If You Build It …
Who doesn’t still get goose bumps recalling the scene from Kevin Costner’s Iowa cornfield in Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe emerged from between the corn rows, giving life to the empty baseball diamond that had been faithfully plowed there? A deep desire for personal healing prompted an intuitive knowing that “if you build it, they will come.” If only it were that simple.
Unity was built on a platform of passion and faith and the undying belief that we have the power to create our own realities. The miracle of tangible healing spurred the Fillmores to seek out ways to share their application of the principles with others, thus giving rise to the first glimpse of what would eventually become the Unity movement. A deep knowing, solid intuition and a very basic knowledge of the link between religion and science were enough to get the Fillmores excited about the infinite possibilities. Their enthusiasm and results were contagious. Entire communities of curious seekers were declaring, “I’ll have what they’re having!” Unity spiritual communities were founded and the movement grew rapidly.
Fast forward 100 years or so to a culture driven by time, technology and turmoil; where the impact to most ministries is declining participation and strategic confusion. If this has been your experience of late, you may be asking yourselves what is driving the shift away from the church, and more importantly, is there anything that you, as spiritual leaders, can do about it?
So, What Is Happening?
It’s important first to acknowledge that declining congregant numbers are not just a Unity malady. Churches of every denomination (or non-denomination) are reporting emptier pews. While there are a number of real factors that play into that, we have to recognize that attendance is not really the goal; attendance is simply an indicator of something deeper. People are voting with their feet. Are we keeping up with the pace in which life is changing for our constituents? Perhaps it is our dedication to tradition or some other noble precept that keeps us from evolving. Maybe we just aren’t sure what to do differently. But if we are willing to look at the evidence trending in front of us, there are some terrific clues as to what people are really needing from ministry now and in the future.
Not surprising that, with infinite online options, many are getting their spiritual nourishment in their sweats, with a cup of coffee, any time they want it. In fact, many of you may have a pretty solid livestream offering. This option is here to stay, so my advice is: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! And it’s easy to forget that those watching are real people with a commitment to your ministry. Value and nurture these relationships as much as you would those you can see, because they are showing up!
According to a study by Carey Niewhof, here are some of the other trends that keep folks at home on Sunday mornings:
- Greater affluence–People have more expendable income which provides them with more options, including travel, technology, spiritual retreats, etc.
- Kids’ activities–Many are picking sports over church.
- Increased stress–Sometimes it’s the only time people get to sleep in or decompress.
- Self-directed spirituality–Why take our word for it when they can Google it?
- Valuing attendance over engagement–If they just “attend,” chances of showing up regularly declines over time.
What Can We Do About It?
“Cultural Creatives” want dominion over their own spiritual development, causing a decline in reliance on any type of institution. People are smart and more spiritually savvy. So, our ultimate goal in appealing to the independent thinker is to offer an “experience” rather than a church, a “feeling” instead of a doctrine, a compelling reason to drag their carcass out of bed.
Let us remind ourselves that the church itself is just an inanimate object. Any community is merely the sum of its parts; meaning that a minister alone can’t dictate the resonance field of a ministry any more than the building can. The feeling that someone gets when they walk into your church is created by the collective consciousness of the people who frequent there. It’s called the “resonance field” and it will determine whether or not someone feels inclined to come back.
Church is no longer a place that you go to; it’s who you are. You are the church. People are no longer looking for a place to be fed … they are seeking the experience of wholeness and connectedness that can be found in a myriad of mediums—sometimes within the physical walls of your facility.
Charles and Myrtle Fillmore didn’t set out to build a church. They sought Truth and the desire to be in service. They didn’t worry about whether their message would be interpreted as “evangelizing” because they weren’t seeking an audience. They were just sharing their authentic selves and people were drawn to their resonant Field of Dreams. They trusted in Spirit to bring the right people to the party when they were ready to hear it.
… They Will Come
We can stay true to our core philosophy, but we must also have the curiosity and flexibility to adapt our approach to a new way of operating in the world. As leaders of the Unity movement, your people look to you to be the pioneers of the future. Be willing to ask the tough questions and look outside the walls of your ministry for better answers:
- Are we just providing a safe place and some weekly entertainment or are we truly making a difference in the lives of those we touch?
- What are we doing (or not doing) that leaves people feeling like there’s not much value?
- Does our space feel welcoming and progressive? (If the church interior design looks like it’s from the ‘70s, people assume your theology is, too.)
- Does the overall experience truly energize? (music, message, lighting, décor, etc.)
- What is the Call-to-Action? Are we really challenging people to grow spiritually and serve in meaningful ways?
- Are we willing to say no to members who prefer things to stay as they were?
The bottom line is that we have to create a compelling reason for people to leave the comfort of their homes and re-prioritize the craziness of their schedules to come be with us. The good news is that human beings, by nature, have the inherent need for community of some type, whether in person or virtually. No matter how advanced our systems become, people will instinctively seek out like-minded others to commune with. Resilience studies have proven that the #1 cause of depression is directly linked to the lack of being connected to something bigger than ourselves. Never before has there been a greater need to connect—with our families, with the larger community, with the Source of our being. Meaningful connection is the greatest gift we can offer. And people will always find time for the things they value most.