Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Growth Strategy Redux

This is a continuation of the conversation over at The Lively Tradition
about the UUA and growth strategies.

I am working on a workshop to give next week on The New Evangelists (the ancient-future new style emerging Christians we should be paying attention to as much or moreso than we have and do Spong, Borg, Crossan, et al) and have been re-reading Lyle Schaller. In his book "What Have We Learned?" he writes this:

"The single best approach for any religious body seeking to reach, attract, serve, and assimilte younger generations and newcomers in the community is to launch three new missions annually for every one hundred congregations in that organization. A significant fringe benefit of this policy is that it usually will reduce the resources for continuing subsidies to institutions that will be healthier if they are forced to become financially self-supporting."

For the UUA that would mean starting 33 plants annually. I suspect even if we put in the unintentional or unsubsidized new churches annually (not talking about "plants" either) that would be about five times or more the number that are beginning in and among us. Someone with better stats can correct it. Maybe it is 33 times what we do.

This gives us some perspective on what we are aiming for in the religious landscape. The "pie in the sky" aim or ideal of starting 10 new congregations a year that would grow to at least pastoral size got a lot of laughs when it was announced, and does so today too. I have guffawed with the best of them, but not at the aim or ideal but that it wasn't coupled with the important part of re-orienting priorities as the rest of Schaller's paragraph states.

If Schaller is right, then 33 congregations can and should support the start of one new plant each year. Somehow when you break it down that way it doesn't sound so unreachable (unless you know our congregations, I hear someone saying :)). But especially if you take the rapid-start suburban only model out of the picture, it becomes even more realistic to me (assuming each congregation does the work of reorienting priorities as Schaller suggests).

I can even see 33 churches across the UUA coming together to form a "Carpe Manana! Planting Initiative" (apologies to Leonard Sweet for stealing the title and thrust of one of his books) with the mission of starting a new plant each year. (This would be great, as a side note, as a mission of the Council of Christian Churches within the UUA, which numbers about that many in theory). I'd hate to see this done as a "district-thing" but rather by churches who see this mission as crucial and as their reason for being. Their work and results might inspire others to form similar initiatives. If only a third of our congregations got so inspired, i.e. 300, then we'd have that 10 a year goal. Hey, that's only a third of what Schaller suggests is needed, and he is probably being conservative in his numbers and expectations for the viability and visibility of the faith communities in the future, but it's something. In addition to all of the other initiatives for adding-on growth to existing churches (which of course will happen when you plant anyway).

But there is that nagging last sentence of Schaller. What are we doing and subsidizing that we shouldn't any longer in the face of the changed environment? Hmm, maybe there is a connection after all between this recent General Assembly and church planting--the emphasis on global warming! What if we approached church planting in the same vein of sustainability and survival in a world that is rapidly changing.