The Future of Liberal Religion

People who want spiritual inspiration and instruction will find it. It’s getting easier and easier to find, in fact – and is available through more and more forms. That's a good thing. That trend, however, is apt to overlook the value, the significance and depth of meaning that comes from working together for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world with the same people with whom you worship. It overlooks the roll of community self-governance, of tribal connection that takes in your whole family and develops connections of care among the members.

Congregational faith community continues, as it always has, to offer spiritual inspiration and guidance. It does so in a way that is very different from what you can get at Disney World, or the movies, or a mindfulness class, or a spiritual director – as insightful, energizing, and helpful as some of those are. Congregational faith community finds synergistic power in linking spiritual awareness and learning with self-governance, a vitalized identity, co-belongingness of family members, connections of friendship and care, and sharing together in the work of transforming our world. When people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I fear they are forgetting – or never knew, or never felt – that synergistic power. We're seeing more and more people who just don't see self-governance (things like going to committee meetings) as worth the hassle – who see the dark side of tribalism (distrust of The Other), more clearly than the enriching and empowering possibilities of communities of radical hospitality – who figure they can just as well do their social justice work through organizations that have no connection to their spirituality.

Nothing in principle guarantees that the "nones" – those whose religion is “none” -- won't keep expanding until they encompass just about everybody. I don’t know if congregational faith community will survive one hundred years from now.

Our country and our world might or might not be on the verge of a Great Turning away from individualism toward community orientation. Along with Rev. Clarke and Rev. Brammer, I do like to hope it is. If it is, that new awakening of communal-mindedness might or might not manifest in and through congregations.

In Europe, Catholic and Protestant church attendance has fallen far below US levels – and they have no Unitarian Universalism – just a scattered handful of small congregations of American expatriot UUs. Insofar as Europeans have a version of faith community, it is through spiritually imbued participation in civic organizations which do, overall, encourage communal-mindedness. If the US is headed that direction – if that turns out to be a feature of what the Great Turning ends up looking like – then congregational faith community, in which Unitarian Universalism is grounded, will pass from the Earth. We are, as you have no doubt noticed, already graying, and have been for some time.

There is, however, another possibility.

Survival of liberal religious congregations will mean that we change some ways we do church. Younger people have to see committee meetings and bylaws and budgets as worth it before they can eventually grow to see them as deeply enriching spiritual practices. And for them to see it as worth it means doing church in a way that’s more attractive for them.

Do you have grandchildren? (I don’t have any grandkids myself yet. I’d like to. I have two children in their 30s – I don’t know what the hold up is.) I invite you to skip a generation and think not about your kids, but about your grandkids – the actual ones you have or the imagined ones you might later have. What will they want in their spiritual life? What will draw them into congregational faith community?

I have no idea what kind of music my not-yet-born grandchildren will be into – but whatever it is, we can be reasonably confident that I will hate it. I won’t understand it. I won’t see how anybody could be spiritually moved by that crap. But if, in my dotage, those grandchildren have grown into young adults sitting next to me in worship as we listen to that music – their music – I won’t care. (I hope that I will be willing to work at learning to appreciate their music, but I might just not be able to.)

And who knows what other changes in our worship form or congregational way of doing things our grandchildren might prefer? We’ll have to give them the authority to decide. Suppose we started saying no one over 30 can be on our worship committee? And then we have to keep showing up, whatever god-awful travesties they come up with – because – and this is truly what spiritual growth is all about understanding – it’s not about you.

It’s not about you getting the sort of church service you want. It was at first. When you first visited a UU congregation, there needed to be something that really worked for you or you wouldn't have come back. But you did come back – and many of you have been coming back for a number of years. And now, maybe, you've grown, deepened, matured from the experiences you've had in your congregation. You’re ready to see that it doesn’t have to be about what you like anymore. It’s about serving others – with our time and our talent and our treasure – because young adults don’t typically have the disposable income by themselves to keep a church afloat.

Let me confess that contemplating the profoundly different church of the future is probably even scarier for me than it is for you. I've been to youth cons, and I've seen the way they do worship there. They have beautiful and moving services...that aren't minister-led. If that's the direction congregational worship needs to move in, then we ministers will have either a radically re-defined place or none at all. As a minister who loves the discipline and practice of weekly preaching -- and who enjoys a comfortable lifestyle doing what I love -- I admit that such a vision of the future evokes from me feelings of grief, loss, and fear. "Change," as they say, is spelled L-O-S-S. But I know that if it's not about you, it's certainly not about me either. I, too, have grown and matured from the experiences I've had in UU congregations, and I'm ready to let go of what I happen to like if that's not what moves, nourishes, and guides the generation after next.

By serving the generation after next – helping to keep congregational faith community going even when it becomes a very different place from the one we knew – we’ll help those grandkids have a place where they, too, can eventually learn that serving others is what it’s all about. And 100 years from now, liberal religious congregational faith community will be booming and thriving.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "One Hundred Years from Now"
Part 1: Spirituality Boom
Part 2: Only in Congregations

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