As a young Unitarian Universalist, I am often consigned a secret power that might one day save the church. Two women once approached me at a conference where I spoke about adapting congregations for the twenty-first century. They looked at me with deep expectancy and told me I needed to come back to their church, because there were only old people like them and they needed my ideas.
Many other young people in our movement get asked the same question: how is the church going to survive now that everything around us is changing?
The question is accompanied by a look of deep and earnest longing that stems from a deep love of our faith and points to a gut-wrenching fear that this may be the last generation in our religious movement.
It’s not that I don’t have answers to this question. Believe me, my generation and I have some pretty detailed ones. But when we focus on finding out “THE Answer” from “the RIGHT People,” we completely miss the most faithful way to address the question: “How do our churches enhance and deepen their relevance for our specific time, in our specific neighborhoods and in the lives of those we serve?”
The answer can be found in religious communities that consciously live the cycle of practice and learning and embed this cycle into the heart of their culture. The learning leads to experimentation that leads to reflection that leads to deeper learning.
Because living this cycle may feel like being in a hurricane, one useful way to keep steady and consider all the moving parts is to remember congregations need to go up, out and in. UP, OUT and IN are touchstones for movements that can build contemporarily astute, contextually adept and spiritually confident faith communities for the twenty-first century.
Harmony UU, a congregation north of Cincinnati, knew their liberal message would strike a chord in their community. They also knew it was a waste of energy to put on four worship services a month for a community that could – between soccer practice, work and guests – only make an average of two services a month. They responded by creating only two services a month and repeating each service once. Imagine their relief at freeing up valuable leadership and volunteer time for the work of the church!
Harmony UU is a perfect example of what it means to go UP: learning from social trends about current phrasings of life’s eternal questions. In their case, becoming contemporarily astute meant learning what structures could provide deep and meaningful engagement about the twenty-first century question “Who can I become?” rather than the twentieth century question, “Who am I?” Congregations must go UP to get the ten thousand foot view of our social landscape so they can answer the deepest spiritual needs of our time.
Many churches would not be missed by their neighborhood if they suddenly disappeared. Not so for New Hope Community Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The congregation learned that one of the biggest barriers for residents in this low-income neighborhood was affordable transportation. So the congregation opened a community bike shop and provides quality, affordably priced bikes to their local community.
New Hope Community Bikes is an example of a church going OUT: learning from and then adapting to their context. Going OUT means understanding the context of those who live in your church’s neighborhood so that if your congregation suddenly disappeared, your neighbors would feel the absence.
Rev. Jen Crow detected a yearning in her congregation. Members told her, “We’ve done Building Your Own Theology and we want the next step, the one before seminary.” So she and her team put together the UU Wellspring Program, a ten-month program of deep faith formation.
Going IN means forming deep and grounded spiritual leaders. Inward movement allows members to experience the transforming power of faith grounded in our history, enlivened by our living tradition and held in the trusting hands of religious communities. Faith Formation happens most deeply in relationships of mentorship and accompaniment where we can reframe the everyday realities of our lives within Unitarian Universalist values and traditions.
Do you notice what all of these stories have in common? They require deep listening within a unique place. These congregations entered the cycle of practice with open minds, hearts and hands – a cycle of learning, not of searching for a silver bullet, a specific program or people with superpowers. Our true super power – the power that will let our faith continue to bless our world – will be found in living into the cycle of learning remembering these touchstones as we live our faith together boldly.
This article was first published in the New England Region newsletter (Feb 2015.)
Sean Neil-Barron is the Ministerial Intern with the New England Region of our UUA. Sean is a proclaimed covenant nerd and geeks out thinking about the ecosystem of Unitarian Universalism.