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Do you remember those Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books? My favorite was the one about “The Insult that Made a Man out of ‘Mac'”? Poor Mac is sitting on the beach with his date when a bully runs by and kicks sand in their faces. When Mac offers a feeble protest, the bully says, “Listen here. I’d smash your face—only you’re so skinny you might dry up and blow away.” Well, if you do remember that ad, you are probably, like me, around the average age of a Unitarian Universalist. And if you don’t remember it, you’re probably wondering what was up with my generation’s anxiety about getting sand kicked in their faces. Either way, if you’re a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation (or an “oldline” Protestant congregation) that hasn’t seen very much growth in worship attendance over the last few years (or even decades), you might be feeling a little bit like Mac as you watch people drive by your little fellowship every Sunday, heading to the more “popular” churches in town. You may even be asking yourself, “What have they got that we don’t?”
Well I’ve got a few ideas about that. I’m thinking that any church that’s holding it’s own in this time of declining church attendance is probably doing one or more of three things: they’ve built and are making full use of a robust online platform; they’ve engaged their members in service projects that help make their community and the world a better place; and/or they’ve moved toward a worship style that’s both innovative and contemporary while managing to keep most of their longtime members. And if you’ve got a congregation in your community that bursting at the seams, my guess is that they’re doing all three. Now I’m prepared to hold forth on the importance of any one of them, but for this post I’m going to concentrate on the one says the most about a congregation’s self image: worship.
As I mentioned in a recent post, “increasing worship attendance [is] the number one strategic move any congregation…can make.” Why? Because you can’t increase your worship attendance without also increasing your congregation’s leadership capacity. And while offering contemporary and innovative worship may be the preferred way of increasing attendance for many congregations, there are plenty of things a congregation can do to increase attendance right now without making any changes to the actual style and content of their services.
One of my favorite congregational resources is the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. One of my favorite parts of the Lewis Center website is their 50-Ways Series for Strengthening Congregations. There you’ll find a fistful of PDF’s with tips on everything from 50 Ways to Build Strength Caring for Children to 50 Ways to Communicate Effectively. As you might have guessed, one of those PDFs is called 50 Ways to Increase Worship Attendance. Only one of those 50 suggestions talks about offering “a different style of worship and music” (which would be a big part of being contemporary and innovative). The other 49 tips are things any congregation can do now to increase attendance. They’re divided up in to six areas:
- Improve the Attendance of Current Members
- Invite New People to Attend Worship
- Make Your Church Visible and Attractive
- Welcome Worship Guests Warmly
- Make Worship Accessible to Newcomers
- Follow Up with Visitors
The tips run the gamut from keeping a record of attendance and monitoring it to developing a systematic plan for following up with visitors after their first, second, and third visits. If you are the least bit concerned about your congregation’s ability to face the challenges of “drops in financial health, continuing high level of conflict, an aging membership, fewer people in the pews, and decreasing spiritual vitality”—the challenges almost every congregation in the United States must face, according to the most recent Faith Communities Today survey—then you should seriously consider developing a plan to increase your congregation’s worship attendance. There are a least 50 ways to start doing it. Now.
I’m probably not the best person to be writing on this subject. There are plenty of other bloggers (Unitarian Universalists and others) who are much better at the whole thing than I am. But I have been blogging for some time now (5 or 6 years at least), and I have learned a thing or two…even if I don’t always put those things into practice.
The first thing I’ve learned is that it pays to blog regularly. Of course there are selfish reasons for this: the more you blog, the more hits your blog gets, and the more hits your blog gets, the better you feel. It’s just human nature, I guess. But there are some other things involved here, too. Blogging is essentially journaling in public. And journaling, according to the Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews (religious educator extraordinaire and scholar…you can check out his web page here) was one of the spiritual disciplines of the American Transcendentalist. And since we Unitarian Universalists are the spiritual heirs of those folks, taking one of their spiritual disciplines seriously is pretty much a no-brainer. (That is, of course, if you like to write. If you don’t, there are a bunch of other Transcendentalist spiritual disciplines one can emulate.)
Like any sort of journaling, the more you do it, the greater the rewards. Those of you who have read Julia Cameron’s Artist Way are acquainted with her concept of Morning Pages. The idea is simple: you get up in the morning about 20 minutes earlier than you usually would and you just write. For twenty minutes. Without stopping. If you do this long enough, you may just begin to peel back some layers from your (overly?) critical mind to find some nuggets in your psyche that you weren’t even aware of. Yes, this could be dangerous for some, but all in all, humans are a pretty resilient bunch, and doing a little digging into one’s subconscious may not be a bad idea. Blogging may not allow you to go as deep as The Artist’s Way, but if you do it regularly, the very act of having to find something new to write about may just push you a little further than you would otherwise want to go.
Another way that blogging can be a spiritual discipline is by helping you engage on a deeper level with others. You can do this two ways: by taking the comments on your own blog seriously and responding to those comments in an open, honest, and timely way; and by commenting on other bloggers’ posts openly and honestly. I really have to confess that I’m not the best role model for this practice, but I’d like to do better. So right here and now I’m pledging to do one simple thing: read all of the blog posts mentioned in The Interdependent Web, Heather Christensen’s weekly roundup of UU blogs published by the uuworld.org; and in addition to reading all of the post, I promise to try to openly and honestly comment on as many of those posts as I feel I have something meaningful to say.
I truly feel that there’s still a place for blogs and blogging the brave world of social media. I also feel that by participating as both a creator of content and a commentator on others’ content, one can engage more spiritually in one’s world.
Teachers are getting a bad rap these days. They’re being blamed for all sorts of things, from falling test scores to failing schools to budget deficits. But I’ve always kind of liked teachers. My father was a teacher, both Junior and Senior High, as was my brother for awhile. I know through them just how difficult and rewarding it can be. Which is why I get a little miffed when I hear politicians and pundits scapegoating teachers. I mean, really, I’d love to see Rush Limbaugh spend one day substitute teaching a class full kids in, say, your average Chicago Public School. Of course I’m talking mainly about public school teachers here. There are all sorts of teachers out there, in our congregations, our local community colleges, trade schools, state universities and private colleges. And all of them deserve a certain amount of our gratitude and respect. But there are other teachers, too. The ones we meet everyday, on the street, at our jobs (if we’re lucky enough to have a job), even on the internet—people who sometimes challenge us to move beyond our knee jerk reactions and initial responses in order to learn something new. God knows I’ve met plenty of such teachers in my life, and from time to time (but not as often as I’d like) I’ve actually learned something from them. This small group ministry session based on resources from SpiritualityandPractice.com is all about those kind of teachers, the ones who make us sigh and say to ourselves, “Here comes another one.”
Everyone we meet in life is on a mission to teach us something new. Surprise!
— Joan Chittister in Gospel Days
A Teaching Story from Thank You for Being Such A Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing with Difficult People by Mark I. Rosen. Thank You for Being Such A Pain is a profoundly ethical work of great practicality. Mark I. Rosen presents specific strategies for healing difficult relationships. Here is a story from the book about teachers.
There is a story about the mystical teacher Gurdjieff and one of his disciples. The disciple, who lived in the ashram, was strongly disliked by the other disciples for a variety of reasons. When he left, Gurdjieff actually tracked him down and paid him to return, telling the rest of the disciples that the ostracized man was one of their most important teachers.
The next time a difficult person comes into your life, it might be helpful to tell yourself something along the lines of “(Sigh) Here comes another one. God, I ask you to guide me. You have sent this person to me for a reason. Help me to know what it is, and help me to cope successfully.”
Questions: Share a story about something you have learned from a difficult person or an enemy.
Check-out/Likes and Wishes
We are all medicine for one another. The Sauk say, “Teachers not only teach, they also learn.”
— Evan T. Pritchard in No Word for Time
To Practice This Thought: When you have to work with difficult people, vow to learn what they have to teach you.
For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Teachers.
For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.