Spread Like the Squash Plant

What follows is the text of a sermon I delivered on Sunday, January 19, 2014 at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, MI January 19, 2014.  I gave a very similar sermon at the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty on January 12, 2014.  They were each tailored to those specific audiences, and the text for Jackson included how Jackson is now being seen as part of the Ann Arbor region, and was a longer version than this.  Earlier versions (without the Marge Piercy metaphor, and with several other substantial differences) were given at the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty in January of 2013, at as the winner of the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association sermon prize at the Heartland District Assembly on April 13, 2013 just prior to our vote to become part of the MidAmerica Region, and the next day at the Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church in Southfield, MI on April 14, 2013. 

Good morning!  As Gail said, I am the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of East Liberty, which is about 45 minutes due west of here in the Jackson area, where I have been serving for ten years in a small, historically Universalist congregation that is 158 years old.  The view from Jackson of our faith is a little different, perhaps, than it is from here, and so I wanted to share with you some of what I’m seeing about the future of Unitarian Universalism from out there in the country, and from my perspective as one of your board members on the MidAmerica Region Board.  

In December, an older member of my congregation, a member of one of our founding families actually, asked me, at a holiday luncheon, “Cindy, do you see anyone in the younger families in this church who will do what we did?” No, I said, no one will do what you did.  The volunteerism in younger generations looks very different now, and what they want out of church is different.  But the church can continue on, if it learns to adapt and change.  The answer I think is in the Marge Piercy poem we shared as a responsive reading:

Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden…
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us it is interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.[1]
You see, this is not at all how we’ve been looking at growth, and change, in our churches and association.  But what Marge Piercy expresses organically is, I think, the same as something that I’ve been talking about in ways that are organizational, theological and missional.  So let me explain.

First, we begin with the fact that as a denomination, we are not growing.[2]  We’re stagnant at best, but shrinking by some measurements.  And, overall, this is true for other progressive religions, as well.[3]  And we’ve got to figure out how to, as a movement and as individual churches, stop this slide.  I’m cutting out a lot of the data that proves this and the anecdotes that illustrate it, in order to spend more time with the solution than the problem, so you’ll just have to believe me, or check my footnotes later.[4]  Churches are on the decline, the liberal protestant ones particularly so.[5]  My little church is at best stagnant – it’s been under 100 for 158 years.  Despite all the emphasis and talk about growth in our movement, and we’ve done that plenty in our church, the number of churches that ever do grow is relatively small. 

In America, there’s a shift going on in regards to religious participation.  A Pew Research study a couple of years ago showed that among Millennials, younger adults in their 20s and early 30s, a smaller percentage are involved in church life than preceding generations were at the same point in their lives.[6]  It’s not just that they’re waiting until they have children—they come less then, too.  It’s not because of a lack of faith—almost as many Millennials believe in God as did Gen Xers at their age.  It’s because more of them have been raised without religion, and they don’t see the purpose for it.  Their generational identity is one where they’re not focused on building and maintaining institutions.  They’re interested in mission – in being out there in the world and changing it. 

One way to understand this shift is using the concept of horizontal versus vertical identity, something explored by Andrew Solomon in his book Far From the Tree.  Vertical identities are those identity elements that you get from your parents—race, ethnicity, usually language, and a lot of our culture.  I think of this as growing like the tree—a family tree, a Michigan maple. 

Not every piece of our identity, however, is something which we share with our parent.  Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children are quite often born to heterosexual cisgendered parents.  This is horizontal identity, because we find our identity group among our peers.  This is growing like the squash plant, instead of the maple.  We search outside our family for connection around something that is core and important to us.

Religion in America, I would argue, used to be largely vertical.  Religion was something you inherited from your parents.  We still see some of that vertical identity of religion over in my little church—families who have been here for generations.  We’ve grown like the family tree trusting this would maintain, at least, our family church.  But it hasn’t in the last couple of generations.  Of the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of our eldest members in the area, only a small percentage come.  I understand that you have a few multi-generational families here, as well.  And that’s wonderful where it’s still occurring, but not the norm for most churches anymore.  Along those lines, I heard a joke that the Presbyterian Church USA has adopted a new slogan: Shrink Less Rapidly: “work in great unity and joy to lose only five percent.”[7] 

Growing generationally, vertically, like the tree no longer works.  It’s time to grow like the squash plant, grow horizontally, grow like a chat group, grow like a meme.  This is what we need to do, but aren’t doing yet.  Horizontal communities are proliferating, but their availability has weakened the perceived need for church to be one of them, and so we have the rise of the “Nones,” those who don’t attend any church.  It’s much easier today to build your community in other ways.  Andrew Solomon writes:
[T]he ability of everyone with access to a computer to find like-minded people has meant that no one need be excluded from social kinship. …. If you can figure out who you are, you can find other people who are the same.[8]

This reality is what our UUA President, Peter Morales, was responding to when he wrote in a working paper in 2012 titled “Congregations and Beyond”:
Congregations as local parishes arose in a different era. They arose in a time of limited mobility and communication..... When Unitarianism and Universalism were in their infancy, no one would think of belonging to a congregation ten miles away. Churches were the centers of community life in a largely agricultural society…. To be limited to a traditional parish form of organization in the 21st century is like limiting ourselves to technology that does not require electricity.[9]
The Rev. Phil Lund, who is one of our regional staff members, echoed this on his blog, saying that if we’re afraid to make changes we are “like the lieutenant in that opening scene of The Matrix…. as Agent Smith might say, ‘No reverend, your church is already dead.’”[10]

So if the old model of church is dead or declining, what is successful?  What can we look to?  Here’s where we talk about change, and get to the squash plant.   In this environment where churches are struggling to survive, there are things that are thriving.  Horizontal communities are proliferating, and are flexible, and are popping up everywhere in response to need.  For example, in March of 2012 there was a rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. that was the largest ever known gathering of atheists.  Atheism is starting all sorts of groups and movements and conferences across America right now.  Did you hear the recent report on NPR about the Sunday Assembly?  They’re starting a movement of things that sound a lot like churches that do something a lot like worship, and it’s growing like a weed.  It’s growing like a squash plant.  Why is it that they can get 8-10 thousand people to gather for a rally?  And can build dozens of new congregations?  They’re creating horizontal community, and they’re tapping into the changing and shifting cultural needs and they’re doing it well.  We have so much of the structure and knowledge in place to tap into this, but we have to recognize that we’ve got some outmoded ideas, too, and some structures that aren’t serving us. 

Millennials have many attitudes that are in concert with us, like not taking scriptures literally, thinking that here could be more than one path to God, or increased acceptance of homosexuality and evolution.  The Pew Research studies have also shown that the majority of Americans overall believe that there are multiple paths to Heaven, even the majority of Christians.[11]  Between the Pew Research Study on Millennials and the Faith Formation 2020 study, we know that people, particularly younger adults are calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  We also know our society is growing in diversity.  So the community of people who are like-minded is growing.  We just need to build the church of the future, the church that they might be interested in joining.  And it needs to be a church that is accessible to people who may work retail, as many young adults do, who may be starting their families later, and who are looking more to tapping into their community than to maintaining a beautiful building.[12]

Reaching the Millennials is not going to come from growing like a tree, or doing more of what we’ve always done.  But the good news is that we’re on the brink of a new great awakening, as many religious leaders are seeing it.  Here’s some of what they’re seeing this new awakening will mean.  At last year’s UU minister’s institute, the Rev. Susan Ritchie pointed to our tradition of radical laicism.[13]  We believe in the prophetic power of our lay people.  Amen to that.  That’s a unique part of our tradition.  And it makes us flexible and powerful.  Millennials aren’t attracted to hierarchy.  They’re starting things like Occupy, where ever person gets a voice—not unlike here.  Occupy has a General Assembly every day.  Also at the UUMA Institute, the Rev. Scott Tayler, who is the new director of congregational life at the UUA, talked about how our future is in realizing that now, with so much at our fingertips, the idea that every church had to be able to do everything, and that ministers had to be the great generalists, is an old model.  He said:
I would say our calling… is to just end the ridiculous habits and structures that we have and the culture we have of isolated ministers working in isolated churches.  And we have a calling to work in partnership.  And right at this moment I’ll take any bet… in twenty years our movement will be characterized by staff teams, staff teams of three to five people who all know their special gifts serving three to four congregations.  We will either see that in twenty years or we’ll be dead as a movement.[14]
 Structurally, you see, we’ve been a forest of Michigan maples, each growing trying to reach the sky and spread our branches as much as possible to cover each our own area.  Over in the small church, we’re seeing the unsustainability of our model right now.  But by the time the bigger churches see it, with their relative health and strength, we may be dead, as Agent Smith said.  We need to awaken to this now, and start building the church of the future.  We need to stop being churches in silos, and work together in clusters of churches, and allow our clergy to provide for each of our churches in our squash garden what they do best.  I may have a weakness in, well, bad example, because I’m great at everything, right?  But seriously, another minister may have a great knowledge of classical music or jazz and renaissance art, while I possess a knowledge of, well, 80s music, sci-fi, and comic books. 

This is why we moved from district to region in Unitarian Universalism, as well.  We’re allowing our district staff to stop being generalists and start focusing in the areas of their excellence, be it religious education or fundraising.  And the result for us will be strength.  If we’re going to build this church of the future, we need to get outside of our trees, our silos and steeples, and be something interconnected with rabbit runs. 

This is where I think this might not be as obvious in the healthier parts of our movement, which is the larger congregations, the liberal centers like Ann Arbor.  But from Jackson in a rural congregation it seems clear that the old models, for us, are dying, and we need to create new ways.  Over in East Liberty, for 158 years, we’ve been an isolated congregation with our little steeple pointed to the sky.  We’ve been our church in a silo, one minister, one congregation, working largely by ourselves.  Small churches form the vast majority of our churches – 15 of the 27 UU congregations in our state are under one hundred and 20 of them are under a hundred and fifty – because it’s easier to build and sustain a small group initially, but the idea that we can have lots of independent small groups but sustaining staff and buildings and programming and institutions isn’t sustainable.  We need to bring our small groups into clusters and regions and provide services across a wider area.  We need to spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden to weave real connections and create real nodes, to keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in.  And what I’m asking you to think about, here in Ann Arbor, is your role as a major hub for your region, surrounded by smaller congregations.  I’m telling you today that I think you have a mission, and a purpose, and a role to play that is uniquely yours, in our movement and in our future.  You’re the biggest squash in our patch.  You’re the Great Pumpkin.

The organization level has to do with interconnection, hubs and nodes, but what about at the level of mission and theology?  In the book Church 3.0, author Neil Cole says overall, we have to move from being an organization dedicated to protecting what we have—a building, a community, a way of being here—to an organization that is focused outside our four walls, focused on changing what’s wrong out there.[15]  This is what young adults are saying when they’re saying that they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I think.  We can have too much focus on building the institution, and not enough focus on building the movement for love and justice. 

The Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church of New York, which is UCC and American Baptist, has said that the Unitarian Universalists have already been called by God (or I would add universe or our broken Earth) for a specific purpose.[16]  And that purpose has something to do with our excellence in interfaith cooperation, which is necessary for overcoming our systems of militarism and capitalism and building the beloved community. 

Scott Tayler puts this as we have to offer healing spiritual disconnection to the world, and we do this through three things: reconnecting with your deepest self, opening to life’s gifts, and serving needs greater than our own.[17]  Michael Piazza, a UCC minister of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas says we need to focus our ministries on the emerging cultural values such as Religious and cultural pluralism, Environmental concern, Care for one another, and Compassionate capitalism.[18]  And he also says we need to root up our beautiful flower beds in the dying progressive church and plant vegetable gardens addressing our real needs.  To a Christian audience he says this: “We can either give birth to new congregations in our old churches or resign ourselves to being glorified funeral homes. Our best advice is to plant a vegetable patch of liberal, active, passionate adults who might just believe that the church of Jesus Christ can change the world.”[19]

So I say, plant that vegetable patch, because Unitarian Universalism can change the world.  Unitarian Universalism is uniquely poised to be the religious community of the future, but we have to take the mission of attracting the next generation seriously.  We have to realize that, frankly, a lot of people aren’t looking for somewhere they can join a committee.  They’re not looking for somewhere to give away their money to.  They’re not looking to spend their time maintaining a building.  They’re not even looking for somewhere to ask them to get up on a Sunday morning and go out.  What they might be looking for is someplace full of energy, that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism, or that tries new and interesting spiritual practices.  They might be looking for a community of like-minded folks, and they might be looking for a larger sense of mission.  They might be looking to engage in their community through organizing for social change.  They might be looking for a democratically-run organization.  They might be looking for someplace with spiritual freedom and lack of dogma.  They might be looking for a faith community that sees sexuality between two loving consenting adults as not only not shameful, but sacred and even spiritual.  They might be looking for a church where we can say things like “vagina” in a state where you can’t say it in your state house.[20]  They might be looking for a place where even with their relative youth, and lay person status, they’re understood to have prophetic witness.  They might be looking for something that Unitarian Universalism has the potential to be, and is, already, in its heart and soul.  They are looking for what we can be if we weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses, live a life we can endure, and make love that is loving. 

When you put that all together, you see that we have a calling to use our amazing prophetic laity and our excellence in working with the interfaith community, and I would add our strong history of religious liberalism and anti-oppression witness and action, and we need to harness these things, deepen our spirituality, and take our mission out into the world, serving needs greater than our own, and building the beloved community, and standing on the side of love.  What an amazing world this can be when we truly take up that call from Lake Michigan and Benton Harbor to Detroit, from Ann Arbor and Jackson to the Keweenaw peninsula.  So I’m asking you now, rise and join me.  I mean this literally!  Rise and join me in singing!  Because this day is coming.  It’s arriving soon, and I want you to go with me to that land.  Please join in singing #146. 

[1] Marge Piercy, “Connections Are Made Slowly (The Seven of Pentacles),” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston, Beacon Press: 1993) 568.
[2] Christopher L. Walton, “UUA Membership Declines for Fourth Year,” in UU World Magazine (Boston, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations: Fall 2012), http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/229854.shtml.

[3] See: John Dart, “UCC Has Been Progressive Pacesetter,” in The Christian Century (July 18, 2013), http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-07/ucc-has-been-progressive-pacesetter.

[4] See: See: Ross, Douthat, “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” in The New York Times (July 25, 2012), http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/25/is-liberal-christianity-actually-the-future/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.

[5] See: Connor Wood, “Why Is Liberal Protestantism Dying, Anyway?” in Patheos (July 26, 2013), http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/07/why-is-liberal-protestantism-dying-anyway/.

[6] “Religion Among Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, but Fairly Traditional in Other Ways,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (Washington, D.C., Pew Forum: 2010), http://pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Demographics/Age/millennials-report.pdf, 1.

[7] “Presb. Church USA Launches Ambitious Plan to Lose Only 5% of Members,” Lark News, http://www.larknews.com/archives/556.

[8] Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree (New York, Simon & Schuster, Inc: 2012), Kindle Edition, 20.

[9] Peter Morales, “Congregations and Beyond,” (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2012), http://www.uua.org/documents/moralespeter/120115_congs_beyond.pdf.

[10] Phillip Lund, “Your Congregation Is Already Dead,” Phil’s Little Blog on the Prairie (October 17, 2011), http://philontheprairie.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/your-congregation-is-already-dead/.

[11] “Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life” Pew Research: Religion & Public Life Project (Washington, D.C., Pew Forum: December 18, 2008), http://www.pewforum.org/2008/12/18/many-americans-say-other-faiths-can-lead-to-eternal-life/.

[12] John Roberto, Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation, (Naugatuck, CT, LifelongFaith Associates: 2912). Kindle Edition, Locations 773-786.

[13] Susan Ritchie, “Friday Closing Panel,” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday2.

[14] Scott Tayler, “Friday Closing Panel” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday2

[15] Neil Cole, Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass , 2010), Kindle Edition, 9.

[16] James Forbes, “Friday Worship” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday1.

[17] Scott Tayler, “Friday Closing Panel” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday2

[18] Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press/United Church Press, 2011), Kindle Edition, Locations 242-248.

[19] Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press/United Church Press, 2011), Kindle Edition, Locations 620-622.

[20] See: Eyder Peralta, “Michigan State Rep Barred From Speaking After ‘Vagina’ Comments,” National Public Radio (June 14, 2012), http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/06/14/155059849/michigan-state-rep-barred-from-speaking-after-vagina-comments.


SpecK said…
Thank you so much for the wisdom and substance in this text and in your prophetic voice.

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