Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ones that stick out like a sore thumb

I talk to strangers. In particular, I try to be extra outgoing to the first-time visitor, to the guy with the paper nametag who is sitting by himself 10 minutes before the service starts. Just a gentle greeting, "Have you visited here before?", or "How did you come to know about us." Some want to talk. Some don't.

Some stick out like a sore thumb. Every once in a while, I get a sense that a visitor is extraordinary fragile, or angry, or awkward.

In an article, Shootings give rise to church security concerns, Christian Century discusses several recent acts of violence at churches, including the one at UU Knoxville.
After that, [church security consultant] Anderson suggests assembling a team to look for "preincident indicators," such as a stranger who appears nervous, avoids eye contact and cuts casual conversation short. Attention to the unordinary, coupled with strategic placement of team members around the sanctuary, can help reduce the risk of an incident by making it harder to pull off.
I laughed when I read this; nervous strangers avodding eye contact are pretty much our weekly fare.

Still, after thinking about it, I sort of nodded. Yes, we get our regular stream of introverts who won't look anybody in the eye. But every once in a while – much less often than once a year – I meet a visitor who sets of alarm bells.

"Hmmm.... very troubled person. Very, very troubled. Might be trouble." Do you have visitors like that? What do you do?

Monday, March 23, 2009

British law to restrict preaching

I note that the British Humanist Association is supporting legislation which would make it a crime to preach against homosexuality – if the preaching exceeded certain limits:
Why the British Humanist Association supports Clause 58

There is an extremely high threshold for the new offence - preaching that homosexuality is a sin, criticising homosexual practices or calling somebody names are not covered by this offence. The act must be demonstrated to be both threatening and intended to stir up hatred.

Religious organisations or people with religious convictions who intentionally stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation on the basis of their beliefs must not be exempt from this new offence. The right to manifest a religious belief is not absolute, and it is acceptable for that right to be restricted in some circumstances.

Though I'd agree that 'the right to manifest a religious belief' must be restricted in some circumstances, those circumstances don't include supressing speech. I can't imagine how the law could draw a bright line between, say, calling something an abomination and stirring up hatred.

This is a petard with which the British humanists may well find themselves hoist some day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Not quite Christian; not quite atheist

There are folks who don't believe in trinity, or in God, or in an afterlife who still call themselves Christian. They don't hope for a resurrection; they don't think about Jesus much. But they still call themselves Christian and often identify with a particular denomination. Who are these guys, and are we welcoming them? Peter Steinfels reports
The many nonbelievers [Zuckerman] interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label "atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.
Zuckerman wrote from Scandinavia, but I've seen the same attitudes in the USA. I had lunch with with a guy a few years back. By my lights, he was completely atheist. Didn't believe in the God in Heaven, didn't believe in God as the ground of being or God as infinite love. A "Physics is All There Is" bumper-sticker kind of guy. Except that he was chair of the Evangelism Committee of one of neighboring mainline churches. He didn't strike me as a hypocrite; he felt little contradiction between his private views and his office.

For me, if I'm a member of a church, it is very important that the doctrine I hear espoused from the pulpit be consonant with what I believe. So I'm a UU. But some other people ... well, I wish I understood better what these folk mean when they say they're Christians and not atheists.

Who are Our People?

UUs show subtle class markers that exclude some from our churches. But they are also part of the way that we bind ourselves together into a coherent community. Therefor, evangelizing UU beyond enclaves we already serve is hard and tricky work.

Lizard Eater started a discussion of UU Classism, which ChaliceChick continues. I opined that
Individual attitudes aren't strong class markers, but collections of them are. Our averaged UU attitudes towards NPR, abortion, Sams Club, vegans, water rights, Fox news, polyester, reparations for slavery, handing out condoms in OWL, Lincoln Towncars, Mexican immigration -- this constellation of concerns is a class marker just as much as is driving a Lexus, wearing Prada or having a fancy zipcode.
Surely, UUs have no completely uniform opinion on these matters. It's more like we're (usually) interested in talking about these things, and it doesn't seem weird to us if these matters are coffee-hour conversation. We may disagree, but we don't walk away disgusted or bored.

Class isn't just a top-to-bottom scale. Within US culture, pluralistic and diverse as it is, there are many little tribes of interest and identity. Between any given pair, neither may obviously outrank the other in status / dominance / prestige. But they're still different. Describing UUs as white-collar, and the people we exclude as blue-collar, is waaay to broad a brush, and not even that accurate. Plenty of white collar workers visit us and turn away thinking "Nope, not my people" and some blue collar workers feel right at home from day one. I wrote
Years ago, a woman named Debbie attended my church for about a year; then she fell away. I ran into her at a store. She said that she'd felt welcomed in our church, but that she never felt like she fit in. She had an engineering degree and a civil servant job, but somehow that didn't make her feel like she was in her element. I've seen other folks like Debbie come and go from our churches.
Let me underscore this. Debbie felt welcomed. She was on board with us theologically. But, somehow, she didn't feel like she belonged. How can we include Debbie and her kindred in our churches?

I think this becomes easier as a church gets larger, if the church does it right. When a church hits the 200-250 member plateau, it doesn't feel so much like a family any more. Lots of churches get stuck at this level; the steady stream of new members balanced by the folks leaving because it doesn't feel like home to them. To break through this growth barrier, a church must become a community of communities. If I have 10 peers in the church - folks who I look at and say "Yeah, they're like me," then I can still feel at home, even if the class markers of the larger congregation still seem kind of weird to me.

Having a group in which Debbie feels at home can be hard for a 120 member church. It can be feasible when you're up to 300 members. Especially when you've got an expanding small-group ministry.

I hope I run into Debbie again. I'd like to invite her back. There are some people I'd like to introduce her to.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Moment of Silence stands

In Texas public schools, children observe a daily moment of silence. The Humanists of Fort Worth have lost a court battle against this practice. That group meets (or met) at the Denton, Texas UU Fellowship. A moment of silence seems non-sectarian enough to me, but I guess not to everybody. As one wag in our congregation opined.
The Quakers meet together, all of them silent, until one is move by God to speak.
The UU's meet together, all of them talking, until one of them is moved, by God, to shut up.
(Hat tip Religion Clause)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Universalist influences in all the strangest places

Horace Greeley was one of our own; a famous journalist and a committed Universalist. His influence was spread wide. How wide? Well, Adolph Hitler's first finance minister was Dr. Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht. (Hat tip Krugman)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

UUs as a slice of denominational church

This graph, from the 2007 UUA Financial Advisor's report (thanks Philocrites) shows the trend in on-the-book UU adults since merger. We went down by almost half in the 1968 - 78 decade, stagnant since then.

But this last week, a survey came out. It appears that, overall, the fastest growing religious affiliation is 'None'. I haven't been able to run the numbers yet, (still searching around for some figures) but I combining what I know about UU and what I read, I get the following insights (for the USA):
  • On-the-books UU is growing, albeit slowly.
  • UUs a percentage of all adults are falling off slightly (just as the figure shows.)
  • UUs as a percentage of all church-attending adults are holding steady.
  • UUs as a percentage of all denominationally affiliated adults are growing.
See, even the Baptists have a declining percentage of the US adult population. They grew in absolute terms, but they fell from 19.3% in 1990 to 15.8% today. Where did all those worshipers go?
  • Largest growth was in the numbers of unchurched.
  • Next were those who affiliated with non-denominational churches.
This doesn't solve UU's slow-growth problems, but it puts a different gloss on it. We aren't losing membership-percentage to other denominations (conservative, liberal, mainstream, new-age, whatever.) That percentage is either becoming unchurched or going to independents (especially the independent mega-churches.)

Moral Foundations of Unitarian Sermons

A word-frequency program characterizes moral-foundation words in UU sermons! (pdf, UU part starts at p 14.) They also analyze Southern Baptist sermons, and compare them. UUs were selected as the most liberal denomination, SBs as the most conservative -- based on previous research.

This is cool enough that it deserves several posts. And probably a sermon. Graham, Haidt and Nosek make several notable claims:
  • UU sermons are much more political that Southern Baptist sermons; they cite studies that found UU sermons to be the most political across all denominations studied.
  • As predicted, UUs praise fairness & equality, and care of the oppressed, more highly than SBs.
  • SBs extol authority, loyalty and purity more than UUs. Indeed, when UUs mention authority, loyalty or purity, it is frequently to warn against it.
  • This particularly shows up with 'Ingroup' words:
    • "The words communit*, group, individ*, and nation* were used more frequently in liberal sermons, but analysis of these words in context revealed liberals were much more likely than conservatives to use these words in order to reject the foundational concerns of ingroup loyalty and group solidarity"
IMHO, this stuff is highly relevant to the 'exclusionary class issues' that Lizard Eater raises.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Source for UU stats? -- going way back

Where / who / how would I get the data on UU membership, going at least back to merger? I'd like it in computer readable form (I want to build some graphs). Ideally it would be broken down by state or district.

I don't even know who to ask.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Have a mission? Here, have another

The face we show our congregations should not be the face we show to the world.

When a stranger asks "Can you tell me about your UU church?" we need a quick paragraph. An elevator speech, to tell of our mission. It needs be understandable by someone who has never encountered us before.

Among ourselves, we also need a quick paragraph that encapsulates our congregation's identity and mission. But now we are among friends. Our language will be different. [Of course, I'm vectoring all this off a post at CUUMBAYA .]

Our statement needs to cover two things:
  • Axiomatic – That which is true for us, just because we are a UU congregation.
  • Unique – Our special gifts.
According to Alice Mann: Obviously, to create a mission statement, we must use heavily coded words that have a deep meaning for the members of the congregation.

Think on this. The mission statement we use for ourselves has to convey our identity. It has to cover our generic UU identify. It has to cover the special mission of this congregation. And it must be pithy. Thus, it will use a lot of code words.

Therefore, it will be rather opaque to newcomers to our church. So this isn't the elevator speech. This isn't the paragraph that you put front and center on the congregational home page. Instead, it's the statement that you spend an hour unpacking in a New UU class, or which the minister covers in a series of sermons.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What UU history books would you put in a well stocked church library?

Over at Transient and Permanent, there's great thread about the history of congregation v. denominational polity among the Unitarians, circa 1870-1945. Great if you like that kind of thing, anyway. So about 10 comments down, Murfin says "Check the standard Unitarian histories."

So what would those be. More to the point, if you had, say, $200 to build up a congregational library's History section, what would you buy? Or if you were stocking the book-sale tables at a district event, what histories would you be sure to include? (I'm thinking of specifically UU history.)

I'll throw out a few to start with

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What do small churches want

To those in small, struggling UU churches which have no minister. Short of annexation, what would be the most helpful things that larger churches could do for you? Supply you with quality lay-led services, gratis? Maintain your web pages? Send you Sunday-School-in-a-box packages? Train your RE volunteers? Help you run your pledge drive? your Covenant Groups?

Satellite churches and Annexes

Can a large church annex a small, struggling one?

I wrote last week about satellite churches. Lizard-eater quoted me on her blog:

She also said
This is very interesting to me as I'm in a dwindling small church ... a church that does so many things right ... but yeah, we can't offer what the big ones are. I've never heard it phrased as Morales did, but it seems to be very honest and very on point.

I like the satellite idea, but it seems to me it needs to be that way from the inception of the satellite church. Could a large church "annex" us successfully? I don't think so. It's just a completely different way of doing church.

Right. Rev Morales had more to say on this. His church was in 'annexation' discussions with a struggling suburban church which wanted to have a merger. After a long meeting of the two boards plus Morales, he said "Look, when a thriving large church and a small struggling church join, it is not a merger. It's an acquisition. Yes, we are going to make some big changes in the way things are done. Yes, we're going to do them right away - because the way you have been doing it hasn't been working and isn't serving your people." [* quoted from memory over a week ago, so take it for what it's worth.]

So the deal didn't go through. Rev Morales also said, "Look, when a church has been small for more than 10 years, then small gets into their DNA."

Annexation didn't go through in suburban Denver. That doesn't mean it's a doomed model, though. That is to say -- the church I attend was fo
unded as a fellowship movement church. Supposedly that movement was a failure. But we just crossed the 300-member mark. Lizard-eater's church punches above its weight. They might well be able to pull off something where other churches have floundered.

But you can't do it without help. When my church got its first part-time minister, we split his services with a small UU fellowship five hours away from here. RIght now, in my metro area -- all within a two hour drive of each other - there are four struggling UU churches, none have a minister, even part time. Wise heads in each of the congregations know they need to hire a pastor. But near as I can tell, they are not getting any guidance to get together and offer a joint package, to pool resources. They need to split the services of a one full time minister, and they need somebody to show them how.

Aside: I didn't know Lizard-Eater had quoted me in her blog. I read it regularly; I'd just missed that post. But last night, at our pledge dinner, a new member of the church came up and said "I saw you quoted in a blog I was reading -- what is a satellite church?"

Hello World

In the Unitarian Universalist movement, I'm all about giving the faith away. So I have strong interests in lay preaching, Covenant Groups (small group ministries) and evangelizing. I created this blog because
  • I was leaving a lot of comments on other folks blogs, so I figured I might as well get one myself
  • I enjoyed, e.g. the UU Church planters mailing list, but I found I wanted to share my thoughts more widely.
  • I have blogged before, I found it hard to keep a steady stream of material. My posting waxes and wanes. Therefore, with this blog, I'm going to be inviting guest posters and co-bloggers from the beginning.