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I was reading an article in Huffington Post by Skye Jethani about Megachurches (Megachurches: When Will The Bubble Burst?) when I ran across this unsettling quote: “On average 50 small churches close their doors every week in America.”Unitarian, universalist, church, online, ministry, welcoming, religion, beliefs, megachurches, small congregations, small churches What? Fifty small churches are closing their doors every week? That’s not very encouraging, especially for a denomination, like, say, the UUA, where two thirds of its congregations have 150 members or less. Does not bode well, if you ask me. And I think small congregations know this, too. Business as usual is not going to cut it any more. Small congregations in any denomination are going to find it more and more difficult to maintain the status quo, let alone grow. Which I why I’m so pleased that the Prairie Star District offered a Small Congregation Conference last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

The conference was the brainchild (love that word!) of the Rev. Michael Nelson of our congregation in Manhattan, Kansas (Go Wildcats!). Michael noticed that the UUA regularly sponsored conferences for large and midsize congregations, but had never, as far as he could tell, sponsored one for small congregations. So Michael contacted me and we talked things over and decided this needed to be done. Thanks to a Chalice Lighter grant from Prairie Star, we were able to afford to bring in a topnotch keynote speaker. And knowing that a prophet is seldom welcomed in his or her hometown, we decided to ask someone from outside of the district to be the main presenter at the conference. I’m happy to say that our choice, the Rev. Andrew Pakula from London, England, delivered the goods. Andy offered three presentations over the course of two days. On Friday he gave us the recent history of his congregation in London (check out their website at which has gone from six members in the 2001 (yes, six) to around 35 in 2006 under the leadership of his predessor, and then from 35 to over 100 members in the last 5 years under Andy’s leadership. What’s really exciting about that growth is that 50% of those new members are young adults.

Andy’s follow up presentations on Saturday dealt with using social media and attracting young adults. We also had a variety of workshops led by some terrific people: the Rev. Meg Riley talked with folks about what CLF (Church of the Larger Fellowship) is doing to help small congregations; the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan offered information on the demographics of various communities around the district; the Rev. Thea Nietfield presented information on right relationships and conflict engagement; Lori Emison Clair and Moria Leu of the Des Moines congregation did workshops on membership and music, the Rev. Jill Jarvis & al. talked about moving toward ministry, and Tandi Rogers, UUA growth specialist, did two workshops on faith development in small congregations. The participants were equally stellar as well. We had 12 affilitated congregations from throughout the district represented, along with folks from three new fellowships forming in Prairie Star. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. Hopefully there will be more events like this in the future.


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 beachCharles Atlas, bodybuilding, 97 lb. weakling, dynamic tension, karate, vitamins, personal trainer, muscles, workout, fitness, health, exercise, atlas, mac, skinny, nutrition, diet 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.

worship, attendance, congregational growth does a congregation good!

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:

    1. Improve the Attendance of Current Members
    2. Invite New People to Attend Worship
    3. Make Your Church Visible and Attractive
    4. Welcome Worship Guests Warmly
    5. Make Worship Accessible to Newcomers
    6. 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.

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, 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 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.

Here’s a terrific webinar from the Rev. Jill Jarvis on worship in UU congregations.

Participating in Your Community of Faith in Ways That Make It Part of Your Family’s Emotional Support System


Commitment is the first step families take toward participating in any congregation in ways that make it part of their emotional support system. And the primary way to express that commitment is by becoming a member. Sure there are plenty of families that are “friends” and “pledging non-members” in our congregations, and while they may receive many benefits from their involvement—worship, religious education, community—they are missing the opportunity to fully participate in their community of faith and in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. After all, “the use of the democratic process within our congregations” is one of our most cherished principles, and membership is the only way individuals and families can be part of that process. But perhaps more importantly, membership is an outward sign of an inward intention to make a community of faith part of the family’s emotional support system. It acknowledges the need for that emotional support, as well as the willingness to give that support to others. Simply put, without this commitment, a family is merely “going” to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Membership is an absolute necessity for being a Unitarian Universalist family.


When people think of “church,” one of the first things that comes to mind is probably “worship.” It is, without a doubt, the public face of practically every community of faith. As such, it’s entirely reasonable for families coming to a congregation to expect that they will have an opportunity to worship together, as a family. Unfortunately, Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have a long history of giving families that opportunity. For much of the past century, worship at a UU congregation was design primarily for individuals—not surprising given the history of our faith tradition and its embrace of the American notion of “rugged individualism.” But participating in a congregation in ways that make it part of a family’s emotional support system requires more than a story for all ages and an intellectually stimulating sermon. Families need as many opportunities as possible to experience the all of the elements of our worship: opening words, chalice lightings, hymns of praise and thanks, responsive readings and litanies, moments of silence, joys and concerns.

Religious Education

Just as families should be offered multiple opportunities to worship together, so should they be given as many chances as possible to learn together, as a family. The obvious place for this to happen is a congregation’s religious education program. Rather than presenting religious education as something that is developed and administered by experts, consider approaching RE as a family affair. Find ways to involve as many parents as possible in all aspects of the program, from choosing the curricula to teaching and assisting in the classrooms. Give parents the tools they need to explore at home the lessons taught in Sunday school. Transform the Religious Education section of your congregation’s website into an interactive Family Faith Formation center where parents can find and share resources to help them with their children’s spiritual and ethical development. Perhaps most importantly, be bold and bring multigenerational faith formation experiences to the entire congregation. These experiences offer the opportunity for congregants of all ages to learn and grow together in faith.


While worship and religious education are essential elements for building a religious identity in families, when it comes to participating in a congregation in ways that make it part of a family’s emotional support system, community is the key. From potlucks to congregational retreats, families need to feel at home in their community of faith. This means making sure that there are plenty of multigenerational events beyond worship and RE for families to participate in. Many congregations group together a variety of activities on a single weeknight to bring people of all ages together for food, fellowship, and faith formation. These “church nights” can happen regularly throughout the year, or be limited to six to eight weeks in the fall and spring. Either way, they present the opportunity for families to experience their congregation as something more than Sunday worship and RE. Other opportunities for strengthening community include holiday parties, congregational camp outs, and gatherings with other Unitarian Universalist congregations in your area.


Another way to help families participate in their community of faith as part of their emotional support system is family service. Offering families opportunities to live out their faith through service to the congregation and the larger community not only strengthens families, it strengthens their religious identity as well. In fact, family service is so important that it is considered a practice in its own right.

Resources for Congregational Participation

Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of UU Parenting, has a terrific post on her blog entitled “Finding, and Shaping, a Religious Community.”


Right now I’m unaware of any resources specifically about welcoming families with children into church membership. If you are aware of any, please let me know!


The best resource available is Michelle Richards’ Come Into the Circle: Worshiping with Children. As I said when asked to write a blurb for the book:

Richards has taken the worry out of planning children’s worship and replaced it with wisdom and joy. From setting worship goals, to choosing child friendly-hymns, to finding stories that illustrate our Principles, Come Into the Circle is a resource I’ll be turning to again and again.

For a classic answer to the question, “What should the Sunday morning experience include for children?”, see this response from DRE Mary Marsh in the October 1999 issue of Interconnections. Many of the things Marsh would like to see could, and should, happen during a worship experience shared by families.

The Worship Web at also has a list of resources for Multigenerational Worship.

Don’t forget the Family Pages in every issue of the UU World. They contain a wealth of ideas for topics and stories that can be used in family worship settings.

Religious Education

Lifelong Faith Associates has a fantastic resource called “Best Practices in Intergenerational Faith Formation.” [PDF]

A variety of other resources are also available from their website:

The UUA’s curricula series, Tapestry of Faith, has a multigenerational program that teaches stewardship with a focus on water called Gather the Spirit.


Here’s an article on Multigenerational Community from the Rev. Linda Olson Peebles on the website.

Jenn Nichols of the Southwest UU Conference has prepared this excellent document on “100+ Ways to Create a More Multigenerational Faith Community.” [DOC]


For resources on how congregations can help families serve the community together, the upcoming post on Family Service, scheduled for Wednesday, February 2, 2011.

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