Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


A Changing Church in a Changing World: Final Post, Final Questions: Surviving or Serving? Growth or Hospitality?

In 1985 I was 24, in a new city (Springfield, Illinois) and in a first job in a new career.  In retrospect I see that I was starting a spiritual search that included participation in four very different kinds of denominations and traditions.  This journey has included friendships with ministers and members of all four.  (Eventually I put down roots in one of those four traditions–Unitarian Universalism–and found a call to ministry here.)

 

In that new city, I paid only one visit to a church of the mainstream Protestant denomination in which I had grown up.  It was an elegant, large limestone building with familiar music, dark wooden pews, and reassuring stained glass.  As I slipped into a pew behind an older male-female couple, the lady turned around, smiled at me and gave me her welcome.  “I hope you stay,” she said.  “We need young people.”  I smiled back.  I’ve heard this kind of outreach referred to as the vampire approach—we reach out because we need fresh blood.

 

Ten years ago, at a district workshop on outreach and hospitality, a UU colleague in his late 50s spoke about his first time in a UU community.  At age 16, having had a Catholic upbringing, he learned about Unitarian Universalism.  Intrigued and interested, he found the local church in his Florida town.   He rode his bicycle there one Sunday.  Perhaps they had no “youth program.” If they did, but I don’t remember that from his story.

 

After service he visited the church bookstore and met a woman there.  As she got to know him, she learned that he was curious about our approach to religion and that he liked to read.  She handed him a book, asked him to read it, and invited him to come back to tell her what he thought of it.  On a future Sunday he brought the book and himself back to the church on his bike.  He and his adult friend discussed his thoughts about the book.  She gave him another book, and said she looked forward to another conversation.

This routine continued; this friendship developed; this young man later grew into a minister and an esteemed coach and consultant in our movement.  This was not the result of an organized outreach campaign, an advertising blitz, or a sermon series on UU evangelism.  It was a simple, one-to-one gesture of curiosity, patience, and the gift of time.  This is true hospitality.

 

When I was 16 I had a driver’s license and could easily drive to Indianapolis, 30 miles away from my home.  I’ve wondered:  What if I had found out about All Souls Unitarian back then and taken Mom’s car up there on a Sunday?

 

Would I have received the kind of warm welcome—the gestures of curiosity about who I was, what I cared about, what brought me there? 

 

Perhaps, after shaking someone’s hand, I would have been directed to the staff or a volunteer leader of the “youth program.”   [Message:  This is where and how you fit in.]

 

Or maybe I would have heard an apology that they did not have a “youth program.” [Message:  Sorry that you don’t fit in.]

 

Or maybe I would have heard:  Maybe you could start a youth group here; bring your friends!  [Message:  What can you do for us?]

 

Every time I hear, in a congregational setting, some innocent and well-meaning questions—“How can we attract more [x] people?”  “How can we appeal to them?”—I want to ask Why?

 

We value diversity, and we value everyone’s individual outlook and personal journey.   If we start with a practice of true curiosity about whoever is standing in front of us in the moment, it will matter less whether they are x or y, whether they like the majority of the congregation or are different in some way.

 

To me, this is the question about younger generations and our congregations:  Are we looking for what we can offer, and the ways we might serve real people with real needs? Or are we looking to survive as a congregation in the forms and habits we are used to?

 

Is our goal to serve, or to survive?  Do we wish to pursue growth or hospitality?

 

Some may ask:  Can’t we do both?  Probably so, but we need to determine which motivation is driving us, which purpose is calling to us.

 

If we are drawn mostly by nostalgic longings to perpetuate the church we used to know (or to create the one that matches our ambitions or our idealized memories), I fear we will continue to be frustrated and confused, and to miss out on many creative opportunities to enrich our souls and serve our larger community.

 

If we are drawn mostly by the opportunity to be of service as a community, and we approach that with curiosity, patience, flexibility and perseverance, I am confident we’ll find and summon the resources to follow this calling.

 

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2 Comments so far
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Thanks for that Roger. I have asked such questions myself and am just now beginning to understand why those type questions are the wrong questions. There is a very powerful article from Rev Muir in the current UU World that discusses this subject. I posted it on my Facebook Timeline. http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/279318.shtml?utm_source=n

Comment by Bruce Moulton

Dear Roger,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful consideration of this issue. The needs of the seeker should always be first in or hearts and minds.

Yours in Beloved Community, Julie

Comment by Julie A Heston




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