Our ministry theme for September is transitions—always a potent theme for this time of year, the beginning of the congregational year, the beginning of the school year, the commencement of the final harvest on New England farms, the arrival of autumn. Indeed, even if there’s no particular threshold we’re crossing in our personal lives at this time, autumn in New England demands that we pay attention to transition. Those words we recited earlier from Rabbi Jack Riemer remind us of this: “Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.” This is a season of obvious, bold and brilliant transitions.
And, of course, the Rabbi is also making reference to atonement—that solemn, joyful practice at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—that solemn, joyful practice—both spiritual and social—of making amends, of saying, “I’m sorry,” of asking for forgiveness, of turning, in the Rabbi’s words, from “callousness to sensitivity … envy to contentment … fear to faith;” that most sacred act of returning from separation back to relationship, from isolation back to community, from brokenness back to wholeness. This is indeed a season of transitions.
I want to name a transition in our congregation that is largely behind us now, and then offer a related transition in my thinking about what I’m calling “The State of ‘The Church.’” The transition in our congregation began when we learned in 2013 that our long-time, beloved Director of Religious Education, Vicki Merriam, would be retiring; and then, a year later, that our beloved and now sadly deceased Director of Music, Pawel Jura, would be moving to a new position in Virginia. We said “good-bye” to Vicki in June of 2014, and to Pawel a month later in July; and then we embarked on very intentional, careful and thoughtful periods of transition. Knowing that awesome religious education and awesome music are critical to a thriving Unitarian Universalist congregation, we wanted to transition well. Whatever else our mission says about who we are as a faith community and how we aspire to show up in the world, religious education and music are the programmatic life-blood of our church. We knew this. We wanted to make sure these staff positions and their programs were well-structured and appropriately funded; and we wanted to hire the best possible people. I am confident we have been successful in our efforts. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Gina Campellone in her role as Director of Religious Education. We’ve already welcomed and congratulated Mary Bopp in her role as Director of Music. I’m not proposing that we do that again today. But I am naming that as a congregation we have come through a period of transition in our staff and major programs. I am overjoyed to be starting the congregational year and, instead of focusing my best energy on staff transitions, I can now return again to the ministry you called me to provide thirteen years ago. That feels great.
Congratulations to you, the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, for coming through this time of transition so well.
Over the past few years you may have noticed the prevalence of a certain topic in my preaching, teaching and committee work. During this period of transition I have continually repeated the message that in the United States the traditional church—that is, a congregation with a building, with Sunday morning worship as its central spiritual practice, with staff, with committees, with many bills to pay—is in serious decline. Some might say it is in free-fall. Across denominations, across faiths, membership is down, attendance is down, participation is down, volunteerism is down, financial giving—especially since the Great Recession of 2008—is down. Churches are moving from full time professional ministers to part-time professional ministers. Churches are closing. Just a year ago, September 14th, 2015, I preached a sermon on “The End of Church” in which I cited all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches. I quoted an article that had just appeared in the UU World magazine in which the Rev. Dr. Teresa Cooley cited many of those same statistics, arguing that “if we don’t pay attention to these trends, we could end up like those near-empty or abandoned churches that are increasingly becoming part of our [national] landscape.” Just this past week there was yet another piece on National Public Radio about Catholic Churches continuing to close in the northeast and midwest. These trends are alive and well.
Another way I—and we—have been talking about the decline of the traditional church is by naming how families with children are less able to participate in congregational life because childhood is changing. In a November, 2013 sermon on the value of multigenerational community, I said, “we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever [that] other activity is their highest priority. What a difference [from a generation ago], when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away.”
I think it’s been really important to talk about these trends, this evidence of the end of church, these data of decline in congregational life as we’ve gone through a time of transition in staffing and programs. It’s been really important for us to know what’s going on in American religious life. It’s been really important for us to envision our future with full knowledge of the challenges we may be facing. And while naming these trends and evidence and data can feel negative, grim, sobering even frightening at times, I don’t regret doing it. We needed this information, and we still need it, in order to make wise decisions, in order to sustain our congregation and our faith for future generations.
But now we’ve come through our transition and I don’t want to talk about decline anymore. I don’t want to focus on the end of church any more. I’m done talking about it, especially from the pulpit. I say this knowing full well the trends and issues aren’t going away. Indeed, over the summer a number of posts showed up on my Facebook page describing how difficult professional ministry has become, how hundreds of ministers leave the ministry every month, how those who don’t typically work 60-70 hour weeks, and many other sad statistics. Credible people have studied this. The writers are correct. It is salient stuff. I deeply appreciate the people who post these articles on my page because they do it out of love and concern for me. But I’m done talking about it. I’m done talking about decline. I’m done talking about the end of church. I’m done giving it energy and attention. I’m done talking about all sorts of statistics about all sorts of people who aren’t attending all sorts of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.
Why and I done? Because I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. This church isn’t ending. This church isn’t in decline. And, most importantly, you’re here. That matters. Instead of trying to figure out the needs of people who aren’t here and who may never come here, why not respond to you—to your needs, your energy, your passion? Let’s prioritize you. Let’s talk about the fact that there are people here—present now—with pain and sorrow and misgivings and joy and contentment and milestones to celebrate—people who take church seriously, who understand its value in their lives and in the world. I want to talk about that.
And I want to talk about commitment. I’m committed to our Unitarian Universalist faith and to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I hope and trust you are committed too. Commitment matters. In a society that increasingly tolerates and even sanctions the erosion of commitment in family life, friendships, work, community and politics, let’s talk about what it means to be committed to a spiritual community—to claim its principles as our own, to embrace its mission as our own, to abide by its covenant, to express its values in public, to sustain it for future generations. What an incredible thing—to be committed in this way: to a church, to a congregation, to a piece of land, to a building, to a sanctuary. I want to talk about that.
And I want to talk about courage. It is becoming abundantly clear to me that, while we have to be vigilant about church growth, and continue to take steps to grow our congregations, the future of our liberal faith doesn’t ultimately hinge on whether more people become Unitarian Universalists: and the future of American liberal religion doesn’t hinge at all on whether more people start attending church again. The future of our faith and the future of American liberal religion hinge on whether or not we—those who are present and committed now—can courageously express our values in words, but more importantly in deeds, in the public square for the sake of healing a profoundly broken society and adapting well to the environmental changes wrought by the global climate crisis. We need to be courageous.
In the past months I’ve seen physical vandalism and online threats against Unitarian Universalist churches that hang Black Lives Matter banners in New Jersey and Chicago. I’ve seen homophobic violence this past week against the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Danbury, CT. Last summer we saw anti-abortion activists disrupt Unitarian Universalist worship in New Orleans. This is frightening. Looking out more broadly I see ongoing, unmitigated, unaddressed gun violence in the United States. I see increasingly violent and racist rhetoric coming from our political leaders and some presidential candidates. I see corporations threatening states—“If we don’t get our way, we’ll leave”—forcing legislators to slowly dismantle social safety nets, and thereby increasing already unsustainable and immoral wealth and income inequality. (Did you see that happen in Connecticut this year?) And I hear raucous, hate-filled, irresponsible voices blasting out across the airwaves, fabricating threats to religious liberty, fabricating threats from Muslims, fabricating threats from immigrants and justifying state-sponsored violence by fabricating racialized demons.
Globally I see the tenacity of terrorist organizations across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who feed on the misery of poverty, of failed governments and tyranny. And I see the ongoing insanity of climate change denial. I see the fires, the tornados, the droughts, the hurricanes, the snow storms, the super storms and the risings oceans. I see it all and, frankly, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children, for our children, for our communities, for young black men, for what semblance of democracy we still have, and for the planet. Friends, I need to talk about courage. What are our sources of courage in light of abundant reasons to feel fear? Our Unitarian Universalist faith gives guidance in response to this question. Decline? The end of church? Too many soccer games on Sunday mornings? I’m done talking about it. I much prefer to talk about being courageous people of liberal faith, because our era requires courage.
I said in that sermon last year that “churches and denominations may be in decline these days. But there is still a genius to the idea of people gathering faithfully, week after week, united around a set of common principles, giving thanks for the blessings in their lives, caring for one another, teaching their children, hearing the wisdom of their elders, searching together for truth and meaning, and working for a more just, peaceful and loving world.” That genius hasn’t gone away. That genius still exists. I suspect it will always exist. So let’s talk over the months and years as we continue to build this spiritual community together. What does it mean to be here, now? What does it mean to be committed? Where do we find our sources of courage? Present, committed, courageous. May that be the state of the church.
Amen and blessed be.
 Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition Boston (Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.
 Hansi Lo Wang, “’It’s All About Church Closings’: Catholic Parishes Shrink In Northeast, Midwest,” National Public Radio, 9/14/15. See: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/14/436938871/-it-s-all-about-church-closings-catholic-parishes-shrink-in-northeast.
 Pawelek, Josh, “On the Meaning of Multigenerational,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, 11/17/13. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/on-the-meaning-of-multigenerational/.
 Krejcir, Richard J., “What’s Going On With Pastors in America?” See: http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562