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 ...

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Submitted by Don L Hutchison on

Thank you for "filling in the blanks" sensed, but unspoken, in many Unity communities, "Unspoken" because congregants feel something's missing, but can't put their finger on it. The confidence expressed through sharing our love of Unity with friends and acquaintances, plus the addition of a familiarity through ritual is a "given", when we're looking to reach out to our surrounding community and bring in a deeper consciousness of what Unity is and can do for those who may or may not be looking for a change in their daily spiritual life.

Submitted by Jackie Austin on

Greetings! I have been an adherent of Unity ever since a wonderful adult Bible study leader at my Methodist church introduced me to Unity Magazine 35 years ago. It was as if someone gave a drink of cool water to one parched from wandering too long in a desert! I immediately knew I'd found a spiritual home that taught what I had long known in my bones -that "Christ - that which is BEGOTTEN of the Father -in you, your hope of glory." I have remained a member of my Methodist Church but my understanding of all church teachings has been enriched from my study of the teachings of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, along with h. Emile Cady's Lessons In Truth, Ed Rabel, James Dillet Freeman's wonderful poetry ("Because He is Love" has graced my refrigerator for eons!) and so many other wonderful teachers/writers. I recall a treasured tape by Dr. Marcus Bach that i gotbfrom Unity that I listened to over and over with "Prosperity Thoughts" on one side, and "How Unity Works" on the other. (I have writtenUnity asking if there is a CD of this available as my tape is too precious to risk playing, it is so old, but evidently not). The emphasis was always on The Christ/Spirit ("Lord") which was available and inherent in all, but needing to be "birthed." In the past few years, however, I've detected a subtle shift away from Unity being Christ -based, and I've felt alienated from some of the recent focus on externals such as crystals, incantations, etc. I do believe you are calling Unity to task for this shift, and I am so encouraged to know that there are those who recognize that the lack of commitment to Unity teachings and churches is directly related to this loss of Christ-centered teachings. My heartfelt thanks to you for your making these "talks" available via your emails. Blessings and more blessings to you as you continue making these ideas known.

Submitted by Neil on

Great article Mark! Very thought provoking!

One ritual that we have only occasionally practiced at Unity Church of the Hills is christenings. I think this can be a particularly powerful ritual because it not only is an opportunity for the parents and extended family to make a spiritual commitment to their child's upbringing, but it also gives the entire congregation an opportunity to remember that everyone can play a part in fostering the child's spiritual growth through activities such as Sunday School, but also in the many interactions with the child and their family in the hallway, in gatherings like picnics and what not. Now that I've seen enough babies grow into wonderful children, teens and even young adults, it's a beautiful feeling to know that I had some of those kids in my Sunday School class, or to remember them and their family at a Family Retreat. It's so easy to see the good in these kids, and remember that they are truly children of God!

I agree with you that we need to seek more opportunities to go beyond the casual and accepting atmosphere prevalent in most Unity Churches and give people the opportunity to make deeper connections and deeper spiritual commitments. I'm not sure if I'm ready for baptisms yet... what other religious rituals do you think fit well at a Unity Church?

Submitted by Kathy O. on

Great to hear someone else advocating ritual in Unity! My observation after 20 years in Unity is that ritual is a deep human need and it springs up in a church from the grass roots if/when the leadership or doctrine don't support it. I personally browned-out on the "talking head" style of Sunday worship, and reached the point that I could hardly bear to walk into church on Sunday. Then took classes in liturgical spirituality at a university and "fell in love." So I snuck into a liturgical church and stayed for the rich sacramental life--having grown up in a New Thought church, I had never experienced this before.

Given that the Fillmores' original intention was to teach Practical Christianity (in study groups on weekday evenings, NOT Sundays) for people to take back to their home churches, it makes sense they would not teach a particular form of Sunday worship. And since they were trying to make Christianity more scientific, it also makes sense they would minimize rituals and "magical" thinking. But since ritual is a human need, it sneaks in through the back door regardless and so we have a lot of ad hoc rituals like burning bowl and candlelighting services, without the basic Christian ones to anchor them.

For example, when we started Unity EarthCare in the Northwest Region back in 2002, we started offering water ceremonies and prayer flag rituals, because two of our ministers trained in Waldorf Schools, and the rituals have spread. Our rationale was that people need to express their beliefs in Sunday worship to connect with how they live their lives the rest of the time. People who were carrying negative baggage from childhood experiences in other denominations were unconfortable, but others greatly enjoyed and looked forward to these rituals.

Another observation: Unity has gotten away from our own established rituals. Unity Church of Spokane recently celebrated their 100th anniversary and invited older members and leaders to attend a tea in their honor. When asked what else they would like, the request was for "an old-fashioned prayer service." Something I haven't experienced other than at Unity Village and didn't realize used to happen in churches as well. So, as you observed, nature abhors a vacuum and when the old rituals fall away people create new ones to fill the need.

Submitted by Tom Thorpe on

Thank you, Mark, for beginning what I pray will be an ongoing, thought inspiring, and fulfilling one for a broad spectrum of ministers, LUT's, and interested laypersons. I've been around long enough to have moved through several points of view about ritual in Unity.

I have come to believe that we can enjoy ritual observances using physical elements like bread and wine without getting caught up in worshipping the symbols themselves. This was Charles Fillmore's concern, that ritual would become a kind of idolatry with the belief that the power came from the physical symbol rather than from the spiritual principle or idea behind the symbol.

I have discovered in my own spiritual community that the thoughtful, reverent observance of ritual can evoke a transcendent awareness of Presence and Power among the people who participate. The symbols used connect the participants to the 2000 year old community of Christians.

Unity will enter a new era of positive influence and fulfillment for its members and for the larger community when we acknowledge -- let me say when we CELEBRATE -- our movement as a Christian movement and joyously share our interpretation of Christianity with the world. We have the right, the ability, and, I pray, the willingness to develop meaningful rituals and ceremonies to help people "get" a clear understanding of our interpretation of Christianity.