The Present and Future of the Unificationist Sunday Service

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By Robin Debacker

Photo on 2014-03-29 at 18.55 #2My husband and I were empty nesters when we realized that our expectations and needs were no longer being met by the weekly Sunday service. We were newcomers to Europe, having spent 12 years in Korea, but we’d been feeling the same there, too. An idea whose time has come, mixed with the need to become an agent of change, plus the prospect of a long, dark Belgian winter — these are what propelled me in fall 2013 to begin a survey that became a labor of love, and helped me identify what was missing, and what I could do about it.

I set about asking Unificationists in various parts of the world, “What is the format of your service, what inspires you, and what would you change if you could?” I realized quickly that many were also longing for a more authentic spiritual experience. The responses I received were thoughtful and honest and I think they deserve to be shared with the wider Unification community and beyond.

The process

My instincts told me to avoid using SurveyMonkey and make personal contact with each person instead. I sent a private Facebook message to 930 people from September through November 2013. I was blocked three times, and Facebook eventually threatened to shut me down permanently, which halted the surveying stage and kick-started me into the data-coding process.

By that time I had collected 350 responses — two-thirds from the 50+ age group, and 103 from second gen. Meant to take the temperature of the average Unificationist, this grassroots survey focused primarily on people who are not in leadership positions. They came from 195 cities around the world — 38 states in the U.S. and 32 countries worldwide. Because so many thanked me for asking them, I called it the Thankyou4asking! project.

The Results

The threads running through the responses fall roughly into five categories:

  1. The Service: goal and format;
  2. The Sermon: length and content;
  3. Worship: the importance of music, praise and prayer;
  4. Community Building: testimony, fellowship, member care, contribution, small group;
  5. The Second Gen: their needs, importance and value to the community.

Below is a highlight from each section, with a link to its respective page. To get the full flavor of this survey, however, I suggest taking an hour or two to read through the responses themselves. I was inspired especially by those of the second gen. The city or country where they attend a service is indicated, but for privacy’s sake, personal identifying information has been omitted.

Service

The Sunday service is the primary weekly gathering in the Unificationist community. I found that almost 25% of the respondents had dropped out and no longer attend. Of those who do attend, 70% said they are uninspired and come out of duty or only for social reasons. An example:

“Many of us are in the process of dealing with the fact that the service is not very stimulating or facilitating of growth, and/or doesn’t answer some of the pressing questions we have. For those who have stopped coming or come very seldom, often the case is that they have made choices they fear they would be judged for.” – A second gen respondent

service

Three hot topics that emerged were:

  • Is the service guest friendly? Very few communities reported that their service is for both members and guests.

“I’ve always thought about bringing friends from work to church, but every week I’m so grateful I didn’t.” — Second gen

I didn’t join this movement because I was looking for a church.” — First gen

“I sort of exist under a conflict of ideals being a Unificationist and going to church. I don’t see ‘unifying all religions’ being achieved through separating myself with another church.” — Second gen

“Gender equality is a centrally missing piece in our movement in its attempt to live by the Principle of Creation. And the core of gender equality is to come to know the Heart of God in Her femininity.” — First gen

These are ongoing discussions that, with more input from the grassroots, will help us to go forward into a more stable future.

Sermon

The majority of respondents expressed a desire for more uplifting and applicable sermon content, and said they prefer a short, concise sermon of 20 to 30 minutes, and rotating speakers.

“I love the music and cherish the fellowship, but I’m allergic to the sermon.” — First gen

A more personal sermon, the reverend allowing him/herself to be intimate with the congregation — that would keep me coming back.” — Second gen

Worship is about giving time for praise and thanks, and for communion with God. Not everybody wants to jump up and down, but everybody wants to feel alive.

“The question is always how can we bring the living God to church? We need a real revival.” –First gen

“Praise, exultation; singing and dancing — they’re all part of worship. We don’t do that much. Our kids come mainly to socialize. The point is to greet and spend real time together, loving God — and then socialize.” — First gen

Community Building

The greatest resource in any community is its people. Many respondents said that testimonies are the most inspiring part of the service, and that fellowship keeps them coming back. Although the small group model is used by many successful churches to build deeper spiritual community, only a few Unificationists surveyed participate in one.

“I would love to see our community grow to be more personal with one another. There are so many aunts and uncles I see that I never talk to or that never talk to me…” — Second gen

Second Gen

In general, they are struggling to find themselves, and searching for what could be called a new, more practical application of the truth. They want to be noticed and spoken to, not as second gen, but as people, and they want to have a voice.

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“For many of us second gen it’s frustrating because if we do anything churchy we’re hailed a saint. This is annoying and stressful, where we feel we can’t be who we truly are. At the opposite end of the spectrum, often we’re treated as if we don’t know anything and must be instructed to be proper. Appreciating God in people, and how that may be different from our understanding, is key to creating a loving community.” — Second gen

Some Conclusions 

  1. The social aspect of a church community is a large part of what keeps people coming back.
  2. Many respondents said they hadn’t shared their thoughts and insights with their pastor. Without a forum for discussion and honest feedback, the likelihood of empowerment, growth and development is small.
  3. People tend to think the leader is responsible for making changes and seeing to it that everything works. But the responses showed that contribution makes people feel more ownership, connects them together, and multiplies creative energy.

“There wasn’t much I liked about Sunday service at all. This inspired me to get involved and help develop a music ministry. That has developed into collaboration with the pastor to make the service more embracing, enchanting and inspiring.” — First gen

Some of the best practices mentioned were rotating the speakers, keeping the sermon personal and under 30 minutes, allowing time for testimonies, and having a monthly youth service. Though there were varied opinions about the best kind of music, everyone agreed that music plays a vital role in the service, and needs to be good.

Final Remarks

This survey was an exercise in listening to and gathering facts from Unificationists about their Sunday service experiences, and giving the silent majority — the disenchanted 70% — a place to be heard. As a result, although the format of our service in Belgium hasn’t changed, I have. I give testimonies and offer my music more often, cross the room more to talk to people I don’t know, invite myself to visit people in their homes, and ask what inspires them. Contributing more and complaining less feels better.

Transition times challenge us to rethink and recreate ourselves and our institutions. I don’t know what our future services will look like, but I hope they will be more engaging. When enough people start leaning in together, a tipping point is reached and change becomes inevitable. In the words of Vietnamese monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, “The forms of Buddhism must change so that the essence of Buddhism remains unchanged.” I would wholeheartedly agree.♦

Resources: 

The Thankyou4asking! website, PowerPoint, and additional links.

Robin Debacker (UTS Class of 1985) taught English for six years at Kookmin University in Seoul, Korea, and was president of WFWP-IWK during that same time. Blessed in 1982, she and her husband, Jean, currently reside in Belgium. They have one daughter. Her blog is the Life Story Project.

22 thoughts on “The Present and Future of the Unificationist Sunday Service

  1. Thank you for this useful and extensive study, which must have taken so much time and investment!

    Music is good in service, particularly Bach by an experienced organ player. I think it is important to realize that a Church service is primarily a “service” to God, and not as much a “service” to the congregation; fellowship, music programs, study and social programs, primarily for the community. In order to get a service in an international setting that everyone appreciates and gets uplifted by is of course very challenging. Personally, especially getting older, I am very moved when I sometimes have an opportunity to attend a service of the Dutch Reformed Church with wonderful church organ music, solemn atmosphere without people walking in and out or coming late, children going out to their various programs before the sermon starts, and a thorough historical message by an experienced minister. I can imagine that others would abhor such a service. I remember that in the 1980s an outline was given by International Headquarters how to hold a Unificationist service, based on guidance by True Father (even though it was very much based on Christian church service, if I remember well). Perhaps it is good to reconsider these guidelines again.

    • Hi, Frans. You’re right that it was a big job, particularly going through the responses, searching for key points, and trying to represent the whole thing in the article above! I’m still thinking about the lessons to be learned here. Thanks for your comment about music. I would like more meditative music myself, and reflection time. About the guidelines given by Father, he also told us to do home church in our area, and meet together as a larger group less often. I think we have to try new things. One of my mottos is, “If it works, keep at it; if it doesn’t work, try something else!”

  2. Robin, I really appreciate the fact that you took so much of your time to do this survey. It is of course difficult to meet everyone’s expectation at Sunday service, since we are all so different. I personally like a service which celebrates the love of our Heavenly Parents which means that I would be ready to even dance when the spirit is right. I think that God wants to experience joy through each one of us and what better time than at Sunday service. Recently our pastor asked the question: “For what purpose do you come to Sunday service?” We need to be clear in our minds the purpose for which we attend service. The focal point should be to meet with God through the message, prayer or praise and experience His love, I think. Other things like meeting friends, etc., are added bonuses.

    • Hi, Elizabeth! Thanks for commenting 🙂 I know what you mean about dancing when the spirit is right. I remember holding myself back from jumping into the aisle at some of HJN’s services back in the beginning. I probably should have just let myself go. Now, I think I wouldn’t be as shy. One of the respondents talked about praise and I was reminded that it’s OK to express our joy. I’d like to see more outward expression, and more enthusiastic praise.

  3. Thank you, Robin, for this resourceful contribution about Sunday service and all that you bring to it. In addition to Sunday service, the daily life and projects of blessed families are the essence of our faith. All in all, communication and relationships create the heart culture in our life of community. If we would be more personal with a congregational membership, as we are with VIPs, we would see greater vitality and meaning together.

    In this regard, I think we need to encourage leaders and members to relate with more personal face-to-face encounters, more telephone calls rather than e-mails, and more reciprocal relating. Blessings to you and family.

    • Thanks for commenting, Donna. I remember the first time someone texted me instead of calling. I was shocked. I’ve gotten used to it now, but it’s such a big difference hearing the voice, or seeing the person face to face as you say. Even an email seems more personal than a text. What makes life beautiful? I couldn’t agree more that it’s the relationships we have with each other. I’m glad to finally be realizing that.

  4. Robin, thank you for this study. Unfortunately, there are no surprises here. For me, I believe this state of affairs is a direct result of our leadership structure and how church leaders (they are not pastors) are appointed. We need pastors concerned with and responsible to the spiritual life of the congregation rather than leaders who are primarily responsible to the church hierarchy rather than the congregation. Our local leader’s time is mostly occupied with directions from above and pastoring relegated to his free time. Until local congregations can choose and support their own pastors who are independent of the hierarchy nothing will change. In my opinion, the pastor and leader should be two different people.

    • Hi, David. Thank you for responding. I’d also like to see more “pastoral care.” It’s not a big part of our culture, but it could be. I would agree that the pastor and leader are two different jobs, and unfortunately, they are usually one person. We need training in pastoral and family counseling, marriage and family life, end-of-life care, etc. I’m interested in getting that kind of training, as there is a real need, not just in our movement, but in the world. As far as the life of a spiritual community, I keep coming back recently to the idea of small groups, where we get to know each other intimately, and where we live near each other and can visit easily, and more often than just Sundays. We can care for each other more easily when we are neighbors.

      • Robin, you have great insights. Pastoral care is the umbrella for pastoral theology, pastoral counseling, marriage and family therapy, etc. As a certified Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I highly support your suggestions. I believe you have a divine assignment. So thank you for listening

  5. Thank you for your research.

    There is another factor affecting quality of local services that is a direct result of the misapplication of the directive of “Home Town Providence.” This is the direction that asked members to transition from an active “movement” to a local expression of the movement with a focus on what was called “Tribal Messiahship.”

    In reality, many members took part of the directive literally and as a result lost a valuable asset to achieve their greater goal of a supportive community. Often, people went to their hometown and took up a life there, regardless of how small or remote that hometown was. It left them out of touch with other members of the movement and the ability to congregate was severely diminished. As a result, there was little power in the collective church to create an environment to raise children with a positive outlook toward our history and ongoing endeavors. The children of these families could not see the value of church because what constituted church lacked in many ways to provide for the spiritual needs of developing families.

    It would have been so much better if a consensus was created first, for the sake of the future, that people gather in a locale that was not far from their hometown yet was able to sustain a viable church community. Alas, for much of the U.S., and I think Europe, this was not the case. As a result, our movement became fractured and our communities lacked power. It is that collective power that enables a group to decide on a vibrant service structure and activity schedule.

    “Home Town Providence” for a nation the size of South Korea, with significant church infrastructure and strong family ties makes sense. It did not make sense for the Western world (remember: to many Koreans, all those who are not Korean or Japanese are “Western”). Most who ventured to their hometowns were not able to recreate the joy and fellowship of a center they had experienced.

    That ship has now sailed and we face the consequences of a decision made decades ago. Vibrant Sunday Service? I’ll discuss it with the four people who gather with me next Sunday (one of whom is my wife). BTW, I didn’t go to my “hometown” in my state but to the capital city where the largest group was located.

    • This is very true. Both the challenge of building a joyful community of blessed couples and to be a victorious central blessed family in a certain area, in whose house people of the surroundings will gather to hear about our teachings (even in a nation like Korea) cannot be underestimated.

    • Hi, David. Thank you for commenting! I’m not sure you need a large group of people to create or sustain a viable community. After finishing the survey last year, my husband and I started a small group with one other young 2nd gen couple and a non-member friend. Although we disbanded for the summer, I hope they want to get started again when school starts. I felt we were groping in the dark about how to go forward, but there was an excitement about being able to let the spirit move us, each one taking turns to lead, bring the word, prepare the food, etc. I don’t mind small. We have to drive 90 minutes to get to the service here, and so we only go once or twice a month. I prefer the local small group initiative, and if we all had something like that in our neighborhood, our larger meetings would probably be more vibrant.

      • There is something more intimate about a small group, a stronger sense of personal connection. We share more, we are more in tune with each other. Once the group gets bigger, something is lost: the “crowd syndrome” sets in and the personal touch gets lost.

        I found an article that illustrates this well.

        That does discount the value of a larger congregation which has its momentum and energy, but that feeling of belonging and true fellowship can be felt better in a small group, like in a family.

        I agree with you that the success of the small groups will make the meeting of larger numbers of people more vibrant because the foundation of connections is already established.

  6. Thank you, Robin, for this study. I am inspired by what brothers and sisters are sharing and how well you put this together. I agree with David Payer’s comments on what applied to Korea in hometown outreach did not apply to the U.S. The size of Korea will fit in many states in the U.S. Can one imagine all members of the U.S. living in one state? What kind of result could we accomplish?

    I like the idea of a small group connection where we can share our hearts and also it is nice being closer to a larger community. I am fortunate to live in an area that does have a small church community of at least 20 families, and most of us live within 5 minutes from one another. Still as a small community we have lacked the power to create a stable environment for our families to grow up in. We are surrounded by a toxic environment and to digest that or turn it around has not been easy. May your study help us to strive together to accomplish what we first joined this spiritual movement to do.

  7. Your community sounds so nice, Teresa. Living 5 minutes from members is something I’ve never experienced, and it sounds like some kind of heaven! The old adage about strength in numbers comes to mind. Most of our children have been in schools where few BCs attended, surrounded by a culture pressuring them with all kinds of opposing values. Tough, treacherous, and toxic for sure. What I like about the study/survey is that people are being honest about what they think and feel, and what they need. I don’t think we can ever create a stable environment just by having large numbers. No matter how many or few of us there are, each person needs to be encouraged to have an authentic voice. And that takes courage.

  8. I have been trying to find out what can be done about our church since 1996 when I was just two years old until the time I joined. Eighteen years down the line, I realized restoration is a journey.

    Personally I do not believe in a church because there’s little or no love, but I believe in a family. We should have the unification family not a church.

  9. Eddie, when my husband and I joined, we joined a movement, not a church. That was 40 years ago for him, but we still feel more comfortable saying Unification movement than Unification Church.

  10. Robin, I just ran into your article after sending off an email to Dr. Panzer about creating and adopting a new cultural norm here in America for “how we regularly gather together in our local faith communities” around the country. This new model includes and transcends the current Sunday service model we’ve been using for the past twenty-five years. So, we are kindred spirits!

    • Jack, sounds very interesting! The survey model I used is a good starting point: asking what people think. I don’t have a “new model” clearly in mind, but I hope to read your ideas here on the AU Blog.

  11. You made a lot of effort, thanks. Let me add from the viewpoint of a pastor and practicing missionary: It is a misunderstanding to see the Sunday Service as an isolated event; in fact it is the highlight in the weekly life of an attendee who lives his/her life in the spirit of attendance.
    To do witnessing or not on a frequent basis makes a huge difference that determines the perception of the Sunday Service. In the worst case, it is like going to school without having done homework.

    Testimonies are both from real experience with people and their reaction when hearing DP or spiritual experiences. The topic of conversation will be naturally around this. Sometimes we can ask for any testimonies, it is like a meter that describes the heat for God in the community.

    These days a person finds it hard to share such experiences and is seen almost like an alien in communities where people live a secular life. In this atmosphere even a good Sunday Service is more like fast food and hits solid rock.

    A healthy community is characterized by carrying out the word, enjoying fellowship and gaining new inspirations by testimonies. The pastor here has to adjust naturally if he is not already part of this revival movement, that by the way is an attribute of all thriving communities.

  12. It’s January 2017 and I’ve revisited this article and its survey questions. Given the time of year, as it seems, every lasting culture re-creates or tries hard to re-create their happiest childhood memories. Memorable personal, family and national events are revisited by recalling deep heartfelt experiences — sharing foods, music, decorations and honoring the artifacts of religious tradition and reunion.

    This article acknowledges that our movement and times are transitional. Traditions are being compromised by the urgency of cultural and providential change — change led by the Messiah and his bride. Invariably, intentional change results in the feeling of anxious disenchantment as the extended families lose touch with their former traditions and childhood memories. And, for many who replied to this survey, we have not yet captured those beloved feelings in our current way of holding church services.

    Needless to say, there’s work to be done; a lot of water has passed beneath the bridge. Leadership is needed to rediscover the exuberance and joy of attendance to Heavenly Parent’s Will. To bring things into focus, at the core of attendance is the grace of True Parents blessing of marriage and the community of heart that it creates.

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