Is it possible our current Sunday service is lacking some core elements of persuasion and conviction that speak to the heart of our need for rebirth and salvation? Are few new people joining our movement through our Sunday service because we don’t offer them what they really need, when they do show up? If so, what can we do about it? A specific kind of alternative service can help us attract and hold more “first-timers” and bring spiritual renewal and revival to our ranks.
Robin Debacker conducted a survey that gathered information from Unificationists about their Sunday service experiences. Contacting individuals via private Facebook messages, she collected 350 responses over a four-month period — two-thirds from the 50+ age group, and 103 from second gen. Responses came from 195 cities around the world — 38 states in the U.S. and 32 countries. In summer 2014, the survey results were discussed on this Blog and presented on her website dedicated to that project. Key facts gleaned from her survey were:
- Nearly 25% of those surveyed do not attend a Unification service, and have distanced themselves or dropped out entirely.
- 70% of those who indicated they attend a service on a regular basis said they are not inspired, and do so out of a sense of duty, or for social reasons only.
- The majority of second gen respondents said that most of their second gen friends are not interested and do not attend a Unificationist service. Of those who do attend, many said they are searching for more open and honest discussion, more practical application, and more second gen leadership.
The Sunday service program model still remains the primary weekly gathering in the Unificationist faith community. Yet that model has failed to be the gateway program to persuade and convict the “unchurched” and “spiritual” seekers to become intimately involved with our faith community. Some have “joined” through Sunday service, but not that many. In some areas, efforts have been made to use home church, tribal messiahship or small group models to address how to “bring non-Unificationists into the fold,” but such efforts have yet to gain the prestige or influence of Sunday service.
A closer look at what is going on during our Sunday service program provides important insight why that program is not convicting people to embrace our truth and way of life.
Research into church growth shows that if a local church has not experienced significant growth over a five-year period, it is unlikely it will do so into the future, until changes are made to the existing program. (See Charles Arn’s How to Start a New Service: Your Church Can Reach New People.) What happens to church members who attend Sunday service regularly over a long period of time and see no new members joining? In that case, it has been shown such congregants often become self-satisfied, arrogant, cold, and even harsh.
It turns out that often happens because the message being delivered from the pulpit is largely aimed at teaching and uplifting the “faithful” — those who see themselves as longtime members in need of just a little encouragement and inspired persuasion to “be better” at what they do in life. In other words, the life and death approach of the Gospel of Salvation is downplayed, and in its place a kinder, gentler approach to taking care of one’s spiritual life is emphasized (see D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Preaching and Preachers).
For decades, the Sunday service in my faith community has been attended by members active in our movement for 20-40 years. The sermon-giver is typically focused on encouraging the congregation to make any necessary changes in their lives that will result in greater happiness and life fulfillment. Rarely does a first time guest or spiritual seeker show up. Because few new guests attend a given service, there is little focus during the sermon on attempting to persuade and convict congregants to the reality of sin and one’s need for repentance. Yet, recognizing the need to repent for one’s sin has always been a key element in True Parents “message of salvation:”
“In order to subjugate Satan, you cannot be forgiven by just asking, ‘Heavenly Father, please forgive me.’ You have to shed tears in order to return to God. You have to feel the pain of your face swollen from crying. You even have to feel the pain in your stomach. This is the realistic situation. You have to shed tears in repentance for your sins. That is very important for each one of you.” (“True Parents and Ourselves,” May 7, 1972)
The general consensus on sermon length has been that it should not exceed 25-30 minutes. A lot of focus is placed on having good music as a way to inspire attendees, and the emcee is charged with being “professional” at creating a light, friendly and welcoming atmosphere before the service officially starts. Families in the community take turns providing snacks and coffee after the service. All in all, it’s a satisfying service for “the faithful,” but that service is not convicting many new people to accept True Parents “message of salvation.”
If we agree our local Sunday service has been largely for satisfying the faithful and not a gateway program for new members to join, then we can consider providing an alternative service. What would such a service look like, and how would it eventually get a better result at convicting and persuading attendees to accept True Parent’s message of salvation?
Service type: The first thing to do is gear the service towards the unchurched and spiritual seekers. By doing so, you’ve got a much better chance to get people in front of you who are looking to make significant, even life-altering changes. This is a more “evangelical” approach to service, one that seeks to convict the listener to the need of salvation through True Parents.
The music: Although I’m a musician, I recommend we put far less emphasis on the production of music during the service. The more time spent on the production aspects of the service — especially the music — the less emphasis is placed on the more essential aspects to the success of the service, like prayer and sermon preparation. Focus more on some core holy songs and encourage second gen to open up a wellspring of creative inspiration, and write more songs that reflect their spiritual understanding and orientation towards our faith tradition.
The sermon: We are not taking full advantage of the wealth of insight, teaching and wisdom delivered to us by Father during his speaking ministry in America. Using the core themes on the Bible’s understanding of our human condition, we should strategically tap into the hundreds of speeches Reverend Moon delivered to us while he conducted his public ministry in America — along with the recent True Parent’s compilation speech books published at True Mother’s direction.
Sermon length: Let’s move away from the idea a sermon should only be 25-30 minutes long. Such an approach is not conducive to the “moving of Spirit” in the room. The idea that the “Word of God” being preached must not exceed a certain number of minutes smacks of being limiting and controlling. Father’s sermons delivered at Belvedere for more than 20 years averaged around four hours; if you take away time for the translator, you are still at around two hours per sermon.
Service prep: The main focus should be on supporting what is the most important reason those people are sitting in that room: to listen to the Word of God and be convicted to surrender to God’s way of life. Ancillary activities like emcee, song leader, band music, choir, ushers, announcements, coffee hour, etc., ought never become of primary interest or concern. Yes, do our assigned jobs in a good way, but don’t let any of those secondary elements ever trump the delivery of God’s Word.
People expect us to be different. When they attend our service they ought to feel that nowhere else have they ever had such an experience. Self-help talk, lecture format presentations with PowerPoint slides and informational talks can be experienced at hundreds of other venues throughout America. There’s nothing new or different there. This alternative service will provide a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the Spirit of God as manifested in our age through True Parents message of salvation. That’s our hope and that’s our faith. It’s unique and eternal.
Implementing the alternative service I’ve outlined will let us see more people being convicted about True Parents message of salvation. When the 70 Top Gun graduates return from Korea, I hope they seriously take a look at how to create an alternative service, as I outline here.
By taking the risk of committing to such a service, not only will we see more new people getting on board, but we will also see among the longtime members a spiritual renewal and revival. It’s very possible such a service also will be appealing to many old-timers, who perhaps have concluded that they are also in need of a life-altering encounter with God through True Parents message of salvation.♦
Jack LaValley maintains a full-time career in the hospitality industry in New York City. He is the founder of true4ever.com and author of the book, Seven Secrets to Finding True Love. He received his M.S.Ed. from the University of Bridgeport. Jack and his wife, Wha ja, are the proud parents of three grown children.
Well, it’s a good try but FFWPU churches I’ve been to don’t sing holy songs, or if they do, it’s just one. They don’t pray. There’s no unison prayer. They cycle through “speakers” like a seminar, instead of trusting their pastor (who they elected!), they let a committee or board run the church, which is how to get pablum. So they end up with an incoherent coffeehouse of mixed messages, confused ideas and spiritless services that people can’t flee from fast enough. People are afraid to talk about Father in any intimate way, as if so doing will alienate any guests. And so on and on.
Simply changing the structure of services, looking for a way to church the unchurched, using the Bible instead of Divine Principle, or using DP in a you-can-be-prosperous-or-happy way like modern Christianity, etc., will solve nothing. God. Is. Not. There.
Time to return to basics. Prayer. Holy songs. Divine Principle. Action in accordance with God’s spirit. The organization doesn’t matter. The spirit is what matters. And our movement doesn’t have it right now.
In Minnesota, we sing Holy Songs, but do not have a unison prayer. And, we are not afraid to speak about the Divine Principle or True Parents. However, we cycle through speakers as Christopher mentions. Talks are often interesting and sometimes life-giving.
I agree that changing the structure of the service won’t do much. That is an external solution and rings hollow. However, there is something to say about teaching people how to be happy and fulfilled — maybe not the way of the “Power of positive Thinking” or other traditional Christian messages. However, the Divine Principle begins “Everyone seeks happiness…” and then outlines a theological foundation for happiness.
People want to be happy and fulfilled; they have an internal nature that seeks the three blessings. If churches, pastors, or members can lead other people to find a more ideal life, then others will see that and follow. People don’t join the Mormon Church because of the structure of their Sunday Service, they join because they are impressed with the family life and success of Mormons they know, and want a life more like that for themselves. It is up to each of us to become models for others. Sunday morning seems a time to get together and share and support one another. Guests won’t join because of a good service, but they may leave if there are constantly bad services.
“God.Is.Not.There.” So the all important question is “Where is God?”
Father sometimes stated that God is at the (spiritual) front line in the battle between God and the adversary. I understand this means that if we want to bring the spirit of God into our churches, we have to first seek His Spirit in the place where it is — and that is out in society where people struggle, suffer, become victims and don’t know how to go on — and of course some do well and succeed. Various forms of outreach and meeting people in their daily life struggles and trying to encourage and help them brings us in touch with the Spirit of God — simply because that’s where God is. And then we can bring the Spirit of God back to our churches in the form of “real and authentic experiences with God on the front line”.
My two cents.
As suspected all along: True Parents’ “message of salvation” is the same as Jesus’ message, hence the only salvation, truly, is “spiritual” in nature after all. All the posturing, factionalism and sectarianism witnessed even in the post-primitive, post pater noster UC is but the sounding gong that is all religion today — where “God” can only weep while mere humans continue to battle for supremacy. Let the dispossessed, the refugee, the poor, the meek, the forgotten, etc., say…sigh.
Let the current cries and crises throughout our world be our “church” — as if such were not enough.
Gordon I know and respect, Christopher I don’t know but already respect: They are telling it to you truly! This talk about revising how services are conducted is the UC equivalent to rearranging chairs on the Titanic. If you want to bring people to the True Parents, to Christ and the Holy Spirit, and to our Abba in Heaven, you don’t do it by holding a “nice” service. You have to be full of the spirit and good works of Christ, ablaze with the Holy Spirit and her gifts, God-conscious people who live for no other purpose than “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
When we non-Unificationist faculty members were hired to help found UTS, we were assured that the “Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of [the] World’s Religions” was premised and based on Christianity — not just historically but also experientially and spiritually. If you are trying to enculturate “spiritual seekers,” sinners, and other ordinary people into a Korean sect in American dress, so that they can “be happy,” you are no longer the Unification Movement, and — I quote — God.is.not.there. (By the way, Aristotle, not SMM, was the first one who said “all humans desire to be happy.” Don’t confuse that bit of philosophy with soul salvation!)
Remember what it was that brought you yourself to the Movement! Your soul-searching, your need, your socialization into a cock-eyed alien salvation system full of weeping Japanese and stormy Koreans, the fund-raising, the “conditions” you laid, the fasting, the recovery of your sexual integrity, your heroic devotion to True Father, your dreams of the TP and other mystical moments that confirmed your spirituality, your persecution for righteousness sake, and on and on. That’s the “spirit of the pioneer” that SMM so highly favored.
If you want to “save” the U.C. and make it worth its Holy Salt, here’s what you’ve gotta do: (1) Be saved! Accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and lay anew the spiritual foundation for a holy life. (2) Receive ye the Holy Spirit, and experience Her charismas. (3) Put your shoulder to the wheel of building the physical Kingdom of Heaven on earth “as it is in Heaven” — “the House of Jacob for 10,000 Years.” Re-start the Unification Movement in all its primitive energy, and stop fussing about whether what you do on Sunday makes anyone “happy” or not! Go, Moonies!
You got it! Just add the words “and True Parents” after Jesus Christ under your (1) in your last paragraph, and your thought is complete. 🙂
Regarding older members who don’t frequent Sunday services, it would be a mistake to think they have abandoned their faith in the Divine Principle. At the same time, I agree with your premise that in the future we will have several alternative kinds of Sunday service programs. In a sense the wilderness course was like being at war; however, we are in transition towards settlement which means to grow and advance in a peacetime footing. Not to say the front line movement is no longer in an ongoing battle with the status quo powers, principalities and high offices of Cain-type democracy. These battles are still ongoing for highly trained, seasoned and competent senior members.
With that said, the battle lines have shifted to securing the security and integrity of blessed family life for the second generation of young blessed families. Furthermore the same focus of blessed family life will the focal point of new people who join in the belief of the Divine Principle. Three distinct groups of members can be seen. Elders who are focused on battles in the public policy and political sphere. Young blessed families who are engaged in providing for and nourishing their children. A third group would be characterized as the so-called un-church.
Currently, we mixing our churches services into a single kind of program, a one-size-fits-all approach. In the future the organizational leadership has to expand into several different types of programs for Elders, growing families and those who are very new to the movement. It is crucially important that the Elders build a wall of protection for novitiate blessed families and to open up external (economic) opportunities for new member participation. The FFWPU must be able to answer the question, “What are the core values and objectives of the group?” The five elements of ministry — Connect, Inspire, Empower, Contribute and Expand — are important to the extent they uphold core values and advance the organizational purposes. Unity, Justice, Tranquility, Mutual prosperity … to secure the Blessing (TP) for ourselves and Posterity (three object purpose and four position foundation thesis).
As it was said above a couple of times, “God is Not There.” So where is God?
God is moving on. After Foundation Day we are in a new age, we don’t need indemnity, don’t need to separate from Satan, don’t need to establish a Foundation for the Messiah. The dynamic of history has changed — no more Cain and Abel. Salvation is perhaps not where it is at now.
Looking back to the 1980s (Top Gun) won’t move us forward. A new age means new priorities that may be different from the old ones we have known. Where is God moving now? Not sure I can answer that definitively, but it is clearly not in what was before Foundation Day.
Please re-read Johann’s comment. God is with us when we go outside of the church walls and we do public service…living for the sake of others…and for the sake of the whole purpose. “True Love is the spirit of public service” (SMM) and going out to help others, serve the nation and serving the world on the frontline. “The church that does not go out to serve the nation and the world but focuses on itself will perish” (a paraphrase; SMM).”
There are many urgent projects right now….helping veterans, standing up for religious liberty, supporting our police, educating the public about the issues that impact the nation and relating these issues to our values and principles, working with local, state and national officials to reform destructive policies, sending relief to victims of disaster, ministering to families in need, reforming our public school system, standing up for marriage and family and the Blessing, creating interfaith coalitions for peace, the Abel UN, Bering Strait Bridge, sharing the Washington Times and other worthy publications with others, making all lives matter and stopping the violence, stopping heroin and other dangerous addictions, bringing God into these relevant projects by having the courage to be a voice for God, and doing the “Good works of Christ,” as Warren says, so that we are not a church of “faith without works,” focused only on a Sunday service. By investing the heart of service, we then will come back to our small church service with deeper hearts, a more moving spirit and compassion for all and an openness to share with others what we have experienced.
I would not have joined the movement had I attended a “church” service — or anything relating to “church,” for that matter. I was not an atheist per se, but thanks to the popular culture of the late 1970s, I was anti “church.”
I joined “the Creative Community Project” in Oakland, 1979. The Principle was presented to me in a somewhat humanistic fashion. The Principle of Creation was “The Ideal”. The Fall of Man was “Cause of Crimes” and so on. When the word “God” was used in the lectures, I substituted the word “good”. I was interested in the idealism of the members, the vision of a better world without war, crime, etc. I did not join out of any interest in religion.
I don’t think my perspective was very unique at the time, and I don’t think it’s any different today. In fact, I would say the real reason people don’t often “join” by attending Sunday Service is not that we’re doing anything horribly wrong in our services. It’s that most people in our culture today, both young and old, are still not really interested in religion. Religion has been saddled with too much baggage — people are afraid of religion. Even among those who are religious, far more are liberal than fundamentalist.
That being said, I do now love and understand religion, and the purpose of religion, but it took at least a few years to get there. One of the amazing things about the Principle is that it has the potential to be a gateway to both the religious and the non-religious.
In his article above, Jack LaValley is specific in how he views the alternate service. He discusses the service type, music, sermon, etc. Yes, this sounds good for one type of alternate service –- the alternate service you might bring someone to who has a religious background, enjoys church culture to some degree, and has the ability to digest new ideas in an evangelical environment. And I fully agree with Jack that this type of service should be developed and experimented with, perhaps by some of the Top Gun graduates (those who are interested and have an affinity with this type of service).
But while what Jack says is true — “The Sunday service program model still remains the primary weekly gathering in the Unificationist faith community” — this does not mean that it is, or should be, the best place to introduce new people to our movement. In fact, because it is our primary weekly gathering place, I believe Sunday Service is best suited as a place for established members to hear advanced topics, reports, and for fellowship. I don’t think we should attempt to transform our primary gathering into a place that works for new guests.
But we do need venues for guests of all sorts, and therefore a variety of “alternate services” that can take place at different times throughout the week. The Unification Movement is like a tree with many branches. We have religious, non-religious, economic, political, creative arts branches, to name a few. Each of these branches can provide a way to graft to True Parents, the trunk and root. So a variety of services, lectures, sermons, self-help talks, etc., can be held, each one as viable as the other in allowing God to reconnect with His lost children.
In addition, I would like to see more service projects. Our substantial service work should be accompanied by brochures and explanations as to the values that have led us to “live for the sake of others.” This is yet another branch, an important one that can inspire many, one that is rather lacking in our somewhat ideology-centered movement of today.
I appreciate Jack’s article and effort to stimulate discussion of this topic.
One of the best “service projects” we can establish are educational institutions that offer Principled-based teachings. Parents today are seeking for good alternatives to an educational system that is increasingly secular in its outlook and accepting of practices immoral in the eyes of God. By offering quality education that recognizes and addresses the spiritual needs of children, we testify to our True Parents and demonstrate some of the substantial fruits of their work. There are several schools in the U.S. and many others throughout the world that were established by church members and outreach to new families every year.
Thinking about alternative church services, the independent Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation founded by Roman Catholic priest George Augustus Stallings, Jr., comes to mind. By his actions, he separated himself from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, DC. His beliefs and teachings no long conformed with Roman Catholic orthodoxy and he was excommunicated by the Archdiocese. It is the same historical experience from the 16th century that spawned the Protestant Reformation movement. Furthermore, direct parallel similarities and comparisons can be drawn to understand the heterodox state of affairs of the Unification movement.
If “the Unification movement is to be like a tree, with non-religious, economic, political, and creative arts branches, then each of these branches can provide a way to graft to True Parents, the trunk and root. One (view) that is rather lacking in our somewhat ideology-centered movement of today”(Peter Reiner). “Saving the “Unification Church and make it worth its Holy Salt, here’s what you’ve gotta do: Be saved! Accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior” (Dr. Warren Lewis). “Just add the words ‘True Parents’ after Jesus Christ” (Jack LaValley). Another segment or branch has put into place the stipulation of pledging allegiance to a canonized text and curatorial authority. In part, I agree with Dr. Gordon Anderson, “that changing the structure of the service won’t do much. That is an external solution and rings hollow.” The DP begins with the expression everyone seeks happiness, then let’s outline that sentiment — Unity, Justice, Tranquility, Mutual prosperity — to secure the Blessing (TP) for ourselves and Posterity.
I just wanted to comment on the length of a sermon and related content. I believe that the 30 minute guideline for the length of a sermon is necessary. Some people have the tendency to ramble on and loose track of time and content and loose their audience as well. Anybody that has delivered a sermon knows that it is very challenging to give a quality sermon and a sermon that is relevant to a mixed audience of young and old.
Father Moon was an expert speaker and had the charisma and spiritual quality and experience to engage all kinds of people and he said that he spoke so long because he wanted to give a message that touched the hearts of everyone in the audience. I do believe that good music and passionate singing creates a lot of energy and is a good preparation for the speaker as well.
In regard to new guests, perhaps the Sunday service is not the best place to bring them at the beginning and others have commented on that. It is rare for any pastor to give a sermon that is relevant and engaging for regular attendees and newcomers. He or she will tend to fall between two stools in trying to do both. I agree that if we are living a more spirit-filled life outside of attending a Sunday church service we will all have more excitement, energy and vitality to bring to our community spiritual gathering.
I appreciate and have enjoyed reading and considering all the responses to my article. I wrote it as a response to my own heart’s desire to dig more deeply into the idea of “salvation by the Word.” I believe the Gospels show us that the emphasis was always on teaching and preaching the Word, and not on miracles or good works, however good the cause, however great the need (Acts 4, 6). I believe True Parents speaking ministry has demonstrated time and again their primary interest to preach and teach their “message of salvation.” I think a renewed interest in preaching and teaching True Parents message of salvation is the key to spiritual renewal and revival, and as a consequence, our effectiveness in dealing with acute problems in our society will be greatly improved.
It is faith (the word) and works Jack. A both/and. As mentioned in service today, without human responsibility that speaks and acts in society for God’s principles, we fail God. Just listening, even to the best preaching, will not get us out of this mess until we take responsibility to care for society and go out sacrificially to raise up our country and its leadership. Feeding the starving in Africa, keeping our youth focused on good activities and service rather than drugs, building new education systems — and much more — is where God is asking us to invest our time and energy. This is home church, tribal messiah, living for the sake of others, the nation and the world.
Why keep pushing this aside for a one-sided answer? Our founder was not like that. He was both/and… the completion stage and integration of word and deed. He spoke but he also acted: he created the Washington Times, the International Relief Friendship Foundation, the Unification Theological Seminary. Our own missionaries created Twikatane Farm Sausage Factory and now there are many missionaries in Africa creating schools and missionaries in the Pantanal creating a cattle farm and nature conservatory. The Bering Strait Peace Bridge project is still pending. Why not become a missionary, teach the word and do good works?
Instead of why do “we” need to create an alternative Sunday service, the focus of the article should be why aren’t all BCF’s being encouraged to create their own services and neighborhood church programs. After all, the hierarchy-heavy model has been shown to be counterproductive in terms of bringing results and providing inspiration.
Neighborhood church programs. I really like that, Steve. Ownership, context, outreach, creativity.