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[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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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%.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. (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:

  1. Faith Formation through the Life of the Whole Church
  2. Faith Formation using Digital Media and Web Technologies
  3. Family Faith Formation
  4. Intergenerational Faith Formation
  5. Generational Faith Formation
  6. Milestones Faith Formation
  7. Faith Formation in Christian Practices
  8. Transforming the World: Engagement in and Formation for Service and Mission
  9. Spiritual Formation
  10. Multi-Ethnic Faith Formation
  11. Faith Formation for Spiritual Seekers
  12. Apprenticeships in Discipleship
  13. Pathways to Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement
  14. Faith Formation in Third Place Settings
  15. Empowering the Community to Share their Faith
  16. 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.

NOTE: I found this draft of a blog post saved on my iPad’s WordPress app. It’s like over a year old! Maybe I didn’t hit “publish” because it sounds a little snarkier than I like to be. But I seemed to have put a lot of energy into it, and it would be a shame to waste it. So for what it’s worth, here’s a post on why UU congregations aren’t appealing to the “nones” the way we think they should be.

Last Sunday the New York Times published an opinion piece by Eric Weiner Esther Pearl Watson, New York Timesentitled, “Americans: Undecided About God.” And judging by the response from some of my Unitarian Universalist friends and colleagues, you would have thought the article was called, “Americans: Ready to Become UUs.” I found this a little bit odd, since my title for the article would have been, “UUs: They’re Just as Screwed as Every Other Denomination in the United States.”

The folks who thought the article was good news generally followed this line of reasoning:

  • The fastest growing category of religious affiliation in the U.S. is “None”
  • Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith
  • Nones should be attracted to a non-creedal faith
  • Therefore, Nones should be attracted to Unitarian Universalism

atheism, religion, belief, God, Christians, Christianity
Now if this were true, our congregations should be bursting at the seams. And I’m not talking the measly one precent annual growth we were used to until we started to decline a few years back. I’m talking Jefferson’s “there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian” kind of growth.

But that’s not happening, is it? The reason is these Nones are, to quote Weiner, “running from organized religion.” And the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is, for all intents and purposes, an organized religion. Lest there be any doubt about the truth of that statement, let me repeat it, this time in all caps:

THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION IS, FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, AN ORGANIZED RELIGION.

(And just because there’s a joke that goes, “I’m not part of an organized religion, I’m a Unitarian,” doesn’t mean it’s true.) There is absolutely no reason why one of the 25% of the young adults in the United States who identifies as a None should walk through the doors of one of our congregations. Why? Because they’re just not looking for congregation doors to walk through.

So sharing Weiner’s article on Facebook with a comment like “Good news for UUs!” or “Hey, Nones! Have I got a church for you!” misses the point. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any young adult Nones coming to our congregations. But just because there’s a new type of religious person out that doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be attracted to us. (And even if some of them did find their way to one of our congregations, there’s no guarantee that they’ll find the kind free thinking environment that would keep them coming since 97% of these Nones believe in God, and talking about God isn’t something that comes naturally in a lot of our congregations. By the way, if you want to know what I mean when I say “talking about God,” check out “Theology and the Church After Google.”)

So here’s the metaphor I’ve been working with lately. The content of our religion should, indeed, be attractive to Nones. The problem is how it’s being delivered. A bricks-and-mortar congregation is about as attractive to a None as desktop computer. While the content of either may be worth exploring (“Hey, this church has some pretty cool things to do! Hey, this desktop computer has every episode of Dr. Who on it’s hard drive!”), the odds that a None in search of an alternative to “organized religion” is going to wander into a UU congregation—or any congregation for that matter—is about as likely as a Millennial booting up a desktop computer to check what’s up on Twitter. In either case, said young adult None is more likely whip out a smart phone, or an iPad, or even a laptop, if they’re trying to be ironic.

So trying to increase the capacity of a congregation to serve people in a physical space, be it through expanding the building or hiring more support staff, is kind of like getting a new mouse or adding more memory to a laptop computer. They’re nice upgrades for the people who are already using it, and they might benefit some other folks in the general vicinity. But for people who have moved beyond things like organized religion and desktop computers, those upgrades probably seem pretty superfluous. Rather than seeing congregations as desktop computers confined to a one particular desk, we should start seeing congregations as servers, filling the web with our liberal religious and spiritual progressive content, ready to be accessed by any device, any time, anywhere.

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.”Unitarian, universalist, church, online, ministry, welcoming, religion, beliefs, megachurches, small congregations, small churches 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.

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 inChristianity, Prayer, Spirituality, Religion In America, Church Growth, Decline Of Religion, Evangelicals, Faith In America, Religion, Religion In Decline, Scripture, Spirituality In America, Religion News 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.

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