The Rise of the ‘Umms’

For the first time in my nearly 40 years, I do not belong to a church body.

Each Sunday I awake with a longing to gather around song, Scripture, and sacrament. Most of those mornings my wife and I walk to the nursing home to celebrate the Eucharist with a faithful but forgotten few.

This year my wife and I want to plant a church in Chicagoland, but many weeks I am left wondering, Where do we fit in?

Recently, I was lamenting this season with a friend. He echoed my sentiment, “I’m also floating without a church—it isn’t ideal, just the way it is.” Our exchange wasn’t significant, just two friends consoling each other through ecclesial purgatory. Later that week, I heard similar thoughts repeated by my neighbors who are new parents.

Again, this sentiment was echoed by a friend who works at a large Christian nonprofit. Over text messages and phone calls, my old roommate and my denominational executive repeated a similar status. But what really caught my attention is when I heard my students and colleagues at Northern Seminary describe themselves and their congregants in much the same way.

All expressed a strong commitment to Jesus and a desire to be part of the church, but they are not active in a local congregation. This growing segment of believers is what I am labeling the “umms.”

Dones, nones, and umms

COVID-19 has been described as a global x-ray, revealing what was hidden in our systems and relationships all along. To be more precise, COVID-19 seems to be an accelerated x-ray, revealing and amplifying these hidden truths at an expedited pace.

Acquaintances became strangers as relational ties grew strained. Economic inequalities became glaringly obvious. And with more attention on the news, the nation was gripped by the murder of George Floyd and forced to reckon with the structural racism that too often stays muted in our country.

This same accelerated unveiling has descended on the church, revealing a major decline in congregational involvement.

Over the past few years, comprehensive research has chronicled the rise of the “nones” and “dones.” The nones are ostensibly those who do not self-identity with any religious affiliation, most prevalent among zoomers and millennials. The dones are those exiting established religions, most notably Christianity. For a variety of reasons, they are done with church.

Early research in the pandemic suggested that up to one-third of churchgoers stopped attending church. More recent data shows a majority of churches are below their pre-pandemic attendance. A study released early this year reveals that church attendance is down by 6 percent, from 34 percent in 2019 to 28 percent in 2021.

People end up far from church for lots of reasons, as the nones and dones demonstrate—but the umms represent yet another distinct group worth talking about. I would argue that many of those who have distanced themselves from church attendance, both in-person and online, might be described as umms.

Umms are a different category altogether, and the ones I have spoken with share several common characteristics. They are fond of the local church and were active members in the past. They take Jesus seriously and want to belong to a local congregation. They are not bitter or cynical—in fact, if anything, umms are uncomfortable with not being committed to a church body.

As a result, there is a gap between their desire and their situation. They are umms because they are uncertain and hesitant about how to reengage with the church.

Many umms have been displaced physically and relationally, uprooted from place and people. They are wandering around, looking for another church to call home. I spoke with 20 or so friends and acquaintances who would classify as umms about what their reentry into the church might look like.

It turns out that for many, it will most likely not be through a Sunday morning worship service. In this, some umms are similar to the dones and nones, who have no interest in walking into a church service on the Lord’s Day.

For churches who have centered their ministries around Sunday morning worship services, this presents a problem. If Sunday morning is not the on-ramp to community and pastoral care it once was for some people, this leaves us with two important questions: What are Sunday-centered churches to do? What are umms to do?

As the oft-quoted poet Robert Frost mused, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Home is a tremendously weighty word—filled with smells and sounds and memories of pain and hope.

Home is also a golden thread weaved throughout the biblical narrative. As theologian Douglas Meeks comments in his book God the Economist, God is “incessantly seeking to create a home, a household, in which God’s creatures can live abundantly.”

If my instincts are right and Sunday morning is no longer the primary entry point for some believers, then we need to further reflect on the idea of a “church home.” Specifically, we must reconsider the physical places where we gather.

I would like to suggest that rediscovering the biblical theme of home can help us interpret the current social architecture of the church, diagnose its challenges and limitations, and provide a faithful way forward for church leaders and umms alike.

In the biblical story, God’s home is the place where he dwells with his people—functioning as the earthly coordinates of God’s presence.

Although my wife and I have not been part of a formal church for the last few months, we still gather with friends every Monday night to eat, pray, and meditate on Scripture. We have a loose collection of friends with whom we fast every Wednesday. A small group of mentors have joined us on a Zoom call once a month to pray for our future.

None of these are formally connected to an organized church, but they are just a few examples of how umms might navigate this liminal time—finding unique ways of “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:25).

Remember, our distancing does not have to be permanent. As I noted earlier, most umms grieve the loss of Christian community, and many look forward to returning to a church body. And while it may be tempting to remain at a distance and be critical of the church, like so many, we must remember that the church—with all its beauty and blemishes—includes umms!

So, whenever you are ready to sink your roots into a local church once again, first consider the people in your life who are already active in their churches. Approach them in their homes and beyond—or better yet, invite them around your table. Such people can act as the front doors of the church and can pray alongside you as you seek to reassimilate.

M. Moore

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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