Monday, March 19, 2012

Sermon: "Lessons from Our Newest Members" (Delivered 3-18-12)

Back when I was the Intern Minister at a church in the Dallas area, a hip looking young couple visited the church for the first time.  I was preaching the sermon that day and during the sermon they caught my eye.  They seemed really engaged, smiling, nodding, the works.  I sensed a connection.  I felt positive vibes.  After the service I went over to talk to them.  They were enthusiastic.  They told me, “We’ve been looking for a church with liberal theology.  It is great that you are so inclusive and welcoming and so affirming of diversity.”  By this point I was smiling and nodding back at them.  “But, we do have a question,” they continued.  “Does this church have a volleyball team?”  I told them we didn’t.  Immediately, their smiles disappeared; they looked crestfallen.  “Oh, we were hoping to find a liberal church with a volleyball team.”  I tried a little leadership jujitsu.  I explained that we were a permission-giving church and would support them if they wanted to start a volleyball team.  This didn’t interest them.  They informed me that they were going to keep looking for a church.

There are all sorts of wrong conclusions that we can draw from this story.  The moral of this story is not that we should start a volleyball league.  The moral of the story is that we all come to a church, and go through life, having made certain value judgments and assumptions.  For example, I believe a church’s basic theology, principles, and values are probably just about the most important thing a church has, and certainly more important than the types of social activities a church offers.  Because I make this value judgment, I tend to assume that others see things in much the same way that I see things.  It was shocking to me that someone would think that the core values of a church are equally important as a volleyball team.  I had assumed something that didn’t turn out to be the case.

The idea for this service came from an experience I had last fall that involved being with people who had different assumptions.  Last fall I was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary celebration of a UU church in Louisville.  They graciously hosted me for a weekend.  In addition to preaching I also led a workshop for them on welcoming young families.  The attendees at this workshop included board members and membership committee members, a group with an average age of 65.  There was also a group of young families in attendance.  I divided the two groups up and instructed each group to report back with a general religious biography of their group.

Here is what the leadership group came back with:  We grew up going to church, Catholic or Protestant.  In high school or college we started to have a problem with the beliefs.  We wanted a church where rationality and science are welcome.  We know what we don’t believe and don’t want to say or sing things we don’t believe in.

And then it was the young families’ turn:  We grew up religiously confused, they said.  We were hungry for spirituality, but didn’t see a place for it in the churches of our childhood if we even went to one.  Want better for our children.  We want a church that is an accepting, inclusive place conducive to spiritual exploration.

Do you see where these two groups might hold different assumptions and those different assumptions might cause some tension?  So, I came home from Louisville and wondered about our congregation.  I decided to send out a survey to every person who has decided to join the church in the past year.  I created a survey that asked about things that I had discussed with the folks in Louisville.  My attempt was not to come up with something scientific.  (A sociologist would probably tear her hair out with this survey.)  Instead, the survey is impressionistic.  One person wrote, “I found this survey very Thom, and embodying a great deal of what I like about… the UU spirit – clever, respectful of the diversity of views in the community, [and] focused on nurturing those journeys in a lively loving way.”  The survey was intended to stimulate reaction.  I received about forty responses, with more than half of those responding choosing to answer in paragraph or even essay form in addition to multiple choice.  (You can find the quantitative results here.)

In the first two questions on the survey, I asked about how religious our newest members’ upbringings had been and about whether it was a mostly positive or mostly negative experience.  A lot of our newest members wrote long responses to these questions.  What stands out from those responses is that the answers had very little to do with beliefs.  Those who had a positive experience wrote about feeling that the church was a warm, safe, and nurturing community and often commented about inspiring relationships with a minister or with a lay leader.  Those who had a negative experience also wrote more about behavior than belief.  They wrote about being exposed to hypocrisy, exclusiveness, and meanness.

What was striking to me in the responses was that almost no one wrote to me about leaving the church of their childhood because of an intellectual rejection of doctrine.  Deeds were more important than creeds.  I was left with the sense that those who chose to comment took the position that the most basic, essential teaching of Jesus is one and the same with that saying from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  “Be excellent to each other.”  There was sensitivity to when religion treated people in ways that were “bogus.”

One of our new members wrote to me that a family member referred to himself as a worthless sinner.  This didn’t seem healthy, and it was at odds with her experience of him as a good, kind, and generous man.  Another wrote “I do not think religion should be used to single people out or make them feel bad.  I don’t think people should be lectured about their beliefs or life choices, but, instead, given insights and wisdom to reflect on.”

I found the results to questions five and six to be not only interesting and consistent, but also in line with what I had heard from younger families in the Louisville congregation.  A full 75% percent of the newest members of this church wrote that they either really liked or were generally open to religious words like God, spirit, and grace.  And, of the 25% who don’t care much for these words, not a single person wrote to take this position vehemently.  Here is what one person who doesn’t find religious language meaningful wrote, “I do like that SMUUCh is not totally secular, but what is most important to me is tolerance and openness.  Unlike [some] atheists I have met, I don’t think that people who believe in God are delusional.  I am not going to judge them.”

This openness was consistent with the responses to question six, in which I proposed a hypothetical religious education class, a highly participatory class on the varieties of religious experience, complete with meditation, chant, movement, dance, and so on.  Two-thirds replied that they’d be willing to try such a class.  Many wrote notes such as, “You need to offer this class. Seriously.”  Another wrote, “I would love to learn and experience other spiritual practices by actually doing… as long as it doesn’t get too weird.  I don’t know what that would actually entail, maybe blood sacrifice?”  Question six, it occurs to me, touches not only on spiritual orientation, but also personality type.  When we use the service to teach hand gestures and dance moves for the hymn “Spirit of Life,” some of you are ecstatic and others of you stand there with your arms crossed over your chest.  In fact, some of you have asked me whether we might add dance moves to other hymns and others have said to let them know when we plan to do hand gestures so they can avoid coming to church.

I have to tell you that I’m not altogether sure that question eight was all that effective in asking for what I was interested in learning.  Question eight asked our newest members to react to a joke about Unitarian Universalists choosing a discussion of heaven over actually going to heaven.  Just over 50% of those I asked said that they saw a bit of themselves in this joke.  The other half said that they didn’t really see themselves in the joke, but these results are definitely open to interpretation.

Now, there just so happens to be a few dozen Unitarian Universalist jokes that get recycled over and over, year after year.  Believe me, I’ve heard them all.  Jokes can either name a truth or perpetuate a stereotype.  And, with the joke about choosing the discussion group about heaven, I was curious about whether the joke contained a truth or perpetuated a stereotype, and whether the joke would be seen as valid to those who are newest here.  What would it mean if a demographic within the church were to say that they either didn’t get the joke, or didn’t think it was particularly funny?  Do some UU jokes have an expiration date?

Case in point, recently another UU joke was mentioned within our church community.  The joke goes, “What is the definition of a Unitarian Universalist?  An atheist with children.”  And, not everybody found this joke funny.  So, what is your reaction to the atheist with children joke?  Do you hear it and think, “Guilty as charged”?  Or, do you hear it and feel excluded?

Right before I sent out the survey, I made a few predictions about what the results would show.  For a few of the questions, my predictions turned out to be accurate.  For other questions, the results completely took me by surprise.  To me, the most surprising results of the survey came from the responses to question seven.  This question asks what your religious affiliation would be if there were no UU churches in the Kansas City metro area.  Eighty-eight percent said they would not belong to a religious community if it was not a Unitarian Universalist community.

Take a moment to let that sink in.  88% of those who joined this church in the past year did not join this community instead of a Methodist or Catholic or Jewish or UCC congregation.  They came here and thought, “If not here, then nowhere.”  In fact, in the written responses, some people got creative.  One respondent said that she would probably take her whole family to Sierra Club meetings, but it wouldn’t be the same.  Another said that she would form a spiritual discussion group in her home.  One respondent said that she would create a curriculum on the world religions for her child, but that it would be challenging and lonely.  A fourth said that she would drive to the Lawrence UU Fellowship as often as she could.

I was surprised by the response to this question because I would think that the openness to religious language indicated by question five and the openness to religious experience indicated by question six would have led to greater willingness to try out other kinds of religious communities if a UU congregation was unavailable.  But, no, the data said exactly the opposite. There is something about this congregation that is unique and important and amazing.  After all, you did not choose this church because of its volleyball team.

Here are some responses from the newest members of this church on how they first heard about Unitarian Universalism:

“I know I heard of Unitarianism when I learned of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Not sure when that was.  I knew someone in Kansas City years ago who was Unitarian.”

“I discovered UU while researching material for lesson plans on transcendentalist poetry.”

“I learned about Unitarianism from Robert Fulghum’s ‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.’”

“We attended a forum on organic farming at All Souls.  I remember walking in there and thinking, ‘This is a church. . . that is okay with people being gay. . . and cares about the environment?’ 

“I came to speak to SMUUCh [on a] Donate the Plate [Sunday].  After sitting through 2 sermons to give my speech, I was surprised that there was a ‘church’ out there that had my same feelings [and] approach to religion.”

“I saw a post on Facebook about the Thanksgiving / Black Friday Celebrate / What You Have Day activities, and it sounded like something my husband and I would love to do.”

“[We] were getting married and we didn't want a justice of the peace to marry us. We wanted a spiritual ceremony but not a religious ceremony. I found a quiz online through Beliefnet and I scored as 99% Unitarian Universalist.”

“I think originally I heard of the UU when searching for a church to marry us in Omaha, Nebraska, where I’m from. I came upon the UUs there and started reading how welcoming the congregation was. I remember being intrigued, but at the time, I didn’t want to add going to church to my life since I had two full-time jobs and was planning a wedding. Fast forward to last winter…my husband came upon the SMUUCH web site and was so excited. He kept reading to me from [the minister’s] blog posts and I said I’d definitely go check it out.”

“My wife found you guys online after I jokingly asked her to type ‘The First Agnostic Church’ into Google.”

“In high school, I recall people making references to my church as being nearly as liberal as a Unitarian Church.”
“While attending the Presbyterian church, the pastor lent me a book… called Kingdom of the Cults which I think had a small section on Unitarianism [which told me that Unitarians] don't believe Jesus is god as confirmed in the Nicene creed thus they are wrong and bad.”

“We searched the internet here in Kansas City for Unitarian and found SMUUCh.  We've gotten happier and happier with everything that has happened since then!”