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My friend and colleague Sue Sinnamon shared an interesting post from “author, speaker, activist, and public theologian” Brian McLaren called “Q & A: What About Unitarians?” The question (“Why hasn’t the Unitarian Universalist Church or those roughly affiliated seen a sharp rise in either the recent [2012 Pew Forum] survey or any other performed in the last few years?”) is in response to “Thoughts on the Nones,” a video McLaren had posted. In the video, MacLaren notes that the nones “don’t want to be part of a religious community that requires them to hold hostility toward the Other.” The questioner points out that Unitarian Universalism has “a long history in the United States (going back to abolitionism) of acceptance of individuals of many lifestyles, as well as a strong identity tied to charitable and political action.” Yet, the results of the Pew Forum survey “found that the number of Unitarian members was not a statistically viable number among survey respondents.” Whatever happened to the notion that Unitarian Universalism is “A Religion for Our Time“?
MacLaren offers some interesting insights. The one that really caught my eye was this: “the degree to which a religious community deconstructs without reconstructing will put it at a disadvantage. It not only must removed negatives that other communities have: it must have positives that other communities lack.” It seems to me that Unitarian Universalism has, indeed, removed a lot of “negatives that other communities have.” The problem is, perhaps, that we’re a little too self-congratulatory around this point. If the nones are looking for a non-hostile religion, we’re the one! But the nones, like other kinds of spiritual seekers, aren’t just looking for a religion that plays well with others. They could very well be looking for a religion that gets things done, both for themselves and for the world.
Which brings me to Doug Muder’s recent UUWorld article: “The surprising success of lifeboat faith.” The tagline for the article says it all: “Unitarian Universalism cannot thrive if we don’t at least understand the appeal of religions that give people identity and direction.” The Unitarian Universalism that is not thriving is the one that says, “Hey, look! We’ve got a pretty good product here. We embrace theological diversity, and we welcome different beliefs and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. How cool is that!” Not a whole lot about identity and direction there. People are looking for more. According to Muder,
the appeal of religion lies in identity and orientation: Who am I? Who are my people? Why is my life important, and what am I supposed to be doing with it? The rapid change in the modern era has only increased the importance of those perennial questions and raised the value of answers that feel solid and steady.
Rather that being a religion for our time, let’s be the religion that gets things done. A religion that provides “answers that feel solid and steady” to those big questions Muder refers to. He’s got some great ideas about what those answers might look like. And if you haven’t seen the article yet, consider trying to answer them for yourself first. In the meantime, I came across this great quote from the conclusion of the UUA’s Commission on Appraisal’s 2005 report “Engaging Our Theological Diversity” [PDF]:
What would our UU faith be like if our congregations truly became the safe and welcoming place we aspire to create? If we truly did honor and celebrate both our theological diversity and our sources of unity? If we were willing to commit to spiritual discipline as deeply as to spiritual freedom? “Whether we now have the seeds of a liberating faith is not really the question. Deluding ourselves into thinking that admiring the seeds will make them grow is the issue at hand,” writes a contemporary UU prophet (Gordon McKeeman). What marvels might be possible if we took these seeds and planted and tended them? What wondrous blossoms might arise?
McLaren has a similar quote in his post: “Perhaps, as John Cobb says in his recent (excellent) book, Religions in the Making, the best contributions of Unitarians are in their future, and what they can be has not yet been fully manifested.” May it be so, friends. May it be so.
I was reading an article in Huffington Post by Skye Jethani about Megachurches (Megachurches: When Will The Bubble Burst?) when I ran across this unsettling quote: “On average 50 small churches close their doors every week in America.” What? Fifty small churches are closing their doors every week? That’s not very encouraging, especially for a denomination, like, say, the UUA, where two thirds of its congregations have 150 members or less. Does not bode well, if you ask me. And I think small congregations know this, too. Business as usual is not going to cut it any more. Small congregations in any denomination are going to find it more and more difficult to maintain the status quo, let alone grow. Which I why I’m so pleased that the Prairie Star District offered a Small Congregation Conference last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.
The conference was the brainchild (love that word!) of the Rev. Michael Nelson of our congregation in Manhattan, Kansas (Go Wildcats!). Michael noticed that the UUA regularly sponsored conferences for large and midsize congregations, but had never, as far as he could tell, sponsored one for small congregations. So Michael contacted me and we talked things over and decided this needed to be done. Thanks to a Chalice Lighter grant from Prairie Star, we were able to afford to bring in a topnotch keynote speaker. And knowing that a prophet is seldom welcomed in his or her hometown, we decided to ask someone from outside of the district to be the main presenter at the conference. I’m happy to say that our choice, the Rev. Andrew Pakula from London, England, delivered the goods. Andy offered three presentations over the course of two days. On Friday he gave us the recent history of his congregation in London (check out their website at www.new-unity.org) which has gone from six members in the 2001 (yes, six) to around 35 in 2006 under the leadership of his predessor, and then from 35 to over 100 members in the last 5 years under Andy’s leadership. What’s really exciting about that growth is that 50% of those new members are young adults.
Andy’s follow up presentations on Saturday dealt with using social media and attracting young adults. We also had a variety of workshops led by some terrific people: the Rev. Meg Riley talked with folks about what CLF (Church of the Larger Fellowship) is doing to help small congregations; the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan offered information on the demographics of various communities around the district; the Rev. Thea Nietfield presented information on right relationships and conflict engagement; Lori Emison Clair and Moria Leu of the Des Moines congregation did workshops on membership and music, the Rev. Jill Jarvis & al. talked about moving toward ministry, and Tandi Rogers, UUA growth specialist, did two workshops on faith development in small congregations. The participants were equally stellar as well. We had 12 affilitated congregations from throughout the district represented, along with folks from three new fellowships forming in Prairie Star. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. Hopefully there will be more events like this in the future.
If church had a Facebook page, I’d definitely like it. That’s because there are a lot of things I like about church. I like that we sing in church (there aren’t many places in American culture where people sing together, other than the Star Spangled Banner and Take Me Out to the Ball Game at Wrigley Field). We get to share our joys and concerns with a gathered community (I know, I know: J & S can be seriously abused…but when it’s handled well, say, when people have to write something down ahead of time and have it read by the minister, it’s a wonderful opportunity to feel like you’re part of something larger). I like to listen to choirs sing (my dad was a choir director…said that directing a choir was when he felt closest to God). I even like to hear a good sermon from time to time (but if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know my tolerance for that is waning). I like teaching Sunday school (especially with the youngest ones…preschoolers need to know that there are people in the church who are really, really happy that they are here!). I freaking LOVE potlucks (fondest memories of my Methodist youth…where I first learned that you can use cottage cheese to replace some of the ricotta in lasagna). I love the way a sanctuary feels when nobody’s in it except for yourself (and perhaps the Deity Formerly Known as God). I love church libraries (they’re so earnest, especially the small ones). I love the trimmed lawns, the shade trees, the bushes, the flowers. I love that fact that people insist on supporting these institutions, and that they are there when we need them.
However, liking or loving church, no matter how genuine the emotion, is not going to be enough to save these institutions. If we’re going to survive, we need to bring new people into our doors, and new people aren’t going to be showing up just because some of us like church. It’s going to take a whole lot more. And that reminds me of this TED Talk by Benjamin Zander on music and passion (see below). I was introduced to it by John Roberto at a Faith Formation 2020 class. The big take away here comes at minute 16:51 when Zimmer says this about classical music:
Now, how would you walk — because you know, my profession, the music profession doesn’t see it that way. They say 3 percent of the population likes classical music. If only we could move it to 4 percent our problems would be over. I say, “How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought 3 percent of the population likes classical music? If only we could move it to 4 percent. How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought everybody loves classical music — they just haven’t found out about it yet.” (Laughter) See, these are totally different worlds.
I think that if church is going to survive, we need to act as if we thought everybody loves church as much as we do. That doesn’t mean, of course, that 100% of the people in the United States are going to start going to church if we walked that way. But it does mean, perhaps, that more people are going to find out why we church lovers think it’s so important. So…do you love church? And if so, what do you love the most about it?
Once upon a time, people who didn’t believe in the kind of God that spoke through those obnoxious GodSpeaks.com billboards (“What part of ‘Thou shalt not…’ didn’t you understand?”) could still talk about God by not talking about God. Instead, they could talk about the “God-shaped hole” or vacuum or void that existed in the heart of our being. It’s a pretty good maneuver when you think about it, one that was used by such luminaries as Saint Augustine and Blaise Pascal. No need to believe in the existence of God to engage in Godtalk. One could have a perfectly serviceable theological discussion around the circumference of that “terrifying bottomless abyss opening up inside us which we would do anything to fill” as a former history professor of mine described it. In fact, “God-shaped hole” is such a perfectly adequate metaphor or trope or image—I’m not exactly sure what it is—that it’s even been used as a title for a novel and as the title for a pop song in a movie soundtrack. Wait a minute. Now I do know what it is. It’s a cliché.
And like all good clichés, this one has pretty much run its course. Why? Because with every passing moment, humanity is coming up with more and more and more information to stuff down that “terrifying bottomless abyss.” In fact, it’s been said that “by some estimates in just a few years we will reach a point where all the information on the Internet will double every 72 hours.” Which means that the big hole that needs to be filled in our lives is no longer shaped like the Deity Formerly Known as God. It’s shape like Google. And if anyone out there can tell me what a Google-shape hole looks like, I’ll send them an invitation to Spotify. (Actually, I do have a few invitations to Spotify if you’re interested!) Oh, and by the way, at the moment “Google-shaped hole” is just a baby cliché, only about 70 results show up on Google, as opposed to 875,000 results for “God-shaped hole.” So feel free to use it for awhile.
Anyhoo. What this all means for those of us in the religion business (or the “prayer trade” as Brother Cavil called it on Battlestar Galactica) is that offering to fill the “God-shaped hole” in people isn’t going to cut it anymore. The DFKAG is losing ground anyway (see “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods“). People may still be trying to make sense of it all, but the traditional answers found by visiting the “Church Around the Corner” (even the Unitarian Universalist church around the corner) aren’t going to help them. The sphere of information we’ve surrounded ourselves with is on the verge of being so mystifying and so complex that it would bake the cookies of even the greatest minds of the past like Augustine and Pascal. The good news is that maybe, just maybe, people seeking to fill that “Google-shaped hole” might want to unplug for awhile and engage in a good old fashion face-to-face conversation about life, the universe, and everything. So there still may be a place for religious communities after all. But we’ve got to be ready. And this article is a good place to start: “Theology and the Church After Google: How This New Age Will Change Christianity.” If you haven’t read it yet, do. Really.