PERSEVERANCE OR PRECIPICE
©REV. LOIS E. VAN LEER
FEBRUARY 4, 2018
WOODINVILLE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CHURCH
Two statements that I have heard over all my years in ministry have stuck in my brain. The first one was uttered by the associate conference minister of the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ, way back in the 1990’s when I was still serving in that denomination. I cannot remember the exact words but he began his address to a gathering of lay and clergy folk by saying that if we didn’t change how we do church, the UCC would be closing its doors. That shocked me so much that I remember nothing else he said.
The second statement came from someone who worked for an organization that was asking: What would faith formation look like in the year 2020? He was leading a group of ecumenical clergy in a workshop to explore this. And he sort of threw out this statement and then moved on: “In five years, Sunday School won’t exist.” Once again, I was so shocked, I couldn’t take anything else in. Sunday School wasn’t going to exist? Are you kidding me?
In case you haven’t noticed, for years now, there have been those who track church trends- sociologists to clergy to academics- Crying out “The sky is falling, church is dying.” We have heard about the “NONES” and the Millennials and the “spiritual but not religious.” We have watched as formerly mainline Protestant churches have moved from the center to the margins of religious life. Likewise, we have watched the formerly mainline Protestant churches- of which we are a part- be sidelined in the public square of issues, morality, and values. Churches were at the center of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The contemporary movements for Black Lives lies outside of the church and the mosque and the synagogue and has poured into the streets. True, the Rev. William Barber has taken up King’s Poor People’s Campaign but that is an exception to the strategy being employed by a new generation of activists.
Ministry, itself, has changed. When I was in seminary 40 years ago, there was one, one credit class offered on church administration. And another two-credit class on crossing from the seminary to the parish. Most of the curriculum was focused on theology, church history, and preaching with a few counseling classes thrown in. We all thought we were going to spend our days reading and in prayer, crafting sermons to save lives as well as to offer pastoral care. The rest of the workings of church were basically up to the lay people.
Well that bubble has burst. The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, a UU minister serving a congregation in New England, describes the new minister: “We want a scholar who can wax eloquent on literature, the Bible, theology, and the latest Bill McKibbon piece. We want a warm pastor who knows everyone and makes a lot of personal visits (even though people are not home these days and if they are, an unscheduled guest is an unwelcome intrusion). We want our minister to attend all leadership meetings, all programs, all social justice actions, community interfaith organizations, and local events we’d like to see them at. We want a fabulous preacher and a creative liturgist. We want a whizbang financial expert and fundraiser. We want someone who is strong but not so strong that they can’t be controlled or managed by disapproval, we want someone visionary but not so much that they move us beyond our comfort zone, someone challenging but not too demanding, and someone spiritual but not too religious. We want someone who is available 24/7 to respond to my e-mails but who faithfully observes their day off to model healthy self-care.”
I think she is only half joking…
My point in sharing all of this is that church doors are closing across denominations. The model of religious education is failing. Clergy are supposed to have a vision and answers to revive churches, help them survive, and thrive. If we are to persevere into the 21st century, we have to, in the words of church consultant, Carey Nieuwhof, “unlearn old things that are holding us back…” He goes on to say that, “In an age of massive disruption [which arguably we’re all in], it’s easy to cling to what’s known because so much feels unknown. As a result, most of us naturally cling to things that used to work, hoping they will work again in the future.” The question I hope you will take away with you this morning is, “What do we need to unlearn so that we can move forward?”
Now, I am going to let you in on a little secret: all of the religious experts, clergy, leaders, we are making it up as we go along. There are no blueprints for the future church. Yet we know that all of us, not just the experts or clergy, are the architects of the 21st century church. As Rev. Weinstein says, “…it’s essential that all who love the Church to know that its health and vibrancy and growth is the work of ALL who minister — and that’s everyone, not just the ordained.”
If hearing all of this makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone. We don’t come to church to be uncomfortable. We come wanting to be soothed, inspired, nurtured. But here’s the thing :Church was never meant to be comfortable. Safe, yes, but not comfortable. Just over 2000 years later, people love to embrace a Jesus, upon whom all churches (and yes, Unitarian Universalism) were founded. This man who was a radical, hung out with societal outcasts on the margin. Churches embrace a man who challenged the political, societal, and religious status quo of his time. Told folks to leave their worldly possessions and families behind. We love the sermon on the mount with its Beatitudes that turn upsidedown the morality of the times. We love the Love this man preached. Now, that is. Not so much 2000 years ago if you were a Roman or a Jew. He was such a threat to the political, societal and religious order that they all conspired to crucify him.
There is that famous quip that the role of the preacher is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” For the record, that quote is actually from the newspaper publisher, Finley Peter Dunne, who coined that phrase in 1902 to describe the role of the newspaper. Today all the news does is afflict. As a preacher, I am not interested in afflicting anyone. The world is full of affliction and suffering. There is far too little comfort. But because I was raised in a church that followed a radical rabble rouser named Jesus, everything I know about social justice, I learned in church. To be religious meant to work for justice just as the quote from the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy says,” “Justice, justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” Today, as a preacher, I walk the line between challenge and comfort. And like the physician, try to, “first, do no harm…”
So, if there is no blueprint for the church of the 21st century, and we are all its architects, what is its future? What is our, this church’s vision? I was struck by these lines written by the Rev. Alicia Forde in the call to worship that were used in last week’s service:
“It is beautiful to dream…to cast a vision…to stretch our minds into the future and imagine what may be. If we were to build a new way of being- not some day but beginning again today- beginning again every day that we have breath, taking courage with these hands and hearts…”
So with these hands and this heart, let me cast a vision. The function of church as UU theologian, James Luther Adams, is to practice becoming human. It is a place to grow a soul. A place to be transformed. A place to come as you are and to be broken open. It is a place where we learn to name what is holy, sacred or of ultimate value and meaning. To zero in and articulate how we shall live with authenticity and integrity. It is a place where we come to begin anew over and over again. It is a place where we lay down the pain and shame of our lives, to be held in a collective compassion. It is place to commune with spirit or a source of ultimacy and to be in community. It is a place where we lift one another up in meditation, thought and prayer. It is a place where we sing to and for one another. It is a place where we find words and stories that shape us. It is the place of our coming in and going out. The place from which we enter the world to transform it as we have been transformed.
Recently, through several webinars with the religious educator, Kim Sweeny, I was reminded that from the time of the ancient world until fairly recently, “each of us belonged to a clan or tribe and a faith. The stories that were told were the stories that guided us in the world. Faith was core to who you were. Your religion was given to you when you were born. It was your family. Leaving your religion was the ultimate rejection of your family and lineage.”
Today we rely on a model of Sunday School that was developed in England in the 1800’s to do the work formerly done by the clan or tribe or familial unit. During the Industrial Revolution in Britain, children and parents were often separated, each working 12-14 hours a day in factories 6 days a week. London was apparently on a gin and beer binge, as both were cheap. So as parents spent Sunday drinking and getting drunk, children roamed the streets terrorizing folks.
A Christian evangelist, Robert Rakes, decided to try and intercede by gathering these children every Sunday for school. The only book he taught from was the Bible. It was religion as social control. The Sunday School movement spread all over Britain and to the states. For decades, Sunday School and public school resembled one another; the difference being the books used. Kim says that this love affair with Sunday School didn’t survive the second half of the 20th c.
For seven and a half years I have heard the person who sits at the desk outside of my office throw up their hands in desperation in the effort to find volunteers to teach religious education. I have heard that our children experience it as one more classroom after 5 days of classrooms. They are pent up with unspent physical, emotional, and intellectual energy. I have also heard for seven and a half years about how badly some of these children behave. No matter how experienced or gifted or creative the teacher or the curriculum, we are failing our children when it comes to faith formation.
In addition, parents are overwhelmed. The modern family gets a total of 34 minutes together every day. Everyone, from the toddler to the elder, is overscheduled, with everything and everyone competing for their time. A side note here from Kim Sweeny: Dr. Spock wrote the rule book for raising the Boomer generation. Today, everything is online. Parents don’t call their parents for advice, they consult the internet. And you know what? Having everything online doesn’t help; it only causes “collective panic, anxiety, confusion, and shame.” If church is the one time parents can be together with their children, why do we separate them from their children in our worship and faith formation?
Kim Sweeny says that folks today are “not looking for meaning but for Mystery; not membership but meaning. They have a longing for belonging. And sadly, family and church are no longer forming identity- that is being done by interactions with peers.” Faith is not taught: it is modeled and inspired. Church is one of the last places in our modern culture where the generations can interact. I have had the privilege of hearing a lot of the stories of your lives that have shaped and formed you. Don’t you think our children should also be able to hear those stories? What and how can they learn from us? What and how can we learn from them?
Both Rev. Jae and I have been tossing around a vision of what we call Full Community Church. Now before I go any further, you need to adopt an adaptive vs. technical mindset. Remember, the technical mind seeks a solution to a problem. The adaptive mind brings in as many folks as possible to come up with many options to addressing problems or issues. There is no one right answer. So if you say to either of us, what does Full Community Church look like, we will answer, “we don’t know. We are building it as we go along. What we do know is that we have to unlearn some things, be adaptive, be willing to risk and experiment, and maybe even be uncomfortable.” What we do know is that we need to break open the 1800 century model of religious education and find a new pedagogy. What we do know is that children need worship. Maybe not the good old standard worship service. Again, remember, our theology may not look like other Protestant churches, but our order of service does. And please, please, please, can’t we find some new hymns and songs, clap and move as we sing? Can we have both more silent meditation and less passive silence in the service? Maybe even more movement? What if adults and children shared the same space for Spirit Play or other forms of faith formation?
For years I have known that the church I was educated to minister to no longer exists. At the same time I have not known what the future church looks like. But I do know this: the core of whatever church we move into has to be faith formation. We need to explore what it is that we are “bound back to.” Which you may remember is the root of the word “religion.” We need to ask, “How shall we live?” What practices shall we adopt to deepen our spiritual lives? What principles guide our desire to act in the world for justice? Can we be transformed by the faith and traditions of religious and cultural traditions that are other than those of 200+ years of white, intellectual, staid, Unitarian Universalism? Can we expand our monoculture not just in terms of race or culture but economic status, education, and the gender spectrum?
Our UU first principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” has called many of us to talk about Black Lives mattering. And about decentering whiteness and allowing persons of color to center themselves and their place in our faith. Ironically, the popular author, Brene Brown, distills this better than many: “She talks about Black Lives Matter and why All Lives Matter is not the same. She explains it’s not the same “because the humanity was not stripped from all lives the way it was from the lives of black citizens.” That you can’t undo that level of dehumanization in one or two generations. She goes on to say that it’s possible to care about the lives of police officers and the lives of black citizens and we should not be drawn into false dichotomies of either/or that seek “to shame us for not hating the right people.” The future of church, any church, must put its collective shoulder into dismantling systems that dehumanize.
Recently I was asked to officiate at a memorial of a 50-year-old woman who died totally unexpectedly. Because a crowd of 4-500 was expected, the family needed a different venue than WUUC. I was shocked when the Overlake Church offered their space and welcomed me to officiate. If you haven’t been to their campus, I would suggest you visit. They know who they are. Everywhere you go there are these three simple mission statements visible: “Love God, Love People, Serve the World.”
Here are my three words for a mission and vision statement for WUUC: Connect, Engage, Transform. Connect to your longing, what you hold of ultimate value and meaning and with the community. Engage: make this place your own by serving it in some way. Put your money where your heart is. Transform. I would hope that our “faith” develops and grows alongside our bodies throughout all the seasons of our lives. That if we open ourselves to engage in meaning making, we will indeed, be transformed. And take that transformation out into a broken and beautiful world that needs transformation.
I believe that where we head in the future we must be guided by those three words: Connect, Engage, Transform. And some of us have to commit ourselves to finding different ways to do faith formation with our children. Rather than do the work of church, we have to be the church. There will be no sitting on the sidelines in the church of the future. We need all of us to be its architects.
I want to end today by reading you a story I read to the Board and Ministry leads at our fall visioning retreat. It’s not long but I ask you to just settle in and hear it. You might have to do some translating into UUspeak. It’s by Gordon Atkinson, a Baptist Minister, who started a church in San Antonio, Texas. It’s from his book, RealLivePreacher.Com.
How to Find a Church
“I keep getting emails from people who say, ‘Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that.’
Let me guess. You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental, but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, and love children, and worship in meaningful ways. A church with a swingin’ preacher who makes the Bible come alive, and tells great stories, and is a wonderful inspiration, and plays disk golf, too. A church that isn’t liberal or conservative,but seems to transcend worthless categories like those. A church where the hunger for truth is honored, and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos. A church where people are committed to ‘The Christ Life’ and it shows in the fabulous and creative ways they love the world.
That what you’re looking for? I got ya. I understand.
Here are some tips to help you in your search.
1. You won’t find that church.
2. Open the yellow pages. Tear out the entire church section and burn it. Offer prayers for your journey while warming yourself at the fire. Dance if that’s your thing.
3. Surely I don’t need to say anything about churches that have billboards and commercials featuring preachers with $200 haircuts who look at you like the cat who shat in your hat.
4. Dedicate yourself to the quest. Be at least as committed as I was to finding good tamales.
5. Call denominational offices in your town and ask if they know of any spectacularly unsuccessful churches. Explain that you do NOT want a church that is huge and famous and full of the right kind of people. Tell them you are looking for a rag tag bunch of pilgrims who might be meeting in a laundromat or someplace like that.
6. Try the Quakers. You’ll have a hell of a time finding them, but that’s the point.
7. Find out if there are any ‘house churches’ in your area. Not every house church is what you’re looking for, but your odds are better. These are Christians who have decided not to have buildings. They put high premium on authenticity and relationships. Think guitars, Ritz crackers, and singing Jesus songs with a baby in your lap.
8. Let’s talk about #1 again. As I said, you won’t find the church you’re looking for. Go ahead and grieve. You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children, prone to mistakes, blunders, and misjudgments.
Find some people you can hang with- people you can trust. Be patient. You’ll change them and they’ll change you. You’ll meet somewhere in the middle.
Relax. It’s all good. God might use this journey to teach you something. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you might pick up some friends along the way and start your own church. All you need is coffee, a Bible, and a couple of kindred spirits.
Don’t skimp on the coffee. Get the good stuff.
That’s what we did- fourteen years ago.”