Friday, May 21, 2010

Church Growth Part Four

This is a continuation of the growth and Unitarian Universalism topic started over on It comes out of the recent conference on UU growth held in Denver by various UU ministers of growing churches. I have also posted the earlier three posts below and added reflections from an edgier, radical place or perspective on all this (maybe if nothing else, it will make such growth leaders look like moderates when to many UUs they might look like revolutionaries lol).

I will post the latest here now from the Rev. Thom Belote's blog, interspersed with reflections:

"At the UUA Growth Consultation held from May 5 to May 7, one of the most interesting documents that the participants developed was a list that we wound up calling "The Seven Principles for UU Vitality." This document was produced using a process of brainstorming, the grouping of emerging themes, and reflection on our own experiences. These seven principles would inform the growth initiatives that we developed later on in the meeting.

The Seven Principles for UU Congregational Vitality

1) The Congregation has a clear and powerful Purpose and Mission
• The congregation posesses a compelling narrative that connects past, present, and future.
• The congregation's story is constantly embodied and rehearsed.
[Thom's commentary: Even though my chapter in the book The Growing Church is on "mission," I was not the leading brainstormer of this principle.]

[Ron's commentary: The first question from a missional perspective, and the first question I learned and keep learning the hard way, and the first question I toss back to potential church planters, is "what is your image of the church, a church, or of the congregation?" What is it you are trying to start or grow? And is that what the soil you are planting it in will support, and what it needs? So before any principle about the congregation, we need to delve deeper into the nature and manifestation of the congregation, because everything, everything that comes after that depends on the responses to that first question and set of questions. I think it is clear, see posts below, that the congregational growth being explored is about growing churches as we currently primarily embody them in UUism, and so we are looking for ways to keep continuity with the past in many of the substantial structural ways, which is not the culture we need to be cultivating for survival and thriving; we need to be figuring out how we can, to use Lyle Schaller's terminology, have discontinuity with the past. That said, I will point out as below that there is so much room to grow in the usual established status quo ways in UUism that of course this first principle is a healthy one, except for.....

The Church Doesn't Have A Mission...The Mission Has A Church. The Mission Creates the need for and growth of the church. If we don't start changing the default mode language around that we will keep perpetuating the growth of an organization vs. the growth of an organic movement, and that will ultimately be to the detriment of UUism.]

2) The Congregation is aware of & responsive to the world around it
• Another way of saying this is to say that the congregation has a "sense of place" that is theologically informed.
• The public mission is owned and embodied by the congregation.
• There is strong leadership and high levels of participation in living out the public mission. [It is not just the minister doing it or a committee or a group of people who are marginal in the life of the congregation.]

[Ron: Yes. It reconceives itself, to use Michael Durall's language, as a "public" being. It also looks to see how it can become more local. How is it changing the world in a two mile radius around its central location? becomes a key measure of its success.
I would also push on that sense of place that is theologically informed and say that it shoudn't be afraid, in fact should embrace, a theological specific orientation in its worship and culture, even while of course being non-creedal, as a way to become more of the "scandal of the particular" and allow people to become "more local" theologically and culturally, especially if it can do this in places with a multitude of theological and cultural specific "mission groups, i.e. congregations" Imagine the church being small group ministry becoming the main emphasis and ministry of the church, allowing it to break up and be present in more locales, offering more UUstyle theological and cultural options (I will have to post later about issues where we may miss the boat in multiculturalism by not allowing for particular -centric congregations or mission groups like other growing associations), and network these once a month to work and celebrate together at times, without having to be a continuous one size fits nearly all congregation. It sets up a culture where people can go more in depth along that one spoke of the hub of the church, and yet still be in relationship with those on the other spokes; it allows for the homogeneity unified principle with 20-30 people in a group or tribe, and at the same time embrace diversity on something more than a least common denominator level. So that is a radical vision, of course, but one we might have tried if starting fresh, and I suspect a majority of current UUs would opt to remain in a one-style-fits-all heterogenous unit (though you might be surprised by the kinds of cultural diversity that might inform a specific theological-centric group or age-centric group, for example, as people chose which group to be drawn to most); still it is a way to turn loose some entrepreneurial groups on the edges, or to look at intentional new separate congregational plants (which have been tried in some places before, as people will be quick to point out, but they weren't tried in the new soil of missional church but were started in the old default model of church).]

3) There is vital worship and a vital Sunday experience for all ages
• "It's gotta sing": vitality and energy are felt throughout the congregation on Sundays.
• There is coherence in the church's programming. Sunday morning is an aesthetic whole.
• The worship service is relevant and meaningful in people's lives.
• Music inspires and moves the congregation.

[Ron's commentary: I was just exploring with my UU History and Polity students last night the changes in church focus from once upon a time pinning everything on the "how many members do you have?" question where the focus is on joining a church to be able to vote and run the church, in large part, to the focus and question on "how many did you have in worship this past Sunday?" as the measure of success. This is good on one level because it switches church membership from entitlement to mission, or something else. People may now say and believe they are members of a church because their primary contact and identity is through the worship service. The church's focus shifts then from taking care of its own to creating a worship event that will, it is hoped, inspire people to go change the world. Worship Event becomes primary, and the tendency or idolatry is that it becomes a de facto destination point for a person's spiritual life; they will give up any other aspect of church but not worship. And I am thinking here even of worship in the most Theistic and Christian sense as well. We don't challenge people with the question: can you conceive of being a part of this church without the worship service? It is like asking the question of Christians, can you imagine being a Christian without going to a worship service? Here is the rub. Worship is vital, but for growth and transformation, it should be a secondary gathering to serving others together with love and justice, out of which the worship grows and in response to which worship grows, not the other way around. Is the purpose to create a worshipful people, first and foremost, or is it to produce agents of change for transformation in the world with love and justice, i.e. produce disciples who produce disciples of this kind of transformation? Something to think about. Worship can also be dynamic and vital in small group settings too, especially for those who are not being fed over time by spectator-oriented worship, and especially if there is a reliance on a common liturgy as a container for spontaneity and the personal. And Bad music sung spiritedly by a small group beats the paid performers in worship; in part because a small group can over time grow in music as a spiritual growth itself. Remember, great points here above but for perpetuating growth along the lines of what has been, in and of itself of course a good thing, but not all of the conversation for the long haul]

4) Church is done well [this principle is in reference to administration and leadership.]
• This principle has to do with Policies, Practices, and Places.
• The above are clear, adaptable, and responsive to the evolving needs of the congregation.
• There is a sense that we must be willing to change ourselves in order to "do church well."
[Ron's commentary: Amen. Once this happens, no telling what else might happen.]

5) The Congegation cultivates religious community
• The community participates in shared practices and rituals.
• The congregation provides connections where there is disconnection. [This is another way to describe the building of the beloved community: It encompasses multiculturalism, multigenerationalism, and other forms of diversity.]
• The congregation provides a safe atmosphere and environment where healthy relationships can be built.
• The congregation recognizes and overcomes its own idolatries in how it envisions community.

[Ron: Good. See above for radical ways to conceive of this.]

6) The Congregation builds skills to lead and nurtures gifts to serve
• People who come to a church discern a call in community.
• The community nurtures, trains, honors, and trusts leaders.

[Ron: Yes, and turns them loose in the world, and provides a place for them to debrief from their adventures]

7) Strong ministerial leadership supports the fulfillment of the previous six principles.
[Thom's commentary: Originally we developed a list of six items. Following a break we looked at the list and asked ourselves, "Does this feel right?" "What is missing?" Members of the UUA staff quickly spoke up and said that the parish ministers had tremendously devalued their own role in promoting congregational vitality. The seventh principle is intended to signify the role of the minister in promoting the previous six principles.]

[Ron: Yes, so true, but let us look at how our tie to seminary-trained paid ministerial leadership binds our ability to be responsive, and to nurture gifts from within us. So the minister becomes a theological coach to the teams of five to six entrepenuers and planters who then become that for those they grow and serve with. This coaching can be done virtually, too. Especially for small to mid churches struggling with anxiety in systems over supporting or growing staff and ministry to re-envision the role of the minister. The old style Puritan forebears of ours who grew pastors and teachers from within themselves, in connection with others, provide a model, as does the early early church. (We will have spectacular failures if we do things like create leadership efforts and church efforts like above, and that often scares us more than anything else in UUism it seems). Often the very strengths we cultivate in seminary trained ministerial leadership will work against what is needed in being leaders who create leaders. It takes a strong leader to be able to begin moving a church to do all the above mentioned alternative ways of being church, that is for sure. Implicit in this principle, too, is the learning about "apostolic" leadership that has been proven most effective in growing groups and, as Durall points out in The Almost Church Revitalized: envisioning the future of UUism, there must be challenges and redefinitions of the "democratic process" as it has been lived out and checked and balanced leadership to the point of paralysis. We need a new progressive understanding of both terms "apostolic" or "hierarchical" and "democratic."]

I have reflected more in depth at this blog over the years on many of these points. Enjoy blog exploring :) I will try to pull them together at some point.

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