Tag Archives: we are not better

We Are Not Better II: Retaining Our UU Youth

UU center of the world

I have been asked a lot of follow-up questions about my last post entitled “We are Not Better” (found here: https://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/we-are-not-better/). Melissa asked me the following question, and I wrote her a novel of a response that probably deserves it’s own post, so here it is.

Melissa writes:
Can you speak to how the subtle or not so subtle messages of “better” and “not better” may be impacting retention of young (second generation, perhaps?) Unitarian Universalists?

This is a really important question that everyone has been talking about in my circles for the 15 years I have been an adult hanging around the UUA. We know that our retention rate stinks, right? 10% of kids who grow up UU remain UU and we are all dying to know why our churches hemorrhage kids so we speculate a lot about why.

I think it’s a really complicated subject, and I have attacked it from many different angles because there just are a lot of different angles. I think a lot of things impact retention of young Unitarian Universalists, not the least of which is the culture that impacts all Mainline Protestant churches in the United States. The Church is quickly losing its status as the voice of human religion and spirituality. This isn’t Unitarian Universalism’s problem alone, nor is it our fault. I think this problem/opportunity in American religion right now (the loss of our cultural status) very largely impacts UUism. It impacts UUism because UU churches used to be the place where you went because it was the only alternative–-because there was nowhere else to go on Sunday. Now there is somewhere else to go! It’s called Sorella’s–the best brunch place in all of Jamaica Plain, MA–for delicious ginger bread pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream following your kid’s soccer game. Church-going used to be seen as normative and “what one had to do to be a good person,” and so all boats rose together, including ours’. But now church-going is counter-cultural, especially where we live in the Northeast. Now we have to give our children, youth and adults reasons to choose church over other things they could be doing, and that’s a hard task for us.

Many have posited that Unitarian Universalists have a hard time, like all liberal mainline churches, compelling people to choose us over pancakes for the same reason why we have trouble retaining our youth. We churches in the mainline ask very little of our members, and the overwhelming message children receive is that you can “be good” without (God, church, religious community), you fill in the blank. So I think churches like ours ironically contribute to our own demise.

And then there’s this issue of hypocrisy.

We keep hearing that the Christian Church is dying because of hypocrisy, right? Millennials are done with church forever because we all know “those” Christian churches that claim to want to follow Christ and tell us to “love our neighbor”, and then they turn around and have very loud and public fights about who is and who isn’t our “neighbor.” Like the poor United Methodist Church that is being torn apart right now on the gay marriage issue, for instance. We all know that the younger generations just think that’s all a load of baloney sauce, and so they are leaving church in droves. They can see the hypocrisy dripping from it all like syrup on their gingerbread pancakes they are choosing to eat instead of going to church.

Then when you add in the liberal church’s very human tendency toward our own brand of hypocrisy, we have our very own recipe for disaffected youth. Our hypocrisy comes in when we start to self-congratulate ourselves for being the “better” choice: the less oppressive, less offensive, more justice-oriented choice. There are many people who say and think that the reason why we don’t retain our young people is because we haven’t given them the message that we are the “better” choice. That we haven’t cheer-leaded for our own faith enough. That we’ve equated all the world’s religions to the point that it doesn’t matter what religion they choose when they grow. I used to be one of those people, truthfully, and I think this is true in the sense that we don’t do the best job at giving our kids a religious narrative and symbols to use. You know this, because I say it all the time.

But in addition to handing down a sacred text, a theology, and some symbols to engage, I think we would do better retaining youth and adults if we were a little more humble. If we didn’t scoff at the religion of our ancestors so much, or the religion of other people so much. (See my post “Children Will Listen” for more of my thoughts on this subject.) Because overwhelmingly what I find is that people (especially our own kids) can sniff out hypocrisy in churches really, really fast. Just the other day I was over at a colleague’s house with our spouses, and we were voicing frustration about other people who were driving us crazy. My 7 year old daughter whispered in my ear the following: “Mommy, Jesus said to love your enemies. You’re a minister now.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Oh good GOD, who told you that?” She’s right of course. Kids are so, so good at telling us the truth. So is Jesus.

AND if we say we are a liberal religion that honors all paths to Truth, and then a visitor comes in and asks for a prayer, and we scoff and say “we don’t do that supernatural mumbo jumbo here,” (and don’t think that doesn’t happen in UU churches because I’ve heard that story too many times) we are falsely advertising. People have to figure out the orthodoxy of our church after they get here by saying or needing the “wrong” thing, rather than just reading our creeds, beliefs, etc. on our website. We need to recognize, with humility, that we are not better than any other church, nor are we less orthodox. And we need to find freedom and forgiveness for ourselves in that. THIS IS THE AWESOME THING ABOUT BEING HUMAN! We aren’t God! We get to mess up all the time and then ask for forgiveness, and then get it, overflowing, back in our laps. But we also need to say it out loud so our kids know that we see our own tendency to fail to live up to our ideals. We are human just like everyone else, and we create in-groups and out-groups and cultural norms, and “right belief” and “wrong belief” just like any other group of humans. The trouble happens when we self-righteously advertise something we can’t actually deliver.

I think retaining our youth starts with being honest about who we are. And our beautiful, fallible human enterprise of a religion blossoms with that honesty, as well. Now go and be good humans. ‘Cause that’s what Jesus would do (according to my self-righteous daughter, anyway).

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We Are Not Better

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Our 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the Neighboring Faiths class took a trip two weeks ago to a very large, very vibrant, black Baptist church in Boston; a church with which I have a long relationship. I spent some time processing the event with them after church last Sunday. It was great fun.

The class began with the kids talking about their experience. The service made them feel uncomfortable, especially at first. As the only white people in the room, they felt exposed and different. Not only did their physical appearance make them stick out in the room, but they felt self-conscious and awkward as they compared their reserved behavior in the pews to that of the worshippers around them. “There was a lot of clapping and hands in the air and yelling.” “It was so loud! And so long.” “People were dancing around and crying. It was weird.” “They think Jesus solves everything.” The other kids giggled.

“Stop. Here’s what I want you to know,” I said, probably a little too forcefully. “We–our church–we are not better. I’m going to say that again. We are not better. Our faith tradition is not better. If there is one thing I want you to learn in this class…one thing I worry that we don’t teach well in our churches…one thing I worry that NO CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA teaches well or at all…We are NOT any better than anyone else who goes to church on a Sunday morning, nor are we better as an institution. Our worship style doesn’t make us better, our theology doesn’t make us better, our history doesn’t make us better, our lack of a need for Jesus doesn’t make us better. We have different ways of doing things based on the circumstances we have found ourselves in. We have different ways of understanding God based on the privileges we hold, or don’t. We have different ways of knowing and feeling and acting. But we are not better.”

The kids looked at me a little stunned, like “Whoa, there, settle down, buddy. Who peed in your Cheerios this morning?” Then they continued talking about the experience at the church they visited, with far more admiration and appreciation than they began with. We talked about how important Jesus might be to some people. We talked about why the idea that Jesus triumphed in the end despite persecution might be a deeply held and beautiful belief to those who live with cultural persecution every day. We talked about the desire to worship a God who used prophetic people to free slaves…to lead slaves out of bondage. We imagined why that kind of God might make us cry, or dance, or shout for joy. Our youth slowly took their armor of skepticism off and admitted that they loved being in that two hour long service. “The music was SO GOOD.” “The people were CRYING and hugging each other!” “I think they really healed that man. I believe he was healed.” “We felt so welcome.” “There was so much spirit there.” “I felt the energy.” They talked about the things we held in common with the church members there, like the beautiful baby dedication they witnessed, and the doxology after the offering. They found beauty in the abandon with which people approached worship. “The people that worship there didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of them while they were in that building! I wish I could be like that at school,” they said.

We are not unlike our youth. I know I’m not. We spend a lot of time “church shopping” for the church that makes us feel most comfortable, most known, most un-offended, most alive. And we care deeply about the values and the theology our church claims. This is good and noble and understandable. But we are not better, and we need to tell ourselves this. We need that humility. When we see every other neighboring faith through our own lenses, we start to lose our ability to look for understanding; to access genuine curiosity. We lose our empathy, and a little bit of our humanity. We fail to live faithfully.

Sometimes our UU churches, just like every other church I have encountered, have a tendency to hold up our unique way of doing religion as superior, and more evolved. To that I say “nonsense.” We don’t go to church to attend a pep rally for Unitarian Universalism. We go to church to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. And then we go again next week, because we need that reminder as much as we can get it. We are not the best, nor are we the center of the universe. And thank God for that. We are a flawed community of people just like all the rest. In fact, this is the heart of our saving message. We are more alike than we are different; connected in our sins, our suffering, and in our capacity for good. We are all just trying to get through this life as unscathed as possible, with as much opportunity to feel as possible.

Let’s all try to live that truth and love with more abandon, and a little more humility. Our souls deserve to have their armor removed, and so does the soul of our world.

Amen.