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.