I normally wouldn’t use the word “stupid” in the title of a post (or in the post itself, for that matter, unless I was referring to something stupid I had done). But in this case, I’m taking the title directly from something I found recently in the Huffington Post (which has an excellent “Religion” section, by the way)—an article by David Briggs, a columnist for the Association of Religion Data Archives, called “It’s the Spirituality, Stupid: Vital Congregations Cultivate Personal Piety.” In the article, Briggs notes that
There are times when research findings are so obvious they are almost beyond questioning. So it is puzzling that growing evidence showing the importance of congregations cultivating the spiritual lives of the faithful is so routinely ignored.
The research findings he’s referring to come from our old friend the latest Faith Communities Today survey, which states that “the percentage of U.S. congregations reporting high spiritual vitality declined from 43 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2010.” Yet at the same time, “the No. 1 reason people gave for moving from a spectator to an active participant in their congregation was this: ‘I responded to an inward sense of call or spiritual prompting.'”
Long story short, attending to the spiritual needs of members, friends, and seekers is a must for any congregation that wants to thrive and not merely survive. This might be a tall order for some Unitarian Universalist congregations that insist on maintaining their humanist identity at all costs. Nothing wrong with humanism, mind you (I consider myself to be one). But if spiritual seekers are coming into the door of a congregation looking “to connect with God and a community that connects with God,” only to find a community that places a “greater emphasis on social service programs or church committee work than on promoting spiritual growth,” those seekers may not stick around too long.
And here’s the thing. All signs point to fewer and fewer people in our country even bothering to check churches out, let alone become regular attenders. That means there are going to be, as UUA President Peter Morales says, fewer and fewer visitors for us to repulse. But how are congregations with little or no experience in promoting individual spiritual growth supposed to suddenly become adept at it? Where would one even begin?
The best place to start, I believe, is with our own tradition. A tradition about which Unitarian Universalist scholar David Robinson has said
Like a pauper who searches for the next meal, never knowing of the relatives whose will would make him rich, American Unitarians lament their vague religious identity, standing upon the richest theological legacy of any American denomination. Possessed of a deep and sustaining history of spiritual achievement and philosophical speculation, religious liberals have been, ironically, dispossessed of that heritage.
More on that tomorrow.