Starting a church with how many?

I looped back to read up on the British Orthodox Church, and saw news of a new mission in Windsor:

Father Peter had prepared to pray with one person he had been visiting for some months, but as the prayers from the Agpeya, or Coptic Daily Office, began there were eight people from a variety of backgrounds who had come together to begin this new service. And a further eight people had wanted to be present but were unable to do so for various reasons.

Let’s revisit that: “had prepared to pray with one person”. I won’t say that an intended one-person mission is the best way to make something last. And indeed, there are significant polity, historical and demographic differences between the kind of churchmanship the British Orthodox have and that most of my readers (the Indy Catholics perhaps excepted) but there is something about the audacious faithfulness about starting a mission this way is worthy of respect and perhaps adaptation.

The twenty-times-a-year church

I have been combing the pages of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and came across one church – small, remote? – that meets less than weekly but more than monthly in a very sensible pattern:

  • nine months, meeting twice a month (first and third Sunday in this case)
  • two months, meeting once (January and February in this case)
  • one month without worship (here, August)

That’s twenty services a year. While I’d recommend not taking off August in the U.S. experience, to not miss the area newcomers, there’s a logic to putting thin resources where they are needed. In some areas, a preacher may come a very long distance. In other cases, the homegrown worship leadership is hardstretched. Or perhaps capacity is up from a once-a-month service but not so much as to double the activity.

If weekly or oftener worship is an impractical option, and hard weather (icy roads, un-air-conditioned church) makes some seasons more difficult than others, then this structure might be a good steward.

I’ve also written about other schedules: ten times a year, and the liminal case of worship once or twice a year.

Lacking confidence

As my regular readers now, I think a lot about church growth and decline. If I had a simple solution or magic formula, I would share it. Much of the problem lies with the change of society: religious congregations no longer have such a strong claim on cultural influence. Other institutions, as expected as good Internet access or an accommodating coffee shop, brake into religious treasuries: access to information, a meaningful context for living and means for organizing a valuable response. You don’t need church for friends or a cup of coffee. Newcomer certainly aren’t going to support an institution for that. (Rural areas and poor urban areas, with less social infrastructure, may buck this trend for a time.) And it’s doubly true that newcomers will not support weak leadership.

But let’s step back. Some churches still thrive, and it’s clearly not (to me) because they are more or less institutional, more or less dogmatic or more or less authoritarian. Self-confidence seems to be a better distinguishing factor. And how this may be cultivated a good use of time and effort. Why? Confidence says this is good better than self-assertion, and people can feel the difference. And desperation kills.

What do you think churches should do?

While some of your favorite sites are down — a very severe storm blew through metro Washington, D.C. last night, disabling an Amazon cloud computing center in the ‘burbs — let me ask a question that has been bothering me since the UUA General Assembly: just what do you think the purpose of a church is? Not the UUA, but the particular church. Opinions requested.

Thoughts about the UUA decline numbers

So the UUA’s a bit smaller this year than last. The question I have — perhaps unanswerable — is how many of those are (put plainly) old, middle aged and young. Are these numbers a sign of social and economic stress, or are we approaching a demographic cliff?

The answer would suggest next steps. But the good news is also the bad news. Despite the talk of cradle Unitarian Universalists, we’re dependent on converts. (The cradle UUs could use some PR help, being second only to the Quakers in making participation from infancy a smug, if unearned, status.) This is good because there’s the opportunity to grow, should we tap adequately into the culture. But the bad news is that we would probably make the most sense to those coming from a churched setting, and those numbers are falling.

Lesson from embassy visit day

Today is the annual open day for non-EU embassies. (EU is next Saturday.) Long lines for a pamphlet and, sometimes, a taste of the local cuisine. I go to look at the buidlings and out of an internationalist sympathy.

Having done this a few times I’ve learned that the smaller the country the better chance of a good return. Some derived lessons, for churches.

  • Tell people why they’re being greeting, sharing a distinctive.
  • Keep the food samples simple and easy.
  • Be clear about trouble overcome and accomplishments made.
  • Be selective in suggestive next steps and make sure there’s a clear path out!

Churches take note; sometimes open options reads like inattentiveness.

Soul searching, again

More short-form blogging. Wondering out loud what to make of the UUA staff and growth advocates meeting this week.

Deeply suspicious that there’ll be any positive development. Not that there aren’t good ideas and resourceful people involved but that the process is worn and the goals are institutional and (at least modestly)  defensive.

I sighed, literally, and wonder what the future holds. At least I’m less worried about intra-UU rivalry: there’s so much less to fight over now…

On “Congregations and Beyond”

I hear the buzz, buzz, buzz online from Unitarian Universalists trying to make some sense of Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales’s recent write paper, “Congregations and Beyond.” (PDF version).

Let’s call it head scratching because this is hardly the launch into a brave, new world one would expect from its internal tone, much less the betrayal of congregational polity I’ve heard expressed.  Now that bloggers have had time to digest it, the posts are coming out and since my sinuses have been inflamed for three days, I’ll cut to the point. (I’ve removed some of my older, more banal comments. If you like, you may read my synposis of the white paper after the fold.)

First, let’s consider the Unitarian Universalist Association as a container for religious identity. Apart from a particular congregation,  this is the overarching, embodied connection to a shared religious past, and its the usual locus one moves from place to place. The UUA attracts attention through its programs, events and statements. Ministers, though fellowship and settlement, have an obvious connection, but so too other professionals, generational cohorts and campers. Over the years I’ve heard quite a number of things that Unitarian Universalism is, and however different these may be there’s always the UUA to continue as a common referent. Note I don’t make glowing or uniformly positive value judgements here, but grousing about the UUA is a lively (if frustrating) point of reference. Important, too, is that in the United States there’s not a vital alternative within the Unitarian or Universalists traditions.

This means there’s a value to the UUA greater than the programs it offers — the value of approval and a rallying point — but this value is an unhealthy dependence. And approval-giving and point-identifying is less expensive and less strenuous that having the resources churches need. Surely, if we take congregational polity seriously, we could identify that which is “truly” Unitarian Universalist in a way that doesn’t need the UUA. But then again, congregational polity has itself become code language for me liking my peculiar interpretations of Unitarian Universalism more than yours. Oh, that and not wanting to cede the right to shape a particular church in a way that attends to the needs of the people who actually attend and support it. And note that its easier now than ever to find solutions to problems: the Internet has created a wide market for resources and information. The UUA’s coordinating power will never be what it once was; indeed,why should it be when you can Google for it?

Morales’s white paper has to be read in this context. The religious movement and the “platform” language is a call to roots and foundational responsibilities. Some of the extracongregational entitles are nothing more than what others would call mission agency or support organizations. But his concept also an attempt — a doomed one, I think — to harness free agents who can offer alternatives services (even partial ones) under the UUA umbrella. Doomed, I think, because the UUA has little financial or institutional support to offer to make a trade-off of autonomy worthwhile.

And can I be plain, but the plan is hardly worth the name. Having worked closely with many self-starting social media experts, technologists and organizers, the white paper reads like a TED Talk rehash. The mangled terms of art  and the anecdotal “evidence” suggest unfamiliarity rather than leadership.

As I wrote yesterday, “there’s much there” (history, baggage) “and too little there” (vision, resources, planning) for me to be hopeful — or upset. I’ll carry on and do my piece, but won’t wait for 25 to lead the way.


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