Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Evangelism and church growth: the same or different?

In the last few years in the Unitarian community there has been a lot of talk of growth. In these conversations there often arises some tensions around growth. Some people are unapologetic about going for growth for growth's sake. They would argue that is it a moral imperative to grow our congregations, that if we are doing things right, if we are healthy and living out our mission, our churches will be growing. "Growth" is the accumulation of a congregation changing the lives of many individuals, and it matters to each of those individuals, so growth matters. This is the philosophy on which Peter Morales was elected as UUA president.

At the same time there are those who are a bit reluctant about all this. They are a bit uncomfortable with "marketing" and "sales" philosophy being applied to religion. They don't really think growth should be for growth's sake, but they're not really sure for what's sake it should be. They're kind of uncomfortable, but not really able to articulate exactly why they're uncomfortable.

At the same time as being aware of this conversation, I'm aware of the academic conversation about church growth and evangelism. This is largely an American Christian conversation (in the English-speaking world at least). There are some theologians who find church growth literature rather theologically thin and sometimes in opposition to the values of the gospel. Most of the literature I read is clear in saying that growth is not the same thing as evangelism.

Let me give an example from my current reading. The United Church of Canada some years back took a stand in saying that the church was welcoming to all LGBT people and that LGBT people could become ministers. This led to the denomination's numerical decline as conservatively minded people left to join other denominations. Now arguable the stand for LGBT rights and radical hospitality was an evangelical act. It was a missionary act. It lived out the extravagant welcome of the gospel, and built the kingdom of God. But it did lead to numerical decline.

Also in my mind is the report that the Methodist President in talking to the Church of England said, “We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission," he continued. “In other words we are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom.”

Could we make a similar statement? That we are prepared to cease to exist if it would serve the kingdom? Serve to build the beloved community?

Often it seems not. I'm thinking of this lecture, which begins "I believe in Unitarian Universalism." Now regardless of what else is in this lecture (and its worth reading), I find myself snagged on the first sentence. "I believe in Unitarianism"? It seems a strange statement as no one says "I believe in Christianity" they say "I believe in Jesus." The institution only serves God/the greater purpose, but sometimes I think we believe in institutions for institution's sake.

So are we prepared to go out of existence if it served the purpose of creating the world we long for? My answer is yes. It has to be. Which is part of the reason I don't have existential angst over numerical decline. My ultimate trust is not in the institution itself.

But here's the thing. Even though evangelism is not the same thing as church growth, even though church growth is not necessarily a sign of living out the gospel, neither is church decline. Church decline does not necessarily mean that you are bravely living out counter-cultural values in a hostile world. It could mean you're just an unfriendly miserable congregation. And sometimes some people might be saying "church growth isn't all that" as an excuse to be really bad at your mission of hospitality.

And I don't believe that going out of existence would serve our mission. I believe our mission is served by radically inclusive communities engaged in loving and transforming the world. So growing such communities committed to that mission is evangelism. But if a community is simply a social club that has past its sell-by date as a socially useful institution, then it doesn't really matter if it dies. Maybe it was a lovely thing in its time, but its time has past, and we let it die in a pastoral sensitive way and move on.

Which is why decline does not worry me if it means we're left with a missionary remnant. If it means we're left with a people who know who they are and why they are. If we're left with no one who goes to church because it is the socially normal thing to do. It's my vision of this missionary remnant that makes me excited and hopeful about ministry in a British Unitarian context.


Blogger Rich said...

Hear hear! Thank you for this viewpoint.

6:22 pm  
Anonymous a said...

I think we exist to serve people with particular needs and wants - and those people include us, but also include people who have never heard of us. That's why we need to grow, because there are people that would get something out of a Unitarian community, but don't know it yet. We need to reach out to them.

I think you're saying that if people no longer have a need or want us, then it's completely ok if we go out of existence. If that's right, then I agree.

We don't want to grow because we need money, or new church officers. If those are the only reasons to grow then it would simply be easier to shut up shop so that there's no requirement for money or church officers.

11:55 pm  
Blogger Rev. Andy said...

I think it's an interesting matter about whether we would be ready to die in order to further what you refer to as 'The Kingdom' [at least 10 reasons why I hate that term, but a topic for another time]. Interesting in an academic way... I'm especially glad that you conclude that dying is not in the best interest of that happy future vision!

In fact, many Unitarians seem to believe that the lack of growth in their congregations is indeed a sign of their faithfulness. Every growing congregation is derided as 'not authentic Unitarianism.' The implication being, of course, that if we are true to our faith, no one in this corrupt world will show up.

We are a movement with lots of people looking for excuses for why they have failed and excuses for sitting on their hands and doing nothing.

Yes, many of those dying congregations will have to let go into the eternal sleep, but it would be a shame to allow the buildings and funds evaporate and not be useful for creating a brighter future.

There is relatively little difference between a new church plant and a turn-around or restart of a congregation that consists of a handful of members. Many of those congregations could be locations for new congregations that would further the higher cause.

12:53 am  
Anonymous Tim said...

I'm really glad to see a distinctly Unitarian theology of evangelism and growth being developed here.

I think A. has hit the nail on the head by pointing out that we need to continue to witness and to grow, because people can get something from liberal religion that transforms lives and communities.

On Stephen's original post, while I agree that we shouldn't sacrifice our movement or ethos, we urgently need to continue reforming the structures of the institutions that support the Unitarian movement. It is vital to ensure that resources are best directed towards mission and growth. This not only concerns the GA, but even the districts and local congregations as well. Growing numbers of people are becoming dissatisfied by the lack of progress in the last few years. Is it time for a Unitarian Reformation?

7:16 pm  
Blogger Unitalian said...

I think there's space for "the Kingdom" and the "Republic" in Unitarianism, which is one of the things that makes it special: I agree "being faithful" to Unitarianism should be a cause "we" are willing to "die" for but what Tim said re the evolving ethos - as I blogged today, I think it is our faithfulness to the ethos that underlines why we have so much to live for.

9:22 am  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I am right behind you (or should that be beside you) on the need for growth, because there are plenty of people "out there" who would want the best of what Unitarianism has to offer. But I am uncomfortable with the word "evangelism" and the concept of the Kingdom (I prefer the Republic of Heaven on Earth). Andy: Your discomfort with it would make an interesting blogpost.

There's an excellent blogpost over at UK Spirituality about how to explain Unitarianism to others.

Stephen - I like your gloss of both mission and evangelism, but I still shudder when I hear the words, sorry. Anyway, whatever it's called, we do have something good and worth keeping, so let's share it.

10:07 am  
Anonymous NUFer said...

As one who has in the last two years 'come back' to Unitarianism after a gap of nearly 30 years, I notice very little difference in the culture of the movement - the same tired discussions about what Unitarians believe still ramble on and the recent changes to the governance of the denomination seem to make change harder rather than easier. Such 'growth' as there is has often come from individual initiatives,rather than with the support of the central administration ; Rev Andy is 'spot on' with his analysis as far as existing congregations are concerned but does not address the need to establish 'virgin' fellowships in the areas where Unitarianism has not previously had a presence - universities and new towns seem to me to be the obvious places to begin.

11:50 am  
Blogger Hilary said...

This is really important thinking, Tim. I'm not a Unitarian ( though I was, once...)but what you're saying could be applied to all the denominations - if we had the courage. Here in Ireland a lot of unwillingness to move the barriers is, deep-down, to do with tribalism.

12:59 pm  
Blogger Hilary said...

(Sorry, that should have said 'Stephen', not 'Tim'.)

1:01 pm  
Blogger Rev. Andy said...

NUFer points out that we're still in the same place we were 30 years ago. HELLO!! Isn't that a wake-up call folks? Can't we actually try to do something rather than just talk about it?

I agree with NUFer and Stephen that new congregations would be wonderful and I also think that they can be created as 'restarts' in places where there are congregations that are essentially 'zombies' - tiny congregations that are dead except that they still keep moving without any obvious purpose. (I only focus on that because of the tremendous cost advantages of starting with a paid-for building.)

But look, we know something dramatic needs to happen with new starts and/or radical restarts. And NUFer is absolutely right about the challenges of the national organisation.

BUT, If there were a strong movement pushing to put resources into new starts/restarts, it could happen. The money could be found. The necessary professional leadership could be found.

If we stop letting ourselves be distracted by all the rearranging of deck chairs - as appealing as that is - and focus on this one big solution, we might actually avoid heading to the bottom of the sea.

Want to make it happen? Go out and convince 100 of your Unitarian friends that we need to put our primary focus on new starts/restarts. Creating a ground-swell of support for this. The national leadership will follow if the grass roots support is there.

Talk about it. Blog about it. If you have a pulpit, preach about it. This is not the time to focus on whether we have the right theology of evangelism or whether that word is acceptable to us. Too much is at stake. It is time for bold action! Please!

9:56 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

I agree with everything you say Andy apart from the last couple of sentences. My instincts are always first as a theologian, so I would argue it's always the time for theological reflection. Theology is not an abstract discipline but the constant relfection on how our action relates to our stated purposes and deepest truths. Theology should always lead to action. And action to theology.

All of this dialogue is theology.

12:28 pm  
Blogger Rev. Andy said...

Stephen - you say:

Theology should always lead to action.

In this movement, nothing seems to lead to action! ...unless you count more talking as action...

I think Alfred North Whitehead - a theologian if ever there was one - offers great advice for us:

We cannot think first and act afterward. From the moment of birth we are immersed in action, and can only fitfully guide it by taking thought.

Our movement fails when it insists that the talking, thinking, and endless consultation has to be completed before any action can take place. I'm all for an action/reflection cycle - just that we never seem to get to the action.

So, let's call for action rather than even more reflection, shall we?

12:42 pm  
Anonymous Tim said...

Boys, boys! Howabout acting AND reflecting? We can't have one without the other, yet they can both be done simultaneously.

Hilary: I'm rather flattered you confuse me with the venerable Stephen. Are you Hilary of OCN Ireland? If so, I believe we have been in contact before.

7:50 pm  
Blogger Rev. Andy said...

Tim - we all agree here that action without reflection is reckless and reflection without action is paralysis. There is no conflict.

I'm just trying to emphasize that our movement tends toward reflection - lots of it - and very little action. We need to shift that balance toward action...

9:41 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Theology is not just about whether God exists; it's also about the ethics and ethos that underpin action. But yes, we need to do something other than just move the deck-chairs.

I still think engagement groups are a good thing to do, but we also need to think about why people come to church - just because it's the thing they've always done? because they are looking for a community? because they are spiritual seekers? because they want to stand on the side of love? or whatever else; and work with that.

Let's do whatever it takes, whatever it's called. I keep meeting people who have never heard of Unitarianism, and I'm always telling people about it. Some of them even try it out.

9:18 am  
Blogger Ian said...

Growth is, or should be, a completely red herring. Growth is what you want if you want more money, power or influence. None of the three should be the aim of a serving religious communion.

But in my (non-Unitarian-because-there's-no-congregation-with-a-pulse-within-an-hour-of-me) view, Unitarians in the UK have been appallingly bad at even communicating their existence. I know virtually none of the people I work with, am friends with, or have in my family who could tell you anything about Unitarianism. It seems like every other Unitarian service I go to consists of the minister telling the congregation "What is Unitarianism?".

If the denomination isn't to further decline, to merge into ever fewer congregations, then it needs to be loud, proud and bold about what and why it exists.

That might lead to growth. Or it might lead to implosion. But it strikes me that quiet contemplation on the nature of the Unitarian mission makes its future unavoidable, and unavoidably bleak.

1:19 am  

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