Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Keeping them coming

The latest church bulletin from my congregation, All Souls Unitarian Church (Indianapolis) , made me think of the recent election of a new UUA President. The biggest issue was how to grow our membership- and I thought most people were looking at the issue the wrong way. Most of the discussion was about how to get people in the doors; I maintained that the problem wasn't getting people to visit- I can't think of a Sunday we haven't had visitors- the problem was getting them to keep visiting. That, I believe, is the problem- after all, if the average UU congregation picked up a single new member a week, they'd double their membership in two years.
The connection to the church bulletin was the teaser for future sermons:
"Sunday, October 4, 10:30 a.m.
"The Religion of God"
Rev. Bruce Clear
Over the years, I've enjoyed preparing religious biographical sermons, and spoken on "The Religion of... " Some examples are Walt Whitman, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, Kahlil Gibran, Charles Darwin, Beatrix Potter, and so forth. It is time to
quit playing around and go right to the heart of the matter. What religion does God practice?"

Does anyone think I'm going to miss that sermon? I've mentioned before that Bruce's sermons are somewhere between a chat with that favorite cousin or uncle whose visits you look forward to and a lecture by your favorite professor. Here's a few sermons of recent years I remember fondly:
Roots and Branches of Religious Liberty
Eyes On the Prize

Feeling At Home in the Universe
Searching for Truth: A Detective Story

A Harmony of Science and Religion
Heartbreak, Healing, and Hope
The Anatomy of Happiness

Competition and the Game of Life
Our Most Intractable Sin
Are All Religions Really the Same?
The Heart and Art of Unitarian Universalism
Was Jesus a Christian?
To Keep Alive the Covenant

What Values? Whose Values?
The Anatomy of the Soul

Give Them Not Hell, But Hope and Courage
The Sacred Feminine

Yes, social justice is important, and we must never let it out of our thoughts... but do we have a single social justice issue that isn't addressed by a secular organization that's more efficient, and has more clout? So why would one go to a church to clumsily, ineffectively engage the issues?

As Bruce said in his sermon, Are all religions the same , "It is relatively easy to identify the questions that religions tend to ask. What we find in studying the worlds religions is that each one has a different favorite question. Some of religions common questions are as follows:
First, what is the purpose of life? Why are we here?
Second, how can I cope with suffering in life?
Third, how do I find personal peace and contentment?
Fourth is the question of ethics. How do I know what is right and what is wrong?
And fifth, how do I know truth? On what can I depend?
These are five of many questions that human beings the world over ask themselves, and usually turn to religion to discover answers."

These are the questions being addressed by those churches that are actually growing. These are the questions people go to church for. They don't join churches to have a vehicle for the healthcare debate or abortion rights or immigration reform- those are political questions being much more effectively addressed by political organizations. Too much of the UUA is more PAC than church- and therefore performs neither function effectively. Churches that spend more time addressing these questions than asking you to write your congressman- the Pentecostals, say, or the Jehovah's Witnesses, have grown from 40-70% the last twenty years. One religion that addresses these questions AND encourages people to study and think for themselves- Wicca- has grown more than 140% per year for the last ten years.

Our numbers have been static for more than forty years.

Maybe doing what religions do isn't the best way for us to grow as a religion- but it's a great way to retain any growth we get from any other plan.

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