What Happens to Worshipers When The Traditional Church Closes Its Doors

It’s late and I’m not going to have time to flesh this post out to the extent that I’d like to, but I do want to get something down because I haven’t blogged here in way too long and I’m feeling mightily burdened by the massive unhappiness around me in the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

I want to say right up front that my blogging about church matters is never a passive aggressive way to complain about my own congregational work, so please do not try to read between lines. You’d be amazed how much projection goes on with bloggers. Whenever I make oblique references in posts, commenters inevitably assume they’re blind items about my own life.

This is about the misery I am hearing pouring out all around me from all regions of the country where ministers are scrambling to adapt to the seismic quakes in religious and congregational life.

Seminaries are imploding. There have been cataclysmic conflicts or scandals at Starr King School For the Ministry, Andover Newton Theological School and other, non-UU seminaries.

Unitarian Universalist seminarians have just learned that an important component of their formation process has been de-funded.

UU districts are merging into regions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it requires nimbleness and a lot of effort. The UUA has cut staff following a major budget shortfall in 2014.

Congregations are likewise running out of money.

Ministers are exhausted from living in the old way of doing church (leading worship, supervising staff, attending to the pastoral care of the church, creating and leading programming, representing Unitarian Universalism in the wider community) while groping toward new ways of being church (becoming part of the missional movement, using social media, meeting social justice demands that are urgent and critical, managing administrative shifts around hiring/firing staff for doing church in the new way).

If you’re not an insider, 90% of these references won’t mean anything to you. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about (“missional church? Huh?”).

Because everything is changing so fast, even those of us in the profession can’t keep up with the framework, the lingo or the expectations.  The fancy name for all of this is adaptive leadership, which is a nice way of saying that we’re all running like Indiana Jones a few yards ahead of the boulder of cultural change that threatens to flatten us at any moment.

It is obvious that for those in non-conservative religious majority regions, Sunday morning worship can no longer be the main focus for getting newcomers through the door, let alone be the program by which they integrate into the life of the congregation and eventually join the church.

Except, wait! All of our existing programs and models for church vitality and growth make that now-erroneous assumption, so we’re simultaneously watching the trends change, observing the decline in our numbers, grieving the loss of numbers and volunteer energy, and trying to figure out — while trying to stay out in front of the boulder — what new models will work to create community. Pub theology? Parenting groups? Doing away altogether with the concept of church membership in favor of something else? What something else?

Not incidentally, tbe congregational polity of the UUA member congregations relies on traditional concepts of church membership in order to function. Voting members — defined how, now?  — elect officers, call ministers, often vote on the budget, and serve on boards and committees of the board. Some congregations are paralyzed by their own bylaws which require a quorum or minimum number of voting members present for even the revision of the old by-laws! You can’t make this stuff up.

Did I mention volunteers? The concept of volunteering is also changing radically as patterns of participation change completely from what they were a couple of decades ago. The percentage of younger newer people to our congregations who have any experience with church life is low, and the workings of the organization seem obtuse to the unchurched (can’t say I blame them). Attempts to change organizational structure to simplify and facilitate involvement create anxiety in the system and it may take years for leaders to do the relationship work necessary to implement new structures.

Ministers report rampant dysfunction and abuse — years of struggle to establish basic boundaries with mentally ill or abusive members, angry push-back against attempts to do anti-racism work with the congregation, triangulating and betrayal between clergy or lay staff, clergy sexual or emotional misconduct never properly dealt with by previous colleagues, fiduciary bullying amounting to paychecks being withheld or salaries arbitrarily cut mid-year, unreasonable and even conflicting expectations of ministers demanded by 100+ “bosses,” all of whom feel entitled to direct the minister’s priorities, and general chaos. Secret board meetings, ministers resigning mid-year or being forced out.

I hope you didn’t read this far hoping for a solution.

I don’t have any.

Nor do I have hope that everything is going to work out for the best — not in the traditional sense, anyway, where “the best” is defined as some version of the current status quo.

But I remain curious and committed. I remain faithful to God’s movement in the world, which can happen through any institution. I just happen to love the Church the best because it’s the one institution where people gather specifically in order to identify as people of soul and spirit. That’s our M.O. I’m sure God’s people can do that in other ways outside of traditional structures, but how? I never wonder why, but I do wonder how.

I’ll be pondering these things with you more in future posts but for now I want to toss this idea out there:

It seems obvious that the future Church will be more amorphous and non-building based. That seems to be already happening.  And as that shift happens, with lots of people still wanting to identify as people of God/Deep Meaning/Faithfulness/Truth in their own way and organizing loosely around denominational flavors the same way we do now in actual churches, maybe worship will become a practice engaged by people who self-select as Worshipers. In other words, as the church becomes decentralized, unfunded and not located in any particular location (God knows we have so many other ways to connect these days), a few houses of worship will remain open and funded for the small communities of folks who love worship and consider it central to their spiritual community.

What I’m suggesting is flipping the model. Right now, traditional congregations still hope to “attract newcomers” whose first point of connection will be Sunday morning worship. That expectation is dying because it obviously isn’t working any more. So what if we intentionally planned for that and accepted that Sunday morning worship is a distinct maybe on most people’s list of religious interests and needs, instead of expecting them to become part of the community through first engaging in worship?

I know that some of you are already living successfully into this new model. Please comment and let us know what your “front door” is and how it works to gather disparate individuals into committed religious community.

The ecclesiology of what I am suggesting is a mess, of course. Someday there may be an ecumenical council that proclaims that the Church must be first and foremost a worshiping community. But they haven’t yet, so I’m just watching trends and trying to be creative about how we orient ourselves and how we establish expectations for 10-20 years from now. Congregations will be closing and merging like crazy between now and 2030. When many of the existing houses of worship have been renovated into food banks, community centers, arts centers, schools, condos and youth enrichment programs (perhaps funded by the endowments of congregations that may lovingly choose to apportion their wealth that way before they get down to three worshiping members, as I have seen happen in Massachusetts), where will the Worshipers meet and worship?

It may be someday that the population of traditional worshipers gets smaller and smaller in many regions of the United States until they become quasi-monastic communities. I bet Boy In The Bands could predict with some accuracy the forms of worship they might eventually use, Esperantist that he is.  In the meantime, what kind of energy and resources might we free up if we were no longer engaged in endless and exhausting worship wars (the cause of so much pastoral strife and burn-out) and if we stopped handwringing about declining numbers on Sunday morning?

I will probably always be a Worshiper. I just need it. I am a preacher and always will be, even if I have to preach to my pillow. But I recognize that my devotion to corporate, public worship is becoming more and more exotic — a kind of folk practice like weaving on a loom, that may or may not come back into vogue if it becomes scarce… and missed.

That’s all I have for now. Thanks for listening.








9 Replies to “What Happens to Worshipers When The Traditional Church Closes Its Doors”

  1. Accurate and sobering. I wonder what we might learn from the various churches in different denominations (there are some) that are thriving, some in what might call traditional modes, some very different?

  2. Very thoughtful post! Two reasons I’m a lapsed UU (though I pay my pledge and attend services now and then): the concept of the pledging unit and the fact that most of the volunteers are women. If it came from the top (Board and minister) that because the principles advocate an individual’s search for truth and meaning, that means pledges should come from individuals, not couples or families, I would be happier. If it came from the top that if only the female half of a couple volunteers, it does not mean that the couple volunteers and that it is outrageous that nearly all of the coffee/potlucks/celebrations are organized and carried out by women and enjoyed by both men and women, I would be happier. Having said that, if I lived near Lynn, MA, I would join your UU and volunteer myself for whatever is needed.

  3. Thanks, PB, for this reflection. I’ve been having a lot of these same thoughts, but have been afraid to speak them very widely. My church is still very invested in regaining its previous influence, as long as almost nobody (except the staff) has to actually do anything or give any more money. I just deleted a long list of recent problems from this post, because we can all probably supply a similar list. I am seriously considering a career change. Or maybe joining a convent, except that Methodists don’t have very many of those.

  4. Oh how many new people I could have brought to my local UU church if there was the exact same services we’ve been doing, at any time OTHER than Sunday morning.

    OK, Saturday evening would have been a problem too.

    But I can’t bring them, or go myself, because people working Sunday morning can’t be in two places at once, and those who closed their places of employ won’t short their sleep before their Sunday mid-day shifts.

    Huge changes are afoot. Not everything needs change all at once. Finding those transitional pieces is a key to survival.

    Side note: it’s law everywhere that you have to have a quorum to change your bylaws. Though you can request variances from an administrative law judge if your organisation funds itself in a state where the legal meetings can’t be conducted.

  5. Thanks for this post. The questions you raise have been very much on my mind of late. Yesterday, I met with a young couple prior to their signing the membership book. They are serious seekers, talented and committed, and are already involved in church life, especially in R.E., AND they said to me, “Please don’t take it personally when we don’t show up at Sunday services. It has nothing to do with you – it’s just not who we are.” I picked up nothing from them of the anti-clerical counter dependence that I might otherwise expect from someone who doesn’t come to Sunday worship – so I simply encouraged them to keep an open mind, and let them sign the book. I’m seeing about four major entry points into the church now – Sunday services (which *are* drawing some millennials and college students), the Roundtable (which partially overlaps with the Sunday service group), Religious Education (which also includes a weekday playgroup and a Navigators group), and a CUUPs group. It is *very* different from the way it was 30 years ago – or maybe I just see it through a different lens now; I think it’s been building for some time. But I do sense that something new and life-giving is coming alive in the midst of it all, so like you I remain “curious and committed.” The congregation I serve, by the way, is in southern New Mexico. We are welcoming 19 new members this coming Sunday.

  6. I recently found your blogsite and have enjoyed the reading here. spent several years as a “friend” at the UU church here, and still have contact with that congregation, so I was a bit surprised by this news of cuts and downsizing (which is also what lots of mainline Christian Churches are facing). Then I had a friend send me this news item about the UU growing (oh, but now I see the article is from 2012). Still, wondering what you or other readers make of it all: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/01/unitarian-faith-growing-stronger-nationwide/1607243/

  7. I’m looking this not as a UU, but as a former evangelical missionary then minister, presently co-organizer of Sunday Assembly NYC.

    What I’ve seen across denominations in the United States is a lack of agility in congregations adapting to the changing social and cultural environment. Membership shrinks, the ones in the pews with money are often the least open to change, and ministers are left underpaid and overworked. That is, except in younger megachurches started in the past 10 – 20 years, as they start with less baggage than established congregations and have ‘investor’ buy-in from church planting ministries (of which there are many in evangelical circles) before they launch.

    I also believe that there’s still a place for the gathering of people for celebration, remembrance and service. The rise of groups like Sunday Assembly, US Oasis and Fellowship of Freethought, among others, demonstrate this reality. As Rev. Lavanhar at All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa has said, the assembly is ‘an on-ramp to community,’ and not the final purpose of the church.

    Rev. Breeden at First Unitarian in Minneapolis has told me (explicitly on the record) that the Sunday Assembly meeting in the church building where he serves is something he views at their ‘second service.’ A few families with children with Sunday Assembly have ended up joining First Unitarian as well because of the children and youth programs they provide. There is great potential for synergy and symbiosis here.

    The church has much to offer, and I really think that of all denominations in the US, the UUA has the best chance to adapt and grow in years to come. After all, it’s the only religious tradition I’m familiar with which is willing to use the terms ‘innovative’ and ‘innovation’ in describing its work and objectives.

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