I was surprised to find on Thursday of last week that I was preaching today, and so came up with a quick sermon based on a topic I've been giving a lot of thought to lately, how churches, and especially Unitarian Universalism, is changing and what will come after the current iteration of "church" falls by the wayside, as it must. It's a topic I intend to cover in greater depth and at greater leisure in the future.
WHERE ARE WE GOING?
WHO WILL WE BE?
A Sermon Delivered to DUUC
October 21, 2012,
Last week was witness to the change in fortunes of a singular institution that, while some people might argue its glory days were in the past, remained a force on the landscape of culture, valued for its pronouncements on events and personages, its predictions for the future, and its history for having contributed to the zeitgeist that has been America for nearly the whole of what was not too far in the past called the American Century.
I’m talking, of course, of the decision by Newsweek not to publish a print edition any longer.
I joke, but as with almost everything that happens nowadays, it is a facet through which we can view a lot of what’s going on and see almost the same things. The newswasn’t delivered in the most recent issue but on Newsweek’s website. Does anyone even read Newsweek any longer? Under Tina Brown, who made such major shifts to the New Yorker in the 80s and the revived Vanity Fair in the 90s, it has gone from an interesting way of catching up with what was important last week to a throwaway on the order of the Enquirer or the Weekly World News, talked more about for its controversial covers and headlines than for its content.
But that isn’t entirely Brown’s fault or Newsweek’s for that matter. Technology has jumped over the magazine’s 80 year history, from a point when here in the Midwest learning about what was important in the past month in New York and Washington and London and Berlin was a miracle of communication, to the wonders of radio where Walter Winchell could report to Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea what happened in last week’s battles, and to the staggering TV images of Vietnam battles in our living rooms, to CNN’s coverage of SCUD missiles as they landed, to our following live Twitter feeds of Syrian rebels between blasts of gunfire. In such a brave new world, last week’s news, no matter how much analysis a writer can bring to it, remains, well, last week’s news.
It’s not just Newsweek. We’re long past the point of lamenting the death of daily newspapers and free weeklies and network evening news. The 24/7 newscycle and that it operates and relies on a constant stream of novelty and publicity is both a given and a cliché now. A newspaper whose subscribers number in the tens of thousands—and Newsweek’s base of 1.5 million subscribers not only buries that of all but the top names of daily newspapers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the London Times, but used to be an indicator of great health for a magazine, certainly showing it would continue in the black for some time to come—can’t keep pace with something like the Huffington Post, a news aggregator that relies on its unpaid bloggers linking their commentary to stories at other news sources for its reputation as the go-to place for up-to-date information on, say, the eight people killed by a Beirut car bomb or whether Britney Spears was on meth when she shaved her head.
A painting by Paul Gaugin has the resonant title Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going? Many theorists would argue these are the questions religion attempts to answer and I would even suggest they’re the official questions of UU. I’m not the first to say it but the idea that we are damned by the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” gains traction every year. Every generation experiences change, of course, but it seems we are enmeshed in change that metastasizes like a cancer just as we begin to acclimate to it. We had only begun to understand phone technology when we started using cordless phones, and then car phones, and then cell phones, and then phones that could take pictures, phones that could connect with the internet, iphones, smartphones. And this new technology brought new languages, often abbreviated words or condensations of words or acronyms or the use of pictograms. Last year I taught a very good book called EverythingBad is Good for You by Steven Johnson, whose thesis is that, “Where pure problem-solving is concerned, we’re getting smarter…It’s not the change in our nutritional diet…it’s the change in our mental diet.”
Johnson goes on:
Think of the cognitive labor—and play—that your average ten-year-old would have experienced outside of school a hundred years ago: reading books when they were available, playing with simple toys, improvising neighborhood games like stickball and kick the can, and most of all doing household chores—or even working as a child-laborer. Compare that to the cultural and technological mastery of a ten-year-old today: following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to email in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching…Their classrooms may be overcrowded and their teachers underpaid, but in the world outside of school, [the contemporary ten-year-old] brains are being challenged at every turn by new forms of media and technology that cultivate sophisticated problem-solving skills.
Obviously, per Johnson, the news is not all bad. In fact, I argue that it’s not bad at all. But it is confusing.
In the current issue of UU World, we read how the official number of American UUs hit an alltime high in 2008 of nearly 165,000 but has dropped since then to a rough plateau hovering around the 162,000 mark. Over the decade from 2001 to 2011, “22 percent of congregations…shrunk by 20 percent or more.” Congregations with fewer than 60 members were hit worst; nearly half of them saw a 10 percent loss. But, you might say, that drop to 162,000, that’s only a loss of 3000 people over 3 years, hardly a rush for the exits. Such a drop can be attributed to membership death.
Perhaps. It also suggests 1000 more people died than joined our faith annually. As Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, he not busy being born is busy dying. There are unquestioningly many things at which we UUs are busy but being born is not among them.
It isn’t only UUs, of course. It’s a common theme in the conversations of seminarians and religious people in general that churches, no matter their denominations, no matter their social policy, no matter their political affiliation, are in the process of dying. An article in, yes, Newsweek from 2009 notes the concerns of R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of Southern Baptist Theological, that “the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.” Diana Butler Bass, a kind of religious membership authority, makes note of the following:
[Between 2000 and 2010,] new surveys and polls pointed to an erosion of organized Christianity in nearly all its forms, with only “nondenominational” [mostly Pentecostal and fundamentalist in outlook] churches showing a slight numerical increase…All sorts of people—even mature, faithful Christians—are finding conventional religion increasingly less satisfying, are attending church less regularly, and are longing for new expressions of spiritual community…”People just don’t come to church anymore,” pastors told me. “It doesn’t really matter what we do or how solid our community is”…Many people are just bored. They are bored with church as usual, church-as-club, church-as-entertainment, or church-as-work. Many of my friends, faithful churchgoers for decades, are dropping out because religion is dull, the purview of folks who never want to change…[I]n the first decade of the twenty-first century even the most conservative Christian churches have stopped growing. Membership gains have slowed to a crawl, and in some cases membership is dwindling…New megachurches spring up and are successful for a time—until they are forced to close down and sell their buildings. Even the Catholic Church has barely maintained its share of the population…The old argument that liberal churches are in decline and conservative ones are growing is not true…Everyone is in the same situation: a religious bear market. Indeed, the first decade of the twenty-first century could rightly be called the Great Religious Recession.
It’s not only UUs and Christians who see these declines. One researcher of contemporary synagogue attendance estimates that only one out of every fifty Jews attends services weekly. Conversely, Islam has been a growth industry in the US, seeing an advance in reported membership between 2000 and 2011 from 2,000,000 to 2,600,000. Much of their growth is attributable to new immigrants and native conversions. It’s very possible that, as a relatively new religion to the US, novelty may be a contributing factor in Islam’s growth, as it was for Buddhism in the 50s, and given time may fall back to similar low numbers as other, more established religions.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t think either of those words apply legitimately. It is like the coming predominance of Spanish as the US’s most-spoken language or the decline of “white” as its dominant ethnicity or the preponderance of food service jobs over other employment in the near future. There’s nothing “good” or “bad” about it; it simply is the way things will be, the path our choices have led us to.
Well, what of it, we might legitimately ask? Let organized religions dissipate. It looks as if we will go the same way, maybe a little earlier, but really, there’s nothing much to lose there, is there? After all, as UUs we’re already convinced it doesn’t take a single authority, God or the Bible or Allah or the Torah notwithstanding, to tell us the proper way to behave with one another. We know it’s possible, maybe even preferable, to conduct ourselves morally without having to look forward to a better afterlife or without the threat of condemnation to hell or some other punishment. Maybe the disappearance of supernaturally-based religions is an indication that our faith, reason-focused, committed to social justice, is effective and taking root.
It might happen. But nearly everyone in the early part of the twentieth century who studied religions recognized then that it would soon dissolve into a puddle under the weight of its own self-righteousness and focus on groupfeel and we see how that turned out. Don’t mistake what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting that religions or denominations or even churches as brick-and-mortar structures are going away anytime soon. Those seem too ingrained in our psyches to be in any great danger of disappearing. And the information I’m giving you seems exclusive to the US. In Central America, in Africa, in Asia, religion remains almost exactly as it’s been for the past century, if more conservative and reactionary than we’ve usually seen it on a national scale. What I mean to suggest is that in the near future American religions will undergo a change such that we might not recognize them as what we grew up with or the way we’ve always experienced religion.
Just as the English we speak is different from the English our grandparents or our grandchildren speak—different words, different emphases, different intent and forms of address—but still recognizable as English, so will UU be different from what we currently practice. It won’t be better or worse than what we currently call UU but it can’t help but be different.
Butler Bass writes that our religious future relies, rather than on the certainties and dogmas it’s been heir to for the past centuries (and again, this is only in the US she’s writing about), on what she calls believing, behaving, and belonging. She quotes social theorist Harvey Cox as explaining, “What I see…is that people frequently want to refer to themselves now as not really ‘religious’ but ‘spiritual’…What I think it really means is that people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding. They want a more direct experience of God and Spirit.”
She sees Christianity as “moving from being a religion about God to being an experience of God.” She writes that post-WWII,
External authorities gave way to internal ones, as we moved away from conformity to social structures toward the authentic self in society. Whether the switch is good or bad is beside the point. This revolution has happened…[and] questions of meaning and purpose have become supremely important. ..Whereas [once] religious behavior was largely a matter of how [we do things], spiritual practice entails the inner experience of what [we do] and why [we do them] as people must intentionally choose their actions and vocations. After a choice is made, then we craft a new way of faith…Choice, meaning and practice interlace to open us to purposeful ways of being in the world.
Sadly most churches, including our own, despite their mission statements and their intentions, are not very good at being communities. She writes, “Just putting a bunch of people together in a church building doesn’t make them a community. Community is about relationships and making connections. That’s spiritual work…[that] may or may not happen in a church.” The community isn't only the people we see on a regular basis—the people we work with constitute that—but is composed of a set of relationships that extend beyond other human beings and what we consider God or Ultimate Reality into all our surroundings, trees and buildings and fish and rabbits and boxelder bugs and is dependent on the way we are with them. As our Unitarian name suggests, everything is one. Everything is connected. Our spirituality involves our experience of all our relationships, with everyone and everything. That sounds mystical, doesn’t it? Relationship and community is about as ethereal as you can get.
Change is the only constant. People die, buildings go away, trends rise and fall, technologies evolve. Nothing stays the way it was. Our Christian, Jewish and Muslim cousins might say only the fidelity of God remains the same, but if that’s the hub around which the rest of the universe wheels certainly the way we respond to it changes too. As Walt Whitman wrote, “There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe…Everything goes onward and outward, nothing collapses…Nothing endures but personal qualities.”
If this last is true, that who we are is what endures, then we need to move beyond who we are now—the ones not busy being born but busy dying—to who we will be. It isn’t easy, of course, nothing worth doing is. But it is as necessary as taking our next breath.