When I was a divinity student at Meadville Lombard Theological School one of the first classes I took was “Ministry in the Post-Denominational Age,” taught by now-President-Emeritus Rev. Dr. Lee Barker. The premise of the course is that the era of mainstream denominations shaping the religious landscape has ended. Instead, our times have seen the rise of independent evangelical megachurches, and an overall decline in church membership, across the board. The question posed by the class was, “How do we do ministry in this environment?”
My first attempt at insight was that our Unitarian Universalist faith was wonderfully well-positioned in this landscape. We are and have been the ‘seeker’ church, the sanctuary for those who have left the mainstream denominations but who still desire the community, the growth, the launchpad for changing the world that religious communities offer. We have nearly always been the welcoming home for those who reject traditional, creedal faiths, and those who offer a loving and covenantal faith for all comers. My thought was that we’re ‘the thing!’
One of the resources I was awakened to in that course was the document published by the Pew Foundation “Faith Formation 2020.” This work pointed out that, among other things, the adherence to mainstream churches was declining. It highlighted the fact that at least 40% of young people had no allegiance to a particular faith, and were not seeking one. What does that mean for us, styling ourselves as we often do as the “seeker church?” We live in an era where most folx, and certainly the younger generation, aren’t interested in what we have to offer.
However, they are interested in community, in meaning-making, in connection and in a grounded place from which to work to make the world a better place. It was from this knowing that I started Sacred Fire Unitarian Universalist, which planted and continues to grow covenanted communities which connect those who resonate with our values but who aren’t necessarily interested in church. The attempt was based upon the knowing that there were many out there who identified with us but who didn’t come and worship with us on Sunday mornings. We learned from Pew Foundation that there are about 650,000 people who identify as Unitarian Universalist, while knowing that only about 150,000 people are members of our churches. Where are these others, and how to we reach the supposed millions who share our values and seek to incarnate our collective vision of justice in the world?
The covenanted communities which I had the honor of supporting epitomized the answer to this question. Across the country, (mostly but certainly not exclusively!) young people long for and share the theology we offer. They want the same things which we find in church: meaning, connection, and a means through which to work for justice in our world. A missive called “How We Gather” (sacred.design) was put together by two Harvard Divinity School students (thereafter joined by our own Rev. Sue Phillips) and explored the ways in which people were forming new sorts of communities both inside and outside of traditional churches. I urge you to check it out, as it offers up some insights to us as we seek to connect with yet more people, and especially young ones. Learning how to build relationships with “UU-adjacent” folx, and those seeking connection but not necessarily Sunday morning liturgy, is vital to our future.
This time of COVID isolation has taught us many things. First and foremost has been the teaching that we all still harbor the longing to be together. We have endeavored to become experts at using Zoom and other platforms to maintain our connections with one another. We have continued our Sunday worships, our small group ministries, even our choirs. We have come to know that all of this is do-able even while our buildings are closed and when we can’t be physically together. Our worlds of possibility have expanded.
In normal times, our general strategy for growth could be called “attractional.” The idea is that we should make our congregations as welcoming as possible, and should invite everyone to join us in our space and in our worship and RE programs. The truth is that this only works for some. When we are attractional, we only bring in those who are looking for a certain kind of religious home. We must be attractional, without a doubt, yet if that is all we do we are neglecting the potential of a multitude of others. To reach all those who resonate with out values and who seek community, we must also be missional.
The etymology and root of “mission” mean ‘to be sent.’ Our faith’s tenets urge us to be active in the world, indeed one of the UU ethicist’s Rev. James Luther Adams’ “Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism” is that we must actively incarnate good in the world. I believe it is imperative that we balance our attractional work with the missional to meet the demands of our faith and our responsibilities to the world. What does this look like? Moving in solidarity with those in the streets demanding justice; planting small group ministries among distanced peoples; running campus ministry programs on campuses rather than asking students to come to us. In short, going to where people are, both physically—where safe to do so—and virtually.
In summation, it may be good for us to consider our churches as waystations on a journey. Our churches, our buildings themselves, aren’t the destination. They’re a vital part of the journey, yet not the end. Our end is the Beloved Community, and our congregations are our primary vehicle through which we move towards that collective dream. Let us use the learnings we are gleaning from this time of pandemic to know that our faith is unbounded, plentiful, and desired by so great a number of people as to be breathtaking. Let us live into a post-congregational faith.