This essay, written by by Rev. Gretta Vosper, was recently published on the website, Progressing Spirit. Her journey through a spiritual transformation spoke to me, bringing back so much of my own journey, the journey to find "...the values inherent in the Christianity..." upon which I would choose to live my life. The "church" Rev. Gretta refers to isn't exactly the Unity "church" I know and love today and yet the underlying questions are almost the same. I encourage you to read her words and hold them up to your experiences and beliefs as a mirror for the future of Unity as a movement and Unity in Frederick, our spiritual home.
"It was a pretty normal Sunday morning. The pews were still frightfully empty but I’d become accustomed to the behaviour patterns of the West Hill congregation, a last-a minute crowd if ever I’d seen one. With the precision timing of a military drill, they spilled in from the parking lot and lobby just as the first significant bits of the service began filling the space. Normal, that is, except for what was about to happen.
I had no sermon prepared to deliver. That isn’t as unusual as it may seem; clergy often have pastoral duties that undermine sermon preparation time. Four weddings and a funeral… It happens. We deal with it.
But that Sunday, when I stepped up to preach, rather than inviting the congregation to a deeper understanding of their faith, a stronger belief in God, or richer spiritual practice of following Jesus, I did the opposite.
In my defence, I didn’t know I was going to do that. Perhaps my brain, on some channel unfamiliar to me, had blocked me from knowing what it was about to do. As I preached, my words spilled out into a total deconstruction of the concept of a theistic god called God. Founder of the Universe: gone. Creator of All Life: gone. Source of All Goodness: gone. Purveyor of Divine Blessings and Answers to Prayer: gone. Arbiter of Justice: gone.
In fact, not much was left at all but a surprised (and possibly appalled) congregation ready to embrace and comfort me as I recovered from whatever burden they believed had overcome my faith that morning.
The rest, as they say, is history. Armed with fifteen years of exposure to critical contemporary Christian scholarship, the congregation’s leaders, rather than fire me, embraced the opportunity to explore what church beyond belief might look like. It has been a bumpy ride at times; there is no doubt about that. Still, the work was important, and we have proven that a church built on the values of liberal Christianity neither undermines nor requires belief in a supernatural, interventionist, theistic god called God.
So, You Think That Took Courage
Over the years since that pivotal moment, I have had opportunity to speak to many about the work we do at West Hill. I’ve heard the word « courage » over and over by those who have come to hear me express awe at my willingness to speak openly and honestly about what we do and do not believe. I was often uncomfortable about receiving that particular compliment, though it took me some time to figure out why: It’s because it wasn’t me being courageous. With my spontaneous deconstruction sermon, I had almost accidentally cracked the door open and expected dire consequences for doing so. It was West Hill’s Board members who threw the door wide open and held the congregation’s hand as it took its first steps into the unfamiliar territory of post-theism. It was the people of West Hill who chose to embrace their inner heretics. It was they who were courageous and it was blind luck that allowed me to pilot their incredible journey.
Of course, journeys into the unknown are just that: journeys into the unknown. Not long after we set out, the Board at West Hill began asking for more and more significant changes. They created a committee – Elements of Worship – that became the fulcrum of change in the congregation. Early on, it dismissed the idea of capturing our beliefs in a new statement of faith (which could only ever be divisive) and distilled, instead, the values inherent in the Christianity upon which they chose to model their lives. To quote a member of the first writing team, it was a « daunting » challenge to each of us to live out our faith with integrity. And, while the Elements Committee never used the document it had written to proactively change things at West Hill, it boldly addressed issues raised by congregants and visitors and morphed or removed things that no longer held or represented meaning for the congregation.
Why are you still here?
If you are reading this, chances are you have long ago left the idea that the Bible is the literal word of God. You probably wrestle with the stories of Jesus and wonder which ones represent what he actually did and said and which represent the prejudices of someone who never even knew him. You have long questioned the idea of a benevolent god who would let people die of diseases we haven’t yet cured, and those we have but refuse to make the cure financially accessible to all. You don’t think you believe in that kind of god anymore. You are very likely a life-long Christian and have been in the church for decades. And decades. And you probably wonder why young people don’t come to your church like they used to.
Figuring out why you are still in church may be something to which you haven’t given much thought. I want you to figure that out. But I’m going to spare you the soul-searching and see if I can get this right by suggesting: you aren’t in church because of the responsive calls to worship, or the majesty of the procession of clergy and choir, or the hymns you rise to sing, or your eagerness to find out which Bible passages will be read that week, or the prayers of intercession, or the carillon you’re raising money to repair, or the neighbours who all know you go to church (though they are likely the closest reason listed so far), or the preaching of your oratorically-gifted minister, or the Taize service you attend each month (though that may be another close one). I realize I’m out on a limb here, but I would wager (not allowed in my denomination!) it’s because of the people and the relationships you have developed in that place over all these years. You’ve fallen in love with being together, as I like to put it, and that has strengthened every good instinct you have ever had because falling in love with being together is the healthiest thing you could have ever done for yourself.
And that, my friend, is a problem: loving your church is going to kill the church.
We Are the Canary in the Belfry
Many of you know that I write from Canada. Yes, thank you; we are a lovely people. But we are your church canary, if you will, gasping out our last few notes before folding our wings forever. Two generations ahead of you in the abandonment of traditional congregational life, we started fleeing the pews in the mid-1960s. No, I didn’t lead the exodus; I was five. But I’ve watched it and lived it. And I know that it spells trouble for the socially democratic country y’all admire.
You see, subjective well-being is tied to the number of social connections we make and maintain. In church, when people fall in love with being together and create multiple connections on Sunday and throughout the week, they experience a surge in well-being - regardless of what they believe. And that surge in well-being leads to a statistically significant increase in voluntarism beyond the church and in the community, with bigger philanthropic donations, and higher voter turnout. It’s true. The best thing you ever got out of church was the friends you made there.
If you look carefully at your denomination’s attendance and membership numbers through the lens of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), though, you’ll find a gently sloping downward curve which is going to head straight down very soon. That curve is being drawn by young adults who are refusing church affiliation in droves. You may have noticed a greying of the pews, a smaller group of children leaving for church school, or learned that your adult grandchild didn’t search out a church when they moved to another city. Your church leaders may have begun trying new programming or rebranding. There may be yoga classes mid-week. One Sunday a month is now « Messy Church Sunday ». The pastoral team is stirring things up a bit with innovative attempts to capture a younger demographic before things tank altogether.
Wasting Precious Time
Scheduling hip new programming and hiring a gay youth minister is not going to make a difference, believe me. While being hip may not be your forte, it isn’t what is killing your church. It’s loving all the stuff you don’t believe that is killing your church. Not the fact that you don’t believe it; obviously, if you’re still in church, your filters are pretty good. That you have to filter what’s being said, read, and sung: that’s your problem. Fewer and fewer young adults are willing to wade through the premise of belief upon which the church of their parents is built. And while you may be willing to manage the constant translation of scripture, liturgy, hymnody, and theology, they aren’t. Integrity won’t let them.
If you are in a mainline Protestant church, you can assume that your pastoral staff know everything you know and more. Liberal mainline seminaries have taught contemporary critical scholarship for decades. In my denomination, it’s been over a century. The President of Union Theological Seminary, Serene Jones, exposed some of it in a recent interview claiming that the virgin birth was a «bizarre claim» and that belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection was untenable to those who have true faith. She seemed surprised that anyone would think otherwise.
.....The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own
......kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me,
......the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens
......on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t
......that reason for hope?
Maybe it’s been a while since Jones was in church. Or maybe she is in that self-revered Christian demographic that knows all the secret handshakes and head-nods of the contemporary illuminati who know none of it is true but continue to talk as though it is. After all, what happens every time love triumphs over hatred, suffering, misogyny, racism, arrogance, and greed is reason for hope. But do we still need to read the horror of the crucifixion and the unbelievable story of bodily resurrection to get to the importance of love? I don’t think so. And neither do your grandchildren.
Over to You
Clergy are unlikely to throw the door open widely enough to welcome those for whom Christian language and theology is a barrier. They will feel the risk deeply. It’s not their fault; their recent memory holds too many stories about discomfited parishioners. It is you who needs to lead the charge. Yes, you. Not your kids. Not your pastor. Not the Presbytery or Deacon’s Board or Diocesan Council. It’s you.
«There’s time enough but none to spare.» How many endeavours have been urged along by the word of the African American essayist, Charles Chestnutt? We will never know. But I am using his words to emphazise the truth that mainline American churches have time enough to protect the important work they do. And the other equally important truth: they have no time to spare. So let’s cut to the chase.
The cost of your not doing something will eventually be the future of your church community, of the well-being of the community beyond its doors, of the town or suburb you live in, of the world your grandchildren inhabit and in which they will grow old. Because all of that suffers when churches fail, and fail they will. Even in the Christian country that America professes to be, the fastest growing religious demographic is the Nones, those who identify as having no religious affiliation. And those with no religious affiliation miss out on the off-label benefits that affiliation might provide.
At the same age you fell in love with being together in the churches of your early adult years, your children or grandchildren are experiencing record levels of loneliness. A recent Economist study notes that over twenty percent of the population now identifies as often or always experiencing loneliness. Many of these people are seniors but a rising number of young people also experience the psychological challenge of isolation on a regular basis. A Cigna study found that over half the population feels that no one really knows them. These are disturbing trends that impact Millennials in challenging ways. The communities which the church has created in the past could provide exactly what young adults now need, but Millennials won’t sacrifice their integrity to solve their isolation. You will because you’ve out-survived the preposterous nature of Christian belief. They can’t.
The Cost of the Future Church
What will it cost to throw the door open wide and become theologically non-exclusive in a way that welcomes millennials? Theological language, for one. The exclusive use of the Bible for inspiration, for two. The constant reiteration of ancient myths about who Jesus was and what he did… The words of your favorite hymns and choral pieces. All that traditional liturgy, its grandeur, pomp, and ceremony. Almost everything ever accompanied by a pipe organ. A few or a lot of those currently in the pews who are unable to transition the things they lose in the public church gathering to their private spiritual practice. The ease of pick-up and teach lectionary-based Sunday School curricula. And likely lot of other stuff.
Those costs will be significant. I won’t gloss that over. But the gains for future generations may be exponentially more valuable. Socially engaged citizens who are confident in their pursuit of truth, justice, and right-relationship. Strong commitment to the values distilled from the mainline Christianity you know and love. Leadership in social action and climate justice. Resilience in the face of great change, much of it catastrophic. The support of charitable causes that make up for civic deficiencies. Fewer people whose loneliness is their most constant companion. A generation that falls in love with being together and reaps all the well-being associated with that.
It is a hard sell but I believe it is a crucial one. Remember, we are your canary. We cannot save you, but perhaps we can inspire you to build the future church now. Before it’s too late for you, too."