Liberal Religion: Temporary Stop or Permanent Home?

Observers of the religious landscape are noticing that it’s not just liberal and mainline denominations that are declining in membership.

After the heyday of organized religion in the post-World War Two era in North America, it was a truism that the liberal and mainline churches were bleeding members. Everybody talked about mainline decline and evangelical ascendency. Liberalism was out and conservatism was in. We were all assured that fundamentalist religion was the way of the future.

Now the religious conservatives are losing members.

And the category of “Nones” is growing exponentially. The “Nones” are so called because that’s how they respond to the survey question of what their religious affiliation is. People are leaving organized religion in droves. (This, we are now being assured, is the way of the future).

Our losses were bigger and came earlier, I believe, because religious liberals were closer in spirit and outlook to the secularity of no religion at all. And if that’s where North Americans are moving to—no religion at all—then we’re already halfway there.

When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, more than twenty-five years ago now, my minister at the time described the religion as a spiritual vestibule. It was a place between. Many were on their way in from the secular world and going to some place more orthodox. Others were on the way out from some place more orthodox to a completely non-religious place.

We were a way station, as the old joke goes, between the Methodist church and the golf course.

I really didn’t like this characterization of my newfound faith at all! I loved my new church and everything that it stood for. Didn’t we have a compelling message and way that were worth being committed to? Why would anybody leave? I wasn’t going anywhere. If only more people knew about us, we would swell our ranks.

All these years later, I’m much less sanguine.

We talk a lot about the spiritual journey, but sometimes forget that being on a journey implies movement. People grow and change, and oftentimes what they initially found compelling in their faith community no longer speaks to their condition. And so they move on. Sometimes they need to leave our congregations for pastures that really are greener from their new and evolving perspective.

In the congregations I have served, I’ve made it my practice to have a pastoral visit with those who are withdrawing their membership. Sometimes these are folks we hadn’t seen in a while who, when asked, want to be dropped from the rolls. Other times, these are more or less active members who had made some kind of decision. Non-member attenders are a little more slippery and harder to track.

Sometimes what they needed was a visit from the minister to voice some complaint, the color of the new rug in the parlor or the new order of service or to describe some interpersonal spat. After getting it off their chest with a sympathetic listener, we would frequently see them at worship the next week.

Yet at other times, folks leaving the church would share that they were seeking something deeper and richer for their spiritual lives.

These friends had spent time sojourning with us, discovering and discerning what fed their soul. This is something we do well, explore. We offer an open space in which to examine spiritual, religious and moral traditions without prejudice.

Many, having come from conservative Christianity, discover with us for the first time that there are liberal Christian alternatives. And, yes, then leave for those alternatives. I’ve seen this as well with UUs of Jewish heritage.

Over time, these friends realized that they were more nourished by their participation in yoga retreats or a Buddhist sangha or neo-Pagan ritual or Christian worship and with sadness, but without regret, it was time to move on. They were grateful to their liberal religious community for helping them find their way.

Instead of making “lifelong UUs” out of everyone who comes our way, what if we saw our mission as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self?

What if we understood the sojourn, the journeying with us for a while, as part of our ministry? What if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path? And if that means letting them go, doing so graciously?

And yet…

When I make these visits, I ask, “What was missing for you in your experience of this congregation?” The almost unanimous reply is: spirituality. When I explore this with them, it turns out this means a sense of depth or purpose other than mere community. Sometimes this means an aesthetic component to corporate worship. Sometimes it means prayer. Sometimes what’s missing is God or God-talk. “Spirituality,” they answer, as a kind of shorthand for all of this.

Diana Butler Bass suggests there is a grassroots revival and renewal of liberal Christianity that has been going on unobserved. Liberal Christians, she says, have had longer to figure out what faith and practice is going to look like for them in the twenty-first century.

“Some local congregations are growing,” says Bass, “having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”

The great awakening that she describes in her recent book is an open, spiritually vital religious movement that crosses religious and denominational lines. It is one that engages basic spiritual disciplines and theological reflection.

The “Nones” are not without spirituality or a desire for a spiritual life. Many of them believe in God. They just don’t believe in religious institutions.

What many are looking for (or have given up looking for) is a faith community that has spiritual depth and maturity, without dogma or rigidity. Many are looking for God or God-talk that is not doctrinaire but rather open ended.

Reading Bass’s book has given me pause. Would our local congregations experience growth if we lived into our own description of what we say we are and were unabashedly religious embodiments of the liberal spirit?

What would have to change if we understood our mission and ministry as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self? What would we have to do differently if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path?

I’m betting that in the answers we give to these questions are the seeds of flourishing liberal religious communities of the twenty-first century.

The zeitgeist currently seems to feature an interest in–and a longing for–what Unitarian Universalists offer when we are at our best. Can we offer our times and our world our very best?

We could be more than a rest stop on the way to the golf course.


5 thoughts on “Liberal Religion: Temporary Stop or Permanent Home?

  1. Thank you for this. I was talking with a friend about these issues just a few days ago.

    You’ve also convinced me to go back and really re-read Diana Butler Bass’ book. At first read, I thought her definition of what liberal Christianity is was too narrow. Now I’m seeing that it could have been my blinders.

  2. I was excited when I first found the UU. I don’t believe the way the mainline churches do, and to find a group of people like me sounded promising. The zeal died quickly for me though. I found I didn’t grow spiritually. I would ask myself after service “Did I learn anything today?” Usually no. It’s a wonderful church, with beautiful people, but just not for me. I needed more than merely a fellowship that celebrates diversity. I’m still looking for people that believe the way I do, as opposed to looking for people that just believe differently than the mainline.

    Thanks for mentioning the book. I’ve already downloaded the kindle version.

  3. During the years that my wife and I were members of a Unity church we would see enthusiastic people join the church and then be gone within six months. Many people expressed the idea that Unity was a steppingstone on people’s spiritual path. It’s the same with my experience as a UU. A UU minister once mentioned that his church had 19 people join the church one year, but the church also lost 18 that year.

    I understand that at least one-third of Americans switch religions at least once in their lives. I found a good perspective about this situation through reading “Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine” by Eric Weiner. The author, a former PBS reporter, experienced a spiritual crisis and went all over the world searching out a religion that would fit him. The book is interesting, funny, and I think that most UUs would agree with the author’s conclusions.

  4. This could be a great sermon topic or perhaps it has been, Peter, but I wasn’t in church that Sunday! I do find myself personally aligning with the deeper need to speak of “God” in our UU Churches someway beyond simply alternate terminology like “Spirit” (which always sounds Native American to me somehow because of my own upbringing) or “Spiritual Being”. Perhaps through eons of human history there is something about that word, God, or its equivalent, that we humans have needed on a basic level, even though I certainly don’t identify with a sense of a “personal” deity. Yet I derive comfort when I think of the word, almost in a nonverbal way. I wish it didn’t have to seem like such a big deal or so alien to religious liberals to use it more often. If it reminds some of their oppressed religious heritage in other churches, hey! maybe it’s time they got over their past hangups with the term and embraced how diverse and rich, free and comforting, the word can be used in liberal religious settings.

  5. Amen, Judy! It might bear repeating that I am in my third decade as a Unitarian Universalist; I am now nothing at all like what I was, religiously and spiritually, when I signed the membership book so many years ago! Thank God. I have evolved. And I have the openness of UUism and my church to thank for being able to come to a sense of who I really am as a spiritual being, my most authentic, organic religious self. I was able to make peace with my religious past, draw out its gifts, and see it stripped of dogma for the jewels that lay obscured there. My sense is that this happens for many people in our congregations. It needs to happen more. We don’t have to change who we are in any essential way at all, but rather actually live up to what we say we do (honor different paths, for example, including the Christian or theistic paths). What could change is how we go about doing this (move decisively away from sloppy and amateurish worship, for example, offer courses in spiritual disciplines, foster mindful and mature relationships). Peacebang is getting to this from a different angle in a passionate post at her blog that is a must read.

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