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There’s a moment within the first few minutes of The Matrix that tips off the viewer about just how AWESOME this movie is going to be. It’s after the eeriely green production logos for Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow, past the first glimpse of that iconic digital rain, beyond the cryptic phone conversation between Cypher and Trinity, through the rabbit hole and into the glare of an officer’s flashlight as two units of street cops enter the dilapidated halls of the Heart o’ the City Hotel to apprehend Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity—all accompanied by Don Davis’ gloriously discordant score. I’m talking about the moment when Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith turns to the cop who just told him, “I think we can handle one little girl. I sent two units, they’re bringing her down now…,” and omiously replies, “No lieutenant, your men are already dead.” Agent Smith clearly knows something the police don’t—he is, after all, a “man in black”—and we have no reason to doubt that the cops inside the hotel are in trouble. Serious trouble.

Matrix, Trinity, Neo, Heart o' the City Hotel

The Future Is Here to Kick Your Congregation's Butt.

I’ve been thinking about this line from The Matrix lately because of a couple of blog posts I’ve recently run across on the Interwebs. One is from patheos.com, a great resource for spiritual progressives, religious liberals, spiritual-but-not-religious folks, and anyone else interested in “balanced views of religion and spirituality.” The other comes from George Bullard’s Posterous blog. Bullard is a congregational and denominational consultant with a lot of expertise in the area. The two posts that got me thinking are both about worship and the future of congregations in the United States. Read separately, they give the impression that congregations are facing some tough times. Read together…well let’s just say it’s not a rosy picture.

The patheos.com post is from Theoblogy: The Tony Jones Blog, and has the ominous title “More Bad News for the (Mainline) Church.” Jones looks at Hartford Seminary’s most recent Faith Communities Today report, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000-2010,” [PDF] and comes to this conclusion: mainline clergy in smaller congregations are unable to “satisfy the elderly members [in their congregations] and also reach out to new, younger members.” This is especially true for clergy serving smaller congregations. As Jones notes, “These clergy [are] in a predicament: their congregations are so small that to lose any of the old-timers virtually ensures closing the doors to the church, but without dramatic changes, the congregations are bound to continue their decline.”

Just how small are these congregations? Jones doesn’t say. That’s were Bullard comes in. The title of his blog post, “Your Congregation is More Likely to Exist Ten Years from Now if its Weekly Worship Attendance is Over 135,” gives us a pretty good clue about the kind of numbers we’re talking about. Bullard bluntly states that your congregation’s survival is “marginal or uncertain if it has 80 to 135. It is less likely to exist with vitality and vibrancy if its average weekly attendance is less than 80.” When I put these two points of view together, I come to this conclusion: clergy who are afraid to make changes in their worship services out of fear of losing current members are like the lieutenant in that opening scene of The Matrix. They may think they’ve got a handle on the situation, but as Agent Smith might say, “No reverend, your church is already dead.”

Why? Because when a congregation’s worship attendance numbers are below these thresholds, there’s little need for the kind of capacity building necessary to face the future. They are, according to Bullard, below the size “where effective functioning requires shared leadership beyond the pastor and any part-time or volunteer staff.” Bullard goes on to say that

The sharing of leadership makes it more possible the congregation can weather the ups and downs of attendance, the occasion crisis, and the resource demands for functioning as a vital and vibrant congregation.

In other words, lone rangers (lay or ordained) can’t do it alone. Congregations that rely solely on their pastor and/or a small cadre of volunteer staff to run the show simply do not have the capacity to address the challenges every church must face over the next decade. And by running the show, I’m talking first and foremost about worship.

This is why I believe increasing worship attendance should be the number one strategic move any congregation in this size range can make. If your congregation has an average worship attendance of under 80, you need to make it a goal to raise that number over 80. And if your congregation has an average worship attendance that’s over 80 but under 135, you need to make it a goal to raise that number over 135. Of course this would require some major changes, changes that some clergy are hesitant to make out of the fear that they may lose some current members. But maintaining the status quo practically guarantees that your congregation will not be around in another 10 years. If that’s the case, you might as well start familiarizing yourself with Ending with Hope: A Resource for Closing Congregations right now.

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Here’s an archived version of a webinar I presented on October 1, 2011. The original description for the webinar read: leadership, spirituality, Erik Walker Wikstrom

Many Unitarian Universalists experience a deepening commitment to their faith and congregation as a call to accept a position of leadership. This workshop willfocus on helping lay leaders grow in spirit as they grow as leaders.

I included a series of video tips from the Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom. The tips are from his book Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice, which is available in a variety of formats (paperback, Google eBook, Kindle eBook) from the UUA Bookstore. You can find a complete list of online resources mentioned in the webinar (including Erik Walker Wikstrom’s video tips) here: http://bit.ly/pF8F7o.

Less than a week ago the Huffington Post published an article called “Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.” The article was basically an excerpt from 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics, from Renovare, “a nonprofit organization that models,Christianity , 25 Books Every Christian Should Read , 25 Christian Spiritual Classics , 25 Spiritual Classics , Books , Books-We-Love , Christian Classics , Christian Mystics , Christian Spiritual Classics , Mysticism , Spiritual Classics resources, and advocates intentional living through Christian spiritual formation and discipleship.” The subject matter caught my attention because this was exactly the kind of book I would have loved once upon a time, when I identified as a Christian. In fact, looking over the list I found that I had read a good number of these books already:
Augustine’s Confessions, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, The Cloud of Unknowing, Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, The Way of a Pilgrim (and The Pilgrim Continues His Way), the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (now known simply as Discipleship, I hear), The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I was a fairly serious student of Christian spirituality in those days, and I have to confess that I miss being so intentionally engaged with a faith tradition.

So that got me wondering. What would a similar list of Unitarian Univeralist spiritual classics look like? I figure there are a couple of ways to approach this. One would be to look for books that were written by Unitarians and Universalists. That would immediately narrow things down since certain writers would pretty much be automatically put on the list: Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, Parker, Fuller, etc. A list like that could certainly keep someone busy for quite awhile. But the more I thought about it, for such a list to truly represent the breadth and depth of the spirituality that has influenced Unitarian and Universalist thought, it might be helpful to include works that weren’t necessarily written by Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists.

I’m thinking that a well-rounded list of Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Unitarian Universalist Should Read would need to be based on the Six Sources of our faith. This would serve two purposes: one, the sources make excellent categories into which one can begin sorting books; and two, it would keep the list from favoring one flavor of Unitarian Universalism over another. Finally, in addition to those Six Sources, I would add one more category. Basically, I’d leave a little room for the first option: books by Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists. Of course there’d be some overlap. Walden, for example, would qualify as both a Six Source book and as a book by a Unitarian. You get the picture.

Here, then, is the first book I’d like to nominate for a spiritual classic every Unitarian Universalist should read: American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr., from the Library of America. Why? Well, for starters it contains William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Likeness to God,” which may be the one sermon of Channing’s that every Unitarian Universalist should read, even more than “Unitarian Christianity.” (And thanks to the Rev. Kate Rhode for suggesting this to me). In addition to the Channing sermon, there are sermons by early America liberal Christians, like Charles Chauncy, sermons by other Unitarians like Emerson, Parker, and Octavius Brooks Frothingham, fellow travelers, like Quaker Lucretia Mott, and some 20th century sermons by theologians like Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King Jr.

American religious speeches, American homily, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Sunday, Increase Mather, Joseph Smith, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve already ordered the book and am really looking forward to reading all of the sermons (including those early 20th century Fundamentalists…I’m talking about at you, Aimee Semple McPherson). In the meantime, I’d welcome suggestions about some other books that should go on the list. So take another look at our Six Sources and think about which books might nurture the spirits of every Unitarian Univeralists. And let me know in the comments section what you’ve come up with.

I just returned from a three-day retreat at the Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, Iowa (just north of Cedar Rapids). I was there with a group of ministers from around the Prairie Star District for the annualcosmic walk, evolution, cosmos, retreat center retreat of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association‘s PSD chapter. I’ve wanted to visit Prairiewoods for quite sometime because, according to my research, it’s one of the nicest retreat center’s in Iowa. According to their website, Prairiewoods is “focused on ecology and spirituality (or, as we call it, ecospirituality),” which fits in well with our UU values, especially our Seventh Principle and our Sixth Source. At any rate, I didn’t get to see much of Prairiewoods’ 70 acres of prairie and woodlands, but I did get to go on the Cosmic Walk they’ve set up.

The Cosmic Walk is a series of markers along one trail which “tells the story of the 14-billion-year journey of evolution.” It starts with “the Great Flaring Forth of the Emerging Universe” some 13 to 14 billion years ago, and ends, simple with “Consciousness Changing,” somewhere in the (I hope) not too distant future. In between there are markers that indicate when “Our Sun and Planetary System” formed, when “Multi-Cellular Species” first appeared on earth, and when the “First Humans” showed up. It was a wonderful way to begin my last morning at Prairiewoods.

The Cosmic Walk reminded me of inspiring work Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow have done to bring “The Great Story” to life all over the country, especially the “Great Story Beads,” which are “a symbolic representation of the 13.7 billion year epic of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity.” At any rate, for a really nifty glimpse of what 13.7 billion light years looks like, check out this video:

A long, long time ago I took guitar lessons from a woman named Mrs. Brown. Once a week I would sit in her studio at the Weston Conservatory in Elkhart, Indiana and dutifully plunk out whatever series of notes I was supposed to have practiced that week. After what seemed like years of playing the same dull exercises over and over again, Mrs. Brown offered me a real piece of music tosilence learn for an upcoming recital.  The piece was “Around the World in Eighty Days” by Victor Young.  I hated it. So rather than learning that dreary little piece of music, I dug out a Simon and Garfunkel music book that was around the house (my dad was a choir director, so there where always a lot of songbooks around the house) and learned to play another dreary little song that was more to my liking. “Hello darkness, my old friend,/I’ve come to talk with you again….” Much more in tune with my late 60s sensibility. When I played “The Sound of Silence” for Mrs. Brown the following week, she frowned and said, “We don’t play that kind of music around here.” I didn’t take lessons from Mrs. Brown for much longer. And I still can’t listen to “Around the World in Eighty Days” without thinking of her. At any rate, this week’s small group ministry session based on resources from  SpiritualityandPractice.com is all about the spiritual practice of Silence. Not the overwrought silence in Paul Simon’s song, but the real deal. The kind of silence from which that voice “still and small” speaks.

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden, or even your bathtub.
— Elisabeth Kubler-Ross quoted in Awakening to the Sacred by Lama Surya Das

Check-in/Sharing

Topic:

This exercise, “Entering the Silence,” is based upon a practice of the Seneca (Native American) nation. The imagery is adapted from the words of Twylah Nitsch:

Close your eyes. Breathe out three times.

Listen and hear the Silence . . . Listen and see the Silence . . . Listen and taste the Silence . . . Listen and smell the Silence.

Breathe out one time. Listen and embrace the Silence.

When you are finished, open your eyes.

Questions: Have you ever found it was necessary to go away just to escape the noise of the modern world? Where did you go and what kind of silence did you encounter?

Check-out/Likes and Wishes

Closing Words:

Don’t look for meaning in the words. Listen to the silences.
— Samuel Beckett quoted in Forty Days of Solitude by Doris Grumbach

To Practice This Thought: Noting the silences in your conversations with others, vow to use silence as a bridge rather than as a barrier.

Group Session Plan based on resources on Silence from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Silence.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

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