Attitudes towards religious diversity

A paper published in the May-June, 2014, issue of Religious Education: The Journal of the Religious Education Association explores attitudes towards religious differences among adolescents in the United Kingdom. The authors used standard social science techniques and statistical analysis to find out if adolescents who attend faith-based schools, that is, day schools run by organized religions. They pose this research question: “whether students educated in schools with a religious character are more or less conducive to life in a religiously diverse society,” as compared to students in secular schools.

Their study indicates that the “individual religiosity” of adolescents, and other personal factors, has more influence on their attitudes towards religious diversity than the school they attend. Some of their findings:

— females have a more positive attitude towards religious diversity than males
— neuroticism correlates with a positive attitude towards religious diversity, and psychoticism with a negative attitude
— adolescents who pray regularly have a more positive attitude towards religious diversity
— adolescents who attend religious services regularly have a more positive attitude towards religious diversity
— however, “none of the variance in … attitudes toward religious diversity can be attributed to attending schools with a religious character.”

The paper is “Church Schools Preparing Adolescents for Living in a Religiously Diverse Society: An Empirical Enquiry in England and Wales,” by Leslie J. Francis and Andrew Village (in Religious Education, vol. 109 no. 3, May-June 2014, pp. 264-283).

Francis and Village address a fairly narrow question, in a cultural context different from most regions of the U.S.; I don’t think it would be wise to try to apply their findings to a U.S. context, or to try to draw larger conclusions from the findings. Nevertheless, I think this paper does suggest some interesting possibilities for research in the U.S. Wouldn’t it be interesting to research attitudes towards diversity among adolescents who are affiliated with mainline churches, evangelical churches, non-Christian faith communities, etc.?

And wouldn’t it be really interesting if the Unitarian Universalist Association or one of our seminaries funded similar research of adolescents who are affiliated with Unitarian Universalist congregations? If I were conducting such research, I think my initial hypothesis would be that a board sampling of Unitarian Universalist adolescents would not have significantly more positive attitudes towards religious diversity than adolescents affiliated with other faiths; though based on Francis and Village’s paper, I would definitely look for evidence that religious adolescents in general have a somewhat more positive attitude towards religious diversity than secular adolescents.

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?

Meme graphic

Jess Cullinane created a meme graphic, using a quote from a sermon I did a few years ago. Wow, someone made a meme graphic from something I wrote; does that make me one of the cool kids now? OK, I’ll admit that I’ll never be one of the cool kids. But Jess did a really nice job. Here it is:


How to have transcendental experiences

Someone asked how to have transcendental experiences, so I’ll summarize what I know about the subject from my own personal experience.

Background: Thoreau’s approach
A basic method for having mystical experiences
A few warnings


First, definitions: I would define a transcendental experience as a variety of mystical experience that does not require belief in anything supernatural; the “transcendental” refers back to the Transcendentalists, like Thoreau and Emerson. A transcendental experience is intense and possibly life-changing, and the person having the experience gains a direct knowledge of the ultimate unity of everything and the insignificance of the individual.

Second, a caveat: it seems that only some people can have transcendental experiences — William James estimated that three in four people cannot have them. Perhaps this is because some people simply aren’t able to have such experiences. But I’m inclined to believe that many people either don’t want to go through the trouble of preparing themselves to have transcendental experiences, or if they do have them manage to convince themselves that they didn’t.

Third, mystical experiences seem to have been part of every human culture, and there’s no great secret about how to have one. The classic method to prepare yourself to have mystical experiences is to practice some kind of mental/spiritual discipline. In the Western tradition, this involved some combination of prayer, study of sacred texts and lectio divina (disciplined spiritual reading), and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In the Eastern tradition, this involved some combination of meditation, study of sacred texts, submission to and study under a guru or spiritual master, and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In both the East and the West, the usual interpretation of mystical experiences involved some element of the supernatural: these were experiences of God, or would lead to release from the endless cycle of rebirth, etc.

But I’d like to outline an approach to having mystical experiences that requires no belief in the supernatural (although it can also accommodate a belief in the supernatural quite comfortably). This flexible approach was developed and used by the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians.

Continue reading “How to have transcendental experiences”

Turmoil, pt. 2

Spiritual turmoil, by its nature, is messy and chaotic. When you’re in the middle of it, you may not be entirely aware of what is causing your turmoil. I’ve been trying to identify what is causing my turmoil; I can’t say that I’m entirely sure, but I have come to some preliminary conclusions. Most of all, I think I’ve been bothered by theological anthropology — by the great religious question, “What is the nature of humanity?”

It started out, I think, a couple of months ago as I grew increasingly bothered by the way we treat teenagers these days. I was teaching a group of seventh and eighth graders, and one of them observed — with a voice tinged with anguish — that adults view teenagers as sick, as insane. It’s true, I thought to myself. There’s even a book out now titled Yes Your Teenager Is Crazy — a title that reduces young people to pathology. Our society understands adolescence as a pathological state; by definition, when a young person reaches puberty, adults assume that young person is consumed by a pathology — is not quite fully human — until the end of adolescence, which comes when the young person gets a full time job and moves out of their parents’ house.

But we don’t just see teenagers as pathological. There is a pervasive lack of trust throughout our society. Here in the United States, surveillance cameras are everywhere, because no one trusts you; and we Americans are increasingly likely to feel the need to carry a handgun, because we don’t trust the police, we don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust our neighbors. Churches and other voluntary associations are facing dwindling membership because we find it harder to be with other people, and to trust other people to make decisions with us.

And I think this lack of trust is tied to two other things. First, we are more likely to think of other persons as bundles of information that can be manipulated, just as information in a computer is manipulated. We are told that we are little more than biological computers — wetware — responding to the world based on our internal programming. Honor, duty, respect — these are not virtues, we are told, rather these are subroutines in our overall programming.

Second, we are more likely to view ourselves and other persons as cogs in an economic machine. We no longer live in a market economy, as Michael Sandel has pointed out, we live in a market society. Everything we do involves a commercial transaction or contract; everything and everyone can be bought and sold.

What is the nature of humanity? Well, to begin with, young people are pathologically crazy, at least until they get a full-time job. Then they become adults who are programmable biological computers. And what is the end of human existence? — to buy and to sell, trusting no one.

This is as far as I’ve gotten in analyzing what’s causing my spiritual turmoil. There is more to it than this. I know I am bothered by the way Unitarian Universalists mostly are not engaging in serious and careful theological reflection about the nature of humanity; two of the dominant theological positions within Unitarian Universalism, old-school religious humanism and angry liberal Christianity, spend their energy in facile and shallow arguments about the existence of “God,” and cede the realm of theological anthropology to pop psychology or consumer capitalism. I know I am increasingly drawn back to existentialism; I’ve been reading Dante’s Purgatorio for the first time; I’ve been reconsidering many of my assumptions about education. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten — mostly, it’s still just turmoil.

The New Gilded Age

At the very beginning of the Gilded Age, Louisa May Alcott wrote the novel Eight Cousins. In the course of that novel, she offers several pointed moral critiques of the American love of money, as in this exchange:

“‘Yes, but there’s no time to read nowadays; a fellow has to keep scratching round to make money or he’s nobody,’ cut in Charlies, trying to look worldly-wise.

“‘This love of money is the curse of America, and for the sake of it men will sell honor and honesty, till we don’t know whom to trust, and it is only a genius like Agassiz who dares to say, “I cannot waste my time in getting rich”,’ said Mrs. Jessie sadly.”

— Chapter 17, “Good Bargains,” Eight Cousins

Today we live in the New Gilded Age. The only reason to read now is to learn how to make money. Morality is tied to value in dollars. And if we have any Agassizes today, their voices are so few and so quiet that they can’t be heard over the clamor of the marketplace, where everything and anything — honor, honesty, morals, trust, duty — may be bought and sold.


Recently, I’ve been going through some spiritual turmoil. Now hearing about other people’s spiritual turmoil can be boring. Nevertheless, spiritual turmoil is a common enough problem that I think it’s worth spending some time thinking through what spiritual turmoil is, and what one does about it.

First of all, I think it’s very important to remember that spiritual turmoil is not pathological; it is uncomfortable, but it is not an illness. Our society shies away from discomfort; our default setting (especially amongst the middle class and upper middle class) is to try to buy our way out of discomfort; we might try to find a convenient pill or medication that will remove our discomfort, or go shopping or take a vacation to cover up the discomfort in the undeniable pleasure of buying new possessions or buying new experiences.

But spiritual turmoil is not an illness; it is not pathological. In my own experience, and in talking with others about their experiences, spiritual turmoil results when you can no longer adequately answer one of the big spiritual questions. The big spiritual questions include: Who am I? What ought I do? What is the ultimate nature of reality? What is the final destination of human beings? (These days, I’d add the question: How should we raise the children? — it is important enough to stand on its own, I now think, and not be lumped in with the question What ought I do?) Most of the time, most of us have come up with answers to these questions that serve us well. Continue reading “Turmoil”

What I did with my weekend

Sacred Harp singing convention

The view from the bass section as a singer from Bremen, Germany, (alas, I didn’t catch her name) named Eva led well over a hundred singers at a Sacred Harp singing convention this past weekend.

What was it like singing with all those people, you ask? I’ll limit myself to the physiological response. With something over thirty singers in the bass section, I could feel my whole body vibrating to the lower notes. And since this is highly rhythmic music, we could also spend time talking about entrainment from an ethnomusicological perspective.

This, by the way, is why you might want to improve congregational singing so that it’s good, rhythmic, and loud — because when you do that, it feels really good.

How to feel comfortable, or not

Do you like your congregation because it feels so comfortable? Most of us do. We want to be able to go someplace each week where we can feel at home. But I came across the following statement by Bernice Johnson Reagon that makes me think maybe I shouldn’t want to feel so comfortable in my congregation:

“If you’re in a coalition and you feel comfortable it’s not a broad enough coalition.”

Who’s a member? (What’s a member?)

Three of us from our congregation met this afternoon to talk about our new membership database. The topic for today’s conversation: what categories will we have for people in the database?

Twenty years ago, it was fairly easy to categorize people in your congregation’s database: there were members, and there was everyone else. Members were those people who signed the membership book (in my religious tradition, some people used to get theological and defined members as those who agreed to abide by the congregation’s covenant). Most people who attended your congregation’s Sunday services on a regular basis would sign the membership book, sooner or later. Sure, there were always one or two grumpy people who refused to become members; and a few conscientious people who, for reasons of (carefully thought out) conscience, felt they could not sign the membership book; but most regular attenders eventually became members.

That was twenty years ago.

Today, fewer and fewer people seek out institutional affiliation of any kind. Probably this is related to larger societal trends of civic disengagement, the loss of trust in all institutions, and the displacement of organized religion to society’s margins. In a new book, congregational expert Peter Steinke says, “None of this has to do with the church’s internal functioning. The sea change is external or contextual.” Whatever the cause(s), we’re seeing more and more people who want to participate in our congregations without ever wanting to become members.

In the near future, I predict that “membership” is going to attract an ever decreasing number of people.

The problem is, we knew what to do with members. The congregation sent its members regular communications (e.g., newsletters, email lists, etc.), which they liked to receive, and which they read. They in turn knew how to communicate with key people in the congregation. And both the congregation and the members knew who was going to ask for money to run the congregation, and where that money is coming from.

We still know what to do with members, but we’re not quite so sure what to do with the other people who are coming into our congregations, the ones who don’t want to become members. These people may not want to receive our newsletter — they only want to hear about the things they want to hear about; and they want to hear about them in the ways they prefer (SMS, Facebook), not the ways we prefer (printed and email newsletters). These people do not know what a canvass is, or how or why we raise money (some of them even think we receive government support — no joke!), although they’re probably willing to be educated about how we take care of our finances, and how they can help us further our mission.

These are some of the things the three of us talked about this afternoon. We came up with at least four categories for our new membership database: “members” (people who have signed the membership book and who pledge annually); “friends” (people who have signed a declaration of friendship, a lower level of affiliation); “participants” (people who have participated in one or more congregational activities, ministries, or events); and “newcomers” (people who have showed up Sunday morning and are still relatively new to our community). We talked about the idea of another category, which we tentatively called the “distance” category: those people who no longer live close to us but who feel an emotional attachment to us, who may want to receive our communications, and who may sometimes want to give money to as a tangible expression of their appreciation for the congregation. We toyed with the idea of having separate “participant” categories, one for Sunday mornings “participants,” and one for “participants” who come at other times, but decided we don’t need that level of detail (yet). We did add a category for “child,” because we needed to distinguish between adult “participants” and non-adult “participants.” We also added a category for “deceased.” And we talked about other ways people may have relationships with our congregation, which we don’t quite know how to describe or categorize as yet.

I came away from our meeting with a very strong sense of the increasing importance of types of congregational affiliation besides “membership.” More and more people care less and less about the meaning of “membership,” and the younger they are the less they care. It’s like a century ago, when gradually people didn’t want to own pews any more, and they came up with this idea of congregational membership instead. Well, just as pew ownership once disappeared, I suspect we’re seeing a time when “membership” is slowly disappearing.

What do you think — is congregational membership is slowly disappearing? If so, what do you think will replace it?