I recently attended a barbecue at the home of a retired Unitarian Universalist minister. As he offered a blessing for the meal, the host gave thanks for the eras of ministry represented in the gathering. Two ministers had been retired for some time, now in their eighties. Two were recently retired. And then there was me.
I am 37 years old, a Generation-X’er, now 14 years into a parish ministry career. I have a six-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. I began my ministry as a full-time youth minister. Still, our recent focus on recruiting young adults has me both excited and worried.
UUA Program and Strategy Officer Rev. Dr. Terasa G. Cooley authored an article in the latest edition of UU World entitled “Into the Beyond: Changing How We Do Church is Scary, But Not Changing Means Decline and a Lost Opportunity.” I agree. If we think in the 21st century that we can do things the way we’ve always done them and thrive, we are fooling ourselves.
Information is constantly at our fingertips, and every person alive can be a producer as well as a consumer in this new knowledge economy. Church needs a reboot in many ways. Yet while I believe the church must innovate and pay attention to shifts in culture (as Cooley notes, that has always been true), we should be careful not to lose our identity, and our ability to speak prophetically to this culture, in the process.
Rev. Cooley’s article speaks mainly of welcoming into UUism the millennial generation, adults under 30, only about 20 percent of whom “believe church-going is important…. They don’t come to church,” Cooley writes, “and they don’t want to.”
In reaction to her thinking, I wonder:
- Do we really know why millennials aren’t attending worship services? Is it enlightenment? Have they heard from God in a way that no one else has? Have they been wounded by church in a way that their parents and grandparents weren’t? Or are they largely apathetic about corporate worship, preferring to go to soccer games and read Depak Chopra? The answers matter, and I sense the latter is more accurate. What passes for spirituality in the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd is not always deep and thoughtful. Church is not being left behind for intense spirituality. It is being left behind for busyness. As well as inviting these folks to help us adapt (and we need to make that invitation), are we equipped to speak truth to the narcissism inherent in youth and young adulthood?
- Are we cheating Millennials by engaging in worship of youth? Twenty-somethings have a great deal to contribute. They also have a great deal to learn, including the value of being part of a congregation gathered around deeply-held values. The oft-repeated idea that older members need to be able to be uncomfortable for the sake of younger members is true. But so is the opposite. Our living tradition can adapt to this age group more effectively than we do now, and should. But if we beg every young adult who comes through our doors to tell us how we should be, we are serving neither the Millennials nor Unitarian Universalism well.
- Can faith be passed on without institutions? I believe the answer is no. Institutions, built by passionate, dedicated people invested in furtherance of a set of values, are essential. Our values have led us to certain ways of governing, certain holy texts (yes, even UUs have holy texts, probably including some texts being published right now), and shared worship practices. These are preserved primarily by the institution of Unitarian Universalism, by our agreeing to be together in governance as well as in spirit. Institutions often need reforming. They need constant tending. They should not be overhauled in each new generation. I wonder if we are in effect saying to those who self-identify as UU but who have no commitment or identification with our history, “Don’t worry about all that. We’re here to serve you. We can be whatever you want.” What happens to the institution of Unitarian Universalism in thirty years?
Having said all that, I sent Rev. Cooley’s article around to the board members of the congregation I serve. I quoted it in my sermon on Sunday. It is thoughtful, well-written, and important, and I believe we need to engage it. But (and the article says something like this too) I still value congregational life. There is no substitute for multi-generational, give-and-take, face-to-face community. I am excited about the possibilities before us and concerned that we do not lose our identity along the way. Especially now, we need vigorous support of our congregations, the places where much of the innovation we seek will begin.
The best part of the barbecue I mentioned above was sitting around after dinner listening to stories of ministry from people who spent forty years doing the work. One of them was ordained a Universalist minister the year the Unitarians and Universalists merged. I learned a great deal by listening and asking questions. Are we inviting Millennials to learn from us as well as to adapt our faith to their tastes? Are we inviting them into transformative community with us, or asking them how to build monuments to Millennial identity?