Envisioning the Emergent Future

How many of you remember phone booths? (Everyone raises their hand).
How many here have used a telephone booth sometime in your life? (Raised hands).
How many of you used one in the past seven days? (Much laughter, and no one raises their hand).

They were everywhere at one time. Now there are empty sockets where telephone booths once were.

How many of you here watched a movie at home this past week? (Hands raised).
How many of you rented that film from Blockbuster? (Laughter).
How many of you here even remember Blockbuster?
Blockbuster had a terrific business plan. They did everything right. They dominated the market. Where are they now?
They went bankrupt. They’re out of business.

Now, we can think to ourselves, “Gee. What is the matter with people? Does nobody want to talk on the phone anymore? What do you do when you’re out and about and need to speak to someone? What are we going to do without phone booths?”

Or, “Gosh, do people not want to watch films anymore? Films are fantastic. Why don’t people want to watch movies anymore?”

People talk on the phone now. People still continue to enjoy the cinematic arts.

And yet, everything has changed.

Everything has changed.

The changes that have come about in terms of the place religion occupies in our society have been no less dramatic. Not that long ago, Canada was a churchgoing nation. And yes, I mean church-going because Canada was largely homogenous religiously. It was a cultural norm even a generation ago to at least belong to a faith community and to attend regularly.

Today, the fastest growing religious demographic in North America are the people who, when asked with what religion they are affiliated, answer “None of The Above.” That demographic is growing exponentially. In surveys, ten percent responded that way 12 years ago. Today it’s closer to 25 percent. For Millennials, those born in the 1980s, it’s a higher percentage, almost 30 percent. Most people now in their twenties are not interested in church.

Generally, younger people, by which I mean people now in their twenties and thirties, are not interested in institutions. They don’t trust institutions. Trust needs to be earned among younger people; it is no longer automatic. They’re suspicious of institutions and aren’t interested much in membership, in anything, let alone in doing the kinds of things we all take for granted when it comes to maintaining an institution.

Overall, Canadians are more mistrustful of religious institutions and participation in mainline faith communities is dropping. A recent report indicated that, at the current rate of decline, there will be no more Anglicans in Canada in 20 years.

Now, we can bemoan this loss of faith. We can wring our hands about all of those people who share our values but don’t come to our local congregation. (Because many of the people who define themselves as None of The Above are quite liberal and egalitarian. They care about marriage equality and the environment). We can decry the poverty of their spiritual lives.

But to do so would be to miss the point.

According to the Pew Forum Religion and Public Life Project, the unaffiliated of all ages are quite interested in spirituality. They are very interested in spiritual practices—be it yoga or meditation or prayer or some form of mind-body wellness. They are very curious about God. It would be a mistake to describe them as non-theistic, but they’re more interested in experiencing something of the divine rather than hearing somebody talk about it. They are very much interested in experience.

To bemoan the absence of the “spiritual but not religious” in our congregations, to bemoan our inability to attract new participants to our congregations, to bemoan the unaffiliated who would love us if they just knew about us, is along the same lines as asking why people don’t want to talk on the phone anymore or watch movies anymore.

They do all of these things.
It’s just that the form these are beginning to take are now very different.
And are changing.
The form that religion will take in the coming years will be as radically transformed.
The form that the basic human need for meaning and significance and community will look nothing like it looks like today. (We have an idea of what might be emerging. More on that later).

So, the question before us today is not, “How do we make our telephone booth more attractive? How can we get more people to use our telephone booth?” The question is: how will we meet the need that is out there—the very real need that is out there—for meaning and significance and community in ways that are intelligible and useful?

The question for us is not, how do we make renting our VHS cassettes more appealing? Or what would a good business plan be for promoting our VHS tapes? The question before us today is: how will we respond usefully and skillfully to the very real longings and needs out there for a spiritual life, a life of meaning and significance?

And before we are able to answer that question, we need to take stock.
There is a difference between what we have to offer, what is essential in our liberal way of being religious, and the trappings that it comes in. The trappings are all transient, and the core of our way of faith is timeless.

What is essential is the life-giving message that we were born to original blessing,
that there is a better way of being in relationship with each other, ourselves, our natural environment,
better ways of being a society together,
that forgiveness is better than anger,
that love compassion and generosity are better than fear and self-centeredness.

Yes, better. And yes, life-saving and transformative.

What is essential is the conviction
that mutually sustaining relationship is at the heart of existence, expressed sometimes beautifully, sometimes imperfectly in covenanted community
that life, human and more-than-human life, is an interrelated network, that we are all reciprocally connected
that the world is saved (yes, saved) by the cultivation of the liberality we espouse, by the proliferation of the virtues we espouse:
openness and solidarity, curiosity and respect for the truth, humility, reverence and awe, gratitude and generosity, self-awareness and self-possession.

This is at the heart of our liberal religious faith. And these values are as relevant to people of all ages in this country today as they ever have been.

Newsletters, staff members, Web sites, musicians, styles of music, styles of worship, hymnbooks, furniture, buildings—and yes, ministers—all come and go. These are the wrapping around our basic core, the expressions of our basic core.

They are all transient. They are all impermanent.

What is required of us is the faith and the courage and the staying power and the imagination to gracefully let go of what no longer suits us,
to gracefully let go of what is no longer of service to our ministry and mission,
to gracefully let go of what keeps us from reaching our full potential as liberal communities of faith in this time, this 21st century, in this place.

The core message of our liberal religion is unchanging. Our core values remain the same, generation to generation.

Though they would be bewildered by much of what we do, the New England Puritans who founded, in the 1600s, the congregations that became Unitarian 100 years later would recognize our congregationalism, our covenantal communities.
Even though the 18th and 19th century founders and organizers of North American Unitarianism and Universalism would be confounded by some of what they would see among us today, I believe they would still recognize our optimistic religious philosophy and our dedication to liberty.

So, there have been changes.
We’ve evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.
While the gift of this great religious tradition of ours is ageless, the wrapping that gift comes in can change, as indeed it has over the last three centuries. The wrapping can, in fact, be torn off, dispensed with, and replaced—without affecting what is essential.

We whose work it is to bring our movement into its future as a vibrant and lively space need to have the imagination, the vision, to stretch beyond what we have known, and what we think is the way church is supposed to be, the way Unitarian Universalism is supposed to be, the imagination and vision to invent something new around which our core is built, to express that core in ways that are meaningful to our contemporary world.

We can’t just keep asking only for what it is that we want, we who are already here, we who have been around for a while.
We cannot just keep asking for more of the same only better or brighter or more efficiently communicated.
What we need is a breakthrough of imagination– fearless, visionary, creative imagination.

Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Rather than a really attractive and well-functioning telephone booth, we need to make the leap—invent something innovative and truly new that will be the vehicle by which we make our vibrant, liberal religion available to the next generation, and to the generation after that.

I served a Unitarian fellowship in a consultative, interim role.* This was a congregation that was started by lay people in the heyday of the fellowship movement, a movement which saw small, informal, lay-led communities of Unitarians spring up all over Canada and the United States. This fellowship was started in the early sixties. I was with them just before they celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their founding.

A lot has changed in the world since 1960. Those of you who were around in 1960 know what I’m talking about. It was unheard of to have a female minister. Sunday School and the nursery were female domains. It was unheard of to have openly gay or lesbian individuals in positions of leadership, let alone to acknowledge and celebrate our presence. A lot has changed since 1960.

Some of the changes this Unitarian fellowship saw included hiring (not calling) a part time minister in the 1980s, and eventually calling a full-time settled minister. They went from meeting in the public library to buying their own meetinghouse to outgrowing that space. With the influx of Baby Boomers, that generation born after the Second World War, a greater interest in Eastern philosophy, meditation, yoga was seen, along with Earth-centered spirituality, religious feminism. Openly lesbian and gay people began attending services. They began a tradition of lighting candles in the worship service. Like any healthy, living organization and organism, they were evolving, growing, changing, making use of new insights, responding to changes in society.

The original founders of the fellowship (the “Charter Members”) were not universally pleased at how much their congregation had evolved over the years. Every step along the way was a battle—and these were battles the founders felt they kept losing.
They didn’t want a minister.
They didn’t want candles.
They didn’t want to sing.
They didn’t want a choir.
They didn’t want to hear anything about spirituality.

Now, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for these individuals. Born before 1945, they were institutionalists, excellent builders and stewards of their institutions. They were dedicated to Unitarianism—the fellowship Unitarianism of the postwar era, that is. And what they didn’t understand was why these new people, these strangers, were introducing innovations into their common life.

Well those “new people” and “strangers,” many of them members of the fellowship for fifteen years or more, were the next generation.
The congregation was changing as it was growing. (Congregations that want to grow are the ones that recognize it means they change). The programs and minister and leaders were responding to the real needs of the religious liberals who were finding a home among them. They were responding to social change and directions our religious movement was making. (Movements, of course, move!).

Some in the circle of original founders—the Charter Members—were happy to see the congregation grow and evolve, and to have all sorts of new people find a home in their fellowship. Others were not so gracious.
In my work with this congregation, I felt it was important to surface what was happening with and in this group of Charter Members.
They were aging and a number of them were increasingly failing.
A number of the Charter Members had died.

I organized tea one afternoon with all of those who were around in 1960, who had founded the fellowship. We celebrated their successes—they bought that meetinghouse without going into debt, for example. We talked about the evolution of the fellowship, the evolution of Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism.

One woman admitted something so important that day.
She told me, “I feel like I’ve lost my church. I feel like the fellowship we started is gone.”

I replied, being as pastoral as possible:
“The reason you feel like you’ve lost your church is because you have.
The reason you feel like the fellowship you started is gone is because it is gone.”

You’ve lost your church. It’s gone. You suffer when you cling to the fellowship of 1960. You suffer because the fellowship of 1960 is gone forever.
We are going to have to find a way to graciously bequeath the gift of this lovely, lively community to the next generation.
We are going to have to find a way to graciously bequeath the gift of this congregation to those religious liberals who come after us, who have different mindsets than us, who have different needs and wants and social realities from us, who are adding their influence to ours on the shaping of this community.
We can cling to the way things were, the ways of the past, and cause suffering for ourselves and others, or we can graciously let go.
In order for us to give the gift of our congregation to the next generation, we are going to have to let it go.

We found a way together, for the older generation in that congregation to bear their loss with grace.

It’s important to note and honour this sense of loss.
It is a truism that change is hard and more so that churches hate change.
“We’ve never done it that way before,” is the common refrain in congregations.

It is my sincere belief that in actual fact, people do not resist change.

We resist loss.

A transition is simultaneously a beginning and an ending.
A new start means ending what came before.
While hopeful and optimistic about the new undertaking, one needs to acknowledge the grief of losing what was.
Change is hard not because we don’t welcome the new, but because we lose the old. And with loss comes grief, the pain of letting go of what was (and continues to be) cherished.

So. There have been changes. We’ve evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.

What do we expect our local congregation to look like three years from now?
What do we expect our Unitarian Universalist movement to look like five years from now?
How are we positioning ourselves for the next 100 years? the next 25?
How are we integrating social changes that affect our faith community—changes in technology, society, the role of religion in Canadian society?

This last question, I believe is the most pertinent and important and we ignore it at our peril. Our social order has been changing rapidly over the last generation. Everything from the way we communicate, operate our church office, pay our pledges, conduct our worship and attract new members is being affected.

We can either position ourselves for success in the changing landscape or limp along haphazardly.
We can either adapt to new realities or become obsolete. It’s our choice.
We can evolve or we can go extinct. It’s our choice.

How will we expand our reach into the community through our ministry of music? How will our music-making deepen our spirituality and enrich our worship life?
How will we grow our religious education ministry? Will more families be able to raise thoughtful and generous and socially engaged children because of our ministry? How do we meet those families where they are?
How can we offer more opportunities to act on our values in the community at large, in our province and nation? Will we extend the ways we make a difference in the lives of others?
How will we create meaningful opportunities for people of all ages through worship, study, community-building, and service?

What I see for our local congregations is a vibrant program of spiritual development for people of all ages, programs for parenting that understand the home to be the most significant site for children’s religious education.
I see programming for children and youth that emphasizes community-building, belonging, as well as learning.

I see us adjusting our programs for the real needs of real families—who may or may not be able to attend every session of every class—by using more of our Web sites and social media. By equipping parents with resources for the home.

I see programs of religious growth and learning, programs of spiritual practice and formation, being offered to and attracting adults in the surrounding community, folks coming to us to help them shape their faith journey.

I see us planning for and experimenting with styles of worship and music that would not be familiar to our 19th century forbears.

I see us continuing to expand our vibrant social action ministry, evolving to be better grounded in love and in the best of our theological, philosophical, and spiritual traditions.

I see our governance evolving, developing ways of shaping our common life that doesn’t exhaust its participants or feel like a burden.

Many of the emerging ways of 21st century liberal religion do not look like what we have known and are more familiar with. We are not reinventing the public telephone booth—we are moving on to a new iteration of religious liberalism altogether.

As far as I can see, what these emerging ways have in common is a focus on mission, a deeply felt spiritual connection, and a sense of joyful innovation.

(I didn’t feel like I had enough time to describe some emerging, emergent, and experimental UU communities, but for a good discussion of these and how we might be evolving, I commend a collection of essays edited by Frederic Muir, published by the UUA’s Skinner House. It’s called Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism). Let me describe in broad terms characteristics of what I see emerging among us.

I see emerging UU communities focused on meeting the needs of others, of serving in some capacity the wider community. Whether it’s the arts, spirituality, food, adult religious formation programming I believe that our vital congregations in this century will be and are focused outwardly. We build up esprit de corps as we are on a mission together in the world, bringing some aspect of our essential liberal religious message and way of being to the world around us.

I see a revival of the notion of the parish church, like our New England foundations, congregations that see themselves as the centre, the meeting place of their neighbourhood or town, in which the needs of the community are met in some way. Most importantly, the self-understanding of such congregations is that the “parish” is not simply coterminous with the “congregation” but is a geographical area the congregation is called to serve.

Our congregations are a lighthouse in and for the community, and not a clubhouse of likeminded individuals.

I see a spirituality of contemporary Unitarian Universalist communities that is unabashedly grounded in love, centred in love and the call of creating beloved community.

Love draws us out of ourselves and toward others, it is the heart of our relatedness, our interconnection with all that is. The interrelated web of existence is spun of this love, this desire to connect. And so, the worship life that is emerging among us celebrates and embodies this connection, this transcendent bigger life, transcending ego and small mindedness in the embrace of a larger self.

The generous and charitable attitude in emerging UU congregations embrace UU concepts of the divine without apology and speak forthrightly the language of reverence–religious language–albeit in a Unitarian Universalist mode.

The late 19th and early 20th century controversies among Unitarians of theism-versus-humanism are not merely from another age; any contemporary iterations (outdated, obsolete, repetitive) are a marker and sign of decline. (If that’s the most animated conversation in your congregation…)

And finally, joyful innovation is what we see in areas where there are signs of new life in our religious movement. Which takes a considerable amount of courage and not just creativity. There is both joy and permission in congregations that are thriving, permission to try something new which is also the permission to fail. If anybody even ever says “We’ve never done it that way before,” a usual response is, “No, we haven’t, let’s see what happens!”

The attitude is adventurous.

This might also mean experimenting with how we govern ourselves in congregational life. There is no army of potential volunteers waiting in the wings to join church committees. People, especially working people and working families, are better able to volunteer their time and effort in specific, time-limited ways. The more we are able to shape the way we do things around pop-up opportunities to contribute, the better able we will be to populate our efforts. Our organizations can be nimbler in how we create and sustain our ministries.

If we are going to live into our potential as a viable religious movement in this century, we are going to have to change. Which is to say, we are going to lose something; we are going to lose not only cherished ways of doing things, but we’re going to lose our sense of certainty.

André Gide once said, “One does not explore new lands without losing sight of shore.” The shore of the past is receding quickly behind us, and we need to sail into the waters of the unknown, the unknown ocean of the future. What we have with us on board are the best of our historic testimonies, the best of our enduring values, what is best suited for our adventure, what is most useful in creating the kind of communities and world we dream of living in. And yes, leaving behind everything else.

It’s an adventure.

I believe that the future of Unitarian Universalism is bright and that as we skilfully navigate the tides of change, we will see a flourishing of our way of being religious in the decades to come. But it won’t happen by accident. It will happen as we are intentional and forward looking. It will happen as we attend to what is emerging, as we cultivate what is emerging. And as we look forward with hope for what we will become and are becoming.


*If I served your congregation in such a role, don’t worry. I’m not talking about you.

This post is based on the keynote address given at the 31st annual UU Midwinter Retreat in Schomberg, Ontario, 8 February 2020. It brings together thoughts expressed previously in sermons in various other locations. A lively conversation followed.