I’ve seen a lot of new posts here at the end/start of the year about religion in America. People aren’t going to church. “Paganism” is on the rise. I’ve seen the word “cafeteria” more than a few times already. It seems that we do this every year, but this year has a different feel.
I’ve been added to 3 new Facebook groups to talk about theology, ministry, and community building, all led by people under 50. There is always an up-tick in both hand-wringing and optimism around New Year’s day; these groups, though, are about faith development and personal growth more than membership and outreach.
I know that the going narrative is that humanity is turning its back on religion. I’m well aware that attendance is down all over the US as well as Europe. I know more people are withholding religious labels when they describe themselves.
I also know that sales of religious books are up; religious content online is still very popular. A lot of my friends who don’t attend services anywhere else have a home altar, an active spiritual practice (whether they call it that or not) and talk to me, as a community minister, about their emotional and spiritual needs.
Being fed and being nourished aren’t the same thing.
People haven’t given up being religious, much less spiritual. They’ve given up being told how to do it. They’ve given up on tradition for the sake of conformity. They want meaning and truth, and those things have to malleable to keep up with human understanding of the universe.
Imagine being shown 5 sitcoms and being told your family had to model itself after one of them. These are the only ways a family can work. Your relationship with your mother has to mirror one of those shown in Primetime or you just don’t get to speak at all. We can all agree that this is silly, but it is what organized religion has come to feel like to a lot of younger people.
Gen X and Millennials haven’t become much less religious overall; they are mostly fed up with being told that there are right and wrong ways to have a relationship with the universe. People today would rather make up their own way of doing things – creating community and ritual and spiritual practices of their own – than do what doesn’t work. Those of us under 50 have just gotten use to solving problems in innovative ways and making things work for them.
They don’t know that they are retracing our steps
People don’t know that there are Liberal options that will encourage them in their personal pursuit of truth and meaning. They haven’t heard about communities that come together over shared morals without needing shared belief. And, honestly, we’re not doing a good job of meeting their needs.
These are young people who have no idea what the future they will inherit will look like. Will there be any social safety net left? Will there be war? They are the first generation in a century to be worse off than their parents. They are worried; a lot of responsibility will fall to them. We all want hope, and they are getting it where they can. Liberal Religion is all about hope, but we’re not sharing.
Liberal Religion Saves Lives.
The world wants liberal religion. It is being recreated all the time, from Atheist Churches to Clown Churches. People are longing for community and encouragement, and they are struggling to create what we claim to have already made.
People aren’t coming to our churches because we’ve failed to make the differences obvious to some and the benefits apparent to others. It is as much a marketing problem as anything.
If people can’t find us, they can’t join us.
This is why the Mormons have spent money on YouTube. This is why the Witnesses go door-to-door. It is why existing churches are doing more outreach in bars and even opening coffee shops. All of those things are working, too.
If we believe we have a message worth sharing, a message that saves lives and helps people, why aren’t we sharing it? Why are we afraid of being judged for our message?
And where are young people looking for community? Where are they researching what church they can connect with? The Internet; the same place they go to find a new restaurant or hairstylist.
Making our message, our wonderful idea, easier to share and explain is what the I Am UU project was founded on. Reaching more people and helping them choose whether or not Unitarian Universalism is something they want to be a part of.
We are planning to do even more in the new year, including new content on new platforms; we’re excited to get on YouTube and help explain Unitarian Universalism in plain language.
We’re also sending myself (Thomas) into the real world, to build relationships with the young adults in the college town where he lives so he can bring community ministry into the real world and better understand what needs we can fill.
I am going to be setting up community ministry office hours in our local, explicitly-queer-friendly coffee shop, Q’s Cafe. The owner has not just agreed but invited me to come and be available for people to talk about emotional and spiritual needs, and I am ready to help them find what they need.
I was asked earlier this week, “Do you charge for that kind of thing?” Because there is a need for someone to listen, to encourage, and just to accept these folks with their dreams and their creativity and their mistakes.
“No,” I was able to say, “I have people who believe in what I am doing who support my work. They make it possible for me to do what I see a need for.”
“That’s really cool.”
And it is.