The 21st Century Congregant: A Profile

In my first few weeks as Congregational Connections Lead for the Unitarian General Assembly, I’ve had many fascinating conversations with congregational leaders about how congregations are adapting to an uncertain future. Congregations large and small (OK, medium and small – we’re not a giant movement) are thinking in innovative ways about what being a community of meaning is all about.

Even before this pandemic, the landscape of congregational life had changed massively over the last fifty years. The drop in attendance was perhaps the most obvious change – but there have been countless societal changes as well. As congregational leaders, merely adapting to where we are now makes our heads spin – and we know the future is going to be different still.

I thought one fascinating way to consider the possibilities facing our congregations, might be to give a description of the typical congregant who might be a part of our congregations in the present or near future. What follows is a generalisation of the type of person that I think is either already participating in Unitarian and Free Christian congregations, or will be interested in Unitarian and free Christian congregations in, say, the period between 2021 – 2030. (“21st century congregant” is a snappy title – I like how it sounds a bit like “the six-million-dollar man” – but I’m really mostly focussing on the next decade).

This “typical congregant” is a generalisation and, as my High School history teacher liked to say, “When you generalise, you’re always wrong.” None of these qualities will be true for everyone. Feel free to disagree with my assessment of our “demographic”. I offer it as a way of imagining how our congregations might look in the future. I believe there are people who would be extremely interested in what we, as Unitarian and Free Christian congregations, have to offer. Here is my guesswork around who is “our people” and/or “our potential people.”

The 21st Century Congregant…

  • Is interested in the “something more”, or the spiritual dimension of life. Some may not even use the word “spiritual” – and I do believe the breadth of theological belief in our pews will remain extremely diverse for a considerable time (and this is GREAT news!). But there is a something, a yearning, that brings people to us. The contents or expression of that yearning are unique to every congregant – all I’m saying here is some sort of vague call to “something more” is pretty typical in people who come to our doors.
  • Has held multiple – and quite possibly contradictory – theological, philosophical, or cultural positions over the course of their life. We live in complicated, intellectually rich times. A person may easily veer back and forth between atheist and theist, or even (though this is much more shocking) Lib Dem and Tory! For other personality types, it is less a case of veering, and more one of exploring different valences and grey areas…getting to know Mahayana Buddhism for three years, say, before really getting involved in the fight for a global living wage while keeping up with occasional meditation, and so on. This can – sometimes – mean that the intellectual divides within congregations are a little less severe and fierce. People are not only familiar of, and respectful for, differing views – there is a good chance they themselves have explored similar territory. The religious and ethical conversations are thus a little more nuanced and open-hearted than they might have been in past generations. 
  • Spends a fair portion of the day online. As Samuel Johnson is reported to have said, “a person who is tired of Zoom is tired of 2020.” We go from this meeting to that app, to this blog to binge-watching that show. True, not everyone is online, but a significant portion of those who aren’t watch telly regularly – which is really just a less interactive computer, isn’t it? Apart from a few ascetic holdouts, we are all on screens quite a lot of the time. We may have mixed feelings about this, sometimes. But the 21st century congregant finds a lot of meaning and community on screens, as well – only a few genuinely wish to unplug entirely. And if there are opportunities online which connect with that spiritual yearning – we may, at least, click the “I’m interested” button. Doesn’t mean we’ll actually attend in the end – everyone is so busy – but if the cards and the calendar line up right, then count us in.
  • Isn’t as big on loyalty as previous eras. Over the course of our lives, we change careers, houses, geographical locations, love relationships, supermarkets, streaming services, life philosophies. Maybe we don’t change football teams – some things are sacred – but that’s about it. For all sorts of reasons, a 21st century congregant isn’t really in a position to promise that they will be an active congregant 10 years from now, even if they are active now. And just because they really like the service at Downwich Unitarian doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to check out Upwich Chapel’s beautiful space once or twice – or see what’s going on at Downwich Baptist.
  • Is eager for more local connections. Having just said how we’re both more uprooted, and more on screens, these days,conversely, we feel the lack of the sorts of local connections our ancestors enjoyed. Especially after pandemic, when many of us have not seen family, nor gone to the local pub (another dying institution that may, or may not, come roaring back). The 21st century congregant is charmed by the possibility to be in the same space with real people, forging, real bonds. There is something a bit artificial and hollow about social media, many of us often feel – especially as tech corporations seem to not be all that interested in human flourishing. The more tired we are of our online lives, the more the opportunity to actually be somewhere, talking with an actual person, will be cherished.
  • Could use a little more help in life’s roughest patches. Along with that sense of uprootedness, comes the awareness that we cannot rely on the same support structure that previous generations could. Our families are more spread out, and we don’t have the same societal safety nets – material and psychological – that we once enjoyed. There are plenty of services out there, Samaritans and coaches and therapists – and most of us do avail ourselves of them. But we still need something beyond the capitalist marketplace we know so well, something that isn’t a service as such but a voluntary community, people that just genuinely and freely want to be there for each other.
  • Can’t really commit, long-term, to weekly attendance at a Sunday service. The 21st century congregant has nothing really against Sunday services, can see the value in them, and can see how it would be a great habit to get into. Maybe they come for three Sundays in a row – or longer, if their life is more stable than most. But for some – let’s be honest – it just isn’t practical. There are family commitments, weekend trips planned, the job hours are vague and all-consuming, so many home projects to do with the tiny amount of spare time on the calendar. And they’re tired. To make it work, they would have to make church attendance the centre of their life, and build the rest of their schedule around it – and, unless they’re seminary-bound, that’s too much of us to reasonably ask.
  • Is a bit fascinated, a bit intrigued, a bit off-put, and a bit repulsed by “church” The Vicar of Dibley.Fleabag. The church sexual abuse scandal. The Pope hangs out with the homeless and the Dalai Lama. Islamophobia. Fundamentalism. The Book of Kells and Mary Beard talking about ancient civilisations. Church – and religion more generally – occupies a strange place in our public consciousness. Chances are those coming to our doors have multiple, confusing thoughts about what it all means. And for those Unitarian congregations saying “we’re different, we’re not really church!” Riiiiiight. Do you have: a committee; an old building; hymns; a minister/lay leader; or time of reflection/meditation/prayer? If you have at least two out of those five, trust me, you’re “church”. At least in the eyes of secular culture, you’re totally church. Embrace it or live in denial.
  • Has a vague sense of dread about our ecological and/or international future. There is a pretty strong collective sense of foreboding. We talk about it, read about it. We don’t really know, exactly, what to do about it. We put out our recycling and wish that the global leadership was not so short-sighted, corrupt, and trivial. We don’t expect a fifteen-person chapel will have a fully-developed vision of global peace and sustainable living. But if they are willing to sit there in the hard places, be honest about where we are, and look for hope, that’s a big, big deal.
  • Has a rather tenuous economic future. From the collective to the personal: most individuals of “working age” do not have a guaranteed job for the next thirty years. They are making it up as they go along, always with a “plan B” or a “plan C” in the back of their minds because their employers may drop them at any minute. This is another reason why that can’t put congregational life front-and-centre in their thoughts and energies. Any time they commit to the congregation, is taken from another pot – self-improvement courses, rewriting the CV, networking. And yet they may well commit to the congregation even so, knowing how important spiritual health is in that mix.
  • Is stretched thin. See above. Especially post-pandemic, let’s just expect that congregants are going through some level of trauma, agoraphobia, social anxiety, whatever. These are normal and natural reactions to the way life has been. Now is not the time to normalise perfection.
  • Is painfully, and personally, aware of the ingrained imbalances of our white supremacist patriarchy. We are increasingly aware of the incredibly pernicious and lasting affects of power dynamics. It’s not that none of us were aware before – ask any woman in her 90s about gender roles and expectations, they knew all along how the game was fixed – but it is now, thankfully, being talked about much more. Voices that have been silenced are now getting more of a hearing, and wounds that have been hidden are now being revealed. Congregations may not feel up to the task of dealing with such massive societal scars. But small groups can be incomparably powerful loci of witness and healing. And let’s not forget that religious texts – especially Jesus’ parables – have an awful lot to say about power dynamics. In the Fifties, the church turned Jesus into an insubstantial, flaccid “we should be kind to everybody” figure. The oversimplification of religion to “just” being about universal kindness is no longer sufficient. Universal kindness is great – but if it means the power structures staying essential the same, that is neither universal nor kind.
  • Sees diversity as more than just “a nice thing”, but as a life goal. There are so many cultures and backgrounds around the world. We know we’re not going to fully understand all of them, in our brief time here on earth. But the 21st century congregant has a vague sense they’d like to get out more: know more about other cultures, other perspectives, and build relationships across divides. Few of us know how to cross these divides well – and those who are white or of the majority culture are likely to be especially clueless in this regard. But we’re eager to get out of our bubble, if a bit trepidatious of wrong steps we may take along the way.  
  • Isn’t averse to the idea of financial contribution. OK, they may not reach for their wallet the very first time you tell them you’ve got a leaky roof. And, as said, their long-term financial situation is probably pretty precarious, which makes them justifiably cautious around money. Even so, they’re used to giving £10 a month to Netflix. Giving to a spiritual community does not seem at all outlandish or farfetched to them. For many givers, giving is less about paying for a service, and more about being a part of something. They want to contribute to the good in the world, and if they see the chapel is doing good in the world, they want to contribute to it, whether they attend every week or once every year.
  • Is prepared to give considerable time and energy to something they feel passionate about. After pessimistically chronicling all the restraints of modern life here, I can temper that by saying that the 21st century congregant will often devote incredible efforts to projects they find meaningful. I’ve witnessed this first-hand: people of deep conviction, who want to make a positive contribution to the world, and are willing to go to great lengths to achieve it. When a 21st century congregant is truly passionate about something, they’ll move heaven and earth to try to make it happen.
  • Wants to believe in something beyond dogma. The 21st century congregant may believe that God exists, or they may not. They may believe that human progress will continue in centuries to come, or they may not. They may believe that virtue is its own reward, or they may not. Even if they believe any of these things, they have had their doubts about them too. The 21st century congregant is not looking pat slogans about the world, they want a living, breathing faith – a way of being in the world, an ongoing practice that gives them a sense of “active hope” (a phrase from the great ecologist and mystic Joanna Macy). We want to feel a sense of purpose and belonging in this complicated world, and commit to what is beautiful, right, and good wholeheartedly.

There you have it: the 21st century congregant. Is your chapel ready to welcome them?

What do you think of this list? What would you add to it? Which items would you challenge? Feedback very welcome! I’m just making this stuff up as I go along.

In the next instalment – probably in a week or two – I’ll talk about the implications of all this on how we “do church”. Probably you can guess some of it. I’ll leave it as a cliff-hanger for now, but I will say this: actually writing this exercise has been quite encouraging for me. As formidable as it may sound for our congregations to “meet the needs” of the 21st century congregant, I suspect we are better equipped to do this than we may think. It may require a change in perspective…but I don’t believe it requires a multi-million-pound budget, state-of-the-art technology, or a size of hundreds of people. But I’ll say more about how our congregations are well-equipped to make a difference in the next essay.

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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