Faith Matters: What exactly are we building?

  • The Rev. Alison Cornish in Shelburne Falls. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Unitarian Universalist minister
Published: 11/26/2021 4:47:23 PM

It was a question that made everyone at the dinner table pause. “I wonder,” one of the guests mused, “if more people still believed in heaven and hell, would the world be a better place?” We paused because … we wondered, too? Or because any answer was so complex, where to begin? Was the question even meant to be answered?

Setting aside those specific tenets for a moment, the question touched on a very real situation: the growing number of people in this country not connected to any formal religious institution. Every year, more people identify themselves in questionnaires as “spiritual, but not religious,” or “none,” meaning “no religious identity.” The hard numbers reflect the fallout of these shifts. In a Faith Communities Today survey released recently, participation in congregational life across the country is shrinking. Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox congregations all show declining attendance over the past decade — even before the pandemic required congregations to suspend in-person worship. Of particular note for those of us in Franklin County, the report concludes congregations in rural areas and small towns may be unsustainable — even though that’s where nearly half of the country’s congregations are.

There are bright spots in the report: Attendance at Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish communities is rising, and congregations are becoming slightly more racially diverse. But the reality for the small, historic faith communities in our area is hard; congregations are struggling to do more with less. More pastoral care, less staff. More building maintenance, fewer financial resources. More need in our communities, scarcer volunteers.

This does not seem very hopeful, does it? Yet, there are other thoughtful reports about the importance of spirituality to individuals of all stages of life. One study of teenagers concluded those youth “are seeking both a deep spiritual experience and a community experience, each of which provides them with meaning in their lives ...” Youth, young adults (and, dare we imagine, some elders, too?) are seeking some specific experiences in their lives: a sense of community, fostering deep relationships centered on service to others; personal transformation, developing one’s own body, mind and spirit; social transformation, the pursuit of justice and beauty in the world; finding purpose, acting on one’s personal mission in life; creativity, time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play; and accountability, holding oneself responsible for working toward goals.

These desires surely do not look like a “belief in heaven and hell,” but they do look like a blueprint for an engaged, vital and deeply spiritual place at the heart of a community. The question is: do they look like a traditional faith community?

If you haven’t been part of a faith community lately, you might have missed the ways the congregation in your town is tending to the deep rifts in our society, acting on climate change, or striving to repair damage done to Indigenous and peoples of color. You might not know about companionship to the lonely, disenfranchised and addicted. Or the food put on tables, and clothes distributed.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone out there looking for community, personal and social transformation, purpose, creativity and accountability wakes up one morning and thinks, “I need a place to figure out this heaven and hell thing … I think I’ll start going to services.” No, I think people arrive on the threshold of a faith community because they are hungry ... maybe literally, but also hungry for meaning; because they hurt … and need company and compassion; because they are withering away … for no one has encouraged their dreams; because this world can be cold, hard and cruel … and, deep in their heart, they know it doesn’t need to be that way.

What they seek — what I long for, too — is to put everything we have into building heaven here on Earth.

The Rev. Alison Cornish is a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Shelburne Falls. She often fills the pulpit at First Parish of Northfield, Unitarian, and is a program consultant for the BTS Center in Portland, Maine.


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