Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Evangelistic Medium is the Message

Earlier this year, Donald Skinner wrote a piece for UU World about the decline in membership in the congregations of the UUA for the second year in a row. A whopping 0.16% decline. I leave it to someone else to do the statistical significance test, but even Skinner's article gave a potentially valid if anecdotal explanation for the drop that has nothing to do with actual declining interest or participation. It looms larger though because, in addition to this very small actual drop in numbers, from consolidation to now we have not kept up with population growth.

Total adult membership in UUA member congregations as reported by those congregations this year is 156k. In a total US resident population of 310 million, that's not very much. No wonder we're turning into such size queens.

Buried in Skinner's article is a quote from the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s VP for Ministries and Congregational Support:
When you look at the congregations that are growing, it’s neither urban nor suburban, big or small, it’s all size congregations. What we know is there is a real desire and need for what we offer, but we have to offer it in a way that’s accessible to people.
Liberal Religion Gets Loud, naturally enough as a blog written by a Contemporary Music and Worship Director, interprets that as referring in significant part to worship style - and, more specifically, music style in worship. But I'm not so sure.

We frequently are regaled with lamentations concerning our dismal ability to retain the children who grow up in our RE programs. Would newly minted UU adults stick around when they are otherwise insufficiently impressed to do so were we to install a rock band to perform in Sunday worship? I think we are a long ways from finding out. But we do know that there are frequently much more significant disconnects between our young people's sense of UU identity and experience in RE and what they encounter in "adult" worship than just differences in style. If we blame the music, we've probably got tunnel vision.

And we hear all the stories about visitors who come through our doors and feel like they are in a funeral parlor. Well, maybe not quite that bad. But the widespread assumption seems to be that all these many people need from us in order to be impelled to latch onto us like anchor worms on a host fish is a change in music styles. Our message is just what these people are looking for, but the medium of our worship needs to be tuned to their channel. Sorry. I'm not - well, I don't think I am - buying it (as if I need to toss any more metaphors into that salad bowl).

Now I have not the slightest opposition to worship styles evolving, incorporating ways of interacting aesthetically that come into the body of a congregation as the mix of members changes over time. And I have absolutely nothing against having multiple worship services, each in a different style that better fulfills the aesthetic needs of a portion of the membership. But think about it. Changing worship styles in the hope of attracting someone who isn't here yet? How is that not crass commercialism? Still, let me step back from that unbecoming accusation because it doesn't accomplish anything other than making me grind my teeth. Instead, let's consider for a moment what brings people to us who are really looking for something we offer as opposed to those who stick their nose in the door out of curiosity or because they were dragged there by a friend.

I think perhaps we need to rid ourselves of the notion that people come to us through the primary proselyting device of our worship. Because of a combination of the non-credal nature of our faith and the liturgical flexibility of many of our congregations, a hypothetical visitor could attend for a long time without figuring out what we are about simply from our worship. And maybe some visitors don't care in the least about learning what we are really about. No one learns everything there is to know, and what people do learn they learn gradually. But why do people care enough to go through this gradual exposure and learning process?

Maybe I'm wrong, but I like to think that worship is not primarily or essentially a tool for evangelism but for forming and celebrating the community that already is. It is by coming to know us in the world that people discover we have something that would add value to their own experience of life. Sure we need to brush up on our elevator speeches, but those speeches have to do with what UUism is in our lives, not in the abstract. The life is the draw. Not the information. And people who encounter us in our acts of social service and advocacy will first experience us as people who are motivated by our faith to help make the world a better place together with those most in need of our joining our strengths with theirs. People might easily not see very much of what we have in that area by visiting our services. They will see it day by day in the world.

We can make our message "accessible to people," in Limpert's words, only by living it. In public. Day by day. Anything else is mere marketing of, well, something other than our message.

We win people to what we win them with.


liberalreligiongetsloud said...

I'm totally with you on the power of an exemplary life. That's what changes others' perceptions and perhaps lives.

However, that's not what Jane and Joe Churchunter see when they walk through the doors the first time. Most newcomers participate only in corporate worship at first, and then gradually get drawn into other activities. If they stay. This is one of the many strengths of the evangelical megachurches: they are conscious of and extremely effective at grabbing first-timers and hooking them up with a Sunday school class, a young parents study group, a house-building mission, or whatever.

Given that we seem to be, as a denomination, poor at doing that, our best bet is to make sure people stay around long enough that they can eventually see who we are and what we're doing. And this means making Sunday worship as attractive, challenging and comforting as possible while they're deciding whether they're going to stay.

One view is that we need to "repel fewer people". Contemporary worship theory posits that the "unchurched" will find the rituals, words and music of a traditional service akin to landing in a foreign country whose language you only barely understand. That's not most people's comfort zone.

So, the music, visuals and informality are not the primary attractants - they are the "not repellants". They seek to make the medium (a worship service) more transparent, so people will pay more attention to the content than to the odd songs, funny language, or graduation gowns. (And, of course, some people who have been "churched" find these things uncomfortably reminiscent of what they left to come to us.)

So, we're not talking about making long-time UUs comfortable when they move to our town. We're talking about expanding our reach to people who've never been in a UU church and have no idea what on earth that was all about, when they leave. Once they feel like they've landed somewhere familiar and engaging, rather than in the 17th century - when our basic traditional worship style originated - they can hear what we have to say, see how we live our lives, feel that they really are UUs, too.

Absolutely, our deeds speak louder than our words. And the deeds a newcomer will see first are how we choose to act when we come together for worship. If we can get them past that, we have a chance of showing them what we do the other six days and 23 hours a week.

liberalreligiongetsloud said...

Drat, I lost a comment to blogger by including a URL it didn't like. I'll try that again.

Absolutely, our lives are the best testimony to the effect our faith has had on us. But we have to keep people around long enough to see that, for it to be our strength.

Most newcomers participate mainly or only in corporate worship when they first arrive. Evangelical megachurches are very intentional about and effective at snagging newcomers and hooking them up with a peer group for Sunday school, Bible study, mission work, whatever. We don't seem to have that in our DNA, so until we get better, we need to try "repelling fewer people".

We're not talking about making UUs who moved here from Centerville comfortable. We're talking about growth, i.e. attracting new people, on the assumption that we have something valuable to offer them in life. So, when the "unchurched" couple walks through the door with their 2.3 children, are they comfortable enough to come back next week, and the week after? Or do they feel like they've just landed in a foreign country, whose language they barely understand and whose customs are totally unfamiliar?

The whole point of contemporary worship is to make the packaging transparent so the product inside shines through: get rid of the graduation gowns, the 18th century music, the 19th century language, the 17th century liturgy, and speak to them in language they understand, using cultural conventions they are familiar with.

Lowering these barriers does not require us to tear down our buildings or change our theology or junk our whole liturgy. It only requires us to move our worship presentation into the early 21st century, so the message becomes the central focus, rather than the (to some, strange) traditions and language.

Paul Oakley said...

Looks like both comments did make it through, liberalreligiongetsloud, but I'm leaving both because, even with overlap, there are elements in each that are not present in the other.

Thanks for your thoughtful response(s)!