What assumptions do we make when newcomers join us on Sunday mornings? I want to lay down a few of those assumptions, and then blow them sky high, PeaceBang-style. It’s time we had this talk, if you haven’t been having it among yourselves already.
We assume that people visit us because they are interested in joining a church – and we hope they will want to join our church.
Pure fantasy. We need to get over this. The only people I have ever seen walk into a church with the intention of “joining it” are parents with small children who are there because their little ones are starting to ask big questions and they heard somewhere that the Unitarian Universalists are good at offering RE for people who want room to explore, ask questions, express doubts, and to learn about the wisdom of a variety of traditions (except the Christian tradition. We never come right out and say this, but our excruciating discomfort with Christianity remains perhaps our greatest stumbling block in attracting new people. Here’s my version of what goes on in many of our visitors’ minds – based on dozens and dozens of conversations over the years:
“How can this ‘open and affirming’ religious community show such hostility, ignorance and immaturity to the broad, diverse movement called Christianity? These people bill themselves as the free-thinkers and intellectuals? Why, all I had to do was scratch the surface to find that many of them are actually just bitter refugees from Christianity and are still obsessed with its shortcomings. I am outta here!”)
That was a digression. But an important one.
So, people with children often do want to join a church. They want it for their children. And a few other assorted souls may come wanting to join a church, but fewer and fewer nowadays.
People do not attend a church service because they are interested in joining a church. They attend a church service because they are looking for something deep. They are seeking. They are searching. They are in need.
What do they need?
I think they need to experience something. They need to be able to experience something in that space that confirms for them the thing they have been struggling with as a lone individual. I wouldn’t dare try to articulate exactly what that “thing” is: it has something to do with what Jesus called “life more abundant.” It has something to do with being sick and tired of trying to navigate life by themselves with only their own opinions and thoughts to guide them. It has something to do with being ready to get over themselves and to be drawn into a greater and more profound version of life. It has something to do with being vulnerable, even if they may not consciously know it (many of them do). Whatever the “thing” is, exactly, the need for it became so great that it drew them out of their comfort zone and into a strange building to sit with a group of total strangers – can you imagine such courage?
You may be able to, as you may be one of the people who have joined a church in the “post-church-obligation” era. Good, because you may be able to help the rest of us understand the contemporary seeker’s perspective.
And what happens when that seeker shows up? What do we give them? A red coffee cup and a stack of pamphlets? A series of friendly queries over coffee hour? Questions about where they live, what they “do” and whether or not they’re married? An invitation to help with the bake sale?
There is nothing wrong at all about those friendly queries or invitations. They reveal the social spirit of the community, and a community’s social spirit is a good thing, and even a selling point for some seekers.
But not, I contend, for many. Not anymore. Not these days. These are new days. These are different times. These are not the days when a hearty offering of potlucks, social events and smiling people wrapped around some pretty good preaching and a decent Sunday School were all your church needed to keep visitors coming back.
While the United States has become a much less churched place than it was forty years ago, I believe (and research bears me out) that it has become a country that takes spiritual questions much more seriously. I believe that if today’s seekers do not immediately experience a church community as a group of people who take spiritual questions seriously, they will not return. And why should they? Because we’re cool? Because we march in the right parades and support social justice causes? Because we agree with them that the Catholic Church/Bible Belt is hopelessly corrupt, and we’re willing to stand around and mock the religious right in the most spiteful language at our gatherings?
Coolness and a commitment to liberal social activism and a shared hatred toward Christian fundamentalists may be the fly paper that grabs and attracts a certain number of new Unitarian Universalists (or liberal Christians) to congregations, but we need to ask ourselves: do we want to be communities of people gathered around these purposes? What kind of maturity level are we then establishing at the core of our communities? How mature are we now? Have we even stopped to consider that a huge part of our evangelism problem is the wide chasm between the wisdom and maturity of our proclaimed faith commitments and the immaturity and shallowness that characterize the life of too many of our congregations?
Oh, and by the way, and this is important: Unitarian Universalists tend to be quite uncool, and devoted to making our congregations havens for those with bad social skills. It may be time to talk openly about the fact that UUs seem to have a preferential option for the socially inept. I was popular in high school. Sometimes I think that it is this fact more than my Christian theological orientation that leaves me at such odds with the majority UU population I encounter at our larger denominational gatherings.
Another digression. And an important one. I leave you to make the obvious comments about how what I’ve just said influences the culture of our youth programming.
Back on topic:
How many of us assume that the seekers to our congregations are looking for a place to flee from traditional Christianity or seeking an alternative to religion? TOO MANY.
And that’s a serious problem, too. No one seeks anything from a primarily negative context. They do not act on negations: “I will walk out the door today and into that building actively looking for the non-presence of something I disliked about my old religious community, or the religious communities I see around me.” No one does that, yet we often greet them in just that spirit. It is in that spirit that we try to bond with newcomers (“Oh, you must be fleeing the Bad Religious People! That’s what we DO here!”), and it is in that spirit that we dictate the narrative for why they came and found us. UUs around the country (less so in New England, but certainly here, too) still insist on identifying as the “Not That” community. We begin from negation, rejection and damage and we project those black holes of missional purpose onto most newcomers who find us. The ones who stay resonate with that narrative of rejection and damage, and again I ask you: how healthy a congregation can that approach ultimately build?
Deeply spiritual people who want a religious life without dogma but also without a constant haranguing about what “other religions” (ie, mostly Christian neighbors) do wrong, simply leave. They know they’ve been had by false advertising. They say to themselves, “This is a denomination that looks great on paper but feels lousy in practice.”
I hope this is an offensive and upsetting post that will jar some of you into defensive inner rantings (but please, until you have processed what I am saying for some time, don’t rant here). It may particularly gall you that I am lumping together liberal social justice commitments with “coolness”* and hatred toward Christian fundamentalism as the things that UUs unconsciously believe will endear them to seekers (notice that I do not say Muslim fundamentalists or Jewish fundamentalists – these religious fundamentalisms, while certainly not appreciated by UUs, are not derided with the same visceral venom with which we freely rip apart fundamentalist – and even conservative – Christians), but here’s why I did:
I think that when Unitarian Universalist congregations believe that their social justice identity will be the major drawing point for newcomers, they are barking up the wrong tree. While I may be drawn to a congregation for a one-time engagement with an issue (to join them in a community justice campaign of some sort or another), that doesn’t mean that I am interested in “joining a church,” and after connecting with them for a short time, I will go my way. I will not want to attend a dinner, join the choir, or attend movie nights. I will not suddenly develop an interest in attending Sunday morning worship. I will appreciate the UUs for having organized the peaceful protest at the local health clinic, or whatever the event was, and I will think of them fondly as those people who showed up and did something awesome in my community.
But I will not necessarily have any accompanying need for spiritual community. That was their assumption, not my need.
However, if I have come to a church service on a Sunday morning, I am specifically looking for an experience that confirms my spiritual longings, that connects me with people who also long for a deeper life, who ask big and serious questions, and who take the inner life absolutely seriously. I will be looking for a minister who has serious, learned and heartfelt reflections on serious topics. I will want to feel as though I am among deep and reverent people. I will want to feel touched and awakened as a deep being who takes the project of life seriously.
I expect these people to be serious spiritual seekers whose activism comes out of their deeper lives. If I want passionate activists with no particular spiritual quality or identity, I can join up with dozens of organizations.
Of course I want this deep spiritual community to be friendly, funny, helpful, loving and even fun. But when I look around, I will want to see a really interesting variety of human beings getting deep and serious together, and getting closer and more intimate with each other’s lives as a result. That’s what I want to see. That’s what I want to feel. When I walk through the door, I don’t want to be rushed at like a new pledge at a sorority gathering or greeted in the manner of the time-share salesman at the informational session for potential buyers. I don’t want to feel like I walked into a pep rally for a high school football team or looked over with hungry eyes as though I’m the only attractive gal at a singles bar (a look which I am told is especially given to same-sex couples or people of color in our liberal religious congregations). If I’m a mother coming in with my three little children, I don’t want to hear how great it is that the church is attracting “so many new families” – I’m not there to increase the church’s “young family” demographic, but to find a serious community of spiritual nurture: are you that community? What if I’m thinking about a divorce? Is this a community that will help me through that? How about if my children go live with their father? Will I still be so welcome? Will you still have a big smile for me? Will you still assume that we have so much in common and that I fit right into your demographic?
I want to see a community of people taking seriously the spiritual life. Figuring out what life demands of them. Considering the time-honored theological questions in conversation with tradition and the insights of science and the contemporary humanities. Holding themselves accountable for getting better at all their relationships. Being people I’m impressed by and want to become more like. Setting an example by their sincere efforts to embody the things they say they believe in. Being a community I’d be proud to be allowed to join if they thought I was ready, willing and able to.
Wow, wouldn’t THAT be a different way to look at things? How do we help new participants in the lives of our communities discern whether or not they should join, should that time come? Or are we too busy trying to get more people to sign the book?
How sad that we have come to look at spiritual seekers in demographic terms, or as potential pledges. Do we now understand the connection between the shallowness of our vision and practices and our terrible record or visitor retention?
As the hypothetical visitor, what I want to see are people who are serious about spiritual questions (yes, I’m aware that I sound like a broken record here). That is the first thing we should talk about when you greet me. Not what I do for work, not how much better I think your church is than the conservative evangelical church I stumbled into last week (I’m unchurched, so please don’t assume I know the difference between a UU, a UCC, an ELCA, and the LDS – and don’t explain who you are by defining what you don’t believe). Not how great it is that I’m “young” or gay or black or Latino, and isn’t it exciting that we have a Spanish-language version of the hymnal. Stop examining me and sizing me up for a committee and let me see you. Let us see each other.
What I want to see is people who are deeper and more attentive than the usual crowd at the coffee shop. I want to see evidence that this place is important to them, that it challenges them, and that there are no “insiders” and “outsiders” but one people with a common desire to live deeply in an ethic of service, learning and love. If I see a group of people jockeying for power and status, or all I hear about is money or social outings or how great “we” are or get asked a bunch of questions that are thinly-disguised inquiries into my political opinions, social status, educational status or marital status, I will know that I am not in a serious and deep spiritual environment but at a cocktail party that happens to have a sermon in the middle of it.
Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals, as well as all mainline Protestant churches need to stop driving the narrative around why seekers come to their church. They need to stop assuming that such people come to join a church (especially if they are long-time members whose reasons for joining a church are firmly fixed in a historical context that is dead and gone), but to learn to listen, to ask different kinds of questions than are asked anywhere else, and to see every new person as an opportunity to examine their own depth and maturity level. Every new person should present an occasion for soul-searching:
“Am I treating my church life with the seriousness it requires? Am I offering shallow welcomes that are about me the hostess, and them the visitor, and failing to remember that we are all visitors in the house of God (the Highest)? Am I assuming anything about this person, and if so, am I inflicting my assumptions on them? What do I have to say about my own spiritual practices that might speak to this person where they are? Do I even have any spiritual practices that hold me accountable to the values we profess to hold here? If not, why not? Can I steer this newcomer toward a small group ministry experience, formal or informal, that will give them an opportunity to articulate the needs and desires that brought them to our door, or do I assume that an invitation to an upcoming social gathering will meet that need to integrate with the life of the community? What programs does my congregation offer for an ongoing discernment and reflection about the spiritual dimension of life? If not any, why not? What else are we here for? How can I help support such an offering, and have I participated in one myself?”
I’ve said an awful lot here, and I hope you will refrain from commenting until you have put at least a tiny portion of the time I’ve spent thinking about this and articulating these ideas into your own response.
Also this: Churches are obsessed with opinion, marketing and trying to find out what kind of “product” their members and newcomers want. That’s shallow and avoidant. It’s all part of dictating the narrative, controlling and diminishing and trying to manage what the Spirit is doing in people’s lives through the institution of the church. All this panic I hear from UUs about GROWTH, “How are we going to GROW?” That’s not the question. The question is, “How are we going to start growing up?”
I will be looking forward to fleshing out these ideas and doing deep discernment around these questions with the Midwestern Unitarian Universalists in November. This post is my initial reflections for my opening keynote. For recommended reading, I would direct you to Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, whose theories are grounded in strong academic and statistical research.
Thanks for reading.
* As I said previously, we really aren’t “cool” at all. We continue to harbor a comically unrealistic sense of terminal uniqueness and relevancy — all while remaining willfully ignorant about the actually coolness factor of loads and loads of hip Jewish and Christian and Buddhist and alternative religious communities around us. Seriously, ask around. Especially if you live near an urban center. If not, spiritual seekers have many very cool options for theological reflection and spiritual practice and accountability in on-line communities and through digital ministries. We’re generally dated and staid, folks. We really are.