Only in Congregations

Everywhere we turn, we are liable to find people offering heart, meaning, connection – in a word, spirituality – from kinder, gentler doctors, to our movies, to our theme parks.

If you step inside a yoga class, you will get all stretched out, and, very probably, also get a dose of spiritual teaching. I started going to a yoga class on Thursday mornings, and last Thursday’s class began with the teacher mentioning the niyama of the week. She's been mentioning one niyama at the beginning of our sessions, and this week we were up to the fifth niyama, called ishvara pranidhana, which, she told us, means "surrender to a higher power." We proceeded to stretch and pose and occasionally grunt in what maybe actually was an especially divine way, and at the end of the hour, we lay still while she led us on a guided meditation. This is a yoga class! At the Y!

Mindfulness is suddenly on every one’s lips. I mentioned mindfulness based stress reduction, which is a specific application of the widespread general phenomenon. When I began meditating and going to meditation classes 14 years ago, if you’d told me that in a little more than a decade, a Time magazine cover story would be “The Mindful Revolution” and a sitting US Congressman would publish a book called A Mindful Nation all about the benefits of mindfulness meditation in schools, health care, prisons, and various social institutions – and that mindfulness meditation is indeed being practiced in some of all those places – I’d have thought you were crazy. Western psychology and Eastern religion merge in recommending this practice that reduces stress, relieves various ailments, increases productivity – and is a spiritual practice. The times have a-changed.

Along with this astounding trend of infusion of spiritual awareness in various places, is also a trend of plummeting church attendance and religious identification. One-fifth of the US public – and a third of adults under 30 – are now religiously unaffiliated. Well, who needs church when you can get spiritual teachings and inspiration with much higher production values at the movies or at Disney World? (We ministers do what we can, but our special effects budget is otherwise known as flowers and candles.)

One hundred years from now, people will continue to want spiritual growth and deepening. And they’ll get it a lot of ways that have nothing to do with traditional congregations. If they want guidance along their path of spiritual growth, maybe they’ll sign up for a class – in basically the way they sign up for a yoga class. A skillful minister who can offer a worship experience may find herself or himself joining the staff at a yoga studio, where “spiritual reflections with singing and music” becomes one of the studio’s many offerings -- once a week, in between the "Vipassana Meditation" class and the "Intermediate Hatha Yoga" class. (The irony is that it wasn’t that long ago that yoga classes were typically borrowing space in churches.)

Or perhaps ministers would become pastoral counselors or spiritual directors, and spend most of the day seeing clients one-on-one. Maybe they would offer group sessions once a week, and the group sessions might include singing a song or two and, say, a 20-minute talk by the counselor on a significant spiritual issue.

Maybe all these noncongregational ways of getting religion will continue to grow, and congregations will continue to whither. One hundred years from now, we might not have congregations. If we don’t have congregations, then we don’t have Unitarian Universalism. We might still have all the good ideas, the practices, and habits our congregations seek to cultivate – the US might grow out of its individualism and into a communitarian, “we,” ethic -- and that would be great -- but no one would think to call it Unitarian Universalism or feel a need to claim that identity.

There are five features of congregational life that none of these other vehicles for delivering inspiration or cultivating spiritual maturation have. Are these worth preserving? Some of them you might feel ambivalent about. Certainly, our culture has been growing increasingly ambivalent about them, and that’s why the religiously unaffiliated numbers have been growing as they have. I’m ambivalent myself about some of them, taken by themselves. But all combined, they indicate a way of life that I would be sorry to see go.

1. Self-governance. Involvement with committees; democratic participation in, and approval of, the budget process; worrying about policies, procedures, bylaws; creating and leading programs. While some find such activities dreadful, there need to be spiritual communities run by the seekers themselves. I understand -- as do most UUs today -- that the activities of self-governance form an inseparable and integral part of our path of growth and deepening.

2. Tribal identity. Here, too, some would be glad to see this gone. Indeed, we UUs ourselves are often frustrated with the level of tribalism in the religious scene today. Nevetheless, UUs today derive deep satisfactions from being members of the UU tribe, and that would be mostly lost without congregations. While some yoga students eventually come to have a sense of themselves as yogis, that's generally pretty thin soup as identities go. And people going for counseling generally derive even less sense of identity from the particular school or methodology their counselor was trained in. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Client” is not likely to become a significant part of anyone's proudly proclaimed identity.

3. Family membership. Adults and their children share in congregational life. The concept of family involvement in a faith institution -- belonging together as a family rather than as separate individuals -- is an integral feature of congregational life.

4. Caring for each other. Call it shared pastoral ministry: the love and care that congregation members show to other members – building friendships in church, visiting each other for social occasions and when one of us is sick. That sort of thing isn’t always entirely absent from, say, a close-knit, long-time yoga class, or a group-counseling group, but it definitely recedes into comparative insignificance without congregations.

5. Social justice action as a faith community. As with self-governance, most UUs today understand that working with fellow congregants on justice projects is an essential part of our spiritual path.

These five features of congregational life all have unhealthy, insular, cult-ish forms -- which contributes to the turn-off that increasing numbers of people find the prospect of congregational membership to be. Yet these five, in healthy versions, are deeply enriching and, I would say, are essential parts of the good life -- and the "spiritual but not religious" trend misses out on them.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "One Hundred Years from Now"
Part 1: Spirituality Boom
Part 3: The Future of Liberal Religion

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