A service without…

At the risk of austerity-mongering,  it’s worth asking what a small, or new, or fragile church can do without in its worship to make worship sustainable, and to free up money and energy for other parts of church life.

Some things come to mind; here I’m thinking of middle-of-the-road mainline Protestantism. You could have worship

  • without a meeting-place you own
  • even without a fixed meeting-place
  • without a full-time or resident minister
  • without a sermon, or at least a long, originally-composed sermon every week
  • without an organ, and probably without a piano
  • without a choir
  • without hymns

The list goes on, but you may already have experienced one or more of these “deprivations” in your own church. You might not even consider it a deprivation.

I’ll be looking at some of these options on and off for the next few weeks under the banner of “doing what you can, but doing it well.”

Burnout is a real risk under diminishing resources and opportunities. Burning out the leadership, leaving them hopeless, is not an option. Or else you’ll be

  • without a church

 

So, why Sunday morning again?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to understand the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Church of the East: Christian churches that have an early history of divergence from the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. The Coptic Christians I’ve recently written about are in this group. So were the Eritrean Orthodox who worshipped downstairs at Universalist National Memorial Church so many years ago. Also the British Orthodox I’ve cited on this blog. Originally, I was interested in them because some nineteenth-century Universalists saw a kind of pro-universalist apostolic purity in them; a history ripe for the reclaiming. But lately I’ve been more interested in their approach to mission.

For one thing, they’re not bashful about missions, and why should they be? Most come from parts of the world where Christianity isn’t a majority faith. To survive you have to have a strong sense of identity that corresponds well with missions. But you’ll forgive me if I suggest that their approach to the faith isn’t Mod or particularly attuned to contemporary culture. But, as they say in the software world, “that’s a feature, not a bug.” They work, or seem to work on a different timeline than your garden-variety mainline Protestant (Overstatements follow, but follow me.)

So I was a bit shocked to see that so many of the mission churches meet only once or twice a month. And many, perhaps most, of those — with English-language websites anyway — meet on Saturday morning.

The reason is pretty obvious. It allows the priests to serve more congregations. Some of the Copts travel several hours from their home parishes to serve missions, something that wouldn’t be practical if the mission had a Sunday evening liturgy following a liturgy at home.

This, too, is something those nineteenth-century Universalists would have understood, and also I’ve done my rounds of supply and circuit preaching. But their usual appointments (and mine) were on Sundays, which is also the tight time for church buildings. Few edifices are as well suited for worship as a church building, so why not gather for worship on Saturday mornings.

Four directions in the downsizing of the church

PeaceBang, the nom de blog of friend and minister Victoria Weinstein, opines at length about the foundational changes shaking our United States church experience.

Because everything is changing so fast, even those of us in the profession can’t keep up with the framework, the lingo or the expectations.  The fancy name for all of this is adaptive leadership, which is a nice way of saying that we’re all running like Indiana Jones a few yards ahead of the boulder of cultural change that threatens to flatten us at any moment.

She was speaking from her own observation, but a report that came out this week from Pew Research Center — quantifying the numerical shrinkage of American Christians and a comparably increase of the unaffiliated — alerted people that might otherwise not care so much.

She suggests that I might know how the remaining worshippers of the future will act, and so I’m adjusting some of my previously planned writing to address the question that’s the title of her blog post: “What Happens to Worshipers When The Traditional Church Closes Its Doors”?

The adjustment will come in phases, so let me address what won’t work; that is, doing church more cheaply. This won’t save us. So keep the champagne flowing? No. A cheaper, simpler approach won’t save us, but neither will we have an option. In time, even a deep endowment can dry up.

So the four directions in downsizing the church are taking creative alternatives to

  • staffing the church work with trained and ordained ministers, in new configurations
  • staffing the church work with new groupings of people with differing professional interests and accomplishments
  • making use of space other than conventional church buildings
  • making different use of the church buildings that exist

So what’s the solution? It’s making the experience of the church more desirable than the cost. The financial cost, true, but also of time, patience, labor, expertise and reputation. This last may be the hardest. Like climate change that melts the permafrost, releasing methane accelerating the warming — mull on that simile for a moment — if someone feels like a sucker for participating in a church, no cost savings, no special programming, no reasoned (or emotional) appeal will make it seem like a good idea.

And overcoming that dilemma is more than the subject of a blog post.

A church without all the trimmings

The Unitarian Universalist way of running congregations has a built-in contradiction.

On the one hand, we’re supposed to give money to support them; they are self-governing and self-supporting. And on the other hand, church members supposed to be a covenant people with a common ultimate interest, or mission. The two ideas do not necessarily go together, particularly if there are people of different incomes and conflicting interests about what is the proper level of giving and spending in a church.

The old parish-church distinction could remedy the contradiction with a parish serving the former role and the church serving the latter. Some would be members of one and not the other, but the conflicts between the two entities aren’t hard to imagine. The remedy might be worse that the disease.

I think that part of the subtext about how awful the Fellowship Movement depends on your view of church finances. Do you want a “full service church” and a budget to match? Can you personally afford it? And if you can’t? Well, I’d fight for my little group in a rented room with everyone pitching in, too. But I’ve never heard the conflicts put in such basic terms. It makes the membership allowances for those unable to give as richly as others seem down-right Edwardian.

The bigger problem is our heritage of territorial parishes, and the idea that in most places there’s only “room” for one Unitarian Universalist congregation. That’s a pretty limiting view. Can you imagine Methodists stopping at one? Little wonder were about 8 in 10,000 in the United States. And falling.

In just about every other private endeavor you can think of, there’s market segmentation. It seems to me that if there’s a desire to grow and reach out there needs to be a willingness to allow churches to prosper at different levels of spending.

 

The Unitarian van mission

I usually write about Universalist polity, but some chat a few weeks ago about “Beyond Congregations” reminded me about the English “Unitarian van mission” of more than a century ago, and interest that stirred up here in the United States.

http://www.unitarianhistory.org.uk/hsalbBUH4.html
Courtesy, Unitarian Historical Society

 

Courtesy, Unitarian Historical Society
Courtesy, Unitarian Historical Society

 

I’ve found references as far back as 1908, with its evident zenith in the 1910s. According to Georges Salim Kukhi, himself a London Unitarian preacher in 1919, there was more than one van, indeed, four that roved Britain. The vans have not only a pulpit, but sleeping quarters and room for print material. They were fitted with technically-advanced acetylene lamps!

Preachers, sometimes lay preachers, would address the crowds from the van; sometimes they’d be harangued. But it seems there was also a desire for information:

The Unitarian Van Mission in England allows its out of doors audiences to ask questions and finds frequent anxiety for information concerning the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden the veracity of Balaam’s ass the truth of the whale and Jonah incident and other Old Testament marvels.

They would also distribute publications.

I’ve not been able to find evidence of a Unitarian van in the United States, though there was a stated desire and a bit of embarrassment that that the gung-ho Americans didn’t do it first! (In fact, there was something called a van mission in Kansas in 1896. That’s something to research.)

But there is this charming report about an initial, and similar measure, in Massachusetts around 1903 that relied on camping in outpost towns, with audiovisual equipment (a stereopticon).

 

Three quotations from Universalism and Problems of the Universalist Church

So, I’ve finally begun reading Universalism and Problems of the Universalist Church (1888) and I recognize some themes. The idea that their faith was so logical that it would prosper as an inevitability — a theme maintained among Unitarian Universalists through the 1960s at least, with echoes, if embittered, today.

The author wasn’t willing to accept the (falsely) inevitable, and notes the weaknesses of the lived faith, and these too have the ring of familiarity.

  • p. xii
  • Have we but to fold our arms and wait to see the salvation of the Lord? What of evolution?—Is it a cause or a method, only? Is evolution such an intelligent, vital force, as that, independent of the agency of man, right results may be predicated thereon? Is man of no value as a civilizing agent? Rather is not man the divinely appointed agent of the Most High in the furtherence of His plans? Can truth be propagated except as man becomes a co-worker with God? Do not many of the adherents of our church hold false views of Optimism, such that it leaves man as a moral agent out of the question and predicates all moral advancements upon God alone? Or, worse yet, do not some regard Evolution as the sole force in working out and shaping our destinies? Has man nothing to do in working out his own salvation? Do not the Bible, Reason and Nature all agree in holding man morally accountable?

  • p. xiv
  • While doubt has its value and proper sphere in the investigation of theological dogmas and the search for truth, yet should we not be wary how we deal with this subject? Does not the ventillating of their doubts become chronic with some ministers to the great detriment of our cause? And, when doubt becomes their “chief stock in trade”, ought not professional honor and honesty enable them to see that the door, by which they came into the ministry, has an outward swing, also?

  • p. xv-xvi
  • Our church bears the name of being progressive; and, in a large measure this is true; but in the use of the best methods it is not so in fact. We ought to be progressive in the truest sense. Our faith is such that it ought to enable us to be abreast of the times in all that is good and helpful in extending and making permanent the cause of the Master as we understand it. But for some reason we do not concentrate our forces nor wield them to effect the best results. In some directions our work drags where it ought to soar. We seem to undervalue our abilities and our opportunities. We talk of this enterprise and that, and are enthusiastic in adopting them; but when it comes to execution of our plans the wind is pretty much out of our sails.

More thoughts on the scalable service

A moment to think about the British Orthodox Church, a small culturally-British Coptic jurisdiction. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it is very small, but is able to create new church missions, and that should draw our positive attention.

Is it because it has a surplus of clergy? It doesn’t seem so. Or cash? Again, no evidence. Or because it’s tapping into a populist consciousness? You’ll forgive me if I suggest the appeal speaks more to a deep past and hopeful future than being of the moment. (That’s is surely an appeal to some, but let’s leave that for now.) And it’s not to say that all of the missions are super-healthy. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. First, they have a stated goal:

We are seeking to plant at least two new missions each year to fulfill our vision of a community in every county.

And what the British Orthodox Church — and other churches — have is a model that makes worship possible, approachable and above all scalable.

The key is the daily office, and particularly the services of matins (morning) and vespers (evening), also known as “raising of incense” or the Coptic name for the daily round of services, the Agpeya, And it’s a good choice, too. Don’t know about the British Orthodox in particular, as it applies to public worship, but the daily office also belongs to the laity, so perhaps a member of the lay faithful could lead it. Or perhaps someone in minor orders (a concept Protestants don’t have) or certainly a deacon, thus expanding the pool of who can lead worship in missions.

But more importantly, it’s a service with lower barriers than the Liturgy (Eucharist, Mass) and therefore more welcoming. To review, two takeaways:

  1. Broader pool who can lead the service.
  2. A service that’s more welcoming by its nature.

And it’s short and stable in content. Say, 20-30 minutes. I think spoken prayers, followed by some refreshment and a training or discussion — as indeed, is prepared monthly in some of these missions — is pretty darn achievable, particularly as they meet in Anglican churches at times (even Saturday mornings) that the host parish doesn’t meet. To review:

  1. A stable, predictable service. Not too long.
  2. Some kind of enrichment activity.
  3. Setting a time to be accessible, not conventional.

And know that elements can be added or removed as conditions demand.

  • Sermon or none
  • Instrumental music or none
  • Hymns sung or not
  • Candles lit or not, and so forth

 

 

Degrading gracefully

A few years ago, graceful degradation was the goal for web design. Web browsers weren’t created equal (and aren’t, though it’s better now), and what might look beautiful in one browser may fail to load properly in another. And since there’s not enough time to make a site work equally well for all browsers, it had to be sufficient for the site to load “well enough” if the browser was old or eccentric. You may not get special features, but you would get the essentials, like the text.

It may seem an odd jump from Internet Explorer 6 to your church, but the idea isn’t too strange. If it fails to everything desirable — for want of money, leadership, members, options or a supportive community — then it can, at least, do the basics. What that is is, of course, debatable. But I’ve certainly visited churches that tried too much and failed to do what they wanted, perhaps out of pride and a misplaced sense of historic capacity. They could have done less, and done it well, but could not degrade gracefully. There’s something to be said for one good sermon a month instead of four indifferent presentations. A clean tablecloth instead of dusty silk flowers. Good singing instead of a wheezing organ.

It may not be what we had, or even what we would prefer. And it’s not to say that even this reduced activity would be easy, but a chance to succeed is better than failing ungracefully.

Is there a place for poor Unitarian Universalists?

And when I ask “Is there a place for poor Unitarian Universalists?” I don’t mean one, or two, or a small handful of poor people within a congregation of prosperous people, but a vital presence of Unitarian Universalists in a particularly poor community, or coming out of the experience and responding to the poor people in a mixed community.

I’m not too hopeful; we’re pretty homogeneous. It’s hard to find a Unitarian Universalists congregation that’s not high-majority white, though I can think of a couple that may count or at least come close. And I remember my experience as a native Southerner in Unitarian Universalist: far from affirming, and tinged with the feeling that Southern Unitarian Universalists, save those who grew up in the old Universalist churches, were transplants and that the congregations served a kind of outpost. Economic poverty seems like another excluding category.

And its solution is more remote, too. Without new models of ministry. How would such a church be organized? How could it be supported? How would it be accepted, without pity or distancing? It’s hard to be different, either as a person or congregation.

And harder to expose how much poverty — or near-poverty — is likely unrecognised.