Friday, February 29, 2008

Questions for growth

This is part of a continuing series of posts running up to the growth-themed Annual Meetings.

Questions to ask (from Lyle Schaller, Growing Plans, 159-160)

1. How does our theological stance and our understanding of our mission shape our strategy?

2. Who are the people we are seeking to reach and serve? What are their unmet religious and personal needs to which we will attempt to respond?

3. How do our traditions, our customs, and our history shape our strategy?

4. What are our assets, strengths, resources, and distinctive gifts as a denomination that will serve as the foundation for our strategy?

Same-sex marriage gaining momentum?

There is a motion proposed for the Unitarian Annual Meetings calling for the right of same sex couples to get married in places of worship. It's proposed by the congregation in Oxford and they've already managed to get some good publicity about it here in the Oxford Mail. Maybe we could get a lot of national publicity for this. There's no point doing it if we don't.

Friday, February 22, 2008

God in pub

As part of my placement with the chaplaincy at Manchester University this week I was in one of the student bars. Me and one of the chaplains were doing 'Pints of View' where we sit in the main bar of the huge hall of residence and try to get some conversations going around religious and ethical issues.

Last week was just me and the chaplain, sitting in the bar thinking - how the hell are we going to get people to talk to us? This week we had lollipops and postcards with questions on, and a guest speaker from the local humanist group. But there was still only us, the invited speaker and one other person for the first hour and a half. Then a student stumbled across us saying 'oh can I have a lolly?' And stayed to talk about religion. From then on we had a really vibrant table with loads of people wandering in and out of our conversations, talking, disagreeing, thinking in a cheerful non-confrontational way. It was a brilliant evening, and the kind of thing that is the reason I'm going into ministry.

There are three separate relflections I want to share about this experience:

First, this shows to me the importance of hope and trust in the spirit and patience when doing mission, doing something a bit out of the comfort zone. It's worth doing, but it might take a while to get going. Keep the faith.

Secondly, it was really easy to get people to talk about religion. Someone came for a lolly and I shouted at them over the music and sounds of the bar - 'You have to tell me what you think about God first!' And they did. Just like that. It seems in churches, and often in Unitarian churches, we so often avoid talking about deep things. Yet here I was in a bar without pretense or tact bluntly asking what people believed and getting blunt and honest replies. Dare we be as brave in our congregations?

Thirdly I got into an interesting conversation with one of the people there about drinking. I have given up alcohol for Lent and the other chaplain was getting over a cold so neither of us were drinking alcohol. Someone suggested that it might be off-putting for people to see us not drinking alcohol. Now I'm not teetotal, but at the same time I'd like to affirm that drugs aren't necessary to have a good time. So I'm left pondering a classic missionary question: should I go along with the culture to be relevant to that culture, or do I take a counter-cultural position in order to be a witness to a different set of values?

It was a good night, anyway. We'll see what happens next week.

Emerging church in Manchester

Here's a video about Sanctus1, a emerging church in Manchester. It's not above criticism, but it's the kind of thing worth paying attention to.

Not quite sure about the whole 'we're orthodox' speech.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Growth: 5 new churches a year?

Ron Robinson over at Planting God Communities has recently pointed his readers towards older posts that are worth rereading. In one, about growth, he quotes Lyle Scaller who says:

"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."

This, for British Unitarianism, would mean about 5 new churches a year. Assuming a 'mission' is the same as a 'church' (broadly, broadly defined). I wonder if anything like this kind of a conversation will happen at the 'growth-orientated' Annual Meetings coming up. OK, let's be really pessimistic and say 1 new congregation a year. We're probably losing congregations at about that rate anyway. Is that crazily impossible or very possible and wise?

But maybe our 'religious body' doesn't run in the same way that Schaller imagines. How much does the General Assembly subsidies our churches? Not very much. Perhaps the appropriate 'religious body' in our context would be the district. Some districts do actively subsidies member churches. Perhaps the district is the appropriate body to launch new church plants? After all districts like Merseyside and Lancashire are actually called 'Missions.' Perhaps they need to be.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Free and Inquiring Religion?

This afternoon I got delivered a bunched-up package from Essex Hall, the headquarters of British Unitarianism. Along with other stuff from the mailing came an advert for a new Unitarian car sticker.

I'm not going to get one. The main reason for this is that I don't have a car. But in addition to that I really don't like the stap-line. It's the same standard one Essex Hall have been using for a long time (anyone know how long?), 'for free and inquiring religion.'

Is that really the message we want to give to people? What does it even mean? 'Free' to most people means you don't have to pay for it. 'We're a free church,' 'Great! No collection!' The concept of free religion needs explaining, you can't get it across in one line, so let's not try. 'Liberal' would be better, most people would have some idea what that means.

'Inquiring'? When I hear this word I think of an old man with half-moon spectacles reading a book, or gently and politely going to an information point and inquiring where the toilets are.

Even 'religion' isn't great if we really want to be missionary and get into the mindset of the culture, especially for those born after 1970.

I myself always go for 'progressive spirituality.' It may not be perfect, but I do think it's better. Maybe 'inclusive' as well. 'Unitarians: a progressive and inclusive spiritual commumnity.'

Feel free to leave a comment and offer your own strapline. Can we have a debate about this? Two years ago the Outreach and Communications Commission held a competition for people to suggest good phrases to be used on posters etc. Where have they gone now? We need to have a think about the most missionally appropriate language to use to speak about ourselves.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

'Ought to' evangelism

There's a certain attitude that I have noticed both within Unitarianism and within British culture in general. I'm calling it 'ought to' evangelism. Within British culture there are some Christians who have this attitude. The attitude is - this is a Christian country - you ought to be Christian. You get it a lot at Christmas, 'ah,' they say, 'you're spending time with your family and giving presents on the 25 December, so you really ought to go to church, because that's really what it's all about you know.' It's a Christendom attitude that comes from a perceives position of dominance and privelege. It assumes people are already basically Christian, and just need to be guilt-tripped to returning to church.

The similar attitude comes from some Christians within Unitarianism. They say, 'Unitarianism is a Christian religious community, so you ought to be Christian if you're a Unitarian.' It too comes from a position of presumed dominance.

But here's the problem: not everyone in Britain is Christian, not everyone within Unitarianism is Christian. Now whatever you may think about that, it remains a fact. If you accept that fact, how effective do you think it will be to say, 'well, you ought to be Christian'?

No one is going to change their mind because they come across that attitude, in fact, it's likely to do the opposite. What I would like Christians within Unitarianism to do is simply live and witness to the power of Christ in their lives. Don't say 'you ought to be Christian' don't uphold or defend a tradition, don't seek to convert by the power of your theological or historical arguments. Rather, from a position of marginality, let your life preach louder than your lips. If people see that those who call themselves Christian are spiritually alive, socially engaged, joyful and gossipy about their diverse Jesus-centred faiths, then people might think there is something to this Christianity thing.

I preach to myself as much as to anyone else.