Monday, November 05, 2012

The Cult of Free To Be You and Me

Last Week, Steven Colbert, commenting on how Billy Graham endorsed Mitt Romney in spite of the fact that his website calls Mormonism a cult, also commented on another "cult" Graham doesn't like, the cult of Unitarianism.  (The Graham organization has taken this part of their website down since).

Colbert comments that the "dangerous cult of Unitarianism is so loose
 that their sacred texts are the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Free to Be You and Me.

Free to Be You and Me, some will remember, was children's album created by Marlo Thomas and a cast of stars with the explicit goals of loosening up gender stereotypes and empowering children to be themselves.  It's high spirited, freedom-loving, worth-and-dignity displaying and mostly pretty forgettable.  It came on Colbert's radar because it just had a 40th anniversary.

I owned the album when I was in my 20's...purchased with some thought of playing it for my own children, but by the time that child came of age, not only had technology morphed twice but so had society, and when I heard the Colbert piece I could only dredge up one song on the album in my memory and had to go to the internet to remember the rest.

After a trip down memory lane, I have come to the conclusion that a religious movement could do worse than be guided by the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Free to Be You and Me.   It beats the heck out of Atlas Shrugged or 19th century notions about race, family, and sexuality, the "third books" of way too many Christians.

My favorite, "William Wants a Doll", an ode to masculine caring, anti-bullying, and grandmotherly wisdom, which made me tear up.  It  can be heard, in all it's scratched-vinyl glory,  here

You can view the Colbert segment here.  It's about 7 minutes in...  I have to agree with Colbert that one good thing about this election is the de-cultification of the Church of Jesus Christ of the latter Day Saints.

Friday, July 27, 2012

More Blogging on the ARIS Survey

Tom Shade, at the Lively Tradition, has his own interesting interpretation of these same survey results here

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Westward Ho!

 I don’t know if the ARIS Survey puts exactly the same boundaries on US Regions as the UUA does, but regional findings from this survey  are pretty interesting.
In 1990, the Northeast contained 21% of the American Population and 26% of the UU’s.  (Remembering that this survey counted as UU anyone who claimed that, which was a lot more people than are actual members of churches.)    The Northeast area shrank in population, and in 2008, contained 18%  of the population and 19% of the UU’s.    The Midwest lost less population (2%) but more UU’s (6%).   The South gained 2% of the population and 3% of the UUs, and the west gained 3% of the population and a whopping 10% of the UU’s.    Still…that’s a lot of growth.  The upshot is that, as of 2008, this chart shows regional distribution of those claiming UU identity.  

We have a lot of history and heritage in New England.  And there is a lot of current life and vitality in New England.  I went to Seminary there and was fascinated for three solid years. But I was glad to leave because even 35 years ago, New England UU'ism seemed dull, dug in,  and old fashioned to me.  My ministries have been in the South and the West.    And I don't think I am alone among southerners or westerners in chafing at the New England Mindset that so often rules our denomination.  At this time of year, it is particularly irksome, as the privileged  UU calendar which involves churches and ministers taking the summers off because churches are not air conditioned and "everybody" is at the beach or in Maine until Labor Day, after which school and Church start up for the year.  Those of us who manage year-round, full service programs in modern buildings and start our program year Mid-August with the rest of the West and South, especially notice that we're outsiders in the UUA at this time of year.   But really, we're not outsiders!   Further, we westerners are doing quite well, capturing the hearts, if not the membership, of a significantly larger percentage of the population than other regions.  Not all of that is our own doing, of course; the south in particularly is known as a haven for conservative religions and the Northeast is nearly European in its disdain for religion of any kind.  Still, something is going well in the west that we should take note of!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Congregations and Beyond

In my last two posts, I have discussed research findings about Unitarian Universalists from the American Religious Identification Survey.   Now…what does it all mean? 

More than half of those who tell researchers that they are UU’s don’t belong to a UU church.  Some are probably peripherally involved with a UU church,  but it seems more likely that the majority of this group consists of people who were raised UU.  (This can be inferred from the large number of people who identified as UU’s who said that they had never changed faiths, ie, were raised UU’s.  Over 50% reported of the sample claimed this, whereas I have never been in a group of UU’s over age 35 where more than about 20% were raised UU’s; the usual figure is 10%.)   So it appears to me that a major question we should be asking is,  “What could we do to get our kids back?”  (most of those “kids” are now over 40, of course).  The answer to that question will have to be found by discovering ways we can serve the religious needs of adults who were raised UU’s, still think of themselves as UU’s,  but are no longer participating in a congregation.  

A second, more general question would be,  “How can we serve the religious needs of those who tell researchers that they are UU’s but are not members of our congregations?  (In some polling situations, three times as many people tell researchers that they are UU’s than are members of our congregations)    What’s up, here?  Are there solvable issues with current congregations that would bring more folks in?  (maybe most of our congregations need to find ways to offer Saturday worship? Maybe what people really want is small groups?)  Is the problem that we’ve conflated legal membership in the corporation with membership in the religious community? (We need to ask the Puritans how that worked for them!)   Are there ways to meet needs on a fee-for-service basis that would allow non-member UU’s to feel a part of things and offer support without joining? (Retreats, RE, Small Groups, etc?)  Do we want to do that?    This discernment is the work that is being called “Congregations and Beyond”. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

More from the Religious ID Survey

The American Religious Identification Survey is done about once a decade and involves a large number of Americans (about 50 thousand) in a telephone poll about their religion.  The third such poll, done in 2008, was just released, and has a number of interesting points for UU’s to ponder.   The information can be found here:

Besides the points I covered yesterday (That fewer than half of those who identify as UU’s actually belong to a congregation, that that group is growing in number rather significantly and growing in diversity even faster than the American population is), here are some more points of interest in this survey.

1.  We’re migrating just like the rest of the population.   In 1990,  26% of us lived in the northeast and 23% of us lived in the Midwest,  while 21% of us lived in the south and 30% lived in the west.   In 2008,  only 19% of us lived in the NE and 17% of us lived in the Midwest,  while 24% of us are southerners and 40% are westerners.   We are only historically a New England congregation these days!  The great majority of UU’s live elsewhere.

2.     We’re aging faster than the population at large.  The median age of the population has increased from 40 to 44 years old over the study period, but increased from 44 to 52 years among those claiming to be Unitarian Universalists. (remember, half of these people don't belong to congregations.  However, most of our congregations appear to have aged in this time period.)

3.     We are more monolithically Democrats than we were in 1990, when about 18% of u were Republicans and 37% were Independents.  In 2008, only 6% of us were Republicans and 30% independents.  In 2008, the percentages were 6% Republicans and 30% Independents…a significant loss of diversity.  We have also seen this in congregational life. 

A small  percentage of respondents were asked  more detailed questions of their religious beliefs. The following data is suggestive but based on very small numbers of respondants, so is not statistically significant.

  1. 1.        77%  of self-identified UU’s told researchers that they believed in God, but of those, few believed in miracles or that God helps them in any way.  While this is very surprising to most UU's, it actually is not very far off from surveying I've done over the years in several congregations. 
  2. 2.     Fewer than half of the people researchers spoke to said that they were legal members of a UU congregation.  This is similar to what they found among other liberal religious groups.   
  3. 3.     About ½ of the sample UU’s had switched religions at some point in their lives.  (common wisdom among UU’s, however, is that 90% of UU’s  “came out” of some other faith.  This gives us a strong hint, it seems to me, about who identifies as UU but is not a member of a church…that is, the adult graduates of our RE programs.
  4. 4.     This study estimates that there are 100,000  people in the US who used to be UU’s but who are now something else, mostly, none.  (so the old joke about how Unitarian Universalism is a way station between the Mainline and the Golf Course seems to be true.)
  5. 5.     Over half of UU’s in this sample were in interfaith (or UU/no faith) households. 

In the last post of these series, I’ll comment more on the significance of these statistics.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Unitarian Universalism: Beyond Congregations, Growing, Diversifying!

In 1990, 2001, and  2008, researchers funded by the Lily Foundation randomly dialed  up about fifty thousand  Americans and asked them,  “What is your religion, if any?  Then, they asked follow-up questions.  In 2008, 192 of those fifty thousand identified as Unitarian Universalists, up from 182 in 2001.  The following is an extrapolation and analysis of this data.  The whole report can be found  here  This study gives us some interesting information about ourselves and comparison to other religious bodies.

The single most interesting, but not surprising fact is that this study suggests that there are more than a half a million adult UU’s in this nation.  Fewer than half of these self-identified UU’s are legal members of UU churches, but they think of themselves as UU’s.  Furthermore, this group is growing robustly…as a matter of fact,  nearly keeping up with population growth.  (the group of self-identified UU’s grew by 26% between 1990 and 2008, compared with 30% population growth)

            Here’s a happy surprise:  The UUA has done a little better than the nation as a whole in increasing ethnic diversity.   In 1990, non-Hispanic Whites were 90% of the  UUA. (compared to 77% in the US as a whole)  These days, non-Hispanic whites are 75% of the UUA. (compared to 66% overall)    We are still lagging behind our nation, but not by as much.   Our success at this is largely due to an increase in Hispanic UU’s, however, while most of our diversity "angst" over the years has been the small number of African American UU's.   

 11% of the US population is Black,  but only 6% of this sample of people who claim to be Unitarian Universalists is Black.  However, even on this point we have notable success.  In 1990, we lagged 8 points behind the nation in percentage of Black members.  These days, we lag only 5 percentage points behind.

This study has more interesting things to say about us.  Stay tuned to this Blog for more! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Who cares if Zimmerman is a Racist?

It seems very odd to me that the news/opinion making has focused on whether or not George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin in Florida last month, is a racist.  Seems to me it makes very little difference.  The important point is that he shot and killed a young man who scared him...a young man who was doing nothing more alarming than walking home from a trip to get snacks, while talking to his girlfriend on the telephone and had nothing more alarming on his person than a bottle of iced tea.   What's clear from 911 calls is that Zimmerman was hostile to Martin, followed him in spite of being told not to, that there was some kind of a scuffle, and Zimmerman felt so threatened he shot the boy and killed him.

Maybe instead of arguing whether or not Zimmerman is a racist, we should be speculating on whether he is a bully, (he outweighed the kid by 110 lbs)  or a coward (threatened by iced tea?) or a vigilante (the police told him to stop following this kid..)  

Even more importantly, we should be arguing about what kind of law is so poorly written that it doesn't allow the police to distinguish between someone who was jumped and used lethal force to protect themselves, and somebody who picked a fight with a person, then claims he felt threatened, and shot the guy.  

Not to mention wondering what would have happened if, by chance, Zimmerman had picked a fight with the kid but in the scuffle, Zimmerman had ended up dead.   We don't actually have much doubt in our minds about that, do we?   Martin would be in the klink.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

My Hoodie

Who knew that hoodies had such massive symbolic weight?  This item of clothing has been in the news since the killing of Trayvon Martin and the comment by Geraldo that the hoodie was just as much to blame for his death as the gun.  (Guns don't kill people.  People kill people, especially people who are so foolish as to wear a hoodie.)  Talk about blaming the victim!

Boy was I clueless!  I who have not been without a hoodie since my college years, when I discovered that they are perfect for a certain kind of weather and are easier to wash than sweaters for casual indoor wear.  Even worse, clueless mom, whose 21 year old son is so hard on his favorite hoodie that he gets a new one every Christmas, like some men got ties or socks.  We white people, it seems, can wear whatever comfy piece of clothing we like, while others have to be careful not to be threatening...especially in the 18 states where "being threatening" is a capital offence if the person feeling threatened happens to have a gun and feel like using it.

I am a hopeful person by nature, and I hope that justice will be done in this case...and that national attention will assist the clear thinking of the officials in Florida.  But it is a tragic state of affairs we've gotten ourselves into in this nation.  It lifted my spirits to have about 1/3 of the attendees at church yesterday wearing their hoodies in solidarity with this matter.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Welcome

There's an interesting article in the UU World this month, about beliefs that UU's don't tend to have.  You can find it here.   But the editor was apparently confused by the first paragraph and added a pull quote in big letters that is a dreadful misunderstanding of the concept of "Welcome."   ("Signs by doors say,  'Everyone welcome here,' but we know it's not true.  If you hold some beliefs, you may not like it here.')

But whether a person feels welcomed to a congregation and whether they like it there are two very different things.  Although a poor welcome lessens the chance that a person will like the congregation, it is not only possible but likely that some people who feel fully and warmly welcomed will also, after a time, decide that this is not the right community within which to nurture their spiritual life.

That was actually the point that the author was trying to make, and she went on to list 10 beliefs that a new person might have which are dissonant with some understandings of UU Principles or with commonly held beliefs in UU congregations.  (Although I must say that I have known individual UU's who have held  one or another of the 10 beliefs discussed and didn't leave.  Some went so far as to insist that they not only were not in the minority, they were "real"  UU's.  But that's another story.)

The confusion in the pull quote mirrors a confusion I have heard often enough, which is a confusion between "Welcomed" and "Happy".

 The two are very different.  To welcome someone is to say,  "We are glad you are here."  Welcome requires the basics of hospitality; that we let strangers in, share what we have, treat them with dignity.   This is hard enough and we don't do it very well and should work on doing it better.  However, hospitality does not require that we bend, pinch, and change ourselves so that everybody who comes to us will like us and feel well served by what we have to offer.

The difference between a creedal and non-creedal church is that when there is no creed, it is up to each individual person to decide for themselves whether they belong here and are well-served by our way of doing religion.  No outside force will say,  "Because you believe this, you are not welcome."  (Sometimes the congregation has to draw lines about behavior; that, too, is another story.)  Instead, each person looks around and says to themselves,  "I think I could grow in spirit here.", and stays, or "This is not for me,"  and goes.  This may (or may not) signify a failure of mission for the congregation, but it does not necessarily mean that their welcome was deficient.

The Signs by the door should say,  "Everybody Welcome Here!"  but that doesn't mean everybody will decide that this is the right place for them.  And that's OK.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Psalms P.S.

I'm twittering the Psalms, these days, and invite those interested to follow me on Twitter @revCRobinson.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Praying with Your Iphone

(an article written for Journey, The Journal of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton, PA)

When I was a very little girl, I gathered…I’m sure nobody taught me this…that in order to pray, one had to have a particular posture; head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped.  It was also clear to me that those prayers always had to have words, either recited or extemporaneous. And while I was always drawn towards the idea of prayer, I ever felt very good at those wordy exercises.   When I discovered the meditation practices of the East, I had no idea that many of these same practices would be called “prayer” by contemplative Christians or Jews.   It was a revelation that brought me back home, so to speak, to the practices of my own Christian heritage, and in that exploration, I discovered that all kinds of things that I had found myself to be useful spiritual tools; journaling, walking, art, chant, and picturing loved ones in my mind’s eye, could also be considered prayer.  For someone who had always felt a bit spiritually backwards, it was wonderful to discover that  I had been praying all along…but with things in my hands, or a spring in my step. 

Last year, I spent a few sabbatical months in a faraway city.  I had only a couple of suitcases with me, my Kindle for books, and a new smartphone, which I had purchased mostly for its map capability.  I had a book to write and a city to explore and time for silence and prayer.  And that’s when I learned to pray with a Smartphone.

Away from my landline, my phone was my lifeline to the world. It was never off, I was careful to take it everywhere with me, and I found all kinds of capabilities besides phone and map!.  I discovered quickly why it is that the younger generation is said to check their messages before they get out of bed in the morning!   (While I was discovering smart phones, that younger generation was discovering Ipads and Tablets, which do everything except make phone calls even better than a smart phone. While I have no direct experience with tablet computing, everything I’m about to say about phones goes for tablets, too.)

Having learned to take pencils, journals, books, and art supplies into my prayer time, perhaps it was inevitable that I started taking my phone. That might seem off-putting to some, but a smart phone is, after all just a tool, as a pen and paper or a printed book might be.  All tools take getting used to, and none work for everybody, but I’m certainly not going to put a limit on what tools God can use to get through to me!  I encourage you to try some of these suggestions and see if they work for you.  Even if the old ways feel better to you, those of us who advise that younger generation should keep them in mind. 

Praying with Photos

Those of us who keep a prayer list can, of course keep that list on a memo in our phone, but I have loved praying with photos I’ve taken or downloaded.  For me, seeing faces helps a lot!  You can even have folders of pictures for days of the week, and besides faces, you can snap photos or download pictures from the web to remind you of situations you want to pray for.   

Especially if one has the larger surface and better resolution of a tablet or Ipad, it would be possible to download images of icons or other evocative religious symbols for meditation.  You can even download a video of a flickering candle!  Perhaps none of these are “as good” as gazing at the real thing, but the “real thing” is not always available.    

Using the Clock

For those who find it easier to sink down into meditation if they know they will be called out of it at a particular time, (Or who don’t want to be distracted wondering how much time has passed), there are lots of meditation timers available.  The virtual ones can be downloaded from the phone’s app store, but many phones come with a clock/stopwatch/timer function built in.  Often it is possible to change the alert tone to something more gentle than an alarm beep.  

Using the Music Player

Smart Phones often double as MP3 players, which means that it is possible to download all manner of chants and prayer services.  This can be especially useful for prayer/meditation in a distracting environment.  Pop in your earbuds, press play, and you can create a spiritual space wherever you are.  (This tool is also useful in the dentist’s office, the waiting room, and on the bus!) 

Lectio Divina

Most smartphones and all tablets allow you to download files, so the day’s scriptures, poetry, or whatever you study as your spiritual practice is readily available.  Multiple languages and translations and even notes and commentary can all be at your fingertips with a little advance work. 

Social Media

The meat of my spiritual practice during that sabbatical was a version of Lectio Divina, which I was practicing with daily chapters of the Tao Te Ching, and I summed up each day’s study with a sentence which recapped the message I wanted to take into my day with me. Then I learned about Twitter: which is a very quick and easy way to share very short messages…144 characters or less.  That limit was a good challenge for me, and although I didn’t seek out any followers,  I eventually developed quite a few.  I also learned how to get my twitters to automatically appear on my Facebook page, where commenters encouraged me to compile the Twitters into a book.   Twittering one’s spiritual practice turns out to have a downside; it take discipline to keep this a spiritual practice and not a performance.  But it is another way to share.  Twitter has another spiritual benefit.  If you “follow” the right people, you will find an unending supply of  uplifting quotes, scripture passages, and links to poems. 

I expected to return to paper and pen in my spiritual practice after that sabbatical was over, but it didn’t work that way.  Now I pray with my phone in my hand every morning.  Hello,  Is that you,  God? 

Christine Robinson is the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the author of The Twittered Tao and co-author of two books for small group ministry,  Heart to Heart and Soul to Soul.  She Twitters as RevCrobinson.

Psalms and the Small World

Years and years ago, when iMinister was just learning how to blog. she was experimenting with blogs and, needing a body already written short works to populate her blog with, used some adaptations of the Psalms which had been slowly coming out of her morning spiritual practice.  She was so new to blogging that she didn't quite understand that anybody could find a blog, and they would, and, did.  She was very surprised that anybody would be interested in her agnostic version of the Psalms,'s a big world, and the internet brings special interests together! Having so many interested readers, some of whom wrote from all over to comment and compliment, motivated iMinister to complete the project.  What she ended up calling "Improvisations" on all 150 Psalms can be found here.

The Psalm Blog gets just as much readership as iMinister, although  I have posted only a few times a year in the past 5 years.  And some of those readers have asked permission to publish, or told me about musical settings they'd created or just written their appreciation.  It's been fun.  

A Psalm acquaintance asked if I would write an article for her community's journal, and she happened to ask on a day that I had been thinking about praying with one's smart phone, so I did it.  The actual article will come soon.  

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What's a Unitarian Universalists

1. Technically, a Unitarian Universalist is a person who is a formal member of a UU congregation.
2. Popularly, a Unitarian Universalist is anybody who calls themselves a UU, whether or not they belong to a congregation  (Group #2 is three times the size of group #1).
3.  Beyond Congregations is a conversation about how we might serve/include/claim  more people in group 2 and, by extension, some of the "spiritual but not religious" who would say, when they found us, "I've been a UU all along and didn't know it!"

4. It is an interesting fact of our UU life that lots of people seem to know exactly what Unitarian Universalism is, including Beliefnet, three quarters of a million polled persons, and that "I've been a UU all along" new member, but the official UU's do a very poor job of articulating this.

I think this is at least in part because we're so afraid of creeping creedalism that we won't articulate our shared theology.  So..let's be clear. A creed is a statement of beliefs which is used AS A TEST FOR MEMBERSHIP.  ("Believe this or go elsewhere.")  We don't have those.  But we do, it seems to me, have a theology.  The theology goes something like this.

Life is good, and so are you.
Reason and Intellectual Faculties are good.  You can trust them to understand life. 
However it's a Very Big Universe out there, and many important things can't be known through reason and intellect.  For this we have intuition, heart, spirituality, and other faculties which are useful but don't lead everyone to the same conclusions.
Truth on these Very Big matters is best found in conversations, actual, virtual, literary, and internal.  It is to be expected that there will be differences.  They enrich us.

That's what we do as Unitarian Universalists...grow in spirit, together.  

Many Unitarian Universalists have much more specific theologies...beliefs about God, the afterlife, and so on.  And this is NOT A CREED.  People can join our churches who think that science is a bunch of baloney.  But they won't hear their view extolled in sermons and there will probably not be any adult classes on the subject.  We don't determine membership based on our theology, but we do figure out what "fits here" based on it.

I go into detail about this because it is going to be hard to figure out whom we can serve among the "spiritual but not religious" unless we can describe ourselves and what we offer more clearly than we do.    

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

3 of 4 UU's Don't Belong to Congregations. Why?

Of course, it is technically true that all UU's belong to UU congregations, because technically, there is no way to be a UU unless you belong to a congregation.  But don't tell the people that.  (It makes them mad!)  And,  of the people who tell pollsters that they are UU's,  3 out of 4 DON'T belong to a congregation.

Why would that be?  Let me count a few ways.

1.  Some of them don't have a UU church in commuting distance.  Above is an old map,  but it shows huge swaths of our nation (anything not pink or purple) where there is no UU church in the county. Not much has changed in 12 years.  Some people who are out of range of a brick and mortar church belong to the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and more may now that this organization has really beefed up its on-line resources, but most apparently don't.

2.  Some live in range of a UU church but don't belong because they can't find a place for themselves theologically, or they don't like the minister or the leadership group,  or they have become discouraged by church politics or burned out by the incessant demands of lay leadership.   We are a denomination of small congregations...and small congregations are hard, hard work.  There are very few communities outside of the East Coast between Washington DC and Southern Maine which offer any real choice of UU congregations.

3.  They may live in range of a UU church but be busy with other things in their life right now.  Many college students are near UU groups but don't join up, for instance.  Their lives are rich and interesting and busy on campus.  It would take a huge effort of outreach and support to get them interested in belonging to a UU church.  (I get this.  My son belongs to this group)

4.  They may have grown up as UU's and not continued to belong to a UU church, although, if asked, they would say they were UU's because they generally agree with what they were taught as children.  That is to say, they may be among the between 80 and 90% of children of our church schools who don't join UU churches ever again in their lives.  If the goal of our RE programs of the past 50 years had been to innoculate children against church, we'd consider ourselves quite successful.  Ouch.  My two siblings belong to this group.

5.  They may be kind of interested in being a UU but when they visit they discover nobody like them.  Nobody under 40.  Nobody who didn't graduate from college.  Nobody who is not white.  Nobody who is not Anglo.  They look around and see that in this congregation, they'd be by themself.  So...they stay by themself.

6. Then there are the ones who don't want to be asked for money but don't mind taking advantage of the fact that some people will give for them.  But this is, in the end, a pretty small category.

Put all these folks together, and it is easy for me to believe that 3 out of 4 people who think of themselves as UU's would not actually belong to a congregation.

How about you?  Can you add other reasons UU's  might not belong to a UU church?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Congregations and Beyond

Peter Morales' paper,  Congregations and Beyond  (found here)  raises some interesting issues for UU's and other religious people, especially those in small denominations and those which practice congregational polity.  (polity is church governance.  Congregational Polity is the form of government that makes congregations the basic unit of the denomination.  So, for instance, technically, you are only a UU if you belong to a congregation which belongs to the UUA.  You can't be an individual member of Unitarian Universalism.)

The basic problem is that the institutional category,  "congregation", once virtually a pillar of American society, has become less and less interesting to younger generations.  (Congregation is still a pillar of society in a few places, notably the South, or in Utah.  You can tell this is the case when the first question asked of a newcomer to town is,  "What church do you belong to?"  Some newcomers to town take this as a rather agressive evangelizing effort but it probably isn't.  It is probably just a social locator.  "Oh...he's an Episcopalian.  Got it.")

There's no doubt about the declining fortunes of "congregation".   To recap, here's a paragraph from my part of last year's Minns Lectures. (find it here)

Just to give you a sense of how the market share of all religion has changed over 50 years, let me go over some statistics.

Researchers  have been asking 20 year olds about their religion for several generations, so we know that 3% of young people of the WWII generation said they had no religion, and about 6% of the next generation…my parent’s generation…persons now in their 70s and 80’s.   About 12%  of the Boomers in the 1960’s and 70’s claimed “no religion”  20% of gen X’ers who were 20 years old in the 80’s and 90’s and a whopping 26% of the Millennial Generation now claim “no religion”.  From 3% to 26%...and rising.   

Now, there is a difference between  "no religion" and "no congregation."  There are actually a fair number of people who do have a religion but don't belong to a congregation.  But there will not be very many people with no religion who DO belong to a congregation.  So, for those who are interested in congregations, these statistics are even more dire.  

When you notice these overall statistics, you have to remark that the ability of Unitarian Universalism to hold its own over the past generation is a show of strength, not weakness.  And, indeed, most denominations have done much worse than we have.

Peter is asking what we should do.  It's something we should all be thinking about.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Counting the Audience

*This is one of several responses to UUA president Peter Morales' white paper on congregations, which can be found here:

There's a theory of congregations that says that each congregation has three kinds of constituents.  They are called by different names but the picture is the same.  At the center of the life of the church are its most committed members, formal and informal leaders, contributors, workers...the people you see more than once a week and who give and get.  This group could be called "leaders", or "core members" or "most committed", or any number of other phrases.

The middle group are the members, constituents, the  people who come some, participate some, and give some, who identify with a congregation but don't put it at the center of their lives.   There's another group that is further removed from the center of the congregation, sometimes called the community, (as in, the community we serve), but perhaps better called the audience.

The audience includes the people who come to services but don't join or contribute, sometimes just on Christmas Eve, or when they are between relationships, or when their mother comes to town.  They are the people who use the church parking lot as a staging ground for group hikes, who rely on the food pantry,  whose children go to the child care center which only pays it's direct expenses in rent, but not the cost of the capital investment in the physical plant.  The audience includes the people who read the op-ed's which the minister produces, whose organizations meet for free in the meeting rooms, and those who are considering membership and getting involved.

The audience is hard to count and easy for the leaders to resent.  After all, these are the people who use the infrastructure, physical and emotional, which the church leaders have worked to provide, but they don't usually want to be part because their experience with the entity "congregation" is that it will try to suck them in, make them feel guilty, and ask them for money.  So they make themselves scarce when counting time comes.

On the other hand, they do a lot of wonderful things for a congregation.  How good does it feel to have a full house on Christmas eve, after all?  As the TV ad says,  "priceless".    We church folks do what we do to serve...and not just the folks who pledge.  Watching our resentment level is a good spiritual discipline.  It's a congregation and not a club, after all.  The audience is a given.   Plus, if we are good listeners, our audience keeps us fresh.  They are our outside audit, if we let them be.  And some of them will be enticed into the second or even the first circles because they come to notice that good things happen inside the circle.

Discovering a respectful  name for folks that I had thought of as "hanger-oners" or, on my bad day,  "free-loaders", was a wonderful day in my ministry.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Contemporary Worship

Some of us at First U Albuquerque have set ourselves to really figuring out what contemporary worship is all about.  Since the churches which feature this new religious art form tend to be big, evangelical churches whose mission is to meet people where they are and lead them to Jesus, they tend to have worship at times other than Sunday morning at 11.  That makes it a lot more convenient for people who serve on church staffs to visit and learn.  (and the first thing we might learn is that a LOT of people prefer to worship on Saturday afternoon.)

Last Fall, we visited the home base of a multi site congregation of about 8,000 people.  We noted

1. That the order of worship was dead simple.  Singing, Prayer, Sermon, prayer,  singing, and greet your neighbors.  No affirmation, no responsive reading.  No announcements (although the pastor sprinkled some announcements in at the beginning of the sermon).  No offering (there was an offering box at the end of some rows).  No story for was all pretty much for adults.  There were plenty of kids in attendance and a full posse of teens, but there were kids classes at the same time.  The kids present seem to have been giving a goodie bag, but in no way was the sermon or the music "for" them.  They were a passive audience, helped to behave well, and those who didn't like it had another alternative.)

2. The congregation was predominately  what I would call "established" young adults in their 30's and 40's.   However there were plenty of baby boomers and more than a few elders, many of whom seemed to be a part of three generation families attending together.

3. The music was Christian Rock.   Sound levels were kept out of the painful range.  (in two churches we went to the poor drummer was seated in a clear plexiglass  box to keep the sound level down).  The most interesting thing to me about the music was that it was clearly conceived of, not as a message, but as a prayer.    A lot of it was a Christian Rock equivalent of "Spirit of Life, Come Unto Me". was repeated enough that it became, not a reminder of what we believe, but an actual prayer.

4.  The messages were skillfully presented  but quite thin.  Not to mention covering things we didn't believe, like,  that 90% of the people of our good state are going to Hell.

5.  Did I mention that there were LOTS of people there, at this second of 5 worship services offered at that site that weekend?

6.  Some of those people are someday going to say to themselves,  "I just don't buy this!"...and walk.  If this has been their experience of worship, they are not going to find my church's eclectic but more formal music interesting, no matter how much freedom they are looking for.  Nor will it sound like "home" to them.

7.  Therefore...we are experimenting with contemporary worship.  So that we can be hospitable to the next generation of seekers, most of whom attend churches with bands, not organs.