12/14...


Yesterday, I get a text from Corey during the school day. He texted, "I am scared." Why? Because there was a kid at school who was accused of having a knife in his bag. This caused a big stir, naturally. Teachers were checking his bag. The school police officer was called. The kid was removed from the class and the class put on lockdown.

Thankfully, it was a false alarm, and the school did the right things. But as we sadly know in America, it easily could have been the real thing, and gone a very different way. And it could have been a gun instead of a knife.

Our kids know this. That is why Corey's text read, "I am scared." After all, they do lockdown drills in the case of an active shooter. Read that last sentence! Our kids practice going into lockdown in the case of an active shooter.

Seeing those words, "I am scared" - it immediately shook me. As a parent, like thousands of parents across the country, there is fear in me in sending my kid off to school. It is mostly unconscious. This morning, it was not. And then I remembered what day it was.

12/14... Nine years ago, in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, not far from here, 26 people, mostly 7 year-olds, were killed by a demented young man with an AR-15. Corey was 6 then. I am still dealing with the aftermath of that day.

Sadly, not much has changed, as Oxford, Michigan reminded us just a couple weeks ago. We still have school shootings. We still have young men with guns meant for the battlefield being wielded around like trophies in our neighborhoods. We still don't have universal background checks, the minimum that can be done and which the vast majority of Americans favor.

We are a nation that cries and hollers about a certain way of teaching the history of racism in this country. We are a nation that shouts about our kids having to wear masks in the middle of a global pandemic. We are a nation that loves a good culture war. And we are a nation that has among the poorest records of protecting our children, not even able to pass common sense gun laws, if only to show we give a damn. We are a nation that sees it kids having to do active shooter drills without a peep or protest from parents. Shame on us!

So, I will do my work and watch the time today, on pins and needles till the moment my son gets in my car and we drive home

The State of Religion & Church Life in America, 2021 (Pt. 2)

This week I’d like to focus on a couple things – the demographics and the faith practices of the United Church of Christ. To do this, I’d like to compare the UCC to a similarly sized denomination that is distinctly Evangelical in nature as well as distinctive altogether, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church of America (SDA). One reason why it is distinctive altogether is the fact that it’s Sabbath and day for Worship is Saturday. Another distinctive feature of the SDA is that most of its adherents practice vegetarianism.

According to the 2015 American Religious Landscape Survey, the SDA, along with non-denominationalists and Pentecostals, were the only 3 Christian groups that saw growth between 2007 and 2014. So, the SDA is doing something right.

That said, juxtaposing the UCC next to the SDA helps us have a helpful frame of reference. This is, as mentioned especially so when UCC and SDA are similar in size.

 

I’d like to begin by considering the age range of the SDA and UCC. SDA is in green and UCC in blue. The following date are from the 2015 Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Research Foundation.

Age distribution among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who are ages


Generational cohorts among 
Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who are

The UCC is an aging denomination. The largest cohort is from the Baby-Boomer generation and ranges between 57 and 75 years-old. The SDA whose largest cohort is from Gen-X (ages 41-56 years-old). While both denominations are not seeing as many Millennials either join or remain as members, UCC struggles more. We see this in the data looking at retention rates, the rates at which denominations keep their young within the fold as they become adults.




SDA, here listed as Adventists, retain 51% of their young with 21% leaving for other Protestant denominations and 21% becoming unaffiliated when it comes to religious life. UCC, here listed as Congregationalists, retain 31% of its young with 33% leaving for other Protestant denominations and 28% leaving affiliation-based religious involvement.

The SDA is also much more diverse compared to the UCC:

Racial and Ethnic Composition among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who identify as


Looking more deeply at the interior lives of the two denominations, we note that compared to the SDA, the UCC’s level of religious belief and practice varies.

Importance of religion in one’s life among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who say religion is…



Belief in God among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who say they...

Attendance at religious services among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who attend religious services…



Frequency of prayer among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who pray...

Frequency of reading scripture among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who read scripture…

Frequency of participation in prayer, scripture study, or religious education groups among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who attend prayer group…


Put frankly, religious faith touches the daily lives of SDA members more than it does UCC members. The higher levels of faith and practice among SDA members seems to correlate with a greater sense of spiritual peace and well-being among SDA members.

Frequency of feeling spiritual peace and well-being among Seventh-day Adventists and United Church of Christ
% who feel a sense of spiritual peace and well-being...











A significant question is this: are heightened levels of belief and participation correlated with denominational growth? This is very difficult to answer. Yet I think we can confidently answer yes. Evangelical Protestant groups, like the SDA, see greater attendance on average and more participation in spiritual practices (prayer, scripture reading, etc.). And Evangelical Protestant groups, like SDA (as well as nondenominational and Pentecostal traditions), are either growing or declining at a slower rate as Mainline Protestant denominations.

Another consideration is SDA’s unique elements and practices. It shares with Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, all religious groups experiencing growth in the U.S., two things – non-Sunday gatherings for worship and dietary restrictions. Could key uniqueness in approach (e.g., Sabbath on Saturday or Friday prayer) and standard practices among the faithful (e.g., vegetarianism or kosher rules) correlate to denominational growth? Does this kind of buy-in translate into not only growth but retention? Maybe so.

What is clear to me is this: religious groups that have high levels of attendance, participation, and/or engagement in spiritual practices among the faithful are far more likely to experience growth.


The State of Religion & Church Life in America, 2021 (Part 1)

Covid-19 – it changed everything. Or did it? In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.

To see the similarities and differences between pre-Covid and amid-Covid church life, we must first go back to the years before Covid. What were sociologists, researchers, and church-people telling us?

A couple huge surveys measuring religion in America painted a grave picture of church life in the few years before Covid. All in all, things were not looking so good for institutional churches. The Religious Landscape Survey put out by Pew Research Center in 2014 and the American Values Atlas put out by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in 2016 both agreed that religion in America had shifted in major ways.

The number of Christians in America was steeply declining. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans was steeply rising.

PRRI indicated that in 2016, 69% of Americans were affiliated with some form of Christianity. In 1976, it was 87%. What made up the difference, mostly those who claimed no religious affiliation.

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Pew’s 2014 survey mirrored PRRI’s 2016 survey. Pew indicated 70% claimed affiliation with some form of Christianity, a 8% decrease since just 7 years prior in 2007. Pew showed that nearly 23% were unaffiliated, a rise of nearly 7% since 2007. Again, Christians declining in number. Nones – those who answer “none” when asked for religious affiliation – are rising in number.

Pew in 2019, supplemented their large 2014 survey with fresh data that showed a commensurate decline in the proportion of Christians to unaffiliated with the former decreasing to 65% and the latter increasing to 26%

image.png


As for non-Christian religions, i.e., Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, here is the general status: while these non-Christian religions are all small religious groups, making up to 1.5% of the population or smaller, they are increasing in membership across the board. They are certainly not increasing anywhere near the rate of the Unaffiliated. Nevertheless, unlike Christianity, they are at least growing.    

 

Let’s go a bit more granural, shall we? Yes, let us look a little closer to home.

PRRI’s 2016 survey looked at each state and the Top 3 Religious Groups. Here is what they found in Connecticut:

image.png


In Connecticut, one is far more likely to be either Catholic or Unaffiliated. Only 12% were White Mainline Protestant. And of course, Methodists, Epicopals, Lutherans, UCC, etc. share that 12% pie.

As a denomination, UCC does well in Connecticut. Connecticut makes up 4.7% of UCC churches in the country, but we have 6.9% of UCC members, which is the 5th highest state in America when it comes to percentage of UCC members from each state.`

 

Here’s the thing though – UCC is seeing deep declines in its membership numbers. Yes, this is a trend every mainline denomination has been seeing, but we are not at all immune.

image.png


Another thing about mainline Christian churches that is noteworthy. It was newsworthy, actually, a few months ago. PRRI’s latest American Values Atlas was released in July 2021, based on surveys done in the year 2020 amid the Pandemic. The results were surprising and a bit hopeful for mainline Christianity. The number of mainline Christian has ticked up!

image.png


Whether this surprising uptick is an anomaly, a Pandemic blip, or a discrepancy, 
its hard to say. But we will come down on the side of the positive. We need to take the good news where we can get it!

 

I will end here for now. Next week I will home in on church demographics (age), attendance (worship), and other data focused on the meaning we attach to religion and church. The following week I will delve into the younger generation’s disconnect from religion and church. I’ll three Wednesdays from now with some possible ways to encounter our changed religious landscape. 

Our Daily Bread

I want to begin with a quote from the book we’ve been reading for Wednesday’s Bible Study, A More Christlike Word. The author Bradley Jersak begins the book with he calls, a reliable one-liner. Here it goes: “The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen years old, he grew a beard.”

This quote gets at the heart of the book’s thesis – that we must read the Bible through the lens of Jesus, which the Bible itself declares to be the Word of God. Christ and his Spirit, the primary Word of God, are the reading glasses we need to read the Bible and get to the heart of the Bible’s truths. The Bible points to Jesus and so he is the lens through which we decipher each text.

This morning I want to give a working example of reading scripture through the lens of Christ as we focus on our reading from the Old Testament, also known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible.

Our story from I Kings 17 is a wonderful one. It resonates on its own, doesn’t it?

The context of the story is that a severe drought is happening and effecting a famine. The people of Yahweh understand this to be of divine consequence, as the karmic effect of King Ahab’s horrible, calloused leadership of Israel. The Prophet Elijah is not hesitant to declare this to be the case. Nonetheless, everyone is suffering amid the famine.

Our reading this morning is a vignette that shows this suffering and how God provides somehow.  

The vignette involves two people. Our heroic prophet Elijah and a widowed young mother in the town of Sidon. The widowed mother is a Gentile with a son who are starving amid the famine. Elijah comes into town, and there at the gates of Sidon, he sits thirsty and hungry just like everyone else is. He sees the woman, the young widowed mother. She is picking up sticks. He asks her first for a recepticle of water.

A heroic sage-prophet coming into town and at a central location of that town asking for a drink of water from a woman down on her luck… familiar story. Think Jesus at Jacob’s Well and a Samaritan woman whom Jesus asks for a drink of water, a story told in John 10. Anyway, we’ll get to that later.

So, Elijah doesn’t stop with water. He asks for bread as well. In fact, he pleads for the young woman to make him bread. Don’t forget, Elijah is starving along with everyone else.

The widowed mother is in a bind. She only has a bit of flour and a bit of oil left, enough for just one more small loaf for herself and her son, after which, she fears, they’ll likely starve to death. That’s what she tells Elijah as she says, I can’t.

Elijah insists, promising her that if she takes that leap of faith in making and giving him some bread, she will not run out of flour and oil through the drought, until it ends and rain comes.

And this is what happens, the famous miracle of an evergiving bowl of flour and jar of oil amid a vicious drought.

What does this lovely vignette tell us?

Yes, there is the easily ascertained lesson that we can trust God to provide for all we need and that showing good faith and being hospitable are things that God rewards.

But there’s something deeper going on when we put on those reading glasses of Christ as the Word of God.

We have water which Elijah first asks for. Hmm… in the story I mentioned from the gospel of John, the one with Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Remember that story. Well, Jesus in that vignette declares himself to Living Water, ever-giving water which will never allow us to go thirsty, spiritually speaking of course.

I I Kings 17, we also have bread. The gospel of John also has Jesus saying something else profound. John 6 shows Jesus declaring himself to be the Bread of Life.

We see metaphors for Christ in our story.


Here’s another example. Our story from I Kings begins with verse 8, “the word of the Lord came to Elijah. It ends in verse 16 with these words: according to the the Word of the Lord which spoke through Elijah.” Jesus is the Word, John 1 says.

Jesus is that word of the Lord, present and speaking in our story.

Let’s look a little closer at the bread, which is a key part of our story.

It is simple bread of three ingredients – flour, water, and oil. This is where it gets interesting.

Who is Jesus? The Christ, the Anointed One, the One anointed with oil to be the new Messiah.

That bread, even the bread of life, requires the anointing of oil is no coincidence to our understanding here.

Oil, cooking oil… we shoudn’t read past this. In the Jewish tradition, oil is a symbol, a metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

When oil is infused into water and flour and warmed with a kindled fire of sticks – a fiery bush if you will – bread is the result.

My final point relates to the source of our reading from I Kings, the Bible.

Too often we Christians read the Bible like a text book, using our right side of the brain primarily, the discursive side, the logical side. And Christians who sort of don’t take the Bible too seriously, who don’t really delve into it, too often see it as a kind of lifeless textbook that can be rather boring and hard to understand.

In this case, we are reading the Bible as flour alone. Indeed, what good is flour without water and oil?

When Corey was maybe 5 years-old, he somehow got a hold of flour and decided to play with it in the guest bedroom of the parsonage. It made a complete mess, a mess that is probably still faintly evidenced in that room to this day. Reading the Bible as just flour, as just words void of the oil of the Spirit, indeed can make a mess of a lot of things. See holy wars, inquisitions, witch burnings, racial violence… the list goes on and on.

When we read the Bible infused by the the Spirit of Love and Christ who embodied love, we avoid these messes.

Flour infused with oil and water and heated by fire means bread. The Bible infused with the Holy Spirit and Christ and baked in the fire of God’s love means Christ.

What does this mean? What does this mean for us as we come to a close?

The life-sustaining bread in I Kings points to the Bread of Life that is Christ. Likewise, the Bible, the word of God, points to Jesus, the living and breathing word of God. The heart, the heartbeat of what we call the word of God is the ultimate Word of God, Christ himself!

And this bread is something we are met to ingest and nourish us!

So, let us see and take-in the Bible as not just a lifeless textbook. Instead let us see and internalize its  heartbeat and the life that heartbeat sustains! Let us add the Holy Spirit’s presence and compassion into the mix. Let us and internalize into our minds and hearts the life of Christ and the Spirit of Christ still with us. And in taking in the story of Jesus into our own spirits may we have our spiritual hunger fulfilled. Amen.  

Why I Don't Wear a Clerical Robe

A spiritual value I really try to apply and live by is the value of simplicity. I live rather simply. I dress simply. I eat pretty simply. I try to keep it simple. 

That said, wearing a clerical robe on Sundays to me doesn’t match how I usually approach life. And of all hours, the Worship hour when we stand before and sit with God demands simplicity and humility.

In this vein of thought, there is a Protestant Reformer that I especially admire who sadly is not as known as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. His name is Andreas Karlstadt. In addition to implementing the removal of all symbols from the sanctuary, he also rejected the wearing of clerical vestments and eventually even of academic gowns which is the style Protestant clergy still use. He wore simple, peasant garb, believing that we are all priests and pastors, and we are all equally created in God’s image.

Lastly, I prefer the Johnny Cash approach. The Man in Black, another hero of mine, influences my clerical garb – wearing black with only white on the collar and white soles and laces on my Chuck Taylors (and of course colorful ball caps when out in public). 

Of course, I close with Cash’s song, Man in Black:


Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
Why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love & charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.

Jesus on Wealth

We live in a culture that values wealth. I think this is abundantly clear. We highlight our rag to riches stories. We place wealthy people on pedestals and see them as people to emulate. We elect into power mostly wealthy people. We measure the state of our country and other countries by measures of economic wealth.

The same can be said about the religious culture Jesus confronted… It said in many ways in society, blessed are the rich.

That is why Jesus presented and still presents a problem for many.

Jesus did not see material wealth as an inherent positive. In fact, he saw it as just the opposite. Material wealth for Jesus served as a detriment when it came to what Jesus was all about – God’s Commonwealth, which most biblical translations translate as the kingdom of God.

God’s Commonwealth is the translation suggested by renowned theologian John Cobb. This is Cobb’s rationale for translating Kingdom of God as Commonwealth of God.

The Greek phrase that we translate as “kingdom of God” is basileia theos. A basileia is a politically defined region. It could be a kingdom, and indeed most of them were, but the term does not include that as part of its meaning. If you suppose in advance that God is like a king, then the basileia of God will certainly be a kingdom. But if God is like a father, then his region or land will not be a kingdom. We might describe a father’s basileia better as the family estate. Depending on the kind of father we are talking about, that might be governed in various ways. When we consider how Jesus talked about God, the answer is that it would be managed for the sake of all who lived there with special concern for the weak and needy. We have no word for this, but my proposal is “commonwealth.” Jesus’ message is that the “divine commonwealth is at hand.” Everyone should reverse directions and join in this new possibility. There is no reason to think of the God whose basileia this is, as a monarch!

Indeed, Jesus’ vision of a community based in and grounded in the reality of a loving God, this vision of the beloved community of God, included a sharing of wealth, a common wealth.

Think of heaven, which when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray will come to earth. Thy commonwealth come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In heaven, is there poverty? In heaven, is there a disparity between those who possess wealth and those who do not? No, in heaven, whatever kind of wealth there is, it is shared, it is held in common. Jesus wants that model brought to earth.

As for personal wealth, Jesus never condemns it per se. We often misquote Jesus’ apostle in I Timothy when it comes to money and wealth. Money isn’t the root of all evil, but the love of money is. Jesus in the gospels simply wants money and wealth to be used wisely and compassionately, serving the goodness of God and God’s commonwealth.

Jesus’ deeper concerns are not wealth itself, but what wealth does to the rich, and what it means for the poor.

Jesus is a good follower of Tanakh and Yahweh. In the Tanakh, Jesus’ Bible, the wealthy are commanded to protect and give to the poor so that the poor are not destitute and do not die. This is what Moses and the prophets teach. When Jesus tells the rich man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, it is fully in keeping with the Yahweh-faith.

Where Rabbi Jesus is unique is that he claims God sides with, indeed favors the poor, not the rich. We see this in Jesus very first introduction of himself and his ministry. He claims in Luke 4, he’s come with good news first and foremost to who – to the poor. He goes on to say in the Sermon in the Plain in Luke 6, blessed are the poor and woe to those who are rich. He lauds a poor woman who gives the little she has over and against the rich who give more but only a portion. Again and again, Jesus highlights the last, the least, the lost, commanding we include them first and foremost.

 

That said, Jesus doesn’t exclude the rich. He wants the rich to become part of God’s commonwealth. Matthew, a rich tax-collector, became one of twelve. Yet he knows how hard it is for the wealthy to follow the way of God’s commonwealth, the way of humility and compassion, the way of Jesus, which are all the same thing.

Why is it hard for the wealthy to become part of God’s commonwealth? The more we have, the more we become attached to what we have. The more we have, the more we want. The more we have, the harder it is to let go of. And that’s what Jesus wants – for us to let go of all that holds us back from real connection to him and to real compassion for all of God’s children. Jesus wants for us to let go of what in the end we don’t need and give it to those who are in need.

Now, I want to be clear, this tendency to make money an idol is in all of us. The wealthy are not any different than us in an essential way. Judge lest ye be judged.

Christ’s larger point is to let go of those things we hold too tightly or hold too tightly to for the sake of God’s commonwealth. Christ’s point is to look at every human being, especially the poor, as if we were looking through the eyes of God who loves each of us like a loving parent loves her children. Does a loving parent allow her children to be poor when there is so much wealth to be shared? I think we know the answer to that question.

 

I’d like to close with a reading of Jesus’ famous beatitudes which gets at the ethos of God’s commonwealth. This reading is from a new translation of the New Testament called First Nations Translation. I read it in honor of Indigenous People’s Day tomorrow:

1When Creator Sets Free (Jesus) saw this great crowd, he went back up into the mountainside and sat down to teach the people. His followers came to him there, 2so he took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and began to share his wisdom with them and teach them how to see Creator’s good road. 3“Creator’s blessing rests on the poor, the ones with broken spirits. The good road from above is theirs to walk. 4“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk a trail of tears, for he will wipe the tears from their eyes and comfort them. 5“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk softly and in a humble manner. The earth, land, and sky will welcome them and always be their home. 6“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who hunger and thirst for wrongs to be made right again. They will eat and drink until they are full. 7“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are merciful and kind to others. Their kindness will find its way back to them—full circle. 8“Creator’s blessing rests on the pure of heart. They are the ones who will see the Great Spirit. 9“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who make peace. It will be said of them, ‘They are the children of the Great Spirit!’ 10“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are hunted down and mistreated for doing what is right, for they are walking the good road from above… 14 As you walk the road with me, you are a light shining in this dark world. A village built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one hides a torch under a basket. Instead it is lifted up high on a pole, so all who are in the house can see it. 16 In the same way, let your light shine by doing what is good and right. When others see, they will give honor to your Father—the One Above Us All.

Where’d All the Young Folks Go?

 13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them.

In the short vignette from the gospel of Mark chapter 10, the disciples of Jesus want to hinder children from coming to Jesus. They want to turn them away.

Why, you ask. Well, you need to consider that we live in a different day and age, a day and age where children are treated special, lovingly, and exalted. This is a very kid-centric time we live in, in most ways anyway, and rightly so. But in Jesus’ times, kids were not seen as special or exalted. For families struggling to get by and survive, children were expensive, first of all. And infant mortality was high. In other words, for most families, living hand to mouth and without modern medicine, having another kid meant many more worries. There were no gender-reveal parties in Jesus’ day.

And in public, children were to be seen but not heard. Children were often seen as nuisances when it came to adult concerns. Adults in public, men especially, didn’t want to be bothered by children.   

Thankfully, Jesus was different. Jesus when it came to children was moderner in an ancient time. He treated children special, lovingly, and exalted them, as he does in our scripture reading.

But I want to focus on the disciples hindering young people from coming to Jesus. and yes, I am expanding things from children to young people. The disciples weren’t successful. However, to apply the story to us, when it comes to us hindering young people, we are much more successful, granted, unconsciously so.

There is this thing called retention. When it comes to retaining our young people, the Congregationalist-UCC tradition is very poor. According to a huge survey on religion in America from a few years ago, only 70% at most remain Congregationalists or UCC into their adulthood. We are turning our children away somehow, hindering them from coming to the Jesus we know and love.

How, is the question. What are we as a denomination doing or not doing unconsciously – and I highlight unconsciously – that influence our children to leave the UCC when they become adults?

To answer that, we ought to do a deeper dive into the numbers. So, according to Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study from 2015, Congregationalists, which is predominately UCC, see 31% of their kids continue to identify with the denomination they were brought up in. So, 31% continue as UCCers. 36% join other Christian denominations, 6% join another religion altogether, and 28% become unaffiliated. Congregationalists are at the very bottom when it comes to retention. At the top? At the top of the retention rate list are non-Christian traditions, namely Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. First is Hinduism with 80% remaining Hindu into adulthood. Then there is Islam and Judaism, at 77% and 75% respectively remaining Muslim and Jewish. The Christian group that does the best when it comes to retaining their youth is the Black Protestant church with 70% remaining apart of that tradition into adulthood. The Evangelical tradition follows with 65% remaining Evangelical into adulthood. Catholics retain 59% of their youth. And mainline Protestantism, just 45%.

So, the UCC problem with retention is a mainline Protestant problem. Compared to non-Christian traditions, Evangelical traditions and the Catholic tradition, mainline churches do much worse when it comes to retaining their kids. And among mainline churches, the UCC does the worst of all with 31% of young people continuing as UCC into adulthood.

Here are my thoughts in the how and why we do so poorly as a denomination. And let me just say here that this is not a personal thing. I am not personal critiquing anyone here. Lord knows how we as parents struggle and fail. Nor do I want anyone to feel any kind of guilt. No "shoulda-coulda-wouldas." Regret is wasted energy. All we can do is start where we are and seek to improve. That’s it.

Let me also say that the Christian Education program here at CCP is top-notch. Nicole, Rex, and Cheryl do a wonderful job. CE is not, let me repeat, not the problem. It just isn’t enough! Nor is confirmation.

That said, I give some thoughts about some things our denomination and our collective body might do to improve our retention rate.

When considering those that do better in retaining their young, these seem to be the common denominator:

1.)  personal, applicable connection to one’s live between Monday and Sunday.

For the non-Christian religions I mentioned, this personal connection is seen in the daily devotional practices that Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism require. Hinduism, for example, requires daily worship practice called puja as well as frequent religious festivals through the year. Islam, five times daily prayer. Judaism, regular prayer and a kosher diet.  

In the Black church and the Evangelical traditions, the personal connection is a bit different but just as pervasive in one’s life. The personal connection to one’s life comes in the form of a personal relationship with Jesus that is a daily thing. “A daily walk with Jesus,” is what is often called, and this daily walk in turn influences regular spiritual practices such as Bible study, prayer time, and attending multiple church services throughout the week.  That personal connection to Jesus is key. It is a heart thing, a relationship that is focused on and fostered.

2.)   a deep sense of community experienced throughout the week

Whether a Hindu or a Black Christian, community is central. In these spiritual communities, folks not only worship together, but they eat together, celebrate together, and simply come together throughout the week. As a communities, these religious groups are more like a close cousin to kids than distant uncle or aunt.

So, a personal connection to divinity, in our case to Jesus, and devotional practices throughout the week, and coming together in community as much as possible with fellow sojourners – this, I would say, correlates to retaining young people.

In other words, a more than just Sunday morning approach to the spiritual life that includes a deep sense of community, this seems to enhance young people wanting to remain in the faith.  

So, as I come to a close, what are some things we can do to enhance a deeper connection to Jesus? Is there a regular spiritual practice done throughout the week we can gather around here at Plainville Congregational? And lastly what can we do to enhance a deep sense of community throughout the week?    

These are some of the questions I am asking myself. I am asking knowing as a parent I am far, far from having it figured out.

Jesus said to his disciples, do not hinder the young from coming to me. Let them come and sit with me and be blessed. And Jesus embraced their presence and their personhood, and they experienced connection to the divine. They experienced some kind of spiritual transformation. They experienced community with Jesus and his people. And I’d like to think those young people who shared that moment with Jesus became part of the Jesus movement that we call the church.

That is what we are aiming for still. Let us make it so in the ways we can.