The title of this post is a little misleading, but hopefully it will make sense very shortly.
If you’ve read my blog for very long you should already know that I enjoy the academic study of the Bible, and that I also enjoy working with it creatively. You should also know that I’m a Unitarian Universalist Humanist who understands the very human origins of the Bible. Earlier on, one of my concerns with being involved in Sunday Assembly was that – as is also the case with Oasis and Ethical Culture – regular quoting of the Bible from the lectern would not be welcome. I wasn’t sure how important that would be to me in the long run, but knowing that I intend to eventually return to full-time ministry, I didn’t like the thought of having that restriction placed on me. So, with all that, it might seem a contradiction to some that I think it’s a bad idea for Unitarian Universalist congregations to adopt elements of Christianity in an attempt to be more ‘welcoming’ to theists.
In ‘My Visit to The Land of Teenagers,’ Rev David Gushee writes about an experience he had spending a week on retreat with the youth group of his Baptist church. His observations, some of which I’ll share here, correspond to what we’ve already been hearing from those who study demographics and trends. The new generations coming up know less and less about the Bible and have a far weaker connection to any religious tradition than their parents or grandparents did in their youth.
On the religious front, of the two dozen kids on our retreat, I asked, and only about half expressed any real familiarity with the Bible prior to the retreat. Some of the kids who admitted lack of familiarity had grown up in church, but apparently hadn’t been taught much. But to the credit of our church kids, they also brought a bunch of friends with them who had no religious background or experience.
The Bible isn’t an easy text to dig into. It’s actually 66 ‘books’ which were written, edited, re-edited, organized into chapters and verses, then copied and re-copied before being translated into modern languages. There are contradictions and interpolations, but also clear affirmations of genocide, misogyny, homophobia, and slavery. All this makes for a challenging read, to say the least. Those who undertake to peruse the whole thing and manage to do so often find themselves leaving religion behind as a result. Many, however, read through eyes of faith and overlook or explain away what offends or confuses. With kids today, I think the former is a far more likely result than the latter.
At least for the South, this feels new to me: the completely “unchurched” kid, with no community, family, or cultural force giving them any familiarity with the Bible or Christianity at all. So as I was trying to teach a Bible overview in five sessions, I had to adjust on the fly and start almost entirely from scratch: Here is how the Bible is organized, here is how the system of book/chapter/verse works, here are the main sections of the Bible, here’s the whole Israel and the Church thing, etc.
Rev. Gushie tackles this ‘problem’ of scriptural illiteracy from the perspective of someone who values the Bible and believes that knowledge of it enhances life (as well as offers eternal salvation). For him it’s an issue of working out how to convey the contents of this book, along with certain interpretations, to a new generation that’s more about memes than scripture memorization.
So those of us attempting to communicate Christian faith to a new generation are facing a situation where Christianity is for a majority no longer the “language spoken at home.” Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, and the meme of the week are this generation’s native language, while everything else is a second or third language.
This observation is precisely the sort of thing that Robert Sloan lamented in his ‘But if Not: The Miracle of The Dunkirk.’ In it, he argues that in prior generations knowledge of the Bible was so common that quoting only a few words were enough to convey a message. What he failed to understand, though likely he wouldn’t care, was that the generations now alive on the earth do share common elements of literature, art, and culture in general that can be referenced to quickly communicate ideas. For those the age of my teenage children, memes fill that gap quite nicely.
Over the brief couple of years I’ve been associated with Unitarian Universalism I’ve heard and read comments to the effect that congregations should be embracing ‘the language of reverence’ and some elements of Christian worship in order to be more accessible and welcoming to theists. This attitude is frankly baffling to me, given what I see in younger people nowadays.
The Christian churches have to struggle to educate their increasingly skeptical and disinterested youth on the contents and meaning of the Bible in order to pass along the faith. Fewer and fewer kids are buying it, leaving church behind as soon as they head off to college and frequently not returning even when they later start their own families. Why bother with an organization that is antiquated and irrelevant? While Unitarian Universalism hasn’t exactly been growing exponentially, at least it is not inhibited by a requirement to cite a particular text or a static tradition.
Let me state it all again, hopefully making it more clear:
Adopting Christian forms or faith within Unitarian Universalism in order to grow and be of genuine influence would be counterproductive because today’s youth knows less than previous generations about the Bible and would require extra teaching to get the idea and to be shown any relevance, while instead memes and contemporary music are most meaningful to them. This is an obstacle for Christian churches but not for UU congregations.
There are, of course, UU congregations that maintain a historic tie to Christianity. That is their right, and I believe they can be successful in fulfilling their missions. Like their mainline and evangelical counterparts, UU Christian churches will need to explore betters ways to communicate biblical content and messages. In the meantime, other UU congregations can pursue a more humanistic path with broader appeal.
UUism has access to all art, literature, history, and science. It can speak through contemporary cultural forms a message of human rights, social and scientific progress, inclusion, affirmation, and community. As for style, we can do even better than the contemporary evangelical churches with their praise bands. Like Sunday Assembly, we can sing and celebrate the music of this generation and those that came before, finding in them expressions of our shared human values and experience.
If we want to welcome along the younger generation along with the rest of us, we should speak the language of our common, shared culture. It’s that or join the mainline and evangelical denomination in their desperate march toward insignificance.