Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore

Lifetree Gathering at North UU Congregation, Lewis Center, OH
Lifetree Gathering at North UU Congregation, Lewis Center, OH

That’s the title of a recent book written by Joani and Thom Schultz.   The title shouldn’t shock many of us anymore. There is a lot of evidence for its assertion. According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40 percent of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, less than 20 percent are actually in church. In other words, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding other things to do and places to be on weekends.  We also know that somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors every year. Some researchers put that estimate higher, between 8,000 and 10,000 churches closing.

The “Why” in the title is a question with a variety of answers.  We know there are a number of factors involved: changes in the way people regard Sunday services,  demographic changes,  different ways we now view volunteering, competition on weekends, fewer young families with children, and more.  Some people feel spiritual but no longer find institutional church meaningful.  Some don’t want to be in a place where they feel judged for who they are or what they believe.  Some are not certain and won’t commit till they have had more time to consider.   Others are simply not interested.

So inviting people to come to a church on Sunday morning when that’s one of the last places they want to be might not always be an effective means of outreach.  There are other ways, however, we can use to invite people into meaningful spiritual community that are not focused on Sunday morning.

A number of faith communities from different traditions are experimenting with spiritual Conversation Cafes.  One of the best known of these Cafes is “Lifetree Café.”  These 60-90 minute weekly Cafes focus on guided dialogue on a wide variety of topics in an intentionally welcoming, open, “non-churchy” atmosphere.  They are often held in coffee shops or tavern party rooms or libraries or other non-church spaces to eliminate the ‘stigma’ of being inside a church building.   Participants are invited from the sponsoring church and through Facebook and Meet Up and personal friend-to-friend invitation.

Lifetree gathering at a local Panera, North UU Congregation, Lewis Center, OH

These Cafes are a little like small group ministry, but there is no expectation that the same people will show up each week.  Instead, each Café begins with a short introductory exercise that assume people do not always know each other – yet.  Then the following program is designed to lead to deeper levels of discussion and relationship building, moving eventually into some form of spiritual question.

North UU Congregation in Lewis Center OH has been experimenting these past two months with the Café format and is using Lifetree Café curriculum (sometimes with small edits to maintain a general UU orientation.)  People who have experienced these North UU Cafes have found the chance to meet and engage in dialogue with non-church people meaningful and feedback has been supportive.  But participation has varied widely depending the topic.  The established curricular topics are very general and, in light of the major social issues facing us today, some topics have seemed relatively inconsequential.

Consequently, the North UU Café volunteer team has decided to create its own conversation café curriculum beginning March 2017.   They have been discussing the use of topics that are more immediately relevant to current social and political developments, with the expectation that these may be more inviting to both congregational members and non-members.  But the Conversation Cafe dialogue format is something they want to keep and cultivate and expand.

This experiment in outreach is still  in development and it will be evaluated continuously as the team moves to create new curricular topics.   The experiment has already highlighted the fact that Sunday morning in a church building is not the only time and place where meaningful spiritual community can be created.

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Sandusky UUs Explore New Ways to be in Community

UU Firelands LogoThe Rev. Mary Grigolia has worked with the UU Fellowship of the Firelands in Sandusky, OH for four years, leading services once a month, facilitating a workshop/discussion after service and coffee hour/lunch.  But last March she encouraged them to take a different path, totally dropping Sunday services in favor of what they love and do well: social action, programs bringing on a progressive voice to a very conservative area, social gatherings, and occasionally road-tripping to other UU congregations.


Some background:

  1. SOCIAL MEDIA – the year before they hired their minister, they hired a dynamic young adult (Lauren Berlekamp) who put together a really fun Facebook presence. This helped to attract young adults and middle-aged adults to their social justice programs and concerts, but not to Sunday mornings.
  1. RENTED SPACE – was secured perhaps 8 years ago in the basement of a UCC church in Sandusky. It was really, really depressing. It was amazing any new-comers came back. And few did.
  1. NOT A CRITICAL MASS – the core group worked very hard to keep Sunday morning services alive. It defaulted to a handful of people, led by a woman in her 40s with two elementary/middle school-aged boys. Tragically, she died 18 months ago. And the stalwart few went into self-blame and paralysis.
  1. MEDITATION GROUP – Meanwhile, for the last 5-6 years, two of the core members have facilitated a weekly meditation group, eclectic, drawing from Fellowship members and beyond. So there is still an on-going gathering.
  1. COMMUNITY THEATER – And they are also almost all involved in the production of a vital community theater that also keep feeding their need for community and expression.
  1. BLESSING – And so as numbers dipped beneath 10 on a Sunday morning and the energy was going elsewhere (not Sunday morning), Rev. Grigolia encouraged them to reinvent themselves, committing to a series of programs (talks, concerts) for the larger community, social action programs, and social events. That is what they’ve been doing. They had a successful Jim Scott concert, celebrating the vision of Pete Seeger. And they continue to employ a young-ish adult (Rose Hollo) who maintains and energizes their Facebook and sends out beautiful, engaging Constant Contact campaigns.

They were surprised and so grateful that they could continue to be a Fellowship and to serve their community and each other without holding Sunday services.

They didn’t want to let me go, but (and) Rev. Grigolia assured them that she would be very glad to respond to whatever pastoral needs they have on a case-by-case basis, to perform weddings and officiate at memorial services. She gave and give them my blessing.

You can check out their website and Facebook page to learn more about their alternative programming.

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Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of wonderful, creative energy in some of our congregations focused on the benefits and opportunities of working in Partnership with other congregations.
There is even a new UUA resource website for Partnership and Multisite information.

Multisite WordleCongregations engaged in Partnership with other congregations realize that by sharing –  at whatever level they find beneficial – they are not only fulfilling our covenantal obligations to support one another, but are also strengthening their own sense of mission and creating an exciting vision for the future.

Partnerships, or Multisite relationships as they are sometimes called, can take any number of different forms and styles.
And Partnerships,  like other deep human relationships, are always mutually beneficial.
Just listen to the Match.com ads!

Discerning whether a Partnership is a good idea for your congregation is a bit like checking out Match.com.
“What kind of partner am I looking for?  What kind of partner would I be?   What level of relationship am I looking for? What do I want for the future?”

If your congregation decides that it wants a new relationship and finds someone that might be a good match,  then it could be time to start ‘dating’ a bit.
Maybe just lunch or meet for coffee at first.  Translation:  offer a joint adult faith development course together or work together to sponsor a workshop for event for the cluster.

Then, if things seem to be working out, you might want to get a bit more serious and go ‘steady.’
Perhaps your Justice Ministries Teams can begin to meet and plan together or your youth groups to start to meet together and share programming or purchase supplies in bulk together.

You might decide to co-habitate instead.
Begin to share more resources and maybe some staff – faith development staff,  administrative staff, clergy, etc.  It’s pretty amazing what you might do if you plan together and share resources together.

You don’t have to run out and get ‘married’ or ‘merge’ the congregations simply because you are in a relationship.
Some dating or co-habitating relationships never result in marriage.
And that’s OK.

But for others,  ‘marriage’ or merger of some kind may result.
But only with mutual consent and mutual benefit.
Our UU congregational polity doesn’t allow for “arranged marriages.”

If your congregation is considering Partnership,  it might help to think about it in terms similar to Match.com.
And then start your relationship journey today!


Rev. Joan Van BecleaereRev. Joan Van Becelaere
Congregational Life Consultant,  Central East Region

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