Ring Them Bells!

Rev. Josh Pawelek
End of ChurchIn her 2012 Huffington Post article, “The End of Church,” author and historian of American religion, Diana Butler Bass, says “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church.”[1] She refers to studies that reveal an increasing disenchantment with organized religion, not just within Roman Catholicism or the aging and typically more liberal mainline Protestant denominations, but also within the more evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptist Conference. People are leaving church. She refers to the distinction Americans are increasingly making between being religious—which means being part of an organized religion—and being spiritual—which, in Bass’s terms, means having some kind of visceral experience of faith. People are much less inclined today than just a decade ago to identify themselves as “religious,” and much more inclined to identify themselves as either “spiritual and religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” I notice the famous—to some, infamous—“New Atheist,” Sam Harris, is about to publish a book entitled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.[2] New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said Harris’ book caught his eye “because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.”[3]

When I hear about trends in declining church membership—especially membership in evangelical churches—I admit I often find the news hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday we were hearing about the rapid growth of Christian Fundamentalism, thousands of new mega churches, and the unprecedented political power of the Religious Right during the presidency of George W Bush. Could all that really be declining? Could a new generation of Americans really be rejecting that kind of religiosity which seemed so prevalent and permanent just a decade ago?

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

Well, there were numerous articles just this week about the Seattle-based, mega church, Mars Hill, being forced to close some of its fifteen branches and lay off 30-40% of its staff due to budget constraints.[4] These articles cite multiple reasons for Mars Hill’s problems, including financial mismanagement, plagiarism, hyper-homophobia, hyper-sexism, and ongoing negative media attention. This seems consistent with Bass’findings about the emerging negative view of churches in general. In the popular mind churches appear increasingly unresponsive to the spiritual and material needs of the world. They seem wrapped up in their own internal affairs, institutional governance, politics, financial challenges; they often seem unethical; they seem stuck in patterns of congregational life and organization that don’t mesh with the life experiences of real people, especially young adults; they seem unfocused, unclear, and adrift when it comes to having a positive impact on the wider community. Of course, in Bass’ view, the rapid emergence of the “spiritual and religious” and the “spiritual but not religious” identities is ultimately positive. She says it “expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one’s relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches—and temples, synagogues, and mosques—that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”[5]

When I read sentences like that last one I confess I always have the same gut reaction: that’s exactly what Unitarian Universalist congregations are trying to do and, in many cases, have been doing for generations: offering “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.” I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction. I think we UUs have tendency (at least historically) to read articles like Bass’ and then to assume the warnings of decline don’t apply to us because somehow we’re getting it right. I remember hearing the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ for the first time in the late 1990s, and saying to myself, and probably to others, “this bodes well for Unitarian Universalism.” Afterall, we were ‘spiritual but not religious’ long before it came into vogue. We were skeptical of religion long before such skepticism became hip, so much so that we have been known in some quarters as the ‘religion for the non-religious.’ And aren’t we the one place in America where atheists, Humanists and agnostics can gather for worship on Sunday morning and be welcomed and embraced in their theological views? So, we’re not like other churches. Right?

Well, we are certainly distinct from other churches, but the reality is we’re not immune from the wider trends in American religious life. I find myself forced to own up to my earlier naiveté in assuming that the prevalence of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ identity would lead automatically to growth in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It hasn’t. Exhibit A is an article in the summer issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine by the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley entitled “Into the Beyond.” In it, she points out that “Unitarian Universalist congregations seemed for a while to have bucked these trends, but our U.S. membership has slipped each year since 2008.”[6] In that regard, we’re just like other churches.

Rev. Cooley is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Program and Strategy Officer. She says her job is to “scare all of us, at least a little bit, because 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 landscape.”[7] Like Bass, she cites a number of recent studies that give some credence to her warnings. For example, earlier this year the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling firm, found that only 2 out of 10 millennials (adults under 30) feel churchgoing is important.[8] She also cites a 2012 Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project finding that nearly 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation whatsoever.[9]

One of the messages in Rev. Cooley’s article which a few of you found unsettling enough to want to talk to me about it is her discussion of the ways people access and practice Unitarian Universalism beyond the local congregation. She names the reality that there are many people in the wider world who agree with our principles and values, who share our commitments to environmental stewardship, antiracism, and civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, who will partner with us on social justice initiatives, and who may even call themselves Unitarian Universalists, but who, for any number of reasons, can’t or won’t attend or join a UU congregation. Do we ignore them since they aren’t going to be part of our congregation? Or do we figure out how to be in relationship with them? Rev. Cooley leans toward relationship, not only for her work as a UUA staff-member, but for us as well. “Creating new ways for people … to connect, serve, and deepen their spirituality with others, with or without a congregation,” she says, “must become a major shift in the UUA’s mission and also in our congregations.”[10]

“How can people connect to Unitarian Universalism and claim a Unitarian Universalist identity without being part of a congregation?” That’s her question. And while I know the UUA isn’t abandoning congregations, it leads me to ask: if participation in American congregations is declining across the board, and if our denominational officials are looking for ways to reach out to people beyond congregations, then what’s a congregation to do?

I was excited when Dorothy Bognar suggested that she and Tom Chung would sing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”[11] for us this morning. Dylan wrote this song for his 1989 album “Oh Mercy.” I don’t claim to know what Dylan meant by any of the lyrics in this song, but he clearly isn’t happy with the church. He refers to the bride running backwards—bride being a reference (I assume) to the church as the “bride of Christ.” He refers to the sun “going down upon the sacred cow.” He sings “Oh the shepherd is asleep.” I find it intriguing to compare his discontent with the church to that of the legions of Americans who today say they have no use for organized religion. Remember, although Dylan is Jewish, he became a born-again Christian around 1980. So when he criticizes the church, he’s writing as an insider who seems to care deeply about the church. He finds the church ineffectual in the face of a general moral and social breakdown in society: “Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong / And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” He’s upset about what he encounters in the world and he’s critical of a church that seems unresponsive to it. But instead of abandoning the church, instead of throwing up his hands saying, “I have no use for you anymore, I’ll get my spirituality elsewhere,” he’s pleading with the church: Do something! Make a difference! Assert your moral authority! Ring them bells!

That’s the sentiment I want to borrow and channel in response to the question, “What’s a congregation to do? When participation in American churches is declining across the board, and as our denominational officials are—rightly, I think—looking for ways to reach people beyond the traditional, local church, what’s a congregation to do? Ring them bells!

Before you start thinking I’ve lost my mind, please know I know, at least in this building, we don’t have bells. So, I don’t mean we should literally ring bells. Furthermore, I realize one could take this plea to “ring them bells” as a call for the church to just make more noise—to keep being ineffectual, but to do it more loudly. That’s not what I mean either. And furthermore, some commentators have argued Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is literature in keeping with the ancient Near-Eastern apocalyptic tradition meaning that the bell is ringing out a warning: “Repent! The end of the world is nigh!” And while I do think religions have a role to play in warning about the consequences of human greed, arrogance, hatred and ignorance, especially when it comes to the climate crisis, the church that only rings its bells to warn of impending disaster is offering a very thin slice of what it requires to fully nurture peoples’ spiritual lives.

I think our spiritual lives are assaulted constantly. I know I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy lead countless people into boredom, anxiety, exhaustion, isolation, desperation. I don’t have to convince those of you gathered here that prominent aspects of our wider culture and economy tunnel our vision, leave us bowling alone,[12] train us to think in sound-bites, offer trivia in place of truth, and speak to us constantly of our fears so that divisions abound and engaging difference becomes taboo. I don’t have to convince you there is a climate crisis. I don’t have to convince you there are food, water and health crises, or a money-in-politics crisis. I don’t have to convince you there is racism, homophobia or sexism, all of it driving people further and further apart. But given all of it, I do want to say this: church matters! That’s the bell I want us to ring. Church matters immensely, and this Unitarian Universalist congregation matters immensely. In the midst of a culture and economy that drive people apart, that obscure any deeper sense of meaning in our lives, that blunt our sense of vocation, that discourage us from organizing for a more just community, churches, if they choose to use it, have incredible power to counter the daily assault on our spiritual lives: to connect us to each other, to help us find meaning, to help us discern our vocation. Churches have the power to bring us together to organize for social and economic justice. And churches have the power to offer us life-giving spiritual experience.[13] Those are the bells I want us to ring. Not just bells of warning, as important as those are. But bells that proclaim a beloved spiritual and religious community exists here, bells that invite us to shape that community as a powerful response to all those forces in the world that would drive us apart.

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’s my vision for this church. If that’s religion, then call me religious, and show me where the bell is, ‘cause that’s a noise I want to make!

Bells

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[2] More information about Harris’ new book can be found at his website: http://www.samharris.org/waking-up.

[3] Bruni, Frank, “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” New York Times, September 7, 2014. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-between-godliness-and-godlessness.html?_r=0.

[4] See the Associated Press report at http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/09/3669748/mars-hill-megachurch-closing-branches.html?sp=/99/132/.

[5] Bass, Diana Butler, “The End of Church,” is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion.

[6] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[7] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[8] See “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church” at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/661-americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church#.VBBtXPldWSr.

[9] See “Nones on the Rise” at http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.

[10] Cooley, Terasa, “Into the Beyond,” UUWorld (Summer, 2014) pp. 22-27. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295275.shtml.

[11] Watch Bob Dylan perform “Ring Them Bells” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-gZooq3Ylc.

[12] This is a reference to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[13] This list riffs off of language Diana Butler Bass’ uses in “The End of Church” athttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/the-end-of-church_b_1284954.html?ref=religion. She says Americans are looking for “pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.”