“Losing Our Religion?”
Over the course of the spring, I was following a series by Jessica Grose, an Opinion Writer for
The New York Times. She was exploring this idea that Americans are ‘losing their religion.’ The
statistics, which are often misread, tell us that, yes, church attendance is on the decline and has
dropped precipitously since the late 90’s, but the religiosity of those who don’t attend has not
changed so much. People walk away from the institutional church for any number of reasons
and many shift their beliefs based on life experiences, altering their practices alongside of this change – raised in the black, Christian church, encounter Islam through political connections,
question a God figure and take to Buddhist practices – just one example. The truth is that it is much more acceptable in our culture now to not be an adherent of any particular faith and to move from one to another. That doesn’t mean, however, that our beliefs and personal behaviors have moved away from religion. It just means that it’s okay to identify as unaffiliated.
We have all heard about the “Nones” and we often say that they are ripe for Unitarian Universalism because we have no creed or requirements about belief and practice. Let me first dispel the underlying “you can do whatever you want” message inherent in that thinking. As a whole, collectively, we believe in a lot of things in common, affirm and promote a set of principles, and an “anything goes” attitude to behavior rubs up against what we say we value.
Some things are simply not acceptable, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Grose says we spend a lot of time thinking about what the Nones aren’t – they aren’t church goers, and less time thinking about what they are – how their lives have intersected with their beliefs, how their living has shaped their seeking, how their view of the transcendent still holds meaning for them.
The American church, according to the authors of “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?” is built for a specific kind of person on a very narrow track – the nuclear family, educated, raising children inside of a marriage. If you are not traveling on that track, you find yourself without a religious home.
Ultimately, for those who don’t fit that mold, church is less welcoming. We pride ourselves on being welcoming, but I wonder what “track” one needs to be on to feel acceptance in our tradition and on a micro level, to sense it here in our particular community. In her May report Grose said that Christianity has a branding problem and we have talked about that of late here – the association with nationalist political views is a turn off for many more moderate evangelicals and protestants. And I think we UU’s have a branding problem too! Just the other day one of our leadership was in conversation with a local nonprofit director who expressed a belief that we were just some kind of “woo-woo spiritual community” up here on the hill. A quick review of our beliefs and values set them straight and suddenly they were interested in us. I’ve been touting this since I arrived here – the idea that if we don’t talk about who we are publicly, people will develop their own ideas and shy away from even checking us out. If you believe our faith tradition has something to offer then don’t be afraid to talk it up. Lightening will not strike!
Alongside this series I was blessed to receive a copy of “Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution” by Rainn Wilson, who some of you probably know as Dwight Schrute from the sitcom “The Office.” Turns out he is lifelong practitioner of the B’hai faith that professes a belief in God as an ‘unknowable essence’ which is at the same time very close to us as beings. They purpose themselves toward the collective good, compassionate relationships, unity in diversity and ultimately unity on a global scale arrived at as we go about integrating and
disrupting life as we know it. Wilson talks about many of the same phenomenon that Grose points to, raises the many pandemics of our world and systems, our global brokenness and suggests that we need to develop a new religion! He lists ten foundations of faith which include a higher power, prayer, community, transcendence, service and purpose to name a few. And in response to those, he offers a faith tradition characterized by these in some form or another, but not the standard Americanized version, to be sure. No ”Sky-Daddy God” but a creative cosmic force. No hell that we die and go to – but the hell on earth that we sometimes create in our living. Some kind of disciplined spiritual practice that is also practical; nurturance of the primal longing for something larger than ourselves. Diverse community leading to social revolution. A moral compass based in all the various traditions we know. The force of Love, increased compassion, service to the poor grounded in empowerment – a shift in how our systems serve. And finally, personal meaning making alongside collective purpose. To these responses to the foundations, he adds: no clergy, harmony in diversity, centrality of the divine feminine and of justice, cooperation between science and faith, a profound connection to the natural world, and an emphasis on music and art, and humility – knowing that we don’t; can’t, know it all.
Does any of this sound familiar? I want to write to him and ask if he has ever heard of Unitarian Universalism! There’s that branding thing again. His five-part travelogue/docuseries “The Geography of Bliss” had him traveling the globe in search of what makes us happiest and not so happy. The bottom line in all cases was
community and it turns out that this is something the folks surveyed for Grose’s piece mentioned frequently as well. The research shows that we can find community in lots of places, but most lack the kind of wrap around support that we find in churches. “A soccer team can’t provide spiritual solace in the face of death, probably doesn’t have a weekly charitable call and there is no sense of connection to heritage that goes back generations,” she says. We seem to be piecing these things together as best as we can as opposed to “one stop shopping.”
At General Assembly this summer I attended a workshop called “Disrupting Church” offered by the Rev. Peggy Clarke from The Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist, along with her Director of Religious Education. At the outset she announces that our churches are shrinking, aging, and becoming increasingly irrelevant. And she asks us to consider four things: Where do we ‘do church?’ When do we ‘do church?’ How do we ‘do church?’ Who is welcome at our church? I jotted down some responses with us in mind: 819 Main St., in small groups, the thrift shop. On Sundays, in monthly meetings of small groups, daily in the summer. We worship together and we attend a lot of meetings. We welcome like-minded or like valued people who are demographically similar to us. She shared a story about her earliest time at Community Church. They had been in a process of divestment of their buildings and were meeting for worship across the way at the Episcopal Church. This was fine until Christmas Eve when the Episcopalians needed their space. Community Church had a longstanding tradition of singing The Messiah on Christmas Eve. Now what would they do? Unwilling to give it up, they decided to perform it on the front steps. It was freezing out, but they persisted. And all of the sudden the folks living across the street in sky high apartments began opening their windows to listen. People passing by stopped to hear what was happening. Her young son noticed the unhoused man below on the street, brought him a blanket and later some hot chocolate. Suddenly the where and how and who of doing church shifted. Their purpose changed from performing The Messiah to singing together and telling stories and helping those in need. They began to think of themselves across boundaries and to examine what church is there for. The pandemic deepened their questioning, acknowledging a shifting context. Rev. Peggy presented a graphic depicting three phases of church life over the past century or so – illustrating the shift in culture and how it pertains to church. For a long time, the church was made up of subjects to a higher authority, who saw church as duty and obedience to a religion.
The subjects were in receiving mode, followed commands, subjective in terms of beliefs. This period was followed by the consumer church, and it is where we are kind of stuck now. Folks are independent and church is for them – serves them in some way that they believe they have a right to. It is materially based. We make demands of it. It serves us and we choose how. It is bureaucratic and objective. The third category and where she says we need to be headed if we are to survive and thrive is as the citizen church. In that model we are interdependent, working with all the voices around us. It is spiritual in nature. It participates actively in the culture in which it is embedded. It is creative as opposed to reactionary, facilitates what is needed based on what it discovers in its networking. It is deliberative, in shared conversation about the citizen story. To get there we need to develop some comfort with discomfort, be willing to approach what is next with a beginner’s mind, letting go of expectations.
The upshot of all of this for me is not that we are losing our religion at all. What we may need to be willing to lose is the forms our religion has taken for as long as we can remember and that is really hard to do. But the bottom line is that our world is changing, and people’s expectations of religion are changing with it. There are few folks younger than me who are interested in the institutions we have come to know and love in our lifetimes. And even for me, a firmly ensconced Boomer who was raised in the institutional church, I can see the need to take what we say we value to the streets in order to make a difference in our world that I see as desperately needed.
Can we think about ways to be in conversation with the community around us? Can we dare to be creative in our times together? Having rebelled against power over structures and taken back our own power, can we now move to power with; to an empowerment model that brings our values into the realities of everyday life? This is where I see the church of the not-too-distant future happening. Not one or two days a week, but in continuous collaboration based in the Love we profess as the very Spirit of our existence together with what we encounter going on around us.
Dear Ones, the world and our community need what we have to offer. This is a saving faith for the here and now, not some far off future life. How we package it will make all the difference in our reach and how humbly we offer it will ensure its acceptance. Let’s not lose our religion, but instead set it loose with the passion and creativity it deserves.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, July 30, 2023