human mind and heart, the source of love and light eternal, the creative spark, the divine fire of courage and compassion.

Solstice rituals use fire and food and song—to bless the darkness with beauty, while praising the cycles of the seasons of the earth.   People hang lights at Christmas to praise the source of life, celebrate the story of the star of Bethlehem, and remember that sun and warmth will return.

On Christmas Eve at UUSS, our sanctuary fills with members and their friends, and with guests we see only once a year.  In the weeks leading up to it, folks ask me the time:  seven o’clock, same as always.  They ask me if we will light candles and sing “Silent Night,” at the end.  Of course!  We will make a circle around the walls of the sanctuary, and exchange the light with one another, and then enjoy the darkness, filled with song and silence, and with faces illuminated by the flames.

Folks never ask:  will we sing the carols and hear a homily, will we have some instrumental music, prayer and silence and an offering?  All those things are like the setup to the “Silent Night” candle light finale!  Yet without those elements, the finale would be weak.

Without the darkness, our candles would be weak.  Likewise, without the embrace of the darkness, we might not have the reminder to plan ahead, create meaning in the season, and reach out for fellowship and support.  The darkness holds an invitation to let go of all that we cannot control, and accept with serenity all that we can’t change.

At my kitchen window, in my early morning watch for the light, the dark of winter seems to say:  “Take it easy, and go slowly–I am taking it easy, and going slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

The dark of winter is a time to consider the sources of light we can count on, and give thanks for them.  It’s the season for tasting the warmth of nourishing food, made by human hands from the gifts of the earth for our sustenance and our joy. It’s a season for creativity, planning ahead, self-care and care for others.  It’s a time for digging deep and for reaching out toward others with compassion, openness, and kindness.

It’s a time for patience and letting go of control, for releasing the past and opening to the mystery of the future.  May we all be so blessed.

In the days to come, may you welcome the gifts of light and warmth you can bring into the darkness.  May the days and nights ahead bless us with light, learning, warmth, patience and peace.               Blessed be.


Litany of Darkness and Light


Part A (Before silent meditation/prayer)


Voice 1:  We wait in the darkness expectantly, longingly, anxiously, thoughtfully.

Voice 2:  In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected.

All Voices:  May we feel comfort in the darkness.


It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe– blankets of stars, the solitary glowing of distant planets.

In the darkness of the night sky we feel beyond time – in the presence of the past, and with the promise of the future.

May we feel hope in the darkness.


In the solitude of the darkness we may remember those who need our love and support in special ways–

 the sick, the unemployed, the bereaved, the persecuted, the homeless, those who are demoralized or discouraged, those whose fear has turned to cynicism, those whose vulnerability has become bitterness.

Sometimes in the darkness we remember those who are near to our hearts – colleagues, partners, parents, children, neighbors, friends, congregation members.   We pray for their safety and happiness.  We offer our support.

May we know healing in the darkness.



Part B (After musical interlude following sermon)


In the quiet darkness of the night, we may hear that still, small voice within.

In the blessed darkness we may be transformed, changed by what we face in the dark.

May we feel the challenge of the darkness.


In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed.

In the darkness of sleep dreams rise up, calling us to possibilities, calling us to know our connection to the world.

May we feel joy in the darkness.               

Sometimes in the solitude of darkness our fears and concerns, our hopes and our visions rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves.   We find the road that lies ahead of us.

Sometimes in the darkness we wonder about the important things, the deep things, and inexpressible things.  We watch for glimmers of hope and glimpses of grace.

May we feel renewed in the darkness.  May we be guided by the light of our hearts.  Reflecting the divine love that shines at the heart of life,  let us reach out to this troubled world with compassion.

New Century Hymnal, adapted

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.

hymn for Thanksgiving Sunday “We Gather Together” etc.

I’m looking forward to the sermon by our guest speaker, the Rev. Beth Banks, senior minister of our UU Church in Davis.  Sermon title is “Unlocking the Treasure,” using Lynne Sweet’s book The Soul of Money.


Thanksgiving Sunday Hymn 2013


Words by Rev. E. T. Buehrer, 1956 (UUA hymnal #67)

Music:  A Dutch folk tune arranged by Edward Kremser, 1890s.


We sing now together our song of thanksgiving,

rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought,

for Life that enfolds us, and helps and heals and holds us,

and leads beyond the goals which our forbears once sought.


We sing of the prophets, the teachers, the dreamers,

designers, creators, and workers and seers,

our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding,

their deeds have made immortal their days and their years


We sing of community, now in the making

in every far continent, region, and land;

with those of all races, all times and names and places,

we pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.


Please Be Seated for the Next Verses


Story about the 1963 Words


New words by Dorothy & Rev. Robert Senghas, 1963 (UUA hymnal #349)


We gather together in joyful thanksgiving,

acclaiming creation, whose bounty we share;

both sorrow and gladness we find now in our living,

we sing a hymn of praise to the life that we bear.


We gather together to join in the journey,

confirming, committing our passage to be

a true affirmation, in joy and tribulation,

when bound to human care and hope, then we are free.


“Unitarian Universalism” and “Unity” Churches — similarities and differences

Sometimes people will ask me if UUism is the same as Unity.  It’s not the same, but there are several similarities. 

When I began a spiritual search as a young adult in a new city in 1985, I visited both a Unity Church and a UU Fellowship regularly.  I took a night class using the book The Story of Unity.  I liked both congregations, and though I retained a couple of friends in Unity, I was drawn to make a commitment as a member to the UU Fellowship.  At the time the UU congregation had a more explicit and regular mention of social justice and issues of the common good–a more external focus than an inward one.  Since then, I chose to pursue spiritual growth through various avenues, and our UU movement has expanded its embrace of spiritual and theological exploration, while never leaving behind the urge to build a more just world and promote understanding among different religions.   I think local Unity Church congregations may be less socially conservative than some of them used to be, and I know many of them have done good work in community service and interfaith relations.

Here is my take on the differences.  

Unitarian Universalism (UUism) has been more of an institution-based movement from the beginning, while Unity has been more of a message-based movement, with an extensive publishing outreach that touches people beyond its churches.  Of note is Unity’s “Daily Word” devotional booklet.

The Unity School of Practical Christianity was founded by a married couple in the late 1800s, as part of the New Thought Movement, which includes Christian Science.  Unity started as a movement, and became a denomination.  Its Unity Village headquarters is in Kansas City.

Unitarianism was a theological break within congregational churches, rejecting Calvinism, starting in the early 1800s.  While William Ellergy Channing delivered a foundational sermon in 1819, a manifesto of sorts, entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” there were many other founders of this liberal Protestant sect in the Congregational churches in Massachusetts.  The use of reason in studying scriptures, the humanity of Jesus, and the dignity of every person were founding ideas.  Less than 20 years later, the Transcendentalists added more ideas to the tradition.

 Universalism also was a revolt against Calvinism, and it started in the late 1700s.  It spread more like a movement of ideas, though new churches were started along the Connecticut River Valley.  Founding ideas were a denial of hell as a place for the dead and an affirmation of the boundless love of God as a loving, non-condemning parent.  Both denominations grew and spread across the continent, and merged in 1961.  Boston is the location of our denominational headquarters. 

Neither Unity nor UUism are considered orthodox or traditional expressions of Christianity, though both had Christian origins. 

Many conservative Christians explicitly say that both traditions are theologically and spiritually dangerous heresies.

Both UUism and Unity affirm goodness in everyone and divine love for all.  Both have a diversity of concepts of the divine in their literature and in their congregations.  However, there are very few UUs who like terms like Father or Lord, and Unity is often comfortable with it.
UUs include many self-describe Religious Humanists–who are atheists or agnostics and don’t respond to God language.  Most UUs, especially Humanists, disagree with the idea that there is a soul separate from the body. 

Unity, as a modern descendent of Gnostic theology, often includes expressions affirming that a soul exists apart from the body.  UUism does not have an official teaching on this, but I think most are not Gnostics.  Many UUs also are uncomfortable with the Course in Miracles, or would be if they took it.  It is popular in Unity and in Religious Science, another New Thought movement.

Unity and other New Thought churches affirm many of the spiritual ideas of the American Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians, like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 
But the spiritual philosophy of the Transcendentalists is only one thread of our heritage, and many UUs think it is too idealistic or too mystical for them.

Unity strives to be inclusive of the wisdom of all faiths, and so do we.   But Unity’s background and primary connection is Christian, and many of our Humanist atheist or Jewish UUs are uncomfortable with that connection on an explicit and regular basis.  While most UUs do recognize the liberal Christian origins of both sides of our UU heritage, they value our inclusive embrace of the wisdom of diverse traditions.  Humanists and theists and all others who are committed UUs join together in affirming the baseline of humanistic values in the UU faith tradition.

Most people who tried out a UU church and ended up in a Unity church made the move because they sought a more spiritual focus and spiritual practice, and explicit, regular talk about spirituality.  They may have found UUs too “cerebral,” and not “spiritual” enough–that is, with more head and less heart, and they found more heart in Unity.  I’m busy most Sundays, so have no recent eyewitness experience!

Unity affirms human possibility and human goodness, and we UUs strive to affirm that. However, Unity has a more optimistic view of human life which some UUs would find naive.
James Luther Adams (a minister and professor who saw the evils of the Nazi takeover first hand) and other modern UUs have stressed the tragic dimension of the human personality and human life.  In my experience, Unity teachings disavow evil as a real force in human life.

While many UUs would say that every event or accident or phenomenon has causes that can be explained, most of us would not agree that everything happens for a reason or according to a plan, while I often hear “Everything happens for a reason” in Unity and other New Thought traditions. Some things do not happen for a reason–they happen, and sometimes they are terrible.  We are here to reduce harm, ease suffering and help those to whom bad things do happen.

UU process theologians assert that there is an infinite variety of possible outcomes and events, rather than a plan for any person’s life or a plan for the planet as a whole.  Process theology imagines a Divine Lure toward the good, but the outcome is up to human choice, causal relationships in nature, and randomness.

I think the religious landscape is enriched by the presence of Unity churches and Unity publications.  We are not the same but our similarities are important and worth affirming.  Thanks to my Unity colleagues in ministry for all the leadership and care you provide. 

Liberal THEOLOGY IS NOT for the faint of heart–essay

My colleague Jay Atkinson, now retired from our ministry, has long been a minister-scholar.  Last August he held a UUSS  group spellbound as he charted the origins and subsequent development of our liberal faith tradition and theologies.  He spoke for 90 minutes from a bare outline! 

Here is an essay he gave us as a handout. This is the Epilogue the from the book of another UU colleague, Paul Rasor, who is a professor in Virginia.

Liberal THEOLOGY IS NOT for the faint of heart. It points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination.  It refuses to make our commitments for us but holds us accountable for the commitments we make. The liberal religious tradition is an invitation, not a mandate. It invites us to live with ambiguity without giving in to facile compromise; to engage in dialogue without trying to control the conversation; to be open to change without accepting change too casually; to take commitment seriously but not blindly; and to be engaged in the culture without succumbing to the culture’s values.  Liberal religion calls us to strength without rigidity, conviction without ideology, openness without laziness. It asks us to pay attention.  It is an eyes-wide-open faith, a faith without certainty.

This book has been both descriptive and critical. At the descriptive level, I have sought to provide a basic introduction to liberal theology. I have done this not simply by describing liberal theology’s identifying characteristics, but also by locating it within its historical, intellectual, and social context. Liberal theology—like any other theology—is not merely a collection of free-standing ideas. It exists in specific places and times, and it belongs to an ongoing and multi-faceted religious tradition.

A vital feature of the liberal theological tradition is constructive self-examination. This is an important process. It helps keep liberal theology relevant to the needs of each succeeding generation. It guards against staleness and rigidity. It becomes a method of built-in accountability. In this spirit, then, I have addressed a few of liberalism’s internal weaknesses and contradictions, and at some points have been quite critical. I have also tackled head-on the difficult issues of race and class that continue to confront liberal theology and sometimes cause us to stumble over our own best intentions. In each case I have offered some constructive suggestions as well. At the same time, I have tried to bring liberal theology into conversation with other currents in the contemporary theological stream. Some of these, such as liberation theology and postliberal theology, are highly critical of liberalism. My working assumption has been that while liberal theology need not adjust to all its critics’ complaints—it could not remain liberal if it did—there is nevertheless much we can learn from them.

Critical self-examination also points to liberal theology’s great strengths. These include its principled open-mindedness, its intellectual honesty, and its commitment to social justice. These are among the hallmarks of the liberal tradition, and they are worth preserving. Today’s theological landscape is highly pluralistic. Many voices struggle to be heard. Some seek dialogue and engagement; others seek merely to shout the loudest. It is precisely in these circumstances that liberal theology’s prophetic and mediating voice is most needed. The early twenty-first century in the United States is a time of increasing dogmatic rigidity in both politics and religion. We are confronted by a worldview of simplistic dualisms. Dissent—even asking hard questions—is seen as a threat; data that do not support pre-set ideas are ignored; deeper analysis of complex issues is avoided. Liberal theology rejects this way of being. It seeks deeper and more nuanced explanations. It understands the inherent complexity and interrelatedness of things. It has learned to live with tensions and ambiguities.  Liberal theology’s willingness to engage in ongoing and thoughtful critique offers an important corrective voice in the public dialogue.

This is important work. But none of us can do this work alone. As much as we need constructive self-examination and critical dialogue, we need each other. We may never come to think alike or to act alike. I hope not. But by participating in each other’s faith journeys, by reaching out to each other and sharing in each other’s struggles to name and claim our theologies, we can strengthen our public prophetic voice and deepen our sense of community and our commitment to a shared faith tradition.

May it be so.

Epilogue from Paul Rasor’s Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Boston, Skinner House, 2005)

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.