One None

I’m still thinking about the Nones, that 20% of the population that doesn’t identify with any one religious tradition. It’s a diverse group to consider, consisting of a mix of atheists, theists, and something-in-betweenists. The spiritual-but-not-religious and the not-spiritual-nor-religious reside here, and finding common threads among this diverse group proves challenging.

NPR ran a series last week titled, “Losing our Religion” (see the bottom of this post for links to the episodes). By sharing the stories of a few handfuls of people who fall in the None category, the stories explored the variety of reasons this body is growing, how they cope with tragedy, why they leave religion (or never seek it), and how they view religion from their seats on the outside.Whether None or not, it’s worth a listen, as it’s apt to make even a None more aware of this growing part of the US population.

Before the series ran, I had done my own research. I talked to one None, a good friend willing to share why he, like 88% of Nones, isn’t looking for a church or spiritual home.  He grew up in a somewhat-observant Hindu home, attending temples with his family until he decided that he wasn’t certain about religion at all. He stepped away, asserting himself at a young age and remains an agnostic-near-atheist today who neatly fits in the None category.

Fast forward several decades, with plenty of study of science, a keen sense of compassion, and spirit of giving, and he remains a None. He’s wondered aloud why I go off to church each week, what draws me away from jammies and the paper. Generally, I stick to the same story: I find companionship on my journey through life for me and my boys, I learn from others, and I enjoy the habit and tradition of hymns, sermons, and silence.

But couldn’t you find that community at a coffeehouse on a Sunday morning? Couldn’t you share your stories in a small group, offering support to each other both in word and deed? Over a latte or even a beer, couldn’t like-minded people come together to discuss issues or a book? He’s right. This would meet my desires for companionship and common purpose, both which drive me to head to my Unitarian Universalist church each week. And for the introverted, it’s possible small groups would make meeting people more comfortable than facing a large congregation. It’s not easy for those of us who dread approaching a stranger to find a community in a church. Certainly I never managed to introduce myself to strangers at coffee hour, a time I still find loud and fatiguing, a sense only somewhat relieved when I find my sure shelter friends, some whom I’ve knowing before I attended.

Beyond the gathering itself, he questions the service itself. Why, he inquires, would I want to hear the same person week after week? What’s the point of that, what with so many points of view in the world? Most Unitarian Universalist churches do hire a minister to be their main speaker on Sunday morning. Smaller congregations and those between hired ministry rotate the duty to people within the congregation while bringing in outside speakers when possible. But as a matter of ease or simply tradition, most congregations have a minister to do the preaching.

My representative None points out the origins of this practice: ministers and priests historically served to be the authoritative figure on all things religion. With an uneducated populace, the minister was needed to read and interpret the scriptures, guiding the flock with his words and wisdom. How would that pertain to a bunch of UUs, and how could one person be an authority on those sources we claim rely upon?

It’s a fair question, one for which I don’t have an answer. It led to a discussion about the service itself. As someone who didn’t grow up going to weekly services, the practice is foreign to my None friend. And part of why I go to church is simply because I always have. It’s not a great reason, and it’s not my only one, but it’s why I searched for a church home after leaving Christianity. I missed that ritual. I missed the songs and the time to gather formally and share ritual. This all brings a look of puzzlement from my friend.

So, I asked, what would be worth taking the time to gather with a large group of people? Service, says my None. He’d be glad each week to join a group of people working on an environmental or social project.  Perhaps, he added that would be a good model for the Unitarian Universalist church. This was the original context of the conversation — would the Nones be drawn to a UU church? What, if anything, would draw the majority who say they aren’t looking for a church or spiritual home? After wandering around what isn’t appealing, the idea of regular service within a community comes forth as desirable.

More ideas followed. Rather than hiring a minister to preach each week, a church could hire a minister to organize the service that would be the mission of the church. The minister would serve as part program manager, part pastoral caregiver, bringing skills in leadership as well as compassion. On Sunday, people would gather to do work, perhaps offsite, with children old enough to work participating with the adults and younger children remaining in class, much as they do now. People could also do work at the church, focusing on tasks that don’t require being in the field. Everyone would have a hand in service. Perhaps once a month, the Sunday would be communal time, with a speaker invited in to inform, motivate, and inspire.

It’s a compelling image. It’s also far from what most UU churches do today. Most, like mine, are wed to a rather traditionally-structured Sunday morning, with congregants facing forward to listen to their minister. But if we really want to grow, we need to consider change. Perhaps Sundays filled more with service than services is a start. I’m reluctant to admit that, attached as I am to our Sunday service. And change is hard. But as I look around our meeting house on a Sunday morning, I see who is missing. Those in their late teens through early 30s. Men, especially single ones. People who are uncomfortable with or just uninterested in a generally traditional service with less focus on the divine. People who want to act now, not just once a month, but every week.

I’ve spoken in-depth to just one None. Perhaps that’s the way to start. Perhaps if we all found just one None to listen to deeply, to what would draw them to community, to church. My friend is certain there are others who share his desire to serve rather than sit, peers of his in the middle of their lives as well as those in the generations straddling his. I’d encourage each Unitarian Universalist to seek out a None and engage him or her in this discussion. Listen with an open mind to criticisms of our current model, ideas about a more appealing model, and the needs that rest behind both. Then go back to your congregations, and when the discussion turns to growth, share what you’ve found.

On Losing Our Religion (NPR, January 14-18, 2013)

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5 thoughts on “One None

  1. At the Unitarian Universalist Society:East in Manchester, CT we alternate between minister-led services and lay-ministry services. Twenty six of each per year. The lay services explore the same monthly theme as does the minister, but from different perspectives – precisely what your One None wants. For example, a recent lay service explored the theme of discernment by hearing and seeing the presentations of six artists in the congregation who discussed the technical and/or spiritual discernment they bring to their art forms. The artists included a photographer, a poet, a writer, a singer, a theater lighting designer and a sundial maker/inventor.

  2. Very cool! Thanks! A couple of thoughts:

    Thought #1 is, why service in place of the service? Why not both, regularly, each week if possible? I realize the speaker is addressing a resource issue–what staff roles will congregations spend their money on–but to some extent he is also saying, I don’t like services so let’s not have them. While I try to be wide-open about what church means, I’m not convinced that worship, in some form, ought to be so easily cast aside.

    But then, that’s because (thought #2) I love to hear a great preacher. The priestly, authoritarian origins of the single minister your friend identifies may be correct, but isn’t there a different reason today?: expertise. By which I mean, spiritual depth, thoughtfulness, dynamism in speaking, clarity of thought and writing, skill at the aesthetics of worship–all the things that make for a great preacher. Modesty, not to mention honesty, forbids my saying that I’m so fascinating that my insights outweigh what we could do with my salary if we spent it on an organizer/project manager instead, but people do seem to want to hear me 30-something Sundays per year.

    However, we also have a lay speaker in every service–their reflections, which are a lot like short sermons, are an indispensable element of our services–and about a third of the Sundays are led by someone besides our ministers: a member of the congregation, or a guest who may or may not be a minister. They are all trained and supported. I have been to churches where the pulpit was regularly given over to someone who just had something to say, with no particular ability in writing or public speaking, and it did not make me want to return despite the pleasant community. (I assume Jerome’s congregation doesn’t work that way.)

    • Amy, I was less peaceful about my response when the discussion occurred. Ditch the service?! How could you think of it! We like it! I hit the points you did — I like it, others like it, expertise matters, familiarity makes people comfortable, etc. It took some time to get past my bias that Sunday needed to be a service and listen to hear what he was saying.

      This None really doesn’t want the service, and I’ll bet he’s not alone. Yes, those of us with a history with the service are attached. There’s nothing wrong with that. But by sticking to that model 52 weeks a year, we’re likely NOT appealing to those to whom that formula either doesn’t resonate or seems, frankly, useless and not worthy of dressing and leaving the house. I know I’m on the fence sometimes, and I enjoy the service. But our format, even with varied speakers, as Jerome mentioned, if the idea of service isn’t appealing, we’re likely leaving a good number of folks out. We, too have lay leaders or outsiders speak monthly, but that’s not addressing the core issue of seeing action more valuable than doing service

      I’m not in favor of abolishing the service, but I see his point. Acting out on one’s beliefs and values is powerful and, for some, far more meaningful than listening to someone – minister or not — talk about beliefs and values. I’d add it to the list of changes to consider for congregations looking to shake things up and, perhaps, grow their congregations. If we want to spread our message of inclusivity and compassion, we need to consider whom we’re not reaching by sticking to a Protestant-style service. With 88% of Nones not looking for traditional church, what we offer is, frankly, still pretty traditional.

      For most congregations, worship as a service on Sunday morning is the central activity of the church. Yes, an attendee could skip that and do other activities, but he or she would likely not feel integrated into the community. What if we moved our center to action, with worship occurring once or twice a month? Would we find our attendance rising and our message reaching more people? Would UU churches become the hub of action in crisis and the champion of those underserved? Would we be steady voices for those who are generally forgotten, perhaps those not reached well by traditional Christian denominations? Could each church find their “thing” that excites them? I don’t know. But I’d like to find out.

    • Remember this is one idea from one none, and the request isn’t for a service-only organization but for a greater element of service and overall purpose of a congregation. In this model, meeting as community for monthly services/talks continues, as does programming for our children.

      What’s more the point than this None’s specific idea is the idea of talking to Nones and seeing what they want. Maybe their vision doesn’t fit what we offer. Maybe that’s fine. But truly listening to what members of this diverse group DO want could inform us of ways to grow as congregations and as a religious movement, uniting more of those who are open to diversity of belief with values of caring for this planet and its peoples.

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