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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 entitled, “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
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.” 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 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.
Do you remember those Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books? My favorite was the one about “The Insult that Made a Man out of ‘Mac'”? Poor Mac is sitting on the beach with his date when a bully runs by and kicks sand in their faces. When Mac offers a feeble protest, the bully says, “Listen here. I’d smash your face—only you’re so skinny you might dry up and blow away.” Well, if you do remember that ad, you are probably, like me, around the average age of a Unitarian Universalist. And if you don’t remember it, you’re probably wondering what was up with my generation’s anxiety about getting sand kicked in their faces. Either way, if you’re a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation (or an “oldline” Protestant congregation) that hasn’t seen very much growth in worship attendance over the last few years (or even decades), you might be feeling a little bit like Mac as you watch people drive by your little fellowship every Sunday, heading to the more “popular” churches in town. You may even be asking yourself, “What have they got that we don’t?”
Well I’ve got a few ideas about that. I’m thinking that any church that’s holding it’s own in this time of declining church attendance is probably doing one or more of three things: they’ve built and are making full use of a robust online platform; they’ve engaged their members in service projects that help make their community and the world a better place; and/or they’ve moved toward a worship style that’s both innovative and contemporary while managing to keep most of their longtime members. And if you’ve got a congregation in your community that bursting at the seams, my guess is that they’re doing all three. Now I’m prepared to hold forth on the importance of any one of them, but for this post I’m going to concentrate on the one says the most about a congregation’s self image: worship.
As I mentioned in a recent post, “increasing worship attendance [is] the number one strategic move any congregation…can make.” Why? Because you can’t increase your worship attendance without also increasing your congregation’s leadership capacity. And while offering contemporary and innovative worship may be the preferred way of increasing attendance for many congregations, there are plenty of things a congregation can do to increase attendance right now without making any changes to the actual style and content of their services.
One of my favorite congregational resources is the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. One of my favorite parts of the Lewis Center website is their 50-Ways Series for Strengthening Congregations. There you’ll find a fistful of PDF’s with tips on everything from 50 Ways to Build Strength Caring for Children to 50 Ways to Communicate Effectively. As you might have guessed, one of those PDFs is called 50 Ways to Increase Worship Attendance. Only one of those 50 suggestions talks about offering “a different style of worship and music” (which would be a big part of being contemporary and innovative). The other 49 tips are things any congregation can do now to increase attendance. They’re divided up in to six areas:
- Improve the Attendance of Current Members
- Invite New People to Attend Worship
- Make Your Church Visible and Attractive
- Welcome Worship Guests Warmly
- Make Worship Accessible to Newcomers
- Follow Up with Visitors
The tips run the gamut from keeping a record of attendance and monitoring it to developing a systematic plan for following up with visitors after their first, second, and third visits. If you are the least bit concerned about your congregation’s ability to face the challenges of “drops in financial health, continuing high level of conflict, an aging membership, fewer people in the pews, and decreasing spiritual vitality”—the challenges almost every congregation in the United States must face, according to the most recent Faith Communities Today survey—then you should seriously consider developing a plan to increase your congregation’s worship attendance. There are a least 50 ways to start doing it. Now.