Monthly Archives: June 2010

Where have all the young people gone?

I’m not really talking about attracting young adults to our congregations, although as a young adult, I think that would be a good thing. I’m talking about the transition between childhood and adulthood, including the teenage phase.

Some congregations are fortunate enough to have a Sunday school, or other organised activities for children. I wonder how many of those children will consider themselves to be Unitarians as adults. And of those that are self-described Unitarians, how many will become members of congregations.

It’s difficult to tell, because there are never any figures published, but I think that provision for children, young people and young adults goes a bit like this:

  • under 3 years old: may also be a room where crying babies can be taken, some toys may be available, but no guarantee will be suitable for this age group
  • 3 to 5 years old: may be quiet toys to play with during the service in the worship space, occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable
  • 5 to 8 years old: often have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, otherwise may be quiet toys to play with during the service in the worship space, intergenerational activities or stories will normally be suitable
  • 8 to 12 years old: often have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, intergenerational activities or stories will normally be suitable
  • 12 to 14 years old: possibly have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable
  • 14 to 17 years old: occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable, likely to be expected to either help with the younger ones or enjoy/endure the main service, no age appropriate activities
  • 18 to 35 years old: likely to be expected to either help with the children or enjoy/endure the main service

At the congregational level provision focuses on children, the 5 to 12 age group, and pretty much stops there. But those children grow up, and fast. What happens to them then? How does their Unitarian experience continue?

I suspect that many of the youth (11-17) that identify as Unitarians have been persuaded to attend national events, where they seem to find a vibrant community to connect with. This is a good thing. But, how many congregations take advantage of this connection and try to learn from the experiences that their youth have?

National youth programme events contain interesting and innovative worship created by participants. How is this trickling down to worship in Unitarian churches and chapels?

If their peers are the most important influence on teenagers, how are we helping them keep their Unitarian peer group at the local level?

If teenagers enjoy the experience that they get at through the national youth programme, and find the congregational experience completely unappealing, why will they suddenly choose to become members of a congregation when they hit 18?

Many Unitarian congregations want to attract younger adults. But we need to think about what we’re doing to keep the homegrown ones and that starts with looking at what we offer people who have grown out of our children’s programmes.

Worship leaders: create your own learning opportunities

I mentioned that I recently took a service. I’m extremely grateful to my congregation that they offer me this opportunity. As I’m currently working on the Worship Studies Course, I need to have my services assessed by a suitable person. But I think that any congregation deserves a worship leader who is interested in continuous improvement – everyone would benefit from having their services assessed from time to time.

The feedback that you normally get from a congregation once you have finished a service is usually polite and generous, if you’re lucky enough to get some feedback. People will tell you about the bit they enjoy or remember, they tend to gloss over the elements that were less good (although if you’re unlucky, you’ll hear about it on the grapevine). This is all nice stuff, but it doesn’t help you to improve.

What’s helpful if you want to improve is detailed feedback on the whole service – which is why it’s so useful to be on the Worship Studies Course where you have to have a total of 10 services assessed over a few years. They’ve actually got a form and instructions for the person assessing you, so it’s not too much work for them.

I’m sure that there are lay people who are not currently taking this course but who are committed to providing good worship to congregations. Perhaps they would be interested in asking someone to assess one of their services, purely for their own personal benefit. And it’s even possible that ministers themselves might want to improve their own worship leading once they’ve finished their training and are on the GA roll.

I’m not sure whether the service taking assessment forms are the same for the Worship Studies Course and ministerial students training, but if they’re not they should be. Perhaps the Joined Up Education Panel could make them available for anyone to use for their own personal development. And UALM, and the relevant ministerial body could encourage their use, as they should encourage their members to take all opportunities to learn and improve.

When you’re standing in the pulpit you have a very different view of what your service is like, I think it would be helpful for all worship leaders (lay and ministers alike) to find out as best they can what the view is like from the pews. One way of doing that is to ask someone you trust for honest feedback on the service.

What’s your personal spiritual practice?

‘What’s your personal spiritual practice?’

Possibly my least favourite religion related question, particularly if a minister asks it.

That’s because I don’t really have a personal spiritual practice. I’m learning to play a second musical instrument, and at best I would say that sometimes when I’m practicing scales or long notes it’s similar to meditation. I’m concentrating on sustaining a breath, repeating the same actions over and over. I can (and probably should) spend about 20 minutes at a time on things like this.

I’ve vaguely considered doing actual meditation every day, but it’s enough trouble trying to remember to do my music practice, and I actually enjoy that. Meditation for me is kinda dull. It’s not to say that I don’t get anything out of it, but that the upside doesn’t seem to outweigh the downside of actually doing it.

In my congregation we have a midweek service that currently mostly consists of sitting in silence ‘meditating’ for about 20 minutes (there are other elements, but they are secondary). I quite like this because I find the meditating experience better when I’m in company, rather than on my own. But I can’t honestly say that I can meditate for 20 minutes. My current record is probably about 10 minutes, before my thoughts really, really start to just wander. I have what’s been described as a ‘rich mental life’ or less politely, I daydream a lot. I spend an huge amount of time on my own, and I’m very good at occupying that time with random thoughts. It’s very easy to fall into doing this when I’m trying to ‘meditate’.

Our minister is quite keen on members of the congregation developing their own spiritual discipline, and would be more than happy to help anyone who expressed an interest with suggestions. Trouble is I’m not the sort of person that takes easily to direction.

I also don’t share the same sense of spirituality as the minister. I’m a happy atheist, but I get the strongest sense that they’re in the John Buehrens and Forrest Church school of thinking about atheism – that we’re just people who haven’t thought long enough about God yet. For this minister, the point of a spiritual life is to get closer to God and nothing they’ve done so far has persuaded me that they can come at it from any other mindset, and its not a mindset that I find helpful.

Most of the time, I’m very comfortable with translating from someone else’s worldview to my own. I can pick out the bits that are likely to be relevant or helpful to me and leave the rest alone. I’m sure this is a common trait amongst Unitarians, since we don’t exactly share the same approach to everything.

But, with spiritual practice, I’m so lost on what to do that and find both traditional prayer type practices, and new age-y type practices so alien to me that I not as able to pick out the good bits from the stuff that I just can’t take seriously. I’m all too liable to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If anyone has any ideas for spiritual practices that would suit a skeptic who feels that skepticism is the right approach to things, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my music practice.

Worship is like The Cave

Today I took the service in my congregation as our minister is on holiday. I used a service that I submitted for the Biblical Studies section of the Worship Studies Course. The Worship Studies Course essentially assesses your sermon writing abilities, plus picking appropriate hymns and readings so the service I did was quite a traditional mix of hymns, readings, prayers and a sermon. The exact elements are listed below:

  • Lighting the Chalice
  • Hymn
  • Prayer
  • Prayer of Jesus
  • First reading
  • Hymn
  • Second reading
  • Musical Voluntary
  • Spoken Meditation
  • Silent Meditation
  • Prayers of Intercession
  • Hymn
  • Address
  • Offertory
  • Notices
  • Hymn
  • Benediction

Everyone in my congregation is supportive, so they all said nice things afterwards. And I think that most people actually enjoyed it as they made comments that suggested they were listening – someone told me how the topic of the service related to the Sufi tradition (which I know is their special interest), another person told me how some of the examples I’d used had rung true to them in their own life.

One of my Unitarian friends – who has never seen me take a service before – commented that it wasn’t exactly the kind of service she’d imagined I’d do. I think, but I don’t know, that she was hoping for something a little less traditional, something with more ritual maybe, or more interactivity, or possibly a little livelier.

The thing is, it’s much easier to do the same kind of service that everyone else does. And I need to get some assessed services in, for which this kind of structure is practically mandatory. But, those excuses aside, she’s right.

I don’t think that 20 minute long addresses are really a good way of worshipping. It’s too long to concentrate, and too easy for the speaker to drift. But, that’s exactly what I did.

I don’t think that the congregation should be treated like an audience, I think they should be actively involved in worship. Aside from singing, and laughing at me when I had to get the box to stand on so I could see over the pulpit, the congregation weren’t really involved in the worship at all.

I love ritual in worship. I never actually use any when I’m trying to create worship though.

What I am trying to do when I lead worship is to draw threads together, to make space for ourselves, to make space for each other and the wider world, and to explore humans and who we can be.

Ideally, for me worship creates the same type experience that I get when I’m listening to something like this:

What I actually produced today was genuine, it was deliberately inclusive and straightforward to understand, it was thoughtful and all the elements fitted together.  But it was cerebral and the only active participants were the 3 women that gave the readings and me.

I think I’m miles away if I don’t include anything that allows the whole congregation to experience worship rather than passively listen. (Some people like the passive listening elements, I wouldn’t remove them completely.)

Back to the drawing board. I expect that I’ll next take a service in 6-9 months time. I will do better.

Being Unitarians together means worshipping together

People sitting in a meeting

Meetings should make time for worship

We Unitarians are a liberal religious community. We tend to have other things in common: politically many of us occupy the centre to left areas of the spectrum, we tend to have some interest in the environment, we support good causes, we value education. But a religious community is more than just a community of like-minded people. Being a religious community, means worshipping together.

I’m using ‘worship’ loosely here. I mean to include all sorts of spiritual practices, meditation, prayer, labyrinth walking, grace before meals, dance and song. Any and all of it can be valid in any particular time and place. Not all forms of worship suit all people, but some forms of worship should suit each of us, as Unitarians.

If being a religious community means worshipping together, then events and gatherings become Unitarian when they include worship. When worship is not the focus of the event it should still form a part of it. For example:

  • business meetings can begin and end with a short prayer or reading – praying for brevity is usually appreciated
  • grace can be said or sung before a shared meal, or the Unitarian toast to civil and religious liberty can be given after
  • short worship sessions can round off conference evenings
  • children’s activities can teach by experiencing religion through worship, not just learning about religion

A Unitarian event without worship of some form or another, isn’t really a Unitarian event. It’s just an event that some Unitarians are attending. Worship doesn’t just define these events as Unitarian; it also sets up a state of mind, places the event within community, and reminds us of our higher ideals.

Being Unitarians together means worshipping together.

Image by ghindo @ flickr

The pink leaflet: Unitarians and sexuality

Man waving rainbow flag in front of marriage equality signHave you noticed the new leaflets that the GA have produced? I heard at the annual meetings that there was going to be an updated version of the ‘pink leaflet‘ which summarises the Unitarian position on LGBT people, so I thought I’d take a look.

About the new leaflet

One of my favourite parts of new Unitarian leaflets is trying to work out who I recognise in the photos. In the new ‘pink leaflet’ called Where we stand, I recognise about half the Unitarians photographed at Pride (clue is that there are a lot of ministers in that picture), and one half of the lesbian couple pictured kissing.

The leaflet itself tries to describe the position of Unitarians accurately. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that some individual Unitarians and Unitarian congregations are intolerant or less tolerant. But it doesn’t make excuses for them either – it’s an issue and we really are working on it, whilst of course respecting their freedom to follow their conscience.

About Unitarians’ views on sexuality

One of my favourite parts of being a Unitarian is that we are in favour of LGBT rights. We are in favour of LGBT rights because we think that is right from a religious point of view. Personally, I don’t know whether I’d describe it as a religious conviction, but it’s certainly one that I hold vital.

People’s sexuality, gender identity and sexual orientation differ wildly, difference is good, and should be celebrated. I don’t know what my reaction would be to a homophobic person, or organisation – people usually know better than to express intolerant opinions around me – but I know that I should call them out on it, for as long as it takes.

About the (lack of) pink ceiling

One of my favourite parts of this particular leaflet is that it states that there is no ‘pink ceiling’ in Unitarianism. As far as I can tell, in practice this is true. No one would bat an eyelid if the Chief Officer was gay. I know this, because the Chief Officer is gay and no one batted an eyelid. All the gay, lesbian and bisexual ministers that I know of have good jobs, and both lay and ministerial LGBT people really are in positions of power in the denomination.

This is in contrast to the wider world, where I have known friends feel the need to present themselves as straight at work to avoid prejudice, or where major politicians have felt obliged to hide their sexuality in order to keep their careers.

More change lies ahead

None of this is meant to suggest that I think Unitarians are perfect.
It’s difficult for me to be aware of what needs to be done because I am straight, most of my friends are straight, most of my family are straight, most of my congregation are straight and thanks to the Catholic church and Section 28 I spent my entire childhood in an entirely straight world. I started out with a heteronormative mindset – assuming that straight is normal and everyone else is ‘different’ – and although I think it’s not ok, in practice I find it hard to notice when I’m still doing it. I think the same is probably true of Unitarianism. I reckon that there’s probably more work to be done in really celebrating our diversity, of which sexuality is just one small part.

We’ve already moved through tolerance to acceptance. Let’s start taking the next step.

Image by NeitherFanboy