Breaking Down the Walls ()Rev. Peter Morales, February 10, 2013
Part of the Misc. series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
When I was a boy, I went to church every Sunday. Church took all morning, too. I attended Bible class for an hour and then I sat through the worship service. In Bible class I learned dozens of stories from both the Hebrew Scriptures, which we called the Old Testament, and from the Christian Scriptures, which we called the New Testament. What amazing stories they were, too. I learned about Moses parting the Red Sea. I heard about Sampson and Delilah. I was horrified at the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac.
I learned about Jesus turning water into wine, walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead. I was taught about the Apostle Peter denying that he ever knew Jesus. By the time I was in high school I had heard the stories over and over. I could recite pages of Bible verses in the King James translation.
Now, we were probably more diligent about attending church than most people. I knew people, plenty in my extended family, who did not go to church very often. And yet, looking back, I cannot remember anyone in my circle of friends or family who did not claim some sort of religious identity. I grew up in San Antonio, so there were lots and lots of Catholics. Among my friends there were also Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and a couple of Mormons. Heck, I even had a Jewish classmate in elementary school. I thought he was pretty exotic.
When I went off to college in California in 1964, the picture was pretty much the same. While a lot of us lost our religion in college (losing your religion in college became a right of passage in the 60s), all my friends arrived in college with some religious identity.
Today, all of this is changing at a stunning pace. The American religious culture I have known for my entire life is disintegrating. We live in a new world. The implications for us Unitarian Universalists are profound and of historic significance.
Let me run a few facts by you to give you a sense of how rapidly historic patterns are crumbling. When I went off to college in the 1960s, only five percent of young adults said they had no religious identity. In other words, 19 out of 20 young adults at least claimed some religious label. By the year 2000, the number who said they had no religious affiliation had grown from five percent to 12 percent—from one in 20 to one in eight. That is significant, but nothing compared to what has happened since.
The number of the “nones” has jumped to more than 30 percent today. The “nones” are, by a large margin, the fastest growing religion in America. [Heck, it has become such a big story that even NPR recently did a series on it.]
Make no mistake, this is a sea change in our culture.
When I was young, church was a good thing. Going to church was what normal people did. Usually people went to the same church their parents had attended. Sending children to religious education classes was universally seen as the right thing to do.
All of this was a good for UUs. In a culture where most people had a religious identity and where going to church was normal, we offered a liberal alternative for those who could not hack the dogma of the church in which they were raised. We offered freedom. We offered reason. We embraced science. We believed women should have equal rights. We were cool with the sexual revolution [maybe we were a little too cool, actually,—but that is probably another sermon. Or not.].
In short, in a culture that valued church, we were a progressive alternative. We had our liberal niche in the church world.
Today, church is rapidly becoming a bad brand. Younger people, especially the progressive and better educated, increasingly see church as hierarchical, rigid, out of touch, hypocritical and narrow minded. Being part of the church world once gave us some legitimacy. Today, being part of the world of organized religion makes us suspect.
While the tens of millions of nones are skeptical of religious institutions, they are not hostile to spirituality. All kinds of surveys show that nones often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” They want depth and meaning in their lives. They want to connect with ideals that transcend their narrow interest. They long for community and intimacy. They aspire to lives in service of something beyond the banality of consumer culture. In addition, the nones are open minded. They accept glbt people without a second thought. Marriage equality is no big deal.
The nones are also accepting of racial and ethnic diversity. They grew up among immigrants. And the nones are also accepting of cultural and religious diversity. They have no patience for a perspective that says one religion has all the truth and is the one and only way.
And the nones care about economic justice and the environment. We see their involvement in such things as the Occupy Wall Street movement. They care about issues like global warming and sustainability.
Do you see a pattern here? [I can hear my children saying, “Well, duh!”]
THE NONES ARE US. [repeat] They share our values and our aspirations. Our theology of freedom and openness, our emphasis on social justice as an expression of our faith, our full acceptance of women and of gblt people—all of this is in perfect alignment with the perspective of what is now a third of America.
One would think that Unitarian Universalism would be growing by leaps and bounds. But we are not. Our membership has been pretty flat for the past decade and our numbers have actually dropped slightly the last couple of years.
This gap between our obvious potential and our reality drives me crazy. It has driven me crazy since I entered seminary. The gap between what we could be and where we are is the reason I got involved in denominational leadership and why I later decided to be a candidate for president.
I have said many times that we can be the religion for our time. That isn’t just a slogan. It is a core conviction that has shaped my ministry. Our potential is breathtaking.
This isn’t about growth for the sake of growth. This is about serving people who are spiritually hungry and religiously homeless. We cannot ignore their pain. Reaching out is a moral imperative.
So what is going on? How is it that our values and our perspective are a perfect fit for millions, and although our membership has not changed much we are actually are smaller percent of America than we were 50 years ago?
I used to believe that the key to realizing our potential was simply to do church well. I was especially passionate about paying attention to what I called “religious hospitality.” My reasoning went like this: Every Sunday our congregations have thousands of visitors who come to check us out, to see if we might be their spiritual home. If we were just to do a better job of making sure that these people were truly welcomed, if we just paid more attention to engaging them, they would return and eventually find a religious home.
I believed this because I saw it work. I served a congregation that grew from 400 members to more than 750 members. We concentrated on what visitors experienced and the quality of our programming. We did nothing particularly innovative. Yet we became one of the fastest growing congregations in the Association.
I have also seen dozens of other congregations growing and thriving. In each case they have a sense of mission, a passion for excellence, and a deep knowledge of their context. Our thriving churches are quite different from each other. There isn’t one magic formula.
I still believe that doing church well is essential. I am still convinced that we should be attentive to the needs of the thousands seekers who are coming week after week.
However, I now realize that this isn’t enough. It isn’t nearly enough. Simply doing an excellent job of doing church is not enough today because our world has changed dramatically in the last decade.
I do know this: we UUs desperately want to make a difference. We want to make a difference at the personal and spiritual level. We want to deepen our spiritually and we want to be in community with friends who also seek depth and authenticity.
We want to make a difference in the wider world, too. We are a people who refuse to separate spiritual depth from creating a compassionate, just and sustainable world. Ours has always been an engaged spirituality. Acting together in the world is how we express our faith. And we want to reach out, to interact with others from different cultures and backgrounds. We are not content, (thank heaven!) with being a marginalized remnant of a fine tradition.
We face a challenge and an opportunity of truly historic proportions. If we keep on doing religion the way we have done it for the last fifty years, we are doomed. We will slowly fade into irrelevance. That would be tragic.
However, if we adapt we have potential that no other religion has. We don’t have to change our values. We don’t have to change our theology. Everything that is central and essential to who we are is what the emerging culture needs.
What, then, must we do to seize this historic opportunity? What must we do to become the religion for our time?
We have to change the way we practice our religion. We must break down the walls of “church.” We must break down the barriers that separate us from the millions of people who hunger for spiritual community and are eager to create a compassionate and just planet.
We cannot expect people to come to us any longer. Of course, many will come, and we must welcome them warmly when they do. But many are so turned off by what they imagine “church” to be that they will never come.
We have to reach out and go out in new ways. We must engage people where they are. Increasingly, that means interacting with people on line in the electronic commons. It also means engaging them at public witness events like rallies for marriage equality, immigration reform and economic justice.
Let me tell two brief stories that taught me an important lesson. Two years ago I was Arizona along with hundreds of UUs maybe fifty or sixty thousand people to demonstrate against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law. We UUs were wearing those brilliant yellow Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts.
The news media were there in full force. My assistant, Dea Brayden, was trying to get me interviewed on television. But things were crazy hectic. A couple of times she asked television reporters if they wanted to interview the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Before she finished saying “association” they were walking away.
Then she had a flash of inspiration. She walked up to the CNN reporter and said, “Do you want to interview the head of the yellow shirts?” Yes! I was on live at the top of the hour.
The second story has to do with social media. For decades the UUA president has sent out a “pastoral message” before Christmas. I never recall seeing one when I was madly busy as a parish minister during the holidays. We decided to shoot a short video instead. In my message I used the image of Las Posadas, the Mexican tradition of going house to house seeking shelter. I used it as a metaphor for giving one another shelter, for opening our hearts. And I did a version in Spanish. 26 thousand people saw the video in English, and 24,000 saw it in Spanish. 50,000 people saw our message, and it cost nothing.
We must learn to meet people where they are. This will require all our creativity and a spirit of experimentation.
Ultimately the real challenge is spiritual and religious. This isn’t really about being high tech savvy or clever branding. This isn’t truly about institutional change.
This is about sharing. This is about reaching out. This is about being open to life’s possibilities. This is about getting out of our comfort zone and changing our habits. This is about having courage and taking bold risks. This is spiritual work that demands spiritual discipline.
We have always been a people who, at our best, embraced the future. Look at our heroes and heroines from Susan B. Anthony to Theodore Parker to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Think of Servetus and Francis David. We are a people who let go of what no longer serves, what stifles the human spirit.
Spiritual growth is fundamentally about breaking down walls. What is love but the breaking down of barriers that separate us—that separate us from our inner selves, that separate us from one another, that separate us from the all of creation?
Come, together let us break down the walls of ignorance, hatred and greed.
Come, take my hand. Together let us build a faith that grows our souls and helps to heal the world. Together we can seize this historic opportunity.
So may it be. Amen.
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