[This is a draft of a sermon I’m delivering in Fargo, North Dakota this Sunday. I haven’t preached in ages, so I’m a bit rusty. Hope I manage to get my point across.]
Headline, UU World, Monday, May 11, 2009: “Membership growth in UUA slows down.”
Headline, UU World, Monday, April 12, 2010: “UUA membership declines for second year.”
Headline, UU World, Wednesday, May 23, 2011: “UUA membership declines again.”
Headline, UU World, Wednesday, August 15, 2012: “UUA membership declines for fourth year.”
Headline, UU World, Monday, April 29, 2013: “UUA membership is flat in 2013.”
The UU World hasn’t published an article about membership in 2014 yet, but I bet you can guess how the headline might read. I can give you a preview if you’re interested. During the past year:
- adult membership declined from 156,515 to 154,707 (-1.2%);
- children’s enrollment declined from 51,588 to 49,191 (-4.6%);
- and average weekly attendance declined from 97,400 to 96,788 (-0.6%).
For an association that had shown small but consistent growth over the last 50 years or so, this current trend is a little unsettling, even a bit alarming, perhaps. Just what the heck is going on?
What’s happening is that we Unitarian Universalists have finally entered into a period of decline that our mainline Protestant cousins have been experiencing for quite sometime. Truth is, when I read that first headline back in 2009, I knew that we would see a similar headline every year from then on…and we have. Why? Because there have been some significant shifts in the religious landscape here in the United States over the last quarter century, and whatever combination of factors—liberal theology plus favorable demographics?—that may have been damping the impact of those shifts have lost their effectiveness. We’re now in the same boat as the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the American Baptists, and Congregationalists, denominations that have been losing anywhere from 1% to 3% of their members each year for some time now.
To get some idea of what we—that is, congregations in the United States—are up against, I’d like to share with you some findings by John Roberto, the author of a book called Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation. I first became aware of Roberto’s work back in 2009, around the time that first UU World headline announced the beginning of our decline in membership. For years Roberto had been combing through the seemingly endless surveys and reports documenting the changes in church membership and attendance in the United States. Out of all the material he looked at—and believe me, there’s lots it—Roberto came up with what he calls the “driving forces” that have been effecting congregation is the twenty-first century. There are eight, eight and a half of them, according to Roberto. Not all of them are bad, either. Some might even sound like good news for Unitarian Universalists. At any rate, here they are:
- Declining Number of Christians and Growing Number of People with No Religious Affiliation
Sometimes known as the “Nones” this group has gone from 2% of the
US population in 1950 to 16% in 2012
- Increasing Number of People Becoming More “Spiritual” and Less “Religious”
This group might overlap a bit with the “Nones.” About 18% of the population identified as Spiritual but Not Religious in 2014. An even higher percentage of young adults identify as such.
- Declining Participation in Christian Churches
The latest figure on this is that while 40% of Americans claim they go to church on Sunday, the number is more like 20%.
- Increasing Diversity and Pluralism in American Society
According to Census Bureau projections, by the end of this decade no single racial or ethnic group will constitute a majority of children under 18. In about three decades, no single group will constitute a majority of the country as a whole.
- Increasing Influence of Individualism on Christian Identity and Community Life
Between 1960 and 2008, the number of uses of “I” or “me” increased 42%, and instances of “we” or “us” declined 10%, in hundreds of thousands of American books, both fiction and nonfiction, studied by a team of researchers San Diego State University. The rise of the singular pronoun and the decline of the plural are consistent with what has been described as an increasing level of individuality in American culture over the last half-century, the researchers say.
- Changing Patterns of Marriage and Family Life
In 1960, 72% of American adults were married. By 2008, that share had fallen to 52%. At the same time, fewer women are becoming mothers, and those who do are having fewer children later in life.
- Declining Family Religious Socialization
Religion is just not passed along from generation to generation the way it used to be. Fewer couples are getting married in religious ceremonies. When those couples become parents, they are less likely to have their children dedicated or baptized in a church.
- Increasing Impact of Digital Media and Web Technologies
New research has found that the average user spends 26 hours a week emailing, texting and using social media and other forms of online communication.
- (or 8 ½) Aging Baby Boomers
As the year 2011 began on January 1, the oldest members of the Baby Boom generation celebrated their 65th birthday. In fact, on that day, today, and for every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will reach age 65.
As I said, some of these trends—increased diversity, the influence of individualism—might sound like good news for Unitarian Universalism. Yet the fact that many, if not most, of our congregations have been losing members, suggests that all in all these driving forces are not moving people in our direction. While all this might give us some idea about why we—collectively, congregations in the United States—are in the situation that we’re in, what really interests me is the future of congregations in America. Is there even a place for church in the twenty-first century?
Which brings us to the title of Roberto’s book, Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation. His book is oriented toward the future, and to get there, he used something call “scenario thinking.” Scenario thinking is a way to take current circumstances and explore a number of different ways they might play out in the future. The first step is to look at some critical uncertainties. Since Roberto’s interested in what the future might hold for congregations and their ability to address people’s religious and spiritual needs, he chose these two uncertainties: “Will trends in American culture lead people to become more receptive to organized religion, and in particular Christianity, over the next decade or will trends lead people to become more resistant to organized religion and Christianity?” and “Will people’s hunger for and openness to God and the spiritual life increase over the next decade or will people’s hunger for and openness to God and the spiritual life decrease?”
Roberto took these two uncertainties and used them to envision four different scenarios. He did this by connecting the uncertainties into a 2×2 matrix, which created a set of four scenarios that describe possible futures for congregations and their role in addressing people’s religious and spiritual needs. So take the first uncertainty (will people become more receptive or more resistant to organized religion) and look at it vertically—receptive to organized religion up here; resistant to organized religion down here—then put the second uncertainty (will people have a high or low hunger for God and the spiritual life) and look at it horizontally—with high hunger for the spiritual life here [my left] and low hunger for the spiritual life here [my right], then you end up with these four scenarios:
- Scenario #1. Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement (people of vibrant faith and active engagement in the church community)
- Scenario #2. Spiritual but Not Religious (people who are spiritual but not religious, duh)
- Scenario #3. Unaffiliated and Uninterested (people who are uninterested in the spiritual life and unaffiliated with religion)
- Scenario #4. Participating but Uncommitted (people who participate occasionally but are not actively engaged or spiritually committed)
When Roberto first came up with these scenarios seven or eight years ago, say 2007, the year 2020 was over a decade away. Which of the scenarios might come to pass was still up for debate. But in the last five or six years, we’ve scene a fairly definite movement in a couple of directions: people’s interest in God and the spiritual life seems high. Just go to amazon.com and search for “spirituality” in Books. You’ll find 225,974 results, including Spirituality for Dummies. At the same time, people seem to be more and more resistant to organized religion. Even the Southern Baptists Convention has started to decline in membership. For me, this seems to indicate that the second scenario—Spiritual but Not Religious—is where we’re heading a culture.
So given that information, what’s a congregation to do? Roberto suggests some strategies—sixteen of them. Think of these as ways for congregations to stay relevant by addressing people’s religious and spiritual needs. Now before I get to these strategies, I’d like to give you some sense of what faith formation (or faith development) can mean for Unitarian Universalists. This comes from the Vision Statement of the UUA’s Tapestry of Faith program:
We envision children, youth, and adults who:
- Know that they are lovable beings of infinite worth, imbued with powers of the soul, and obligated to use their gifts, talents, and potentials in the service of life;
- Affirm that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living;
- Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith;
- Realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression, promoting the health and well-being of the planet, acting in the service of diversity, justice and compassion;
- Recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships and connections between and among the generations;
- Appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life;
- Experience hope, joy, mystery, healing, and personal transformation in the midst of life’s challenges.
When I talk think about Faith Formation in a Unitarian Universalist context, I’m thinking of everything a congregation does to promote this vision. So with that in mind, here are Roberto’s 16 Strategies for Addressing the Four Scenarios:
- Faith Formation through the Life of the Whole Church
- Faith Formation using Digital Media and Web Technologies
- Family Faith Formation
- Intergenerational Faith Formation
- Generational Faith Formation
- Milestones Faith Formation
- Faith Formation in Christian Practices
- Transforming the World: Engagement in and Formation for Service and Mission
- Spiritual Formation
- Multi-Ethnic Faith Formation
- Faith Formation for Spiritual Seekers
- Apprenticeships in Discipleship
- Pathways to Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement
- Faith Formation in Third Place Settings
- Empowering the Community to Share their Faith
- Interfaith Education and Dialogue
Not all the strategies apply to every scenario. For example, there’s really no way that the first strategy (Faith Formation through the Life of the Whole Church) could do much for people in scenarios #2 & #3, Spiritual but Not Religious or Uninterested and Unaffiliated, because folks in those scenarios just aren’t coming to church. Some strategies, however, apply to more than one of the scenarios. A few may work in all four.
Those are the scenarios that I’m the most interested in If a congregation is going to expend time and energy in responding to the forces that are contributing to the decline in church participation and attendance in the twenty-first century, then it only makes sense to invest in those strategies that have the potential to make the greatest impact. So here are the strategies that, according to Roberto, address all four scenarios:
- Faith Formation using Digital media and Web Technologies
- Milestones Faith Formation
- Faith Formation in Christian Practices
- Transforming the World: Engagement in and Formation for Service and mission
- Spiritual Formation
- Multi-Ethnic Faith Formation
I believe that if congregations are going to stay relevant in the twenty-first century, they’re going to need to very intentionally employ these strategies. If I had to pick a place to begin, I would choose Spiritual Formation. Why? Because all of these shifts in the religious landscape in the United States and around the world seem to indicate that something big is happening. Joanna Macy and David Korten call it “The Great Turning”; Phyllis Tickle calls it “The Great Emergence”; Elizabeth Drescher calls it “The Digital Reformation.” What ever you might call it, it’s happening locally and globally, individually and collectively. People are already looking for spiritual guidance as we make our way through it. That is why I believe that our liberal religious faith still has something to has something to offer.
We need to do things a bit differently, however. If organized religion has lost its appeal (and yes, in spite of the joke that goes, “I’m not a member of an organized religion, I’m a Unitarian Universalist,” people still see us as an organized religion) we need to rethink how we present our liberal religious faith. That’s why I agree with Rabbi Rami Sharpio when he says that what we need are independent centers of spiritual exploration. “What we need,” he says,
are new forms of spiritual community anchored in shared questions rather than shared answers; communities with many different teachers; communities that invite people to celebrate holy days from many traditions all recast to reveal their universal messages rather than to promote their parochial pieties. These would be independent centers of spiritual exploration where the question of who’s in and who’s out—the question that still dominates conventional religions—is mute; where children and adults can study the texts and teachings of the world’s great spiritual systems; where individuals and families can practice chanting, meditation, yoga and tai chi; where people of different backgrounds can gather to share their hopes, dreams, tragedies, life-cycle events, and quests for meaning.
Now to some this might sound like what we’re already doing, but to me it’s more of an aspiration. Our communities—not just Fargo and Moorhead, but all communities—need places where the free and responsible search for truth and meaning more than of one of seven principles, but the very heart and soul of what we do. Time, however, is running out. We already now what the headline for the next UU World article on membership will be: “UUA Membership Declines Again.” What I’m interested in is the headline this congregation is writing for itself, for this community, and for the world.