The Mindset List: Congregational Life, Faith Formation, and the Future (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

November 12, 2017


Let me begin with gratitude to my colleague, the Reverend Peter Boulatta, as I borrow from his sermonic playbook.

How many of you remember phone booths?

How many of you have used a phone booth?

How many of you have used a phone booth in the past week?

Does that mean that you have not made a call outside your home in the past week? Unlikely. What is more likely, is that the phone you use to make calls in public is the same one you use to make calls in private. It is, more than likely, a little computer that fits in your pocket or purse.  It is, more than likely, a device that even if you watched the original Star Trek, we could not imagine would be so deeply integrated into our daily lives here on this planet in your life time.

Things are changing. While this is the very essence of life, there is empirical data to suggest that change is happening at a faster rate, posing innumerable challenges.  This means, among all the other changing things, that congregational life is changing.  What was once a reliable reality for one generation is no longer even a point of reference.  And I mean this literally: there used to be a phone booth in this very building!  And it’s long gone.

There are many contributing factors for this, and there are many implications.  Today, I am hoping to touch on the rather narrow topic of what this means for Unitarian Universalist congregational life in the 21st century.

Nick, will you help us set the stage?

Nick is going to play parts of four songs.  When you hear a song that you recognize as coming from your generation, however you understand that, please rise in body or arms up so that others can see you.  If this experiment works as I hope, you will only rise for one song.  Nick, can you play the first one?

Okay, Nick: our second song.

Once more: our third selection.

And lastly, our final piece.

Thank you for taking part in our little musical experiment.

Just so we are fully informed, the first song, made popular in the year 1939, was “In the Mood” made famous by Glenn Miller.  The second song was “I want to hold your hand” by The Beatles and came out in 1964.  The third song’s title is “(I’ve had) The Time of my Life”, made famous in the film Dirty Dancing, and came out in 1987.  And lastly, “Home,” was the final song, made popular by Phillip Phillips, who came to be widely known by the American public because he was “discovered” through American Idol, a television talent hunt show.

Nick and I chose these songs to represent four primary generations that have emerged in American culture and that generational theorists have recognized, though there is some wrangling around the edges about exact start and ending years for each of these generations.  Most of what I am going to refer to in this sermon comes to us from Strauss and Howe, interpreted for me by my colleague, Reverend Kimberly Debus.   Should you want to know more about this, in the lobby there are hard copies of a handout that Reverend Debus put together if you are interested in this topic.

In the Mood – is for what has come to be called “the Silent generation:” folks born 1925-1942 and who are currently ages 75-92.  Who is here from the Silent generation?

The next generation – Boomers, a much more widely used term than the one for the generation before them — was born, according to these particular theorists, between 1943 and 1960.  Not all theorists, professional or lay, agree; but I’ll stick with the years and ages based on Howe and Strauss, just to provide a coherent reference point. The current age of Boomers is 57 -74.   The song we chose to represent this generation was I Want to Hold Your Hand. Who is here from the Boomer generation?

The song from the movie, Dirty Dancing – Time of My Life – was chosen to represent Generation X, folks born between 1960 – 1982 (though some place it later, like 1984-5).  This is my generation.  Anyone else out there who identifies as GenX?

The fourth song, Home, is for the Millennial generation (originally called GenY because it’s the generation after GenX — but that name didn’t take hold).  These are folks born from 1983-2004.  They range from those just entering high school to those who are in their mid-thirties and already raising children of their own, which may well be a single generation but covers several developmental stages.  Do we have any Millennials in the room?

There is another generation, the one that comes after the Millennials.  These are folks born after 2005.  There are names that theorists have suggested for this Generation Z (comes after Y?), but none of caught hold yet – Homeland Generation, iGeneration, Digital Natives, etc..  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with Pew Research has been using the term, “post-Millennial” to describe this youngest demographic cohort.

Our reading today, the Mindset List, gave us a window into the reality of a subgroup within the Millennials – folks born in 1998ish, so the younger half of the Millennial generation.  There are some interesting facts there, but I raise them here because they are more than facts: they influence how one experiences reality, as well as cause confusion for those of us who have not experienced some of those realities.  They influence how that generation sees the past, what ideas they carry with them, and what images they conjure for the future.  This is, of course, true for all of us: what happens in our lifetimes influences the new paradigms we can imagine, based on what we carry and what we have let go and the ones we are still carrying around with us.

How can we not notice, given last Sunday’s mass shooting at a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the observation by the Mindset List that

[quote] This year’s list observes that entering college students will generally not find “Columbine” to be an infamous and iconic name, yet for an older generation it was the first and most evil of all high school massacres. Is it true that they have little knowledge of “Columbine,” and if so, what are the implications? That school shootings have become so frequent that we have become dangerously numb to their enormous consequences? [unquote]

What does it mean to one’s sense of what is normal, if mass shootings have been the norm your whole life?  And for those of us for whom this has not been true, who cling desperately to the attitude that such a reality should never be the norm, what does it mean for the future we are trying to shift and shape?

Things are always changing, right now they are changing fast and they are changing in ways that make relatively ineffective reliance on any toolkit of past solutions to problems or responses to needs.   Take, for example, our response to the faith formation, otherwise called religious education, of our children – one of the primary focuses of this congregation’s mission statement.

Last month, the chair of the Religious Education Committee, Lynn Mayfryer, and the Director of Religious Education, Jillian Post, and I attended a day-long conference in New York City, along with other UU ministers, religious education leaders, and lay folk interested in the future of faith formation.  The presenter, Kimberly Sweeney, had published a paper provocatively titled, “The Death of Sunday School.”

Provocative, yes, and also apt, given trends that have been emerging for decades or have already taken hold.  And while that provocative phrase may have its reality, so, too, does this one, paraphrasing a French idiom:

Church is dead!

Long live the Church! 

Sunday School is dead!

Long live the next version of faith formation! 

You are invited to learn more about this when Jillian holds a town meeting in March – in addition to that one-day workshop, she is attending over the next few months a series of webinars to explore these trends, to brainstorms responses, and to imagine religious education for children transforming from a phone booth into … into… well, I don’t think anyone knows quite yet.


There are shifting trends in UU congregations across the continent; we see it here, in this congregation.  It’s not just about religious education for children and youth.  These shifts impact nearly every aspect of congregational life.  For instance, in surveys on church healthy and growth, one measurement looks at attendance.  What was once considered “regular attendance” — three out of our weeks per month – is now, once per month (at least for many non-ethnic churches and congregations).  Fewer people are going to church (or synagogue, any congregational setting, really) as American society becomes more secular.

This particular aspect of the changing landscape makes it challenging to have enough kids in RE on any given Sunday to facilitate an engaging class.  It impacts other aspects of congregational life, like how how lay leaders make congregational life hum. Not all that long ago, it was understood that to be both inclusive and effective, committees and boards should be big.  But this only works if there are people to fill those seats.

When we look at national demographics, there are between 2/3 or 3/4 (depending on whom you read) the number of GenerationX that there were Baby Boomers.  There just aren’t the numbers of humans there once were to take on leadership roles.

While the number of Millennials is equal or slightly surpasses the number of Boomers, what we are finding is that Millennials are willing – more than willing – to do work, they are less interested in serving on committees and attending meetings – they are more interested in project-based work – or so say the social scientists out there who are looking at these things.


That colleague of mine who had the brilliant idea of referencing phone booths is also where I first heard this quote from Henry Ford, who apparently said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”  Henry Ford chosen not to think technically (how can I fix what we have now to make it better?), but adaptively (what can meet our needs but does not yet exist?).  Which is just another way of saying, “This phone booth thing is great, but its usefulness is finite.  What’s next?  What’s next after that?”

Which is to say, we cannot invent the next response to our children’s faith formation needs – and frankly, our adult needs as well – based solely on what has worked before.  We need to change our mindset.  We need to expand our mindset. We need to become more aware of our mindset and then use this awareness to feed curiosity so that we can notice generational assumptions that likely do not apply in the same ways as they used to, or at all.

On the first Tuesday of each month, you are invited to take part in a book and dinner group that is exploring how to sustain the vibrancy of congregational life in the midst of all this change.  We had our first meeting this past week.  We read a chapter each month – so not too much homework – and we connect with each other in person and reflect together.  On a side note, if I were to guess, getting together to eat will always be something we do in congregational life, at least I hope so.

In the introduction to the book we are reading, the author, Mike Durrall, writes this somewhat daunting, somewhat painful, and exciting sentence: “The hopeful tomorrow will require discarding a sizeable number of practices that have outlived their usefulness.”

When I hear that, it sounds like we are going to have to stop carrying all sorts of metaphorical phone booths, just like we decided, however many years ago it was, to discard an actual phone booth in this building.  If you notice, where the phone booth used to be, we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with the space.  These things take time.

But we will figure it out; metaphorically or literally, we will. For this is a place and you are a people determined in your vibrancy, resolute in your scrappy approach to the world, and unwavering in your efforts to help and heal the world, and each other.

Not to mention, that when we all are In the Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we have our closing circle and say to each other I Want To Hold Your Hand Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we’ve just spent the morning together Having the Time of Our Lives Mood [Nick play a line or two] , we’ll be sure to make this place Home Mood [Nick play a line or two] for us now and for those generations into the future.

Amen.  Blessed be.








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