I stopped going to church. I didn’t stop being a person of faith, or abandon Unitarian Universalism, it is just that I stopped making the habit of leaving my daughter and my non-religious husband for a couple of hours to join a gathering of other people of similar religious identification.
I stopped going to church because I felt like oil and water. No matter how much I tried to stir myself in, I always felt separated. Some of this resulted from circumstances of life. I started going when we moved to Buffalo, and continued for about seven months. With that said, I only attended whenever I was home and not entertaining out-of-town guests, which often meant two weekends or less per month. As Tom Schade notes, UU churches are high-commitment entities, and the time I had was hardly enough time to integrate into the community. I didn’t see the same faces month to month, neither in the pulpit nor in the pews. We moved to New York so we could travel to see our families, who live in adjacent counties and cities. So that was not going to change.
I also kept running into experiences where you had to be “in the know” to know what was going on – being surprised by a plethora of trivial, small things like how a couple of dollar fee for a soup lunch replacing the coffee hour was omitted from the order of service on a day I had no cash (city living, folks). So I waited through a long line and surprise! That was embarrassing. People seemed to know each other, and/or not be interested in talking to strangers. I have enough social skills to recognize that, and so I’d spend most coffee hours alone. The cumulative effect was that it felt like I was still an interloper after maybe seven months. I shared this with an online UU growth discussion group, and was attacked and accused by one of the congregation’s members of essentially being a person of poor character (not taking initiative, playing the victim, not showing up for extra things, and other things that were not true) for describing this experience and not having memorized every single thing in every single bulletin they sent me, one email among hundreds I get per day. I mean, come on: there are plenty of character flaws that I actually do have to choose from. No need to attribute inaccurate ones. Beyond that, the services were not pushing any of my intellectually or spiritual boundaries, and so I left with neither a sense of being challenged to grow, nor any social integration. I decided that those hours were better spent with my kid and husband. (My spouse grew up without a religion and is very happy that way. I respect this.)
Most of my life I have been religious and made going to church a habit, be it as a Catholic in my youth or as a UU in adulthood. One of my reasons to seek out a religious home was to find a place to teach my daughter faith, but it seems right now she needs time with me more than she needs to be in yet another child-care setting for a couple extra hours, or squiggling and distracting her mother during a service. I work full-time in homelessness alleviation. I don’t need a church to have connections to the social justice community of my area, because it is what I do for a living. Taking more time to do church would have pulled time away from my kid and from time to develop my professional and activist connections in the community. Incidentally, my professional and family life are the most salient ways that I live my UU faith.
Why am I telling you this? I read Jordinn Long Nelson’s essay on church as a vending machine, where she argues that folks leave church in part because they have a consumerist approach to it. She’s certainly accurate that to be a part of any community, you have to sink time and energy into it. Relationships take time and effort, and being a part of a community is being a part of an aggregate of many relationships. You have to give. Like a friendship, it dies if you’re approaching it with a “what can I get out of this?” orientation. She’s also right that it is normal for people, in a context of capitalism, to evaluate everything with a cost-benefit orientation because it’s as ingrained into our culture as it is into our economy.
What Jordinn’s piece missed, in my opinion and experience, that not all relationships are worth one’s time. Not all communities are worth one’s time. We human beings aren’t connected to everyone and not a part of every social entity. You also can’t start a relationship without effort and comfort from the others involved. We are not infinite creatures. Working full-time and having very small children (one who is not yet born) is actually enough to be over-scheduled without any additional activities.
This particular essay of Jordinn’s didn’t examine the relationship of church to faith. It’s been a few months, and I am finding that church attendance and engagement is not necessarily required to live this faith. I am living the UU principles of creating a society that respects everyone’s inherent worth and dignity, interdependence, and pursuing justice outside the church walls and with people who are not exclusively UU. There are other UUs doing this work: I see them, and members of that congregation in particular, in my professional and activist life. They are doing fantastic work to better the city through civic service or community organizations. I also run into Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists doing very UU-like things. For the talk of pursuing beloved community, it’s that my community isn’t a church, it’s the broader city of Buffalo and Western New York.
Tom Schade’s essay on building church community discusses this. He argues that focusing on building a local beloved community it is a poor growth strategy. I would push it a step further: it is perhaps contradictory to what living UU values also mean.
What I am seeking when I go to church is a place that will facilitate living my faith. A consumerist approach, as Jordinn notes, is the wrong one, as my faith requires that I give a lot of time, energy, and love. However, it requires that I give it to the world, not just to other self-identifying UUs. We also lack the divine directive or commandment to attend church that other faiths have. I see the church itself as a piece of belonging to a religion, and not the entirety of it.
The entire UU infrastructure appears to function on congregations, even though the religion calls us to be broader than that. With that, we have a severe demographic problem. Do you know how many Catholic churches there are in the city of Buffalo? Thirty-two, and this is after a significant amount of closures. There is one Unitarian Universalist congregation within the city limits. Buffalo is a city of approximately 260,000 people. The three county statistical metropolitan area has 1.2 million people. There are all of five congregations in that area, compared to… I’m not even going to try to count how many Catholic or Protestant churches there are. Many communities in the country aren’t even large enough to support a single UU congregation. My point is that there aren’t enough UUs to sustain enough churches to justify a congregation-centered organizational structure. With that said, I am uncertain of what better model there would be, except that I am certain we’ll have to invent it from scratch.