This last Sunday, I had the luxury of attending a Westside worship service, and getting to simply be one of the congregants listening and absorbing the information and thoughtful words offered by David Howell, in his service on “Evolving a Life.” What a treat! He spoke about how things happen that we can’t predict, and can’t really prepare for, but that we are nonetheless obliged to respond to. This can be a change in health, loss of a job, death of a loved one, or some other dramatic change that was unexpected. In a sort of interesting way, this is directly related to the topic I had planned to write about this month: changes in the way Americans ‘do’ church.
In the last 30 years, something dramatic and unprecedented has happened in American culture. We were once a nation rooted solidly in a habit of going to church each week—and this trend directly gave rise to the existence of Westside, as so many will tell you: for liberal, non-religious folks living in East Tennessee, church membership was still a social ‘requirement.’ But this is no longer true. Demographic studies show that church membership and attendance have both dropped dramatically in the last 30 years. Researchers use evolutionary language to describe how dramatic this change is: whereas evolution (and social change) generally happen in slow, incremental shifts, sometimes there are cataclysmic, dramatic changes that happen abruptly. This is the case with the change in church attendance.
The change has been attributed to many things: the internet, the end of the cold war, the rise of secularism. But no matter where you locate the cause, the result is the same: the drop in people feeling they need to go to church is dramatic, and continuing to grow steadily. And the group leading the change is white liberals. In other words, the demographic most likely to be UU’s. We are often referred to as the ‘nones’—people who answer ‘none’ to the question ‘what is your religious affiliation?’
So trends are changing, which means the people coming through our doors are coming for different reasons, with different assumptions about what being part of a congregation means. The Board and the Committee on Ministry have been talking about this a lot, sharing articles, reflections, and ideas. We want your opinions, too, and will be offering a number of ways for the congregation to chime in. How do we respond to changes we didn’t see coming, that we didn’t cause but must nonetheless respond to? How do we understand ourselves anew, in the face of a 21st Century America? Look for more information, and opportunities to share ideas and dreams, coming your way soon.
And wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving season, Rev. Carol