Let’s face it, the very idea of going to church seems so…well, old-fashioned. Like something our grandparents did. An anachronism. Hasn’t the world moved on?
Currently, about 40% of Americans attend church services regularly. The world has moved on from the days in the 1950s and 60s when liberal parents started Unitarian, Universalist, and UU fellowships, at least in part so that their kids could say they had a “church home” when asked by their more religious peers. Increasingly, it can seem that the idea of a faith community has lost relevance in a post-modern world with an infinitude of options available to us as we consider how to spend our weekends. As a professional religious educator, I’m biased, of course. And it hasn’t escaped me that there appear to be strong positive correlations between church attendance and health, especially as we age. But I’d like to encourage us to really focus on three “unique competencies” that a congregation or church still can lay claim to.
Churches are one of the only institutions or systems left in our culture that are truly multigenerational. Is it important to human beings to have elders and youth taking part in the same ceremonies and rituals, to be part of the same tribe? I think so. Particularly when families are more likely than ever to live far from their extended family, children need to see and know older folks who are part of their tribe; elders need to be around young people too. There is a deep human evolutionary expectation for multigenerational teaching, learning, and socializing. We offer that as a given in a faith community where children and youth join services regularly, and where congregants of all ages join the Religious Education teams that teach classes and lead activities. As a mom, I consider the diverse array of adult mentors and teachers who have graced my own kids’ lives to be a blessing I could not have curated otherwise. They have learned that they have a group of grown-ups who care about their well-being, especially their emotional and spiritual development. They have learned that grown-ups come together to support young people as they grow and learn. Priceless! And on many occasions older adults have come to me to share how buoyed their own lives have been by their work with children and youth. The infusion of energy and joy and curiosity and cleverness that our children carry can help us remember our own light and clarity of purpose.
Congregations provide a particular kind of support and fellowship that humans need. Although we don’t understand perfectly what the causal factors are, we know going to church is positively correlated with health benefits. According to a recent New York Times article, “Religious attendance…boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life.” It has been associated with a decrease in the risk of Alzheimer’s too. We can assume social support is part of that, but surely the very real stress reduction (including free child care while one meditates, works in social justice, or listens to an edifying sermon) is part of that too. And I believe that sharing rituals and ceremonies strengthens the spirit in ways we don’t fully comprehend and can’t measure.
There are reasons why Unitarian Universalism is one of just a few denominations that are growing or plateaued, rather than shrinking–a progressive faith that is inclusive and welcoming to all is a better fit with today’s American than ever. Our theology works well for a culture moving away from hell-and-brimfire-damnation and toward the idea that whatever our human fate, we will share it; the essential doctrine of Universalism. This same doctrine compels us to do one more thing that is unique to faith communities, especially liberal ones:
Opportunities to change the world for the better. Church gives us a chance to work together in multigenerational communities to determine where we will devote targeted, shared energy to help those in our local and global communities. Recently in RE our kids devoted a Sunday to learning about, teaching each other about, and voting on how we would donate monies to help families in need. As we did so, we reflected on our shared principles and how they guide us toward making a difference in the world. As we grow older in faith communities, we can share and reify the ideological work that allows us to focus our human compassion toward change, while we explicitly teach our kids that this is what people do.
Thank you for making the commitment to being with us. I hope you will deepen your engagement with this congregation, especially if you have an interest in Religious Education, but we have many ways to grow and, as a mentor used to say, swim in the deep end of the pool together. Church is good for us–keep the faith!