Religious attendance may be down, but income is up

Over the past decade, our congregation has seen flat attendance, slowly declining membership — but a modest increase in income when corrected for inflation. Turns out we’re not alone:

“A new nationally representative study from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds that revenue is not necessarily declining along with attendance….

“‘We’re not hiding the fact that there are many congregations experiencing decline, or that it’s a major success to be simply maintaining,’ said David P. King, director of the Lake Institute and a co-director of the study. ‘But despite a narrative of decline for religiosity in America, there’s a wide diversity of what’s happening. A decline in participation does not necessarily equate with (a decline) in finances.’ Or as the study succinctly states: ‘Among congregations that are declining in attendance, there is not necessarily an automatic corresponding decline in revenue.’ “

Article.
National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices study.

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).

AAR religious literacy guidelines

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has released a set of “Religious Literacy Guidelines” setting minimum standards for all graduates of two- and four-year colleges in the United States. An excerpt from these guidelines summarizes the minimum knowledge about religion that all college graduates should have:

“‘Religious literacy’ helps us understand ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It includes the abilities to:
— Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions;
— Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions;
— Understand how religions have shaped — and are shaped by — the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions;
— Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts;
— Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements made by religions from descriptive or analytical statements…”

It turns out that in 2010, AAR released a set of religious literacy guidelines for K-12 students. The K-12 guidelines are also well worth reading. They include some basic premises from the scholarly discipline of religious studies, premises which AAR considers essential for teaching religious literacy:
— religions are internally diverse;
— religions are dynamic and changing; and
— religions are embedded in culture.

Anyone who has gained basic familiarity with religious studies at any time in the past 20 years will find no surprises in either set of guidelines. For example, even though these guidelines are new to me, I’ve been using the underlying premises for at least a decade, as I develop curriculum on religions. But though there’s nothing new here, by formulating these guidelines, AAR has done us all a favor: now we have checklists that we can use to assess how well curriculums promote religious literacy.

We can also use these guidelines for some rough-and-ready assessment. When I look at these guidelines, I see that for the most part Unitarian Universalist adults do not have solid religious literacy, e.g., many UU adults are unaware of the immense religious diversity within Christianity, many UU adults are not able to discern accurate and credible knowledge about religious traditions, etc. This becomes problematic when adults with a low degree of religious literacy teach religion to children; and this suggests that curriculum development needs to include basic religious literacy knowledge for adults teachers, as well as content for children.

A must-read interview

Religion News Service (RNS) published an interview today with Rev. Lenny Duncan, a black minister in the 94% white Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA). Duncan has written a new book, “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” According to RNS, Duncan’s book counters the notion that churches are dying, and challenges the ECLA to overcome white supremacy within the denomination.

The interview goes on to talk about other topics. And since the Unitarian Universalist Association is something like 95% white, I was very interested to hear what Duncan had to say about his own overwhelmingly white denomination. Here are a few key quotes from the interview:

In speaking of the necessity of reparations to person of African descent, Duncan says such reparations must go beyond money: “It is time for all straight white males in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to remove their names from ballots for bishop. It’s the same thing when we come to some of the positions that we see in our churchwide organization — to just self-select their way out.” The equivalent for the UUA, of course, is that all us straight white men should stop applying for senior staff positions in the UUA, e.g., Regional Leads — and of course we should not run for elected positions like UUA Moderator and President.

Duncan also believes in the value of shutting up: “As someone who shows up as a cis male, if I’m quiet long enough typically a female or femme in the room will say the same thing I was gonna say much more succinctly and probably more intelligently than I would.”

How can you motivate white people to actually do things like leave their names off ballots? Duncan suggests that “…the American white Protestant church is obsessed with legacy. If you want your church to survive, if you want your denomination to be relevant in the 21st century, if you actually want a viable Lutheran legacy in the American context, then you’ll take these suggestions….” Same goes for white folks in the UUA: if we want the UUA to survive even another couple of decades, then we had better start dismantling white supremacy now.

Duncan also believes that, just because your pews aren’t filled up on Sunday morning doesn’t mean that your local church is dying: “I think we need to rethink church and we need to rethink the way that we count membership. I might have, like, 40, 50 people in my church on a Sunday. But there’s 200 people who are engaged in our community in various ways.” This point ties in with what we know of Millennials (who are a white-minority generation): they want to do church the way they want to do church, and if you tell them that the only way to do church is to show up on Sunday morning they’re going to ignore you.

The interview is short and worth reading in its entirety. Read it here.

Conference on religion and the environment

I just received a call for papers for the third annual conference “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: Nature and Environment in the Sacred Texts of World Religions,” sponsored by Nazareth College in collaboration with Hobart William-Smith College. The conference poster asks the following “foundational questions”:

“How do religions integrate the discoveries of science with the teachings of tradition with respect to environmental
issues?
“How do environmental scientists look into contemporary environmental issues?
“What roles have been and can be played by faith communities in enhancing protection of nature and environment?
“How do women in faith communities respond to the contemporary environmental catastrophe?
“Do our sacred texts declare any actions to be immoral regarding dealing with nature and environment?”

Sounds like a pretty interesting conference, and I’m going to think seriously about attending. More information on submitting proposals, and on conference registration, online here.

Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference poster

Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King

Recently, I talked with Kurt Kuhwald, former professor at Starr King School for the Ministry, about the school’s search process for a new president. Kurt had some interesting things to say about the search, and the conflict that erupted during and after the search.

Before I get to Kurt’s thoughts, you may want to review what happened at Starr King. I have a short post about the situation here. Since I wrote that post, the New York Times covered the story in a balanced and well-written article here, and UU World did a carefully-written article in November which you can read here. Now back to Kurt.

Kurt is someone for whom I have great respect, particularly in his thoughtful and passionate approach to ethical issues, and to issues of prophetic importance. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Kurt a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about several prophetic issues: global climate change; the protests following Ferguson; and the mess at Starr King. We wound up spending most of our time talking about Starr King, not because it is of greater importance than Ferguson or global climate justice, but because it was so fresh in the minds of both of us. Actually, mostly I listened — Kurt has a unique and powerful interpretation of the Starr King situation, and I wanted to hear what he said.

Kurt has been kind enough to send me several documents that he is willing to make public, and with his permission, I am posting them here on my blog. You can click on one of the links below to go to a specific letter, or just scroll down to read these four documents in order:

Kurt’s letter of resignation from Starr King;
An addendum to that letter giving more detail on his reasons for resigning;
A letter to the Ad Hoc Committee set up by Starr King to investigate the situation;
A letter to the members of the UUA Board regarding Starr King.

As I talked with Kurt, it struck me that there was a deep current of theology running through everything Kurt said. He is talking about a theology of power; he is critiquing one way power is wielded in contemporary religious institutions. This is an incredibly important critque. I believe it would behoove anyone with an interest in the mess at Starr King to read or re-read Bernard Loomer’s important 1976 essay “Two Conceptions of Power.” Finally, out of respect for Kurt’s deep theological insights, I’m going to say that if you’d like to comment here you should exhibit some theological thinking. If you’re not sure how to think theologically about this issue, read Loomer’s essay.

As always, I reserve the right to delete or edit comments that I feel are discourteous, rude, or off-topic.

Scroll down to start reading Kurt’s letters….

Update, 14 January 2015: Kurt Kuhwald asked me if I’d be willing to post Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation from Starr King; until January 9, he was Associate Professor of Spirituality and Prophetic Justice. Since Kurt Kuhwald and Dorsey Blake timed their resignations for the same day, and since they share a prophetic vision for liberal religion, I felt it was appropriate to add that letter to this blog post. Having received Dorsey Blake’s permission, I have added his letter below:
Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation

Continue reading “Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King”

The problems of Web casting

Those of us who have looked into Web casting our Sunday services know that it can be tremendously difficult to navigate that new legal landscape. Music poses some especially difficult challenges for Web casting. In the following video, the chaplain at King’s College in England describes one solution to the problem of legal minors appearing on Web casts:

Online petition regarding clergy sexual misconduct

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville’s “Safety Net” has started an online petition at Change.org, asking that all candidates for the UUA Board and for Moderator to open up a conversation about clergy sexual misconduct in U.S. Unitarian Universalist congregations:

We, the undersigned, are asking the candidates for UUA Moderator and Board of Trustees to publicly indicate their willingness to start a new national conversation on clergy misconduct in the UUA, and to ensure that survivors of misconduct have a real voice in that conversation. We ask them to commit to using the powers of the Board to take ownership of the recommendations of the Safe Congregation Panel, to update them as needed, and to hold the staff accountable for implementing them fully. And we ask them to investigate the accountability relationship between the Board and Ministerial Fellowship Committee, with an eye toward balancing the need to protect institutional interests with a pastoral responsibility to care for victims of misconduct.

I signed it. You bet I did. They provide a space for comments when you “sign,” and here’s what I wrote: “As someone who has served as both parish minister and religious educator in congregations suffering from past clergy sexual misconduct, I have seen the effects such misconduct has on both adults and legal minors. I have also seen first hand a high level of denial about the seriousness of clergy sexual misconduct on the part of UUA leaders. It’s way past time the UUA addressed this more fully.”

Mind you, I have my doubts whether such petitions effect much change. I also have grave doubts about whether the culture at the UUA, or in many local congregations, is going to change; Unitarian Universalists have a tendency to want to solve other people’s problems before trying to address their own problems; we’re great at sending money overseas or working on immigration problems here in the U.S., but we’ve been very unwilling to tackle problems that occur in our own homes and hearts, problems like domestic violence, racism, classism, the overconsumption that goes with upper middle class lifestyles, and so on.

But in spite of my doubts, I signed the petition. It’s easy for me to sign this petition; I’m a minister, I have a vested interest in cleaning up my profession. Now it would be nice if lots of respectable laypeople, good solid institutionalists — people who are pillars of our local congregations, people of impeccable morals — it would be good if many such people also signed the petition.

Another view of the “nones”

Recently, those who study the contemporary U.S. religious landscape have been focusing on the rise of the “nones,” those who check off “none” when asked their religious affiliation on surveys. Many commentators are predicting a gradual decline in religious affiliation in the U.S. In a recent article on the Alban Institute Web site, Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby points out that the rise of the “nones” in Canada began long before it did in the United States, and has not resulted in secularization:

“In Canada, the reality of religious polarization is a far cry from what was anticipated by theories of linear secularization. It is literally A New Day for religion, where market demand remains high, precisely at a time when growing numbers are rejecting religion. Changing demographics and varied market performances are contributing to a restructuring of players. But the inclinations to embrace religion and reject religion co-exist, with the balance always in dynamic flux. Such religious polarization, as I’ve been emphasizing, is found everywhere — even now, as the Pew Forum data remind us, in the United States.”

The Alban Institute article, “Welcome to Religio8us Polarization,” is available here. This article is adapted from Bibby’s book-length study, A New Day: The Resilience and Restructuring of Religion in Canada, available as a free download from Project Canada.

Religious revival?

Back in February, I read a short news item in Christian Century titled “Gallup chief sees signs of religious revival.” Reporter Daniel Burke of Religion News Service interviewed Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup Poll. Newport challenges several things pundits have been taking for granted about the religious landscape in the U.S.:

The rise of the “nones”: According to Newport, we should be cautious about how we interpret the rise of the “nones,” those who report no religious affiliation. “When Gallup asked the question about religious identity back in the 1950s, almost zero would say they have ‘none’,” Newport says in the interview. “People would say ‘Baptist’ or ‘Catholic’ even if they were not particularly religious.” Newport sees a change in how people “express their religiosity,” not necessarily a decline in religion. Or maybe people are just being more honest than in the past.

Demographic trends may point to an increase in religious identity: Based on demographic trends, Newport sees a possibility for an increase in religious identity in the U.S. “If you look at age, the baby boomers are approaching 65-85 years of age, which we’ve seen as the most religious group for decades,” Newport says, which means that large numbers of Boomers could find religion as they age. Secondly, the Hispanic population is increasing, and Hispanics “tend to be more religious.” Thirdly, “religion has been correlated to health,” and people might start seeking out religion to increase their well-being. Finally, more religious states are seeing in-migrations from other parts of the country, and people are more likely to participate in religion in states where more people around them participate in religion.

Mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow: From a pollster’s point of view, Unitarian Universalists look pretty much like mainline Protestants, so we should be concerned when Newport says that mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow. How do religions grow? Newport says it’s simple: “For any group to grow, you have to have more people coming in than going out.” He outlines three ways religions can grow:

(a) Immigration: We’re seeing lots of Hispanics immigrating into the U.S., so it’s likely that Catholicism (and maybe Pentecostalism) will grow — but, says Newport, “there is no massive in-migration of Protestants,” and certainly no massive in-migration of Unitarian Universalists.

(b) High birth rates: Mormons are doing well because Mormonism encourages big families. Mainline Protestants tend to have lower than average birth rates. And I’d be willing to be that Unitarian Universalists have a birth rate that’s less than the replacement rate.

(c) Evangelize effectively: Mainline Protestants are doing a lousy job of evangelizing. Unitarian Universalists probably do a better job of evangelizing than most mainline Protestant churches — good enough that we make up for our low birth rates and lack of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean we’re good enough at evangelizing to grow.

So there you have it — the rate of religious identification may increase in the coming decade. However, the only way we Unitarian Universalists can take advantage of that possible increase is to evangelize more effectively.