Boston, we have a problem. We UU’s are part of a religious movement that can’t seem to embrace religious ritual.
Yeah, we execute events and programs like Coming of Age, and Bridging, and the occasional holiday service, but when it comes to spiritual practice, we have some serious deficiencies. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s the proof:
Last December, I organized and presented a webinar for religious professionals called “Sunday Morning Best Practices.” In preparation for this webinar, I interviewed eight demographically different congregations from around the country, from Alaska to NY to Florida and places in between, to identify the hallmark attributes of thriving congregational youth programs. Through these interviews, I was able to pinpoint nine positive characteristics of healthy youth programs in a UU context. Aspects like topical flexibility, a commitment to faith in action work, and a youth program woven into the larger ministry of the church were identified and reported in the webinar.
But, sadly—and it broke my heart of hearts, there was also one glaring absence. None of the eight congregations regularly engaged in spiritual practice when their youth gathered. Not one.
Let me be clear, when I refer to spiritual practice, I am referring to exercises which help us connect with the holy, go deeper, and / or provide us with a reflective experience that transcends the ordinary. Meditation, prayer, mantra, yoga, lectio divina, examen, etc. are examples of practices of this sort.
And you may be wondering, “So what? Why should we commit to endeavors of this sort?”
For starters, religious ritual and related spiritual practices, are the only offerings that our religious institutions have to contribute that the wider world cannot. Though worthy and worthwhile, philos-political discussions and forays into social action, which are each enterprises that are heavily emphasized in our congregations, are both activities that can be regularly and easily accessed through secular channels.
Secondly, when youth exit our religious education programs, will they be equipped with the much needed skills and tools to navigate a complex, and arduous life? Where will their spirit go when they lose a loved one? How will they cope with the losses that life inevitably serves up? What internal space(s) will they access when they experience a transcendent moment? With what methods will they express deep remorse, or gratitude?
Ever wondered why so many of our youth don’t return to Unitarian Universalism after bridging? Why we are in constant triage mode in regards to our young adults? I believe firmly that it is because they leave our churches lacking these most critical tools, and also without the religious identity that they indelibly impart upon the user. Spiritual practice is an expression of salvation in this life, and it calls us home.
And let’s be clear. Our youth groups are exceptional microcosms of the larger congregation within which they reside. If the congregation is squeamish about spiritual practice, or religious language, or (insert characteristic here), you better believe the youth group will very accurately personify those very qualities. This holds true for positive attributes, too, like commitment to justice, an emphasis on inclusivity, and upholding the search for meaning.
So where do we go from here? I recommend that we begin a conversation about how we might intentionally incorporate and embrace spiritual practice in each and every space that UU’s gather. Whether it is a Sunday service, or a meeting of the Board, there should be a purposeful element that reminds us, as Parker Palmer asserts, “That spirit is at the center.” These are religious undertakings, and we are called to be our highest, best selves throughout their span.
In my work and to this end, I have put together a multigenerational event this September 23-25th in Portland, Oregon, called the Youth Ministry Revival with the theme of “Engaging Spiritual Practice.” About 80-100 youth and adult teams from congregations around the country will explore how we may more deeply connect to the divine—internally, interpersonally, and community wide, through the art of practice. These teams will be charged with bringing back new tools, skills, and learning, not just to their youth groups, but to their entire congregation. Perhaps you will join us?
Eric Bliss is the Youth Ministry Specialist and Congregational Life Staff of the Pacific Western Region of the UUA. Aside from his Youth Ministry Specialist duties, Eric is currently a member of the Fahs Collaborative Guiding Team and is on the UUA Youth Ministry Roundtable. He is the loving father of two beautiful boys, named Hollis and Ozwell, is an avid soccer fan and coach, loves skateboarding, playing guitar, and exploring the outdoors.