Sunday, April 24, 2016

"We're different" or "we make a difference"?

I was in a discussion today with some of my church folks. We were supposed to be talking about salvation, and I was trying to find a way into this by talking about what difference belonging to our community might make to us. I was trying to get us to think about what church does rather than what church is - asking the "process" question not the "essence" question.

I asked why people came to our community, trying to work out what difference it makes to people's lives. I kept pushing but the answer I kept getting was how we were different to other churches - how other churches felt oppressive, restricting, confusing - but we felt liberating, simple, and lighter. We kept coming back to the conversation about how we're different to other churches.

Which might seem like a great thing to hear - it was a positive statement about the quality of our religious life in community - but as I reflected on it it worried me. Why?

Because it's not the law that you have to go to any church.

If it was the law you had to go to church then Unitarian churches would be doing great. If the government passed a law that said, "You have to go a worshipping community once a week - it doesn't matter which one, but you must go to one" then millions would research the right church for them, and loads would go to Unitarian churches. Really, loads and loads would. We'd be doing brilliantly.

If you had to go to a church - then we'd be the kind of church that millions would choose to go to.

But here's the problem - such a law doesn't exist - and you don't have to go to church.

So let's bring it down to something weaker than a law - to some kind of "cultural momentum." If the cultural momentum in a society says "go to church" then maybe lots would and do choose to go to Unitarian churches. This cultural momentum does exist, but it exists unevenly and it is declining.

In the United States where there is still (in general) a greater cultural momentum that says "go to church" then Unitarian Universalist churches can still do well.

In Britain, if the generation(s) over 60 still experience a cultural momentum that says "go to church" then they may well decide Unitarian churches are the ones they will go to.

In this situation our evangelism is based on saying "We're really different to other churches, we're more liberal, etc etc, so you'll find us a refreshing change." That's the story of the people in our churches. We've rejected other churches and embraced Unitarianism because of its differences to other religions.

But the foundation for all of this approach is Christendom - is the cultural momentum that says "you should go to church." Once that momentum has gone, the whole thing comes crashing down.

Most folks in my generation in Britain do not experience the cultural momentum that says "go to church" and so this won't be seen as any way meaningful to them.

Here' the thing - this approach to Unitarian evangelism will work - just for an ever smaller group of people. We could keep up this approach, keep aiming at older folk who feel the momentum and an ever smaller group of younger folk. We could keep showing how we're different to other churches - and if we do really really well, it will work. To be honest it's what it most likely to work as a growth strategy for my own church.

But one day, sooner or later, it will stop working. The maths will stop working as we seek to carve a minority out of a minority.

For most people in my generation you don't need to convince them how we're "better" than other churches - but why anyone would want to go to a church in the first place. We don't need to convince them that "we're different" you need to convince them "we make a difference to life." And I think that means a completely different language and approach, a different liturgy and spirituality. It requires some kind of soteriology - some kind of theology of salvation - that shows what a difference it makes in life to have faith.

Which is why we need to be very sceptical about American approaches to Unitarian evangelism - because they are operating within a much more church-going culture so the approach of "we're different to others" is likely to be much more effective there than here.

And I have a feeling that these two approaches are mutually incompatible. I think one community that operates the "we're different" approach might be very successful in appealing to "church-goers" and maybe for another 20 years this could work very well in creating an older, but healthy congregation.

But it will work for fewer and fewer younger unchurched people. If the Unitarian community has any hope of appealing to this growing demographic it will need communities that operate from a different language and practice that is more explicit about what church does and more positive about what it is and not negative about what it is not. It will need a "we make a difference" approach.

So this would suggest we need two approaches to Unitarian evangelism.
1. Established communities can keep up the "we're different" narrative and be effective in appealing to an older demographic of church-goers. If the ministry is done well, this may be effective for some decades to come.
2. But we also need new communities to use the "we make a difference to your life" narrative to build culturally appropriate communities for the growing and younger demographic of "unchurched" people. These will be experimental, unstable, weaker communities finding their legs for some years, but after a certain cut-off point will be the only communities that will survive.

We may be some way in doing the first - but are we capable of doing the second?


Blogger Rich said...

This is so true, and seems clear as day to someone like me who is also of your generation.

I guess I have the benefit of being openly atheist/pantheist and hence constantly being asked the question "why do you go to church?", not "why a Unitarian church?" so I have a pretty well rehearsed answer. I always say something like:

"Because I see the value of religious community, and I think many other atheists do too, but don't know where to look. Just because, in my eyes, spirituality and 'god' can already be explained by science doesn't mean they don't exist, and we can still get an enormous benefit to our lives from sharing our experiences of joy and sadness with one another."

I found the (perhaps temporary) rise of the Sunday Assembly quite upsetting, because I felt that Unitarians had been able to offer what they were offering for hundreds of years. But their message - specifically targetting atheists who needed spiritual nourishment - worked and our (current) message doesn't.

An aside: If it was up to me, I'd rename the Unitarian & Free Christian Churches to the Heretics. People know and love the word 'heretic' and I think it could have a strong appeal among people of our generation in a way that the names of traditional heresies do not.

5:47 pm  
Anonymous Nick said...

Rich, I see the attraction of being heretics. it has a good meaning (thinking for ourselves) but a bad press (the awkward squad). One thing seems clear, we are not approaching this crisis of our numerical decline in a traditionally religious way. We don't pray for the Unitarian church, we don't ask God for help (those Unitarians who believe in God). We are trying to solve our problems by ourselves as if we are a secular movement. But Unitarians have long blurred the distinction between secular and religious.

I think what you say about our society Stephen is obvious. There is no social imperative to go to church in the traditional sense. There are plenty of moral imperatives and social taboos, perhaps "church" has changed its meaning, it is the changeable social network and shared values rather than the membership of the organisation with its buildings and history. If we continue with a 'bums on pews' mentality then yes we will be identified with the traditional and fading style of religion.

I try to think about this from the point of view of those younger people who have never belonged to a church or spiritual group. Why should they have a set time in a set building for their moral and religious working? Unless you happen to believe these things are ordained by God, which I don't think we do.

But a word of caution is that a church building gives more sense of solidity and permanence, whereas the alternative we're considering is more fluid and perhaps ephemeral when looked at from a historical timescale. Can our Unitarian movement survive long term in either guise? Only if what we are actually doing within those structures is relevant and worth the time needed to sustain it.

9:15 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't have decades. The Unitarian & Free Christian denomination has halved in number this past decade. There is strangely no sense of personal responsibility or guilt even from leading figures like yourself and Derek MaCaulay (the former Tory / Unionist advisor). They just plod along believing they're 'right on' with their pseudo-spiritual claptrap believing it's only a matter of the Joe Public finding them.

8:55 am  

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