Saving the Church

Somewhere recently I read the prediction that, unless there is some radical (and unlikely) cultural upheaval, there will be a virtual end to religion in America within two generations.

How on earth could anyone come to such a conclusion? It wouldn’t be difficult, actually though the conclusion might be a generation or two premature. Survey after survey indicates that more than half of today’s attendees at religious services are dissatisfied with their experience and with the institution they belong to.

Negative responses range through boring sermons, outdated children’s education, and programs irrelevant to parishioner’s lives. Other responses have to do with organized religion’s obsession with organizational detail, finance, and property and its lack of devotion to spiritual growth and the needs of the world.

Mike Durall, who led a conference on church development here a couple of weeks ago, reports comments members make about their churches:

“A car with a twenty gallon tank but stops to get a pint of gas, moves a couple of feet, then stops to refuel.”

“A windmill of committees, all flapping limply.”

“Good-hearted but not committed people.”

Most of the complaints could be subsumed under the heading, “Irrelevance.”

Now, I have an abiding skepticism about surveys. Rarely have I seen anything good or lasting come out of a survey. The results are either thoroughly determined, predictable, inconclusive or show a majority preference for something it would be a disaster to provide. I also firmly believe that if a survey were to be taken in heaven the eternal residents would complain about the bland décor, the people one encounters there, the condescending angels, and the constant loud singing. Still, when surveys of participants in religious communities are taken they reveal that most people are unhappy with them.

Discouraging surveys are the least of it. The upheaval in the Roman Catholic Church is unprecedented and the fall-out most likely permanent. The foundations of the most powerful religious force in the west are shaken and cracked. The unthinkable becomes real – entire diocese in bankruptcy.

Another predictor of what some are calling “the end of religion” is the perceived collapse of the sister of religion – culture, the life of the mind, intelligent discourse, aesthetics, civility. For centuries, civilization and religion have been hand in glove; in fact, there was period when it is fair to say that the Christian church saved western civilization.

Joseph Epstein writes of the pre-World War II generation, “What made [those years] wonderful,” she writes, “was an air of seriousness about matters of the mind that, in retrospect, seems almost impossible to credit, let alone to imagine re-creating.”

I suppose religion in American could adapt to the decline of culture and take an entirely different form than the form in which we know it – as different as contemporary theology is from throwing maidens into volcanoes. It is difficult for me to imagine, however, how contemporary western religions, particularly Judaism and mainstream Protestantism, can survive a generation which is entertained by mostly-naked people swallowing live worms or by watching twelve intellectually-challenged people compete for one unbelievably mindless member of the opposite sex.

John Updike has written, “The fact that compared to the inhabitants of Africa and Russia, we still live well cannot ease the pain of feeling we no longer live nobly.”

The late novelist Walker Percy was asked what concerned him most about America’s future; he answered: Probably the fear of seeing America with all its great strength and beauty and freedom … gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the Communist movement – but from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed and in the end helplessness before its great problems.

An indicator of the state of culture is the state of literature. Given the inevitable impact of television, electronic games and communication, the decline of reading should be no surprise. A new study by the National Endowment for the Art called “Reading at Risk” has found that fewer than half of Americans over 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, and that this increasing indifference to literature holds across all races and classes. Harry Potter and The Davinci Code notwithstanding, young westerners want information – not inspiration, mystery, wonder, the stimulation of the imagination; unless, of course, they can get it visually, instantly, onscreen.

The confusion of information with culture could well be the undoing of soul and spirit and the fulfillment of science fiction writer’s worst nightmares of what sort of creatures we will evolve into. In “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury saw the future role of fire departments being to burn down houses that had books in them.

The paradigm for a society without religion already exists and has existed for some time. Great Britain and several other European nations are thoroughly secular societies; which is to say that their society and culture is almost entirely unaffected by religion. About three percent of the British population attend religious services or express any interest in religion. There is an organization in Britain called “The Redundant Church Society.” Members contribute money to repair crumbling centuries-old, mostly uninhabited churches: repair – not rejuvenate – because they are historical artifacts: museums.

Historian Karen Armstrong, author of The History of God and, most recently, The Spiral Staircase, writes that when she was a nun and a college student her friends and acquaintances simply could not understand what she could possible see in religion or how she could possibly believe in those archaic myths and stories.

Unitarianism in Great Britain is almost as dead as the Anglican Church or any of the other non-conforming faiths hidden on side streets or behind department stores. I once preached at the Edinburgh Unitarian church in Scotland, one of the largest Unitarian congregations in Great Britain, and on Easter Sunday. There were about thirty people present: a big turnout.

Here in America, some claim that Unitarian Universalism is growing. Well, it’s not in the numbers. There were about 168,000 Unitarian Universalists in 1970. There were less than 160,000 four years ago. If we had kept up with population growth, there would be 62,000 more Unitarian Universalists today than thirty years ago. Other so-called “mainline” congregations are doing little better, some much worse.

Clearly, the religious institution needs to change or die, whether in two generations or a few more.

What concerns me, as one who is near to stepping over to the sidelines, is what steps will be taken by those who continue to believe that the religious community is vital to our very humanness, to the health, well-being, and spiritual growth of persons. What will the perceptions and actions be that lead to what transformations?

One response, as always, is to spice things up a bit. Get modern. Bring the religious community out of the middle ages into the 21st century where the rest of the world is. It happens that yesterday’s Faith and Values section of the Journal Constitution carried the lead article entitled “Next Wave of Religion.” And, of course, there they were, young people in jeans with guitars and electronic instruments leading the congregation presumably in up-to-date songs. I couldn’t help wondering if they were singing “Michael row the boat ashore” or maybe “Kumbaya.” There was even an article on the front page of the New York Times that referred to this “new wave” of worship as “hip.” Good Lord, no one has said “hip” since Elvis was a toddler.

It was the late 1960s when I brought on the guitar players and invited in long-haired youngsters dressed in black to sing tunes from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “A New Wave of Worship.” You see: that’s what comes of not reading. These were fads. They were short-lived fads; frantic alarms that the ship was going down.

I suppose there may never have been a time when religious leaders and religious communities have not had the sense that if not actually going down the ship was in big trouble. What I hear a great deal about these days from the church growth consultants and think tanks is “Identity.” Our saving grace, it seems, will be to figure out who we are, where we’re going and sail full blown and fixed rudder to the horizon.

I think it was close to forty years ago when our denomination, The Unitarian Universalist Association felt a shudder in the rudder (to beat the analogy mercilessly) and launched a campaign to establish Unitarian Universalist identity. We were going to find out once and for all who we were and what we were all about and then stand aside and watch us grow! A small fortune was spent on a state-of-the-art and inevitably futile survey of the membership of 100 UU congregations. The congregation I served was one of the one hundred surveyed with scores of questions all tabulated with the latest in hole-punched IBM cards. What came out of all that was a report of how many Unitarian Universalists believed his, that, or the other thing. Precisely what to do with that information naturally escaped everyone.

I guess the bottom line was something like “Unitarian Universalists believe lots of different things.”

Surveys will indicate that a percentage of the membership wants this and a percentage of the congregation wants that. Then a decision has to be made about which part of the constituency will get to define the whole. And who will make that decision? The majority?

Identity-formation is particularly complex (and perplexing) for Unitarian Universalist congregations in that they (most of them) do not have that “firm foundation” common to the traditional Christian or Jewish congregation. A Baptist congregation may have some internal dysfunction and a little character disorder here and there, as any human institution will have, but their purpose is clear – to worship and glorify God. A Methodist congregation would find it laughable if some consultant were to tell them they needed to establish their identity.

Unitarian Universalist congregations, however, are often not even sure of the nature of their foundation, let alone their future identity. One of my colleagues, serving a large UU congregation, continues to assert loudly that Unitarian Universalism is not a religion. I don’t know about religion in the west and I don’t even know about other UU congregations, but I want to leave you in a few months with at least my prescription for long institutional life.

My concern for this or any other community seeking its power is that it will focus on the far horizon, as if we have yet to become who we are and yet to discover who we shall be. I am concerned that this community will step over its present while gazing into the future for signs of what to be. My prescription is to build the firm foundation. Dig in to an understanding of what a religious community is and deepen it and strengthen it at the core. Unless a community is standing on a firm foundation, concern for the future can become anxiety-driven (“what on earth should we be?”) as if you are not already something. Our Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration was a grand event. Yet, in a sense, and to some extent (how’s that for qualification), our Anniversary Celebration was the celebration of a former congregation.

Being and Becoming are inseparable. Personal and individual identity, if healthy, cannot be entirely in the present moment. Identity always has a foot on the edge of the past and a foot on the edge of the future. At the same time, if the present, if who we are, is devalued by fixation on the past wringing our corporate hands about who we no longer are), the future is likely to be an overcompensation. This congregation is not less than what it once was. It is different from what it once was.

Is it perfectly clear what we are? Clear as mud. Absolutely not clear. And my suggestion is that it would not become clear by doing a survey of what we each believe or think. I can give you the results of that survey without all the trouble. We believe many different things and have many different ideas. The clarity about who we are and what we are is not likely to come from survey or plan.

How do we find out what we are? It’s a basic principle of spiritual growth that if you want to know who you are you don’t look out there. You don’t go out. You go in and you go deep. The essential teaching of Joseph Campbell was that in seeking the divine, one does not go out and up but in and “down.” You don’t build an identity. You discover, discern, reveal, acknowledge, embrace, and engage who you are. You stretch and come alive. The foundation is already laid. We have been and we are becoming – but we already are.

We also are a people who do good, who want to serve justice, who want to make a difference. We need only to keep in mind that we are first and foremost a religious community. Our reaching out is inseparable from our reaching in to know our own hearts, inseparable from our inward heroic spiritual journeys in which we find our power, defeat our monsters, and return to do justice. The evil against which we struggle is within us as well as in the world. Our mission in the world is inseparable from the mission to our own spirit. We seek to do justice in the world because our own spirits cannot be whole apart from the whole of the earth and apart from each torn and ragged being on the corner of the earth.

And it is surely out of religious community, out of our being with each other, from this circle, that we find and claim the power to do justice. “The world needs people,” said Howard Thurman, “Who have come alive.” Religious community is where we help each other discover who we are and come alive. To do that, religious community must discover itself and come alive to itself.

By all means, make plans for the future. We human beings are creatures who survive, in part, by placing ourselves in the future. But I urge you to heed the teacher, Socrates and his simple “Know Thyself,” or even Jesus of Nazareth who said, “First seek the Kingdom of God.” He had taught that the Kingdom of God was within us.

The world needs people who have come alive. The world is filled with people who know they are spiritually dying, fragmented near to death in a fragmented world. They come here hopefully hoping to be saved and, as Joseph Campbell said, by saving themselves, save the world.

Seek identity here first. It is not to be made, but acknowledged and empowered. See where and how this congregation nurtures and grows the spirit, how it companions, holds and reveres the ageing, how it holds and hands on the children to tomorrow girding them with spiritual gifts to withstand or embrace the world.

This is who you are, dear friends. This is what the world needs. This is your identity. Understand who you are. Be what you are, more so, and more so, Becoming, not something else but more so who you are into the future.

Two generations hence, Be who you are.