Generation gap in organized religion

A Pew Research report released today aggregates yearly political surveys in which people reported religious affiliation, and finds that self-declared Christians are declining in the U.S. at a “striking” rate. According to an article on Religion News Service, attendance at weekly religious services is also way down, as Americans who attend services once a month are now in the minority:

“‘It’s quite shocking,’ said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary. ‘This rapid shift is about generational replacement. The most religious folks are the ones who are dying and the least religious folks are the ones coming in.'”

I guess I’m not shocked, nor even mildly astonished: those of us who are involved in organized religion have been watching this trend for some time.

But I am interested in why self-reported religious participation is in decline in the U.S. The article offers several reasons:

“Thumma pointed to a number of cultural reasons that may be speeding up the generational shift, including [1] less social pressure to go to church; [2] the clergy sexual abuse scandal, especially in the Catholic Church; and [3] shifting attitudes toward sexuality and gender that clash with traditional Christian teachings. Greg Smith [associate director of research at Pew] said [4] a dissatisfaction with conservative political ties to evangelical Christianity may also be fueling the growth of the nones. [numbers are editorial]

To these reasons, I would add: [5] the decline in face-to-face community (the “bowling alone” phenomenon documented by Robert Putman and others); [6] stiffening competition for people’s leisure time including the increased availability of customized leisure-time activities; [7] the “post-church” movement within Christianity; [8] an increase in multicultural encounters that leave people doubting their own religious traditions; and [9] changing conceptions of what constitutes spirituality (sometimes reduced to secularization, though there’s more going on than absence of Christianity).

Battling implicit bias

Questions have been raised about the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychological test which purports to find implicit bias in individuals. Olivia Goldhill, writing for Quartz, an online business journal, reports that the IAT has a low reliability, or test-retest, score; where perfect reliability would score as 1, and strong reliability would score as 0.7-0.8, the race IAT has a reliability score of 0.44, or unacceptable. Goldhill also reports that several meta-analyses have found that the IAT is a poor predictor of behavior.

I have my own criticism of the well-known race IAT, which you can take online at the Project Implicit Web site. I took this test online, and scored as having a low to moderate bias in favor of African Americans. As much as I’d like to think I’m Mr. Egalitarian, I had a problem with the test: it required me to make fast judgments about low-resolution photos of facial characteristics, and I know myself well enough to know that I have poor facial recognition ability — I once passed my mother and younger sister on the street and only recognized them when I realized that these two women were laughing at me — so any test that requires me to recognize facial characteristics is not going to produce accurate results.Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the actual test, I’m still skeptical of using tests for implicit bias to implement organizational change. In my experience, that’s not the way organizational change actually happens: it’s not as easy as administering a test, identifying who has implicit bias, and then watching the complete eradication of bias. If it were that easy, we already would have eradicated racism, sexism, etc.

“What the ‘Bias of Crowds’ Phenomenon Means for Corporate Diversity Efforts,” an article by Liz Kofman (a change management consultant with a doctorate in sociology), suggests a different path towards changing organizational biases that I find more pragmatic. Writing for Behavioral Scientist, an online non-profit magazine, Kofman identifies three recommendations for organizations wishing to get rid of bias.

First of all, Kofman suggests that we “focus on changing processes, not people.” In other words, forget all those training sessions where you make individuals in the organization confront their inner biases; instead, change your organizational processes to reduce chances for bias. Why don’t more organizations do this? I suspect it’s because it’s much easier to hold a workshop on implicit bias than it is to do the hard and detailed work of changing organizational processes. It’s fine to hold those workshops, and Unitarian Universalist congregations wishing to address bias should continue to offer, for example, the excellent “Beloved Conversations” class developed by Mark Hicks at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Just don’t expect one workshop to take the place of lots of rather boring but necessary detail work.

Kofman’s second recommendation is to “prioritize process change and stick to it.” She points out that this is not easy; it takes “organizational will and discipline to implement and sustain … new processes.” Furthermore, Kofman says, an organization needs to focus on a few key process changes, making those a priority; otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with too many changes and then nothing happens. Prioritizing process changes, and sticking to them, has proved to be an insurmountable problem for most Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve known: lay leadership changes from year to year and so priorities change from year to year; new and attractive projects arise and draw attention away from ongoing projects. It’s easier to do that high-profile capital campaign, or to add solar panels on your building, than it is to stick to the hard work of implementing new organizational processes designed to reduce racism and sexism.

And this brings us to Kofman’s third recommendation: “provide resources and incentives for change management.” Because “everyday processes influence the bias of crowds” in any organization, you need to change those everyday processes; but too often there are not resources to help people change those processes, in addition to which there’s little incentive for change. Take for example a Unitarian Universalist congregations which wishes to become less white. Clearly, one thing you’ll need to do it completely overhaul the intake process — how potential members are greeted on their first visit, the processes used to integrate newcomers into the congregational culture, and so on. All that is hard work, so one critical resource required for change will be staff time, from both paid and volunteer staff; and because staff time is a limited resource, other projects will have to received fewer staff hours. And how will you provide incentives for those staffers, particularly for the volunteer staffers? None of this is easy.

To summarize: While Implicit Association Tests might be fascinating, they are probably not particularly useful tools for implementing organizational change. Instead, congregations seriously committed to, e.g., becoming less white, should pay attention to the change management technique of process change.

Racial diversity and religious groups

How racially diverse are various religious groups in the United States? The Pew Research Center recently investigated this question, and ranked various religious groups based on a racial diversity index they developed.

Out of 29 religious groups they looked at, the most racially diverse group was Seventh day Adventists, with a diversity index of 9.1. A higher number indicates greater diversity. Seventh Day Adventists are 37% white, 32% black, 15% Latino/a, 8% Asian, and 8% other. The study included only five racial categories, where the fifth category is “other.” Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses come close, with diversity indices of 8.7 and 8.6, respectively.

And where do Unitarian Universalists come in? No, not dead last; don’t be so cynical. With a diversity index of 2.7, Unitarian Universalists come in at 21st place. By way of reference, the racial diversity of all United States adults is 6.6. (Note that this study does not consider the racial diversity of individual congregations, but only of nationwide religious groups; individual congregations may be more or less diverse than the nationwide group.)

Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, I have a couple of thoughts about where we might put our efforts to change that. With congregational polity, no one can tell any congregation what to do; but we can offer incentives to help motivate congregations. So when the denomination and other funding bodies consider funding new congregations, first priority should go to ministers and leaders of color who intend to start non-white congregations; and ongoing funding should be tied to maintaining either a non-white majority and/or a high diversity index. And when existing congregations seek financial assistance of any kind, they can be asked to verify their racial mix, and priority should be given to more racially diverse congregations. In short, don’t belabor ’em with guilt, motivate ’em with money.

UNCO 14: ecclesiology and entrepreneurship

During the UNCO 14 session on ecclesiology and entrepreneurship, convened by my old friend Ms. M, I got to hear a little about innovative ministries, and innovative approaches to ministry, that UNCO participants are engaging in right now. Some of these innovative ministries are outside traditional congregations; some are innovating within traditional congregations. But it seemed like all of us are trying to figure out how to find money to fund these ministries.

Mindi, who is working part-time in a traditional congregation and part-time in a non-traditional start-up ministry, pointed out that the old donation model — asking church members to donate money to their congregation — is on its last legs. What will take its place? Amy said her new non-traditional congregation has a business model where worship services are open and free, and everything else is on a fee-for-service basis; they still solicit donations, but donations will go to allow sliding-scale payment for the fee-for-service programs. A number of people talked about using crowd-sourced funding. Anna said she will be trying, a platform for crowd-sourcing ongoing funds for arts projects through a monthly payment scheme, to fund her non-traditional arts-based congregation — she said she’ll let us know how that goes. Jeff said he had tried Kickstarter, and had had less then stellar results.

During this session, we talked quite a bit about using capitalist methods to fund organized religion. Should we just accept that consumer capitalism is our cultural milieu, and use it to fund good projects? Or should we in organized religion stay in tension (to a greater or lesser degree) with consumer capitalism? Carol argued for staying in tension with capitalism; Amy seemed to not worry about it, focusing instead on the good she could do by using consumer capitalist techniques. While this discussion was going on, I was asking myself: If the old donation model is over, what’s our theology for new funding sources? — this is the question at the heart of an ecclesiology of entrepreneurship.

Only a fool

Children and youth attendance at the congregation I serve was up 45% in September, compared to the same month in 2013. These are not large numbers — up from about 50 to about 70 — but the increase in attendance has been enough to require more staff time, more volunteer time, more space, and to generate more conflict. No wonder I am writing so little on this blog recently.

If you are wishing for your congregation to grow, remember that growth injects stress into the institution. In the short term, it is much easier and more pleasant to stay the same size, even if it does mean chasing lots of newcomers away. Only a fool, or someone committed to making the utopian ideals of liberal religion accessible to all who want them, would seek congregational growth.

Beyond average attendance

A recent blog post by David L. Odom, Executive Director for Leadership education at Duke Divinity School, argues that “average attendance is no longer a sufficient measure to predict congregational behavior. In the past, says Odom, if he were given average worship attendance he “could predict the size of the church staff, the informal patterns of decision-making, most of the stresses on the pastor’s time, the leadership required for small groups, and more.”

But this is no longer true, according to Odom, as congregational culture is quickly changing and evolving. So, for example, today when denominations mass-produce curriculum materials, “teachers are often dissatisfied with their options [and] obligated to write congregation-specific material for children, youth or adults, requiring a huge commitment of time and creativity.” This same problem holds true in other areas — average worship attendance is no longer an accurate predictor of a congregation’s needs for staffing and funding.

Odom recommends tracking “all the ways that a person engages a congregation — joining a small group, attending group meetings and social functions, contributing to social causes and to the church’s budget, reading semons or other resources online, volunteering in a missions project, teaching a class, and more.” Once you start tracking all the ways individuals get involved, Odom then suggests looking for patterns that lead to deeper engagement, and patterns that lead to great growth. Odom also suggests that engaging an outside marketing consultant would be a good way to start asking these kinds of questions, and organizing and tracking this kind of data.

In our congregation, we continue to track average Sunday attendance, although we track attendance at all Sunday programs, not just worship services, including Sunday morning Forum, children’s programs, and Sunday evening youth programs. I also find it useful to look at seasonal trends in attendance; this is useful information because if attendance drops off when there is no program offered for a given constituency (e.g., no Sunday school or Forum in summer), this appears to be the time when we lose newcomers to those programs. I also pay attention to space use on Sundays — how many rooms are used at a given time for congregational groups and events?

We also track attendance at non-Sunday events and groups, such as support groups, classes, lectures, etc. It is more difficult to collect accurate data for these events, especially since small groups and classes tend to change more quickly than Sunday morning programs. But at the same time, I’m seeing a growing importance of non-worship related activities. Our congregation has a number of programs that attract people who do not go to worship services, including a bias-free scouting program, our OWL sexuality education programs, the Sunday morning Forum, etc. Plus we are planning a week-long day camp next summer that will deliberately reach out to people not otherwise affiliated with the congregation.

The next big step for us will probably be to track patterns of engagement for individuals. We are in the process of moving to a new church database, ACS Realm, which has built-in small-group management software in it. We believe that we will be able to use Realm to track individual engagement across multiple ministry areas.

Odom’s blog post ends with him wishing that he “could go back to the good old days and track a couple of different numbers.” I don’t share his nostalgia — I’m fascinated by the ongoing evolution of congregations, and I love the opportunities for creativity we now have.

How about you? What metrics would you use to figure out how your congregation is doing?

A gift horse

In an excellent post on the new Congregational Consulting blog, John Wimberly explodes several myths about the possibilities for congregational growth among the Millennial generation (ages 18-33). He begins by exposing an obvious falsehood with some simple arithmetic:

“So we have 80 million people between the ages of 18-33, 86% of whom say they believe in God, and we are bemoaning the future of our congregations? In Wisconsin, where I grew up, that is called ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth.’ It might also be called an excessive lack of imagination regarding the possibilities inherent within a generation of young adults who poll as optimistic about the future of our nation, don’t want to engage in generational warfare, and love diversity.”

I agree with him. I’ve never seen such a large number of pleasant, interesting newcomers as I’ve seen coming to our UU congregation in the past few years, including quite a few people younger than 35. When a gift horse like that appears on Sunday morning, I’m not going to say, “Could you please open your mouth so I can look for the rise of the ‘nones’?” — I’m going to say, “Welcome, glad you came, you’ll like it here!”

Wimberly goes on to explode other myths, such as the myth that the Millennial generation resists traditional worship and classical music, and the myth that Millennials spend all their time online so they won’t come to face-to-face congregations. But instead of reading my summary, you can go read the post yourself by clicking here.

UNCO13 — last thoughts

A few last thoughts and observations from UNCO13 West:

— The worship services were very low church. UNCO worship reminded me a little bit of the very best youth and young adult worship in which I have participated in Unitarian Universalist circles — highly participatory, lots of singing and guitars and drums, often mildly chaotic and planned at the last minute — but UNCO worship services were led with more skill, and with far more theological depth.

— The worshipping community of UNCO welcomed kids wholeheartedly. Kids could play on the floor, or sit on parent laps, or vocalize, and no one minded. The service was not dumbed-down to kid level; there were no “moments for children,” no talking down to children during the sermon. Everyone accepted, with love, the autistic five year old who needed to run around (and occasionally be corralled by his parents) during the services. Yes, it could get a little chaotic, but between the love in the community, and the seriousness of purpose, it all worked out. I want to belong to a church that worships like this every week.

— Online connections and face-to-face connections were nicely woven together. I liked watching the Twitter feed which was projected at the front of the room during the plenary sessions; sure it got silly at times, but it also allowed for a much higher level of interaction than just having one person talking at a time. I also liked the combination of low-church and high-tech. (By the way, Megan told me that finding a location for UNCO is difficult because of the heavy technology demands — fast Internet service, plenty of bandwidth, lots of IP addresses, etc.)

— The unconference format worked well. Of course it worked well: most of the attendees at UNCO are clergy with advanced degrees, and with tons of experience in widely varied settings and ministries. Too often, I have seen clergy conferences built around expensive “experts,” who only give one approach to an issue, and who may in fact be less expert than one or more of the participants. (Which makes me want to say: Humility may be a virtue, but underestimating the expertise of oneself and one’s professional colleagues is foolish.)

— The unconference format does away with that jockeying for position that you see when planning traditional clergy conferences. In traditional clergy conferences, there can only be a few presenters; plan a traditional clergy conference, and watch as clergy jockey for position to try to land a precious slot as one of the presenters, or to try to get their favored “expert” called in as a presenter. The result: politics rather than relevance decides what gets presented; important viewpoints get left out; and the expertise of the participants is deprecated. (Alas, Unitarian Universalist clergy seem to prefer their outside experts and the associated hierarchical approach to clergy conferences; and I think they prefer their methodological rigidity, too;— don’t expect Unitarian Universalist clergy unconferences any time soon.)

— And finally, this Twitter exchange from two UNCO participants made the whole thing worthwhile: “Talking worship styles. That whole debate is a boomer debate, not a question for young adults.” (David L. Hansen) “Exactly. And it’s not helping to project it onto the Gen-X and Millennial generations.” (Anna Woofenden)


Back to the first post in the series



Megan took this photo of me racing B—— through the labyrinth during Kid UNCO. He won. (What can I say? Four year olds can turn corners better than adults.)

UNCO pt. 5

On the last day of UNCO 13 West, we opened with a short prayer service. Then we shared some of the results of yesterday’s breakout sessions, and talked about what might be topics for some final breakout sessions. What needed ongoing attention? What might be some projects that “have legs,” i.e., are ready to be implemented? These are the topics that emerged for the closing breakout groups:

— A group to talk about vocation and identity for ministers who aren’t doing traditional ministry, including the following: ministers who aren’t serving a congregation; ministers who are taking a break from formal ministries to raise kids; etc.

— A group to talk about transitional roles, including the following: how to manage transition in a congregation or other setting; how to talk about change without freaking people out; how to help a local congregation to die (congregational death being a perfectly natural thing; someone reminded us that none of the churches Paul of Tarsus started are now in existence); etc.

— A group to talk about the issues that face ministers and leaders who are starting new ministries (i.e., church planters, etc.), and to talk about the loneliness of pastors serving in those roles.

The person who had signed up to volunteer with the kid’s program said she really wanted to join one of these groups, so I immediately volunteered to take her place as one of the adults working in Kid UNCO. Continue reading “UNCO pt. 5”