On Tuesday, June 18, I had their privilege of addressing several hundred UU ministers as the “25 year speaker” at the Ministry Days worship service. This is an honour voted by the members of our 1988 graduating class. I elected to direct my remarks to the new ministers and the challenges they are facing…
Of all the landmark sermons preached in our history, Theodore Parker’s “Transient and Permanent in Christianity” is my favourite. Over the years it has helped me stay focused on what’s really important, and taught me to gracefully let go of the things that only seemed important at the time.
Right now our church is changing rapidly. What we once knew for certain doesn’t seem to work anymore. Survival anxiety is running wild in western religion. Focusing on what’s permanent and what we can let go has become an important exercise.
Because I’m an old guy, I want to set some context before I comment on what I think will last and what won’t.
The technological innovation that most shaped the culture of my generation was the birth control pill. It powered a cultural revolution where people threw off the constricting social mores of an earlier time. It gave women control of their bodies and a boost to Feminism as women claimed a new kind of power. The emphasis on personal freedom inspired a rejection of authority in many forms. Sexual liberation would free attitudes and lead us to become a Welcoming Religion. It gave a boost to the existing civil rights movement. Some say we ended a dirty war.
In the UUA the Women in Religion Committee helped inspire the development of our Principles and the eventual flood of women into our ministry – a very good thing, by the way.
And while this liberation opened our theologies and changed our use of language and the way we interacted in church, it didn’t really affect the structure of church. The way we did church stayed pretty much the same as it had for about a century and a half.
We remained an organization centered on Sunday worship. That was the big event, the one time when the whole community gathered (though that claim is a bit fictitious if you compare attendance with membership numbers). That was unchanged from the days when Emerson spoke of bathing in the ‘fine ether’ of community and the ‘wandering eye-beam’ of familiarity in church. Everything else we did, be it social justice, social events, pastoral care, education – all of that revolved like satellites around SUN-day.
And church worked as it always had. Members gained status by serving on a variety of committees that met regularly, kept minutes, competed for resources in space and time and ate up the evenings of many colleagues. Some churches had so many that they had to set up committees on committees to manage things.
We may have questioned authority back then, but we did not question the way we did church. That part of what the class of ’88 inherited seemed ‘permanent’.
Then came the next bit of transformational technology: the computer chip.
When the class of ’88 began ministry our technology consisted of the telephone (with answering machine!), the mail –paper and envelope kind – and the photocopier. Church communication was by mailed newsletter (which people actually read and kept handy throughout the month) and the weekly Order of Service. In a sense we HAD to come to church if only to talk to folks in the community.
I had a computer – one of the all-in-one Macs. It was a glorified typewriter. Cell phones weighed about 13 pounds and were only used by contractors. It was seven years into my career before I got an e-mail address, and then it wasn’t for work, but to communicate cheaply with my partner while I was away on sabbatical.
In the same way that the Pill partly fostered the famous “Generation Gap” of the sixties, the Chip has created a new kind of Gap in the 21st century.
It’s not an angry revolution, though. Rather it is generational gap in how folks today see the world differently, how they process information differently, how they define community and how they connect differently.
Young people are not rejecting the institutions of their parents, they are simply ignoring them. You guys accept personal freedom as a given. It was new stuff for us. And the information explosion gave you the means to take your freedom and your instant communications that come with it into realms we never imagined back when we only had telephones, copiers and postage stamps.
Throwing off a restrictive past is not this generation’s issue. The internet has already done that for you. The barriers are gone, the secrets are in the open. And there is such ease of access that the very way people absorb information has changed.
Folks who love the old ways still read newspapers and watch the Nightly News. And they can still find their lives reflected in those media.
The wired generation acquires and processes information in an entirely different way, often by word of mouth (or keystroke) or from small or targeted media outlets available in an amazing array of platforms and styles. Information sharing is now all personal.
It is not surprising then that an increasing number of people want personalized spiritual options – a buffet – if they want spirituality at all. They want it on demand, they want it without deep commitment or cost. Why? Because that’s how they access just about everything else in this age. As the Buddhist story goes, “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.” I just know that it is the reality with which we must contend.
I believe we will have to adapt. I don’t mean adapt our theologies. We have always done that well. I think we have to adapt our church structures.
Here’s the heretical moment: We may have to get over our ministerial fascination with the Sunday service. Oh, there will still be a place for it, for worship excellence. But I do think we have to get past seeing that event as the center point of church, as the thing around which all else revolves.
Last Thursday night 14 church people joined me for a drop-in event we call Religion on Tap. It’s a session held in a local pub where we socialize a bit and then spend some time talking over a broad religious topic. All I do is ask the first question. It’s great. But here’s the thing…only about 6 of those 14 are Sunday regulars. Three more are occasional attenders. For the other 5, Religion on Tap IS church.
Two weeks ago 40 or so of us turned out for the Pride Parade. It was wonderful. Only about 10 of them made it to worship the next morning. They had already done church for the week, and had been fed by it.
We have a delightful choir with 40 members. Only about 2/3 of them actually belong to the church, and only about half ever make it on a Sunday when the choir is not singing.
I am learning that this is okay…that it’s all church.
I am sure that most of you know that the tradition of committees is changing. People don’t want to do monthly meetings anymore. Our congregation has been quietly retiring several committees in favour of task groups that are event focused, that come together for one thing at a time. Our young adults are happy to commit to a one off activity, but many are reluctant to make an ongoing commitment. That is true of older members as well, for society is changing.
The structures that have served us for so long aren’t working. Huh! Turns out that model of church my class of ’88 inherited may not be permanent, but transient after all.
Those of you who understand these experiences know that there are more questions than can be addressed in this short time frame. If church is all around, what will we do with buildings? If people have not been trained to pledge how will we pay for it? Or more importantly for this gathering, how will we pay our ministers? Can our identity survive in this changing time?
The answers are … evolving. It will take a lot of trial and error and a lot of creativity and cooperation. But that’s okay. You new and newer colleagues know how to do this “it’s all evolving” thing. You understand that it’s all Beta and figure it out as you go. As a generation you grasp uncertainty better than my generation did. It’s the world in which you grew up. So the future? It’s in your hands. Trust that this pair of hands will be applauding as you figure it out.
I have faith in the future. Why? Because the structures may be transient, but we still have that part of Unitarian Universalism that is permanent. That includes our theological openness, our interest in radical inclusion, human rights and justice, our willingness to embrace the trend increasingly to do ministry in the community instead of only in the parish. For us, our faith truly is a living, breathing and evolving thing. I have every confidence that one of you will stand here in 2038 taking my place talking about how you successfully managed this shift, and musing about what will be needed to navigate the next one coming down the road.