Beyond the Steeple


Sermon/Reflection ~ UU Estrie, June 8 2014

Reverend Carole Martignacco

An Audio File of this sermon is also available.

Remember that catchy little rhyme: Here’s the church, here’s the steeple – open the doors, and see all the people! Some of us learned it decades ago in Sunday School – remember Sunday School? How things used to be…the church of the past? Prevailing trends today see fewer and fewer people coming through those doors.

This morning let’s review some trends influencing how we do church. Reflecting on the larger forces at work in shaping who we are, here at UU Estrie, as we imagine the future of this beloved community. Somewhere beyond the steeple – or bell tower, in our case – a new age is dawning. With potential to fulfill the dreams of early Unitarians or Universalists who longed for a freedom of faith not possible in ages past. Our present is filled with challenges to engage our best energies, yet also with unforseen possibilities heralding a future of hope.

But first – let’s explore this nagging question: Where are the people?

Where ARE they on Sunday morning instead of here. How do they differ from US? After all, we’re here! Were I to ask, each of you’d have an answer for why you’re here. But what of those others out there – where are they? What’s happened to faith in our lifetime, as the category of “nones” keeps growing. Nones in this context mean not those faithful women in medieval clothing who dedicated entire lives to God and the service of humanity. Now considered outdated, old-fashioned – not only because of their habits. Today’s N – O – N – E – S are those who on questionnaires or census forms mark the box NONE when asked to identify their religious affiliation. And they’re becoming the fastest growing denomination in North America!

More and more, not just small churches like ours, but huge cathedral-like structures, are having to close or reinvent themselves. Recently the Gazette ran an article with photos of several beautiful landmarks in the greater Montreal area of various denominations that have been – shall we say – born again, converted to uses other than Sunday morning services. It seems life after death for churches looks like community centers, theatres, museums, adult learning centres, art galleries. In some cases, coffee houses or pubs. We’ll come back to that…

Here at home at UU Estrie, we look for reasons. We ask ourselves – what are we doing wrong? Are we meeting at the right time? Would a half hour earlier or later make a difference? Do we invite the right speakers? Should we have shorter sermons? Or none at all – more workshops, book discussions, film nights? Have we too many committees, or not enough? How many small groups should we run, for how long, when and where should they meet? What kind of programming would attract more children, young people, families, people like us? Are we welcoming and friendly enough? There’s a sense that if a solution exists, like a key – it’s hanging on some hook just beyond reach.

All these questions reveal a perception that our biggest problem is how to get THEM to come to US. Which should lead to our next question: Is that true?

If we lift our heads a bit, we begin to ask the larger, big-picture questions: What’s happened to religion in the 21st century? What’s wrong with this newer generation, that church no longer holds a primary place in their lives? Why do time-honoured values no longer play a central role in shaping society? Keeping the Sabbath, making time for worship, gathering in community have given way to work weeks without weekends, Sunday morning soccer games, shopping. For families where both parents are breadwinners, Sabbath is the only day to sleep in, have breakfast with family, do some yard work. Many blame social fragmentation, instant communications technologies, latest innovations in social media.

Are we living in a Godless era? Decades ago Time magazine sported a cover announcing the death of God. Should it be any surprise the death of church would naturally follow? Has the cult of materialism finally won?

When I first came to North Hatley, I learned from someone in another faith community that we Unitarian Universalists were known as that “Godless Church on Main Street”. Like most stereotypes, WE know that’s not true. Instead of just One name for god, we’re open to many. But wait a minute! Here’s the rub: if people even thought it was true – wouldn’t the trend be that we’d GROW as people turn away from mainstream religion? After all, some of us are here today because we treasure this place as a kind of refuge where we needn’t park our minds at the door, hide questions or doubts that prevent us fitting in elsewhere. Not because we’re god-less, but because our faith, our values, our sense of the sacred – however we define it – is important enough to claim a whole morning of our lives each week. Finding this place – open-minded, open-hearted, sans dogma, sans credo – has meant for many here – your minister included – finally coming home religiously. And we know there must be others like us, out there, somewhere.

Lyle Schaller is one of those rare folk who for years has studied statistics and demographics of declining church membership and charted the rise of the “nones”. He writes in “Small Congregation – Big Potential” – a book I picked up on sale at the recent ACM – about pervasive cultural shifts occurring in our lifetime. Declining church membership is a symptom, he confirms, of a culture in transition. How we read the changes, what we interpret them to mean, whether we resist or learn to use them, shapes how we respond and who we become.

Briefly, some changes Schaller names:

1) Emergence of Regional Institutions: Most churches like our own were neighbourhood churches, designed to serve a population within a 3-mile radius. (4.5k in Canada!) You could get here on foot, horseback or by horse-drawn buggy. Today’s increased mobility draws us out of the neighbourhood into more regional activities.

2) Competition is Greater: Our needs are met by more than the village church, corner grocery store or local schoolhouse. Increased competition for people’s time, energy, attention and financial support – those Soccer leagues, television, Internet, recreational opportunities and shopping – now compete for Sunday morning allegiance.

3) Consumerism: We shop for everything, and order it from anywhere in the world. Not even church, says Schaller, is exempt from this trend. Church shopping is a reality – and some are finding it, like other goods and services, online! In spiritual websites and virtual communities.

4) Expectations are Greater: We are used to being entertained, in grand style. Instead of making our own music – think CDs! The 2-3 hour sermons of 19th century UU preachers Emerson, Channing or Ballou are long past. (I admit, I’ve a bit of nostalgia here: trained in seminary on those sermons, I sometimes long for the depth one can explore in the extended essay form.) Twenty minutes these days is a stretch for our sound-bite commercial-conditioned attention spans.

5) Institutional Loyalties are Weaker: Not just religious, secular and political, across the board. Membership in all kinds of institutions is declining – fraternities, sororities, and worker’s unions, along with churches.

6) Changing Criteria for Self-Identification: Provincialism’s given way to cultural plurality. Race, class, ethnic background, the church you were born into no longer dictate your choices. Affiliations are diverse and optional.

(What could be more UU, you say? Should we resist this? If you listen beneath the surface, there’s a lot that’s positive here. Them begins to look more and more like us!)

7) The Continued Impact of Technology: Guttenberg’s Press invented in the 1400s heralded a religious revolution. The Reformation resulted when masses of people became literate, learning to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves. Our own roots are in that revolution. As questions of doctrine were asked, we pushed the issues – challenging even the reformers.

(Fast-forward to the 21st century. Should we be surprised that a World-Wide-Web allowing people everywhere to be intellectually and spiritually nourished without leaving home – from their desk or deck chairs – might have equal transformative power?)

8) Scarcity to Abundance: Wider opportunities exist, an abundance of choices for fulfilling all our needs, spiritual as well as material.

You get the idea. What might these trends mean for us? We UUs call ourselves the “choosing” – not the chosen – people. Will we choose to go with the flow here? Taking into account huge cultural changes across not only decades but millennia, should we be surprised at the decline in our age of an institution dating back to ancient times? And remember, we’re just talking cultural changes; we’ve said nothing yet about theology or how spirituality has evolved over time.

A bit of reality therapy may be in order. Remember Erik Erikson’s simple, self evident idea that it’s more productive to stop focusing on how we think life SHOULD be, and begin dealing with what really IS! To think “outside the box” we’ve put things in. The box in this case being the church building. Should we moan that the rise of the “Nones” signals a decline in religious values, or promote a growing spiritual movement looking more and more like that open-minded, open-hearted, free faith our UU founders long ago imagined.

Can we befriend technology to work in our favour? Many people in the last decade first learned they were Unitarian Universalists – not by a church visit – but an online survey conducted by Some serve now in our ministry, having self-identified with that survey. We didn’t find them; they discovered us! All we need to is be discoverable. Should we develop our use of social media; I vote YES!

What about people losing faith in institutions – religious as well as political – church as usual? They still need community, but they’re finding ways to gather without church buildings. Some were announced at the CUC ACM in Montreal a number of us attended weeks ago. We welcomed several young adults into ministry at our worship service there – all card-carrying members of the emerging culture, with brilliant insights into how we as a movement might mobilize resources to fulfill the theme of the conference: Beyond Our Walls. Friday’s keynote speaker Rev. Meg Riley is minister of the largest UU church in the world, the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Which holds services online. People from near and far – countries across the world in all hemispheres, even Canada – gather to “light the chalice” from where they are. One by one the announce where the flame is being lit, share joys and sorrows, meditate, pray together, reflect upon an inspirational message, and share music and fellowship – all online. It may not be your trip; after all, you have this community here. But if you were – say, in Sudbury Ontario, with no UU community nearer than Ottawa – this might be the only place you could come home to, religiously.

The ministers’ Confluence lecture highlighted outreach ministries across the country: shared social justice projects, seminary students forming Facebook congregations, young adults self-organizing in online communities. “Pub churches” in Halifax and Edmonton – regular Saturday night services at local pubs where young adults and others gather informally over beer for lively music, spiritual conversation, and fellowship – religion “beyond the steeple”. What would that look like in North Hatley?

In a current issue of UUA World magazine, national congregational consultant Terasa Cooley spells it out: “If you like the church you have now – I’m not going to lie to you – you might not be able to keep it, at least not exactly the way it is. The church that speaks to and serves the next generation will not be the same. But that has always been true.”

We live in exciting times. We may long for stability and comfort, yet to not only survive but thrive we must act with courage, generosity and vision. Like all life forms, as a church that’s alive we must change ourselves as things change around us. Create new ways of gathering, being spiritual, relevant to our times. Our choice is clear: to rise to the challenge or resist and face an empty church.

We need worry less and less about how THEY come to US as we design ways to go out and meet them where they are. Our recent Sharing Our Faith and Northern Lights grants are funds entrusted to us by fellow Canadian Unitarians and Universalists for community and interfaith outreach. In an inspiring show of support, they’re cheering us on, voting on UU Estrie’s ability to become more than we are. Opportunities for this outreach abound; come learn more at the Town Hall meeting after the service today, about our growing engagement with the community beyond our doors. We’ve begun to answer that call.

People may never stream through these red doors. Do we still need the church? I say YES! For this is the hub of the wheel. The place from which we move out into the beyond, the place we come back to and meet face-to-face, renewing our energies, deepening our sense of belonging, sharing our lives, grounding ourselves again in hope, before moving out into the wider world again.

For move we must. We can no longer afford to “sit on the franchise.” There’s a reason we UUs consider ourselves not a denomination, but a movement. Passionate about what we stand for, standing is not enough. We must move – as the spirit is moving – out into the world, beyond this comfort zone, beyond the steeple.

And the good news today: the very challenges posed by a rapidly changing 21st century culture point us toward exciting possibilities. Fulfilling ancient dreams of our faith, making the 19th century prophecy of Theodore Parker a reality in our time: “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.”

By our best efforts, may it be so.