Monday, December 12, 2005

The church needs to change, now, or it will die

This was a letter written to the Inquirer a few weeks ago (edited):

A message to the denomination from Stockton-on-Tees Unitarian Church: Stockton Unitarians believe that all Unitarians understand the denomination to be in numerical decline...

We at Stockton believe that everyone wants to experience numerical growth and feel sure that it is necessary to seek a GA Resolution that will encourage every Unitarian to begin to address the need.

This is our proposal:
'That this General Assembly etc... acknowledges that, in order to survive, there is an absolute need for numerical growth. It urges every individual and every organisation to prioritise Numerical Growth. It requests them to declare it. It requests the GA Executive Committee to set up an organisation and process that will bring together those who seek to promote numerical growth, where ideas, proven or not, can be exchanged, discussed, and acted upon...

We look forward to receiving and reading comments. Observations may be different from ours, but we feel the conclusion must be the same: If the denomination does not grow numerically, it will die.'

In response to this, here are my proposals for growth:

1. Engage in theological conversation at every level from academics to lay people. The purpose of this conversation is gain a better understanding of who we are as Unitarians and to move beyond old debates.

2. Change worship! - get a new hymnbook, use different songs and different instruments, try different rituals: communion, handfasting, dance etc, create time for chanting and silence. Reduce sermons to a maximum of 15 minutes. Learn best practice from other churches.

3. Spirituality. People today say: ‘I’m spiritual not religious’ – so why are we offering people religion and not spirituality? Train ministers in meditation and prayer techniques that can be taught to people – this is what people are genuinely looking for.

4. Engage in more social action including civil disobedience. This will involve rejecting a religion that is easy, requires little commitment and effort and is ‘respectable.’ For instance Essex Hall last week held a ‘Celebration of Blasphemy’ to protest the Blasphemy Law. Fair enough, but it’s not going to change anything really. If we really believed this then we would openly publish the poem that was prosecuted the last time the law was used. We would publish the poem in the Inquirer or in Counterpoint and say – come on then – prosecute us. This would highlight the injustice in the law and would give us instant national publicity. This would probably upset a lot of people, but it would be effective. This is just one example but I believe the principle holds for a lot of things.

There’s also a lot less ‘sexy’ social action and service that we could be involved in. This needs to come in from the margins. This will bring more people to us, though it shouldn’t be the primary reason for doing it.

5. Recruit American ministers. The United States now has a lot more ministers than churches. And I believe we in the UK have a lot less active ministers than churches (I’m told there is now one Unitarian minister in all of Wales). This will have the affect of importing best practice from the U.S., although cultural differences will have to be respected. I’m sure a lot of young American ministers would be interested in spending a year or three here. We need to get into American seminaries and recruit.

6. Be a religion that supports every stage of life. Invest in ministry to children, youth and young adults at local, district and national level. Support ministry to families.

7. Invest in campus ministry. Students are probably the people doing the greatest amount of spiritual searching. They are usually coming to terms with their identity, sexuality, career choice and religion. Conservative Christian groups are very active at universities, Unitarians have, as far as I’m aware, zero presence. Yet this could be a incredibly huge opportunity for outreach.

8. Change first our attitude, then work out of a different attitude. Stop talking about reversing decline. Start talking about growth. Start talking about outreach. Start talking about evangelism. Don't say 'Unitarians don't proselytise' (what nonsense) if Unitarianism is a worthwhile religion at all, it is worth sharing. If we want to survive, we must learn to be evangelical. We need to develop a liberal theology and practice of evangelism.

9. Use ‘Building Your Own Theology’ as outreach. The conservative Christian ‘Alpha’ course is the most successful form of evangelism in the world today. It advertises itself as ‘a chance to explore the meaning of life’ but in reality it is an introduction to (conservative) Christianity. ‘Building Your Own Theology’ could act in a very similar ways, and in fact really is ‘a chance to explore the meaning of life’ - more so than Alpha. I know someone who did do BYOT because they saw a leaflet when they were at the church for another event, and came along, then became a member. This already does work. Put on the courses, advertise them heavily in the community, put up big signs outside the church.

10. Church planting. Do not invest in dying congregations. Let them die. Invest in planting new congregations. Use different models of churches. Start networks of house churches. Do not invest in buildings, invest in people. Rent conference rooms and schools and pubs. Centre on small group ministry, prayer groups, book groups, Bible study groups, eat a meal together every week.


Blogger The Emerson Avenger said...

Greetings from Soviet Canuckistan Stephen,

I just thought that I would drop by and wish you and British Unitarians a very Happy Winter Solstice!

Allah prochaine,

Robin Edgar

8:11 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home