Religion in the Age of the “Nones”

Hospitality & Greetings

Current research indicates that one-fifth of the U.S. population identifies as “unaffiliated” with any religion and one-third of young adults under the age of 30 identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Sociologists have now shifted their generational studies to “After the Baby Boomers.”  One extensive study on the topic in recent years was conducted by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.   Wuthnow identifies a number of cultural influences have shaped this generation of adults now in their twenties and thirties and extending into their early forties.

Wands in circularThe words Wuthnow uses to describe these influences are:  uncertainty, diversity, fluidity, searching, and tinkering.   There are several developmental trends of younger generations coming after the Baby Boomers:

  • They are sexually active earlier;
  • Psychologically independent earlier;
  • Many have an extended dependence on their parents who are living longer.
  • They are marrying later;
  • Having children later;
  • Starting their careers later because of the uncertainty and fluidity of the employment options available.
  • Establishing themselves in communities more gradually.

All of these factors affect religious communities, particularly in terms of membership affiliation, extent of involvement, leadership development, and, of course, with regard to money and financial well being.

Fewer younger adults say that religion is important to their lives than any previous generational cohort.   Instead, they describe themselves as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” in response to survey questions about their religious identification.

This group of religiously affiliated younger adults are being referred to as “Nones,” an arguably unsuitable and unnecessarily negative label.  However, they are are not without beliefs and values that matter to them.   Generally many young adults consider themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious,” and are open to spiritual deepening.  When asked if they are looking for a religious community, eighty-eight percent (88%) say they are not.  Perhaps this is due to their less-than-satisfying encounters with religious communities rather than a desire for community.

Those ten percent (10%) or so who are looking for religious communities are interested in those inclusive of theological diversity.  They generally believe in evolution and do not object to bigger government structure and services.  They are more accepting of homosexuality and a woman’s right to  reproductive freedom and access to abortion. This group is less certain about the existence and nature of God.

 Studies clearly indicate higher degrees of congregational involvement by younger adults who are married or in committed partnerships with children.  However, this is after some amount of “church shopping” and “church hopping.”  This pattern may be driven by the the fact that fewer young people were born and raised in a faith community, or that it is hard to fit a prescribed schedule or program into a busy life.  Fewer young men than women are attending alone, with increasingly mobile lifestyles and delayed partnering and child-rearing.   Essentially, these folks are piecing their spiritual and religious lives together with whatever raw materials they can find.

bricolage-bike 3The description that Wuthnow thinks best suits this generation of younger adults is that they are Tinkerers (2007, pgs 14-15)The idea came from the studies of a French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who lifted up the important role of the bricoleur (the tinkerer) in preindustrial times.  A bricoleur uses the tools of his or her trade and any objects or materials at hand to fix things and keep them in good repair.  In doing so, the bricoleur produces a bricolage, an improvised construction made up of a variety of materials.

bricolage 1Among many contemporary adults, personal experience trumps doctrinal teachings.  Their life experiences and encounters with religion are diverse and they place high value on freedom of thought and choice.  They are improvisational and inventive, adept at piecing together seemingly disparate religious teachings and cultural components into their religious bricolage.

Internet studies show a significant number of adults are regularly looking online for religious and spiritual guidance.   Many simply don’t know where to find a place to tinker with a diverse collection of religious ideas and theological perspectives—so they go it alone.

What challenges does this new religious landscape pose for our communities? 

When I read and listen to the descriptions of the Millennials, Nones, and Tinkerers, I feel a mixture of discouragement and hopefulness

In my heart I believe these young people—and the growing segment of unaffiliated adults in general–would heartily embrace the inclusive and diverse theological environment Unitarian Universalism offers—if we could find one another on the religious landscape.  In fact, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t show up in the surveys and isn’t evident as an option in much of the research being done by Pew Research Center and Faith Communities Today.   We weren’t mentioned by Robert Wuthnow as the kind of open and accepting religious community that would appeal to this generation of younger adults.

With barely 1,000 congregations and fewer than 200,000 members world-wide, apparently we just don’t stand out enough for the researchers to include in surveys.   The ones who do often find us through or the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our premier, world-wide virtual congregation.

An infusion of young adults and newcomers of any age would bring great energy, innovation, and talent into our congregations and our movement.  If this occurred, we would come alive in new ways as a religious movement, yet again.    And we must, so that we may flourish and grow and have any significant impact in the world.   I remain optimistic and hopeful.

In my head, I know this would require a cultural sea-change in most of our congregations.  Collectively, we would need to reach out farther and more effectively throBig surfugh electronic communication venues and social networks to enhance our visibility and attract younger adults.  We would need to redesign our programs and entry spaces to clearly and visibly reflect our diverse perspectives, principles, and values.

We would need adequate levels of professional staff in our congregations to offer the spiritual guidance and religious education opportunities to guide and accompany young people on the developmental journey, which is increasingly complex in today’s world.

We would need to expand our palette of worship and musical offerings to appeal to a wider range of ages and theological interests.  We would need to be intentional about the relational needs of our communities:  to balance the attention given to our established friendships with the needs of our newcomers.  We would need to practice authentic hospitality, helping those new to Unitarian Universalism feel truly welcome and included, within our buildings and beyond.

I am quite convinced we could grow in numbers and in our influence as a religious movement if we could imagine such a future for ourselves.  I mean, really imagine ourselves doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in numbers of people in our communities:  see their faces, hear their voices, and feel the buzz of the energy they bring.

new visionThere are seekers  looking for the kinds of relationships and activities already going in many of our congregations:  excellent professional ministry, high quality religious education for all ages, open and attractive facilities, fantastic music, and the vibrant energy that emits from people who really care about one another.  They are out there, with the tools of their trades, ready to Tinker with all the wonderful material we have to offer for their religious bricolage.

Vision—Courage—Energy—Commitment–Diversity–Generosity–Stewardship:  these are what it takes for a community to come alive and flourish.

Meeting_at_the_Oasis bricolage 2

Research and Reports on Generational Trends and Religion

  • Wuthnow, Robert.  After the Baby Boomers.  2007.  Princeton University Press

Innovative Ministries that Appeal to the Unaffiliated

‘Tis the Season of Generosity

sparks flying

‘Tis the Season of Generosity!

The Holiday Season is filled with celebrations of light, love, and community.   This is the time for honoring religious traditions and practicing the rituals of the faithful.  As we move through the end of the year and across the threshold of the winter solstice into the new year, we are inspired by the impulse to give.  In our religious communities, this often occurs through the offering in the context of worship.

The offering has been the central act of worship for human beings since ancient times. In the earliest times, sacrificial offerings of the best livestock or first fruits of the crop were ceremonially given to the gods. In modern times, money is placed in the offering plate during Sunday morning service to support the work of the faith community. Throughout time the offering has been a way for individuals and families to contribute some of what they have to benefit their community. Making an offering is considered an act of faith: faith in the community, faith is something greater than oneself, and a tangible expression of gratitude for all received in life. In its deepest and purest expression, the act of giving out of a sense of gratitude, is a spiritual practice.

Over time, this practice of the offering has been institutionalized by religions around the world. The concepts and practices are explicitly taught in many religions. In her book Giving—the Sacred Art, Lauren Tyler Wright refers to the practice of giving that each faith tradition brings to the “table of generosity.” She continues by describing the language and expressions of giving to religion:

Each tradition brings to the table a beautiful history of sacred texts, stories, and experiences, and each faith contributes to the intricate landscape of religious giving with a beautiful assortment of expressions: stewardship, almsgiving zakat (alms tax), sadaqah (voluntary charity), dana (charity), charity, Chesed (loving kindness), Tzedakah (righteous giving), tikkun olam (repairing the world). As I write, I imagine this wide variety of religious perspectives engaging in dialogue, not debate. While we may disagree on a host of ideologies, we can all sit around the table of generosity and share our understandings of this common practice. And in doing so, I have a feeling we will discover that our spiritual journeys are more alike than we may have thought.

Though religion continues to be the beneficiary of the largest share of charitable giving, it is losing some ground as giving increases to other charitable organizations. Once the recipient of 60 percent of all charitable giving, for the first time in recorded history, giving to religion has dropped to just under 33 percent. It appears that the competition for charitable dollars is heating up and religious leaders and consultants are asking, why? What makes the difference for people in choosing where to give?

Church fundraising consultant and former parish minister, J. Clif Christopher, is convinced that religious organizations must develop appropriate fundraising strategies using current methods to keep pace with their missions and financial needs. These strategies and methods will need to include greater involvement by the minister and board leaders in active fundraising and teaching of stewardship. More analysis must take place for each congregation to better know and understand its donors, their patterns of giving, and their capacity for giving.

Finally, it is essential that religious leaders know how to effectively ask for contributions and to communicate with donors in compelling, energizing ways all through the year.  In other words, we need to get better at inviting generosity that brings joy to the giver!

We know from an array of studies that people who regularly attend religious communities give more.  Givers give more when they are influenced by experiencing a generous culture.  People are more generous when they learn how to give according to their religious teachings, observe generous behavior, feel gratitude  for their community, and have opportunities to talk about money and giving as expressions of their faith values.   Religious communities must be intentional about creating this kind of culture and learning experiences.

According to Christopher and others, the three primary reasons people give to congregations and other organizations are:

1) Belief in the mission of the organization,

2) Regard for the staff leadership of the organization, and

3) Fiscal responsibility.

In addition, people clearly want to make a difference in the world, to change lives for the better, and to leave a legacy that reflects this desire and to instill a sense of accomplishment.

Faith communities today have a big job to do—to change lives. We must focus on the task of changing lives and making a difference in the world, beyond the doors of the congregation day in and day out. This level of change cannot be accomplished by busying our members with committee work and social activities, then telling them there is not enough funding and more money is needed to keep it all going.

How will your community change peoples’ lives and make a difference in the world as we move into the new year?

What’s the Budget For Anyway? Part Three

The third and final installment of the “What’s the Budget For Anyway?” article by K. Peter Henrickson*~

Presenting the Budget

By whatever planning process is appropriate in your congregation, the Finance Committee needs to showcase a set of targets for congregational services three or four years into the future.  The presentation of such plans and their longer term financial implications shifts the congregation’s attention from considering the spending request for next year vis-a-vis last year to considering where the congregation is heading.  The stewardship drive is an opportunity to meld the conversation about congregational direction with the conversation about individual dreams.  So, here are some guidelines for presenting a vision budget stimulating such conversations.

Summarize and focus expenses into the major areas of energy for your congregation.  We want the membership to “own” the vision — to believe it is good and to love it passionately.  Suppose we organize a vision budget around the major growth needs driving the church.[1]  Consider these examples:

  • Worship, Spiritual Growth and Exploration
  • Organizational Services and Leadership Development
  • Community Outreach and Denominational Support
  • Pastoral Support and Shared Ministry

These categories represent what is sometimes referred to as a “mission budget”.  They virtually scream out the necessity to describe why we are in community. The minister and board need to provide inspiring leadership in each of these areas — to show in greater detail the aspirations for your congregation.  “Worship, Spiritual Growth, and Exploration”, for example, might mean a year around ministry for children or additional emphasis on laity ministry.  It might mean developing two or three regular services each week (or more), each targeted to the needs of particular groups of people.

  •  Include a multi-year forecast, three or four years beyond the budget year.  The purpose of a forecast is to show that the leadership has heard what the members want and that such a church is available in the future — although not next year.  Members understand that programs take time to launch; they need to see movement toward objectives.  They will support growth with a vision that fits their own, that enhances lives in the community today as it moves toward tomorrow.
  • In the vision budget keep the focus on the future and away from the past.  Consider using only the following column headings congregational meeting budget:  current year budget, current year projected, budget year, first vision year, second vision year, third vision year, etc.  That is, strip last year’s spending out of the budget presentation. The data are 12 months old or more and contributes virtually nothing to the discussion about future years.  If someone wants to reference a particular number from last year, the treasurer can look it up quickly enough.  But do not presume that the entire congregation needs or wants to review the historical perspective.  That entire extra column  of numbers increases potential confusion without bringing much benefit.
  • Give committees a way to talk about why they do what they do, and how they want to do it better.  Most of what your membership envisions will be championed by the various committees.  Listen to what the committees want in the future and recognize its priority in the budget presentation.  The role of the board is to defer committee requests, not cut them.
  • Present a vision budget which is adequate to the community.  Too often churches limp along without the ministerial or other staff support they need, without an annual installment on the building repair fund, or without sufficient religious education supplies.  Good leadership presents a budget to focus attention away from the discouraging present and toward the place we want to be within the foreseeable future.  The vision budget should highlight the opportunities facing the congregation.  Develop the vision budget to get both the board and the committees to share their observations and their dreams.  They are the core of the congregation and their common purpose for the future is building community.
  • Show what can be done with modest pledge increases over the next few years.  I do not believe that any congregation can say with integrity that it enjoys a fullness of spiritual meaning in all of the four areas of energy suggested above if the average giving level is below $120/family/month. This is a commitment of about 2% where congregational monthly incomes average $5,-$6,000/month.  The vision budget needs to show what the church could be with a growth of gifts to a 3% – 5% level over the course of a few years.
  • Show the number of members or giving units currently and into the future.  Growth is important in most congregations, and the vision budget should elevate this discussion.  This is also a way to focus attention on growing average stewardship levels.  One might show average commitments separately for “members” and for all other contributors as a way of communicating the higher giving levels expected of membership.
  • Do not show the congregation numbers with more than four digits.  The membership will not absorb numbers with length, or at least not an entire page of them.   A budget totaling $150,000 – $250,000 can express $435 as “.4” — at least in the years out beyond the budget year while a budget of $500,000 should round to even thousands.
  • Put the entire budget on a single page.   Leave lots of white space on the paper and do not reduce the type size.  When you have done this, you have a budget that is comprehensible to those not familiar with it.  Again, the sole purpose of the vision budget is to increase the level of giving.  We who are church treasurers often lose sight of this objective.  We default to thinking the purpose of the budget is to present numbers, and more is better.  In the vision budget, fewer is better.

In summary, “This is not your father’s budget!”  Look forward.

Use the annual budget process to continually revisit the congregation’s dreams for where it wants to go and how fast it wants to get there.  The budget process is repeated every year.    It brings focus and detail to the discussion.  When done as described above it shows clearly what the leadership sees as priorities and focuses discussion on them.  It shows that those programs and needs which are not this year’s priorities are still important and are viable in the future.  It is public enough to generate discussion among many who are interested but not directly involved.  It can be a terrific vehicle for inspiring a congregation.


*K. Peter Henrickson lives in Vancouver, WA has served the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and its Pacific Northwest District for over 30 years.  Peter served two separate terms as district treasurer for a total of 15 years.  During that period, he began consulting with congregations on general financial management issues.  With the learnings from those consulting jobs, Peter put together several presentations for both district meetings and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly.  And the material from those workshops grew into a book, Church Financial Management, which is now available through Amazon.   Peter has served on the Board of Eliot Institute and was Treasurer for a total of about ten years and has served as the UUA’s District Compensation Consultant since 2005.  Peter can be contact directly at:    (360) 608-8571

            [1] See Loren B Meade’s “More Than Numbers, The Way Churches Grow” referenced in the bibliography.  I recommend it for further development of these notions.