Why People Commit To Your Church

What drives religious commitment

When people visit your church, they listen for the message and then they look to see how your message is "embodied" in the church. According to Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, your spiritual message may be inspiring and impactful, but if visitors do not see it being brought to life in the church community then they sense that something is not right. They won't be confident in your teaching and they won't commit to the church.

In this post I want to highlight the six ways that your spiritual message is "embodied", or conveyed, by the collective activity of the church, according to Stark and Finke. The material is drawn from pages 106-113 of Acts of Faith, the section entitled Confidence and Risk.

A few preliminaries:

  • The purpose here is not to arrive at Truth. Rather its purpose is how to grow a church. Here, we are dealing with "the human side of Unity" from the perspective of a sociologist, not as a theologian.
  • The six ways are based on the best of social science applied to the study of religion over the past forty years. While it may be theory, it is not philosophical.
  • My purpose is to let the research say what it has to say about Unity, without bias. The application of this material to Unity has led me to some very unexpected conclusions about how to grow commitment within Unity. If the conclusions appear to criticize some belief or practice within Unity, know that that is the nature of academic inquiry.

Here are links to the six ways your congregation may embody your spiritual message: (as they are posted)

  1. Commitment grows when others express confidence
  2. Sacred religious rituals grow religious confidence and commitment
  3. Prayer builds bonds of affection and confidence between humans and a god or gods

1. Commitment grows when others express confidence

Each member of your church is a way-shower. The "way that they show" either expresses faith and confidence or expresses doubt and fear. The confidence and commitment of your church congregation rests substantially on the clarity and singleness of each person's willingness to "express confidence" in your religious explanation. As the authors point out, "we rely on the wisdom and experience of others to help us make good choices" (p. 107).

Most churches have coffee hour after the Sunday service. The confidence expressed by congregants during coffee hour may drive commitment more than the confidence expressed by the minister during the Sunday message. What this means is that each congregant should learn ways to "talk about Unity with their friends" and be encouraged to do so. 

A willingness to share one's faith should be a condition of membership. So why do we have so many classes on prosperity and tithing, but so few classes on how to share Unity's message with others? The willingness to share one's faith is far more important to the health of the church than the willingness to tithe. My suggestion is that Unity ministers begin to teach classes on how to share the Unity message with others.

Are you confident in Unity's teachings? Are you, as spiritual leader, teaching your congregants how to share their faith? Do you and your congregants know that visitors want to hear members speak about what they truly believe? Do you know that being open about one's beliefs is a sign of authenticity, that it embodies confidence and commitment?

If so, then Unity ministers will develop and share material that teaches Unity congregants "how to talk about Unity with their friends." This material and the classes that come from it will be more prevalent than the "prosperity" classes we see in Unity. 

2. Sacred religious rituals grow religious confidence and commitment

Stark and Finke write, "However defined, social scientists are unanimous that participation in rituals builds faith" (p.108). They define religious rituals as collective or social ceremonies such as Christmas services for Christians or the Passover seder among Jews.

Some researchers believe the power of religious ritual rests in its capacity to collectively express feeling. But Stark and Finke believe that religious rituals are powerful because "what religious social rituals produce is agreement about the value of religious explanations." In other words a religious ritual supports the church's teachings in a way that can't be expressed in words. The authors cite Christmas services as an example of how ritual affirms the traditional teaching that Jesus was born the son of God. By reinforcing the church's teachings, they increase confidence and drive religious commitment.

It is true that the Fillmores taught that we should concentrate on the "spiritual" nature of baptism and communion. No pun intended, but compared to the rich liturgy in many traditional churches, "spiritual baptism" and "spiritual communion" are dry. Given that religious rituals are generally perceived as powerful ways to garner confidence and commitment, what should a Unity spiritual leader do?

The answer is apparent when we understand that, in the early days, Unity saw itself as a "Christian sect."

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, I encourage you to read Lesson Four of the Correspondence School Course, The Body of Christ, and it's Annotations. In later posts, I will dive deeper into what this means, but for the moment know that being a sect is nothing more than being a reform movement within traditional Christianity. Roughly half of the material in Acts of Faith and The Churching of America discuss the nature of sects and how they evolve into churches. The material explains much of Unity's development and I will bring that material into future posts. For the present, know that Stark and Finke define a sect as a religious body that is more strict in beliefs and practices than churches and that maintains a "high degree of tension" with its cultural surroundings.

By declaring that Unity is a "Christian sect," Charles Fillmore was able to attach Unity to the churches and at the same time establish Unity as a distinct reform movement. By teaching spiritual baptism and spiritual communion, he avoided directly challenging the churches and provided a way to call them to a higher understanding of their religious meaning. Note that Charles Fillmore never claimed that baptism and communion were wrong. He simply wished to leave it to the churches and to call Unity to a higher state of consciousness.

Now that Unity has developed as an independent denomination, there is no longer any reason not to baptize and not to offer communion. 

Further, the development of creative rituals incorporating the sprinkling of water with affirmations and denials and the consumption of bread and wine with verbal references to life and substance may produce powerful religious effects that impact confidence and commitment. Emergent churches are thriving by incorporating new forms of worship in this very way. I believe Unity has an tremendous opportunity to marry it's rich metaphysical teachings with rich mystical, religious ritual.

There are two reasons why this might be beneficial. First, if the social scientists are right that religious ritual leads to greater religious confidence and commitment, then why should Unity churches not incorporate baptism and communion into their ministries?

Second, as I will explain in a later post, our reluctance to provide for such a deep human need as religious ritual has led to the adoption of an unhealthy compensating practice -- the widespread practice of magic within Unity. Ritual is practiced in a church. Magic is practiced in a circus. Nothing would stem the incessant flow through Unity of shallow magicians and their credulous teachings than Unity grounding itself in sacred Christian ritual. 

To be continued ...