Monthly Archives: April 2006

Transcendental change in liberal religion?

I don’t usually post my sermons on this blog, because for me the sermon is a spoken genre that doesn’t translate well into written form. But people at church seemed to like this sermon, so I thought, what the heck, maybe you might like it. And this sermon is for you, no matter what flavor of religious liberal you happen to be.

Be warned: if you were in church this morning, I usually ad lib 20-30% of the sermon, including most of the funny bits — so this is different from what you heard today.


The first reading this morning is from the book Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, from the chapter titled, “Sounds”:

What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.

I did not read books the first summer [I lived at Walden Pond]; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time…. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.

The second reading is from the Hebrew prophets, the book of Isaiah, chapter 24, verses 5 and 6:

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt….

Sermon — “Transcendental Ecology”

In case you haven’t noticed, the historically liberal churches have been shoved off to the margins in the United States. Historically liberal churches such as the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, the Methodists, the northern Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterians, the Quakers, and yes the Unitarian Universalists, have been losing members and influence for some forty years now. We used to be at the center of things. Forty years ago, during the Civil Rights movement, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called on church leaders to come stand beside him, we in the historically liberal churches went and stood. Some religious liberals even died for Civil Rights, including two Unitarian Unviersalists: Rev. James Reeb, and Viola Luizzo. At that time, we engaged with the outer world, and our opinions actually mattered.

Since that time, Unitarian Universalists and all the other historically liberal churches have been steadily losing membership and influence. (We Unitarian Universalists have actually been gaining members in the past twenty years, at about one percent a year; which however is not enough to keep up with population growth but at least we’re not shrinking like all the other liberal churches.) I sometimes feel that we religious liberals have spent the last forty years in a kind of a daze; we have spent the last forty years gazing at our navels. Sure, individual religious liberals work harder than ever to make this a better world — but as a group, as a liberal religious church, we are far from the centers of power and influence.

Of course, you know who is at the centers of power and influence. While we religious liberals have been gazing at our navels, the Religious Right, a loose coalition of many of the fundamentalist churches, some of the evangelical churches, televangelists, billionaires, and other conservative Christians, has gained in power and influence. The Religious Right has enormous influence in Congress and in the White House. The Religious Right is extremely well-funded. The Religious Right has charismatic preachers, some of whom have built churches of upwards of thirty thousand members. We are shrinking and increasingly irrelevant; they get to elect presidents.

I think it’s time for us to change. For the past forty years, we religious liberals have been coming to our beautiful church buildings, politely sad because global warming and massive species extinctions are destroying living beings that we consider sacred. Perhaps we even gently wring our hands, and we say we don’t quite know what to do. We know that environmental destruction is a religious issue. We know that one of the roots of the ecological disaster we face today is the simple religious fact that Western religion has mis-interpreted that passage in the Bible, the one where God gives us dominion over all other living beings, to mean that we can rape the earth and destroy at will. We know, too, that the Religious Right is happy for their God to have dominion over the United States, and for men to have dominion over women, and for men in the United States to have dominion over all over living beings — and when they say dominion, they don’t mean it in a nice, polite way, they mean domination. We religious liberals know all that, and when we leave our beautiful churches after coffee hour, we seem to forget all this until we next come to church, maybe four weeks from now. We conveniently forget that the ecological disaster we are now facing has deep religious roots.

I think it’s time for us to change. We no longer have the luxury of sitting quietly in our beautiful liberal churches. We no longer have the luxury of chatting politely with our friends at coffee hour about everything except the religious roots of the ecological crisis (to say nothing of the religious roots of gay-bashing, the religious roots of the widening gap between rich and poor, and so on). We no longer have the luxury of being able to separate our polite religion from the rough-and-tumble of real-world events; we no longer have the luxury of hiding our religious faith from the world.

So I’m going to try to set an example here this morning. I’m going to speak here publicly about my deeply-held religious faith, a religious faith that drives me to try, against all hope, to save what’s left of the natural world from further destruction. Maybe what I say seems a little raw; maybe I’m making one or two people feel uncomfortable. We have gotten out of the habit of speaking of our deeply-held religious beliefs here in our liberal churches; we have, in fact, gotten out of the habit of being religious. But that’s what ministers are for: to set the best example we know how to set, and to call people to be religious.

So let’s talk religion — to start us off, I’ll talk about my own deeply held religious beliefs.

I’m a Transcendentalist. When I was about sixteen, I had a transcendental experience. I was sitting outdoors at the base of Punkatasset Hill in my home town of Concord, Massachusetts, with my back against a white birch tree. There was this alley of white birches that someone had planted along an old farm road, and the fields on either side were still, at that time, mowed for hay twice a year. So I was just sitting there on a beautiful late spring day, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the oneness of everything. I mean, this was an overwhelming experience, I really don’t have the words to describe it. Since then, I’ve had numerous other transcendent experiences, some more powerful than others.

What do these transcendental experiences mean? Well, I suppose I’m still trying to make sense out of those experiences. When I was about twenty, I found William James’s book Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he describes the various mystical experiences that people have. James said that perhaps a quarter of the population have mystical experiences of one sort or another, and in his descriptions of the various kinds of mystical experiences I could see the outlines of my own mystical experiences. But James’s book didn’t tell me about the meaning of my mystical experiences.

I found something of the meaning of my transcendental experiences in a book by my fellow townsman, Henry Thoreau. I had always disliked Thoreau when I was a child; when you grow up in Concord, and go to the Concord public schools, you get force-fed Thoreau and Emerson, and Alcott and Hawthorne for that matter. I don’t take well to force-feeding and so dismissed Thoreau. But at last I found that Thoreau’s book Walden probably described what I had been experiencing better than anything else, especially when he writes:

I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, …until by the sun falling in at my west window… I was reminded of the lapse of time.

I discovered that I, too, love a broad margin to my life. That broad margin is a margin to my life in which I have the time and the space to be able to be rapt in a revery, to reflect on the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is also a margin to my life where I can reflect on the difference between real religion, and religion as it is imperfectly practiced in the world around me.

When I have been able to sit “rapt in a revery,” I have come to the inescapable conclusion that there is a unity which binds all human beings together, which binds all living beings together — which, indeed, binds us human beings to the non-living world as well, to the sun and the moon and the stars above and the rocks under our feet.

I can put this into scientific terms if you’d like: all parts of the ecosystem are interconnected, these interconnections can be modeled in terms of systems theory using feedback loops and non-linear relationships; and to harm one part of an ecosystem will have wide repercussions throughout the ecosystem. I find I am quite comfortable with scientific language. I can also put this into the language of Christianity if you’d like: God’s creation consists of earth, moon, sun, and stars; of the ocean and all the creatures that live there; of the birds of the air; of the plants that grow and the animals that live on the earth; of human beings. And to harm one part of God’s creation is to do violence to God. I find I am reasonably comfortable with Christian language. Or if you like, I can also put this into the one of the dialects of neo-paganism, which might sound something like this: the Goddess who is Gaia, earth mother, mother of all that lives; the Goddess who is the Moon Goddess who sets the rhythms of the seasons; it is she whom we love and must respect, and to harm the ecosystem is to harm the Mother Goddess. I find I am reasonably comfortable with neo-Pagan language, too.

Right now, the specific language is less important than the fundamental underlying insight. In fact, we could even put this in words that the Religious Right might recognize:

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.

(Right after that, by the way, Isaiah goes on to say why the earth has become polluted: it’s because his people have twisted and mis-interpreted their religion.)

Yes, we have broken our covenant, our promises, to the earth. I am told by some religious liberals that in speaking this way, I’m not being decorous, I’m not being polite. (Funny how you don’t hear the Religious Right saying to each other, “Now be polite!”) But my religious faith sets me on fire; I’m not polite. I know that my faith can transform the world; I know that my faith can change the religious attitudes that lead to dominion theology and global ecological catastrophe; but I am told by some Unitarian Universalists that I am not polite, because I’m trying to change this nice comfortable little religion we’ve had for the past forty years.

Maybe that’s the problem: mine is not a comfortable faith. I have not been made comfortable by having transcendental experiences that cause me to sit rapt in a revery on a summer morning; I have not been made comfortable by the religious realization that my contribution to global warming and habitat destruction is morally wrong; I have not been made comfortable in the knowledge that our churches must grow quickly or sink into complete and total irrelevancy as the Religious Right gains more and more influence in the United States; I am not comfortable knowing that it is up to me and other religious liberals to combat the misguided religion of domination that is the Religious Right.

I suspect that I’m probably passing along some of my discomfort to you. I keep challenging you, I know; I am not the warm, cuddly pastor that I would kind of like to be. I would love to be able to stand up here week after week, and be able to preach warm, comforting sermons. I would love to be able to sit with you each week and pass on comfortable religious thoughts as you live out your life. It would be so much easier if we could just keep on with our small, comfortable little church; for after all, growth just means more work for us. I wish I could be a warm comfortable cuddly pastor, in a nice relaxed sleepy little church; but I don’t think either you or I have that luxury.

My friends, the world is changing around us. Very rapidly. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that these United States could turn into a theocracy run by a Religious Right who distorts Jesus of Nazareth’s message of love into a message of prejudice and intolerance, who use the Bible to justify ecological disaster. Ten years ago I would have laughed at this idea; now I believe such a theocracy is a remote but all-too-real possibility. It will be a theocracy based on a religion of domination: men dominating women, the rich dominating the poor, straight people dominating gays and lesbians, and above all humanity dominating and destroying the rest of the natural world. Because, they will say, it is God’s will.

If such a theocracy comes, it will not be comfortable to be a Unitarian Universalist. If such a theocracy comes, we in the liberal churches will have no one to blame but ourselves. We have let our religion become optional, sort of like joining a country club, or supporting National Public Radio. We have let the Religious Right steal the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and the other Jewish prophets away from us. We have let the political liberals to completely separate environmentalism from religion. We have let our churches dwindle in size, even though we are told that our churches get more newcomers and visitors, relative to our size, than the churches of the Religious Right. And we have been coming to church when we feel like it, staying comfortable, looking always inward.

My friends, I know that many of you are facing serious personal challenges. There are people in this congregation who have are facing so much that they don’t have any energy left over for anything except staying alive. But that, too, is a very different thing from having a country-club church; when life is that overwhelming, you are not in a position to have a safe comfortable religion; life is not letting you have safety and comfort. If we could start remembering that the world is not a comfortable place for most people, maybe we could offer each other a lot more comfort.

I’d like to invite you to join me in remaking liberal religion; in remaking this liberal church. I invite you to be on fire with your liberal religious faith. I invite you to feel your religion so deeply that when life overwhelms you, your religion becomes a source of strength. I invite you let your religious convictions of love, compassion, and justice draw you into passion and commitment to heal the world. I invite you to be moved by your deeply-held religious belief that all living beings are sacred, that the whole ecosystem is sacred.

If we did that, this church, First Unitarian in New Bedford, would once again become a force to be reckoned with. As it stands now, a few people are impressed with our beautiful building, and maybe with our past exploits; but aside from that, our little congregation of less than a hundred people is safely ignored. But if we choose to do so, we could change the world.

Chortling with glee…

Oh, Mr. Crankypants is rubbing his little hands with unrestrained glee; he is chortling in anticipation; cackling even. As a bylaws geek, he has heard good news about the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

You see, Article XV, Section C-15.1, of the UUA bylaws specifies that Article II, the principles and purposes, of the bylaws shall be reviewed at least every 15 years:

If no review and study process of Article II has occurred for a period of fifteen years, the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission to review and study Article II and to recommend appropriate revisions, if any, thereto to the Board of Trustees. [Link]

Way back in 2003, the UUA’s Board acknowledged that they were then already overdue with such a review. The Board Meeting Notes from the January 17-19, 2003, meeting say:

The bylaws call for a review of the Purposes and Principles (which were adopted in 1984) every 15 years, so we are three years overdue and the Board will consider ways of carrying this forward. [Link]

So why is Mr. Crankypants rubbing his hands with glee?

First, this is a classic case of the Board and the membership of an organization not living up to the organization’s bylaws. Whenever such a situation occurs, Fingers of Blame can be pointed, and then everyone possible will duck taking responsibility. Now really in this case, the Finger of Blame can only be pointed at the member congregations of the UUA which either don’t send delegates to the annual General Assembly; or which, for the most part, send delegates who less concerned with doing the business of the Association than they are in attending a five-day party and convention. As Fingers of Blame get pointed, Mr. Crankypants is really hoping someone will come right out and speak the truth, which is:

“Yeah, I’m responsible, but so are you! Where were you and your Finger of Blame six years ago? Where were you when General Assembly spent hours and hours on irrelevant discussions about political issues, and Actions of Immediate Witness that have no relevancy to our bylaws or our member congregations?”

Secondly, Mr. Crankypants is pleased by the faint possibility that the hated Article II, Section C-2.1, a.k.a. “the seven principles,” will be overhauled. The “seven principles” are puerile, self-centered, and above all they are not theological. (Even my stupid namby-pamby alter ego, Dan, has preached and written several times about how he thinks the “seven principles” are wishy-washy.) It’s time to revise them substantially.

Realistically, of course, the “seven principles” won’t be altered because they have taken on the status of a beloved creed among many Unitarian Universalists. So Mr. Crankypants will set his sights lower. How about altering Article II, Section C-2.4 to read as follows:

Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test. [Then add:] Nor shall any congregation require anyone under the age of 18 years to memorize any part of this article. Furthermore, wherever the whole or any portion of this article shall be reproduced in print, in speech, or in any electronic medium, it shall appear with the following disclaimer: “This represents an excerpt from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and shall not be considered a theological statement.”

If only Mr. Crankypant’s home church, First Universalist on the Beach, would allow him to become a delegate to General Assembly so he could propose such an amendment. But alas, his church dislikes his habit of speaking in the third person, and refuses to let him take on any leadership position.


If you’re a bylaws geek like Mr. Crankypants, you’ll want to read the following:

Article XV of the UUA Bylaws, Section C-15.1.

Article II — Section C-2.1 PrinciplesSection C-2.2 PurposesSection C-2.3 Non-discriminationSection C-2.4 Freedom of beliefRule G2.1 Democratic Process

Text of announcement of review of principles to the UUA email list (scroll down to second announcement on this page)

Setting goals for Guerilla Marketing in churches

I’ve been adapting sections of Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerilla Marketing Excellence to church marketing. Part 1 of the series has a general introduction to Guerilla Marketing Link Part 2 talks about the “designated guerilla” Link.

This essay is about setting goals for your marketing efforts, but does not derive from Levinson’s work — it comes out of my own experience as a salesman.

When I was in sales, we all had sales goals. If you grossed a million dollars this year, next year your goal would be for 1.1 million. If your net was 25%, you’d try to raise it a couple of percentage points. Why did we have sales goals? Two reasons: (1) so the sales manager had something to talk with us about during our annual review; (2) to raise our commissions, because commissions were based on a formula using gross and net sales.

As a guerilla marketer, I still think in terms of sales goals. The whole reason you do marketing is to reach your goals. If you don’t have goals, in my opinion you don’t have a marketing plan, you just have a feel-good festival. So let’s set some goals for our guerilla marketing plans.

Goal one: raise “gross membership,” or certified members, within five years

Go check out the your religious group “as a Percentage of All Residents,” a collections of maps on a Valpariaso University site, showing religious membership in the United States: Link. If you’re a Unitarian Universalists, go here: Link. Find your county, and see what percentage of the residents of your county are in your faith group — since I’m a Unitarian Universalist, I’ll focus on that map. Let’s say your county falls in the range of 0.3%-0.6% of the total population. Now check your congregation’s certified membership (i.e., certified membership as reported to the UUA each year) as a percentage of your service area (i.e., the geographical region you serve). If your congregation’s certified membership is a lower percentage of your service area’s population than there are Unitarian Universalists in your county (e.g., in our example, less than 0.3%), your first step is to raise your percentage up to the county standard.

If you equal or better the county rate within your service area, then your goal should be to raise your percentage up into the high end of the next range (e.g., in our example, closer to 1.5%).

Example: Here in New Bedford our certified membership this year was 86. Our service area (New Bedford and the adjoining town of Dartmouth) has at least 120,000 people. The map shows that in our county, Bristol County in Massachusetts, 0.3% – 0.6 % of the population reports themselves as Unitarian Universalists. Therefore, we should have between 360 and 720 certified members. Plenty of room for growth there! –we’ll shoot for 360 to start.

Goal two: raise “net membership,” or active members, this year

Determine your active membership. Active membership is calculated by taking the average weekly number of adults and children who are in your building for worship and Sunday school each week. (I call this “net membership” because in most congregations it is a smaller number than certified membership; rule of thumb is active membership is half of certified membership.) The average should be calculated over 52 Sundays a year; but do not include Christmas eve services, if any. (Please note if you’re not within the sociological bounds of Protestant Christianity, active membership is not a valid measurement, so you’ll have to determine what measurable number you can use here isntead — be sure to choose a number that you can check at least monthly, better if you can check it weekly — and I’d love to hear from other religious groups about what metrics you might use.)

Next, determine how many new members you need just to stay even. Most congregations experience a 10% to 20% attrition rate each year, cue to deaths, relocations, people drifting away from church, etc. If you keep great records, you might be able to calculate this accurately. Otherwise, estimate based on your perceptions of attrition rate (but don’t underestimate!).

Now determine the net growth rate you are going to aim for — maybe 5% for for boring congregations in areas not experiencing population growth, up to 25% for dynamic congregations fast-growing areas. Or look at what percentage of your congregation is first-time visitors, on average, each week. Add your desired growth rate to your attrition rate, which will yield a gross growth rate anywhere between 15% and 45%.

Then multiply your active membership by your gross growth rate to yield your target number of new active members. Example: Here in New Bedford our active membership is 42 adults and children. We experience moderate attrition of about 15%. We are a moderately interesting congregation in an area with slight population growth, and our congregation averages about 5% (2 individuals) newcomers each week, which means 20% net growth over a year sounds doable. 20% + 15% = 40%; 40% x 42 = 17 new active members in the coming year.

My sample goals for First Unitarian in New Bedford:

(1) 360 certified members by 2011, from 86 in December, 2005.

(2) 17 new active members (gross) in 2006-2007 church year, yielding a net rise in active membership from 42 now, to 50 at this time next year. This rate of growth should yield 117 active members by 2011, which by our rule of thumb would mean only 234 certified members, not 360 as in the first goal. However, that only means that reaching this second goal should be a piece of cake!

What are your goals for your congregation? Why not share them in the comments below?

Next installment: “Customer” reverence Link

Harbor watch

Late this afternoon, I stood at the pivot point of the swing-span bridge that connects New Bedford and Fairhaven, one of the best places to watch the harbor.

Out in the distance, I could see a blue fishing boat coming into the harbor  through the hurricane barrier. She kept to starboard, and a small recreational boat darted past her out into Buzzard’s Bay. The lighthouse on Palmer’s Island was stunningly white in the bright late afternoon sun.

Over at State Pier, the Kent Explorer was docked [her picture on a Dutch shipping blog]. At a little over 400 feet (123 meters) length overall, this is one of the larger ships I’ve seen in the harbor. The bridge was eight or nine stories from the deck, and so the ship towered over the ferry terminal building; even the open hatch covers were taller than the ferry terminal. The two cranes, one fore and one aft, were unloading what looked to be plywood or other sheet goods.

Next to the Kent Explorer, the fishing boats and the ferries looked tiny. New England Fast Ferry has brought in their other fast ferry and it is now docked at the State Pier; the summer schedule starts up again on May 15th, only two weeks away.

On the other side of the bridge, over at the Maritime Terminal, the Silver Fjord (320 feet/ 97.6 meters LOA) was taking on cargo. Two days ago, Carol and I tried to figure out what they were loading. It was something packed in white cardboard boxes, and I thought perhaps it was some kind of frozen seafood. reported on March 20 of this year that Green Reefers shipping line has purchased Silver Fjord, and will rename it Green Tromso. Since Green Reefers ships call here regularly, there’s a chance we will be seeing Green Tromso, a.k.a. Silver Fjord, sometime again.

Over on the south end of Fish Island, I saw a boat I hadn’t seen before. Barbara Joan, out of Montauk, is sitting on one of the old piers up out of the water, and presumably she’s being stripped; a large dumpster sat on the pier beside her. She looked like she once was a small fishing boat, but once a boat gets over to that end of Fish Island, it pretty much means it’s now scrap.

I began walking back. It was a fine day, so there were a fair number of idlers like me: a man fishing off the swing-span bridge, a cocky young man strolling along the other side of Route 6; once I got back down on MacArthur Drive, three young men came out from behind Crystal Ice whooping and hollering; as I climbed up the stairs for the pedestrian overpass over Route 18, I could hear some teenaged girls laughing and giggling on the observation deck above.

Just before I started across the overpass, I glanced out and saw that blue fishing boat I had seen coming through the hurricane barrier was now waiting for the swing-span bridge to open up for it. A cloud of gulls swarmed around it, waiting for scraps of fish to hit the water.

Upgrade complete, but still under construction

The upgrade of the blog software was successfully completed with the help of Dennis at Deerfield Hosting. This should put a stop to the attack on my Web host’s database, that occurred through a security hole in the out-dated blogging software I was still using.

It will take me a bit longer to change the appearance back to the old appearance. Please bear with more for a couple of days until I have the time to take care of that finicky project.

And for those of you who are bloggers, let my unplesant experience be a lesson to us all: Update your software regularly! Back up your entire site regularly! For the past two months, I had been meaning to upgrade, I had been meaning to back up the site — it was not pleasant to be forced into it because of a malicious attack.

Guerilla marketing for churches, pt. 3

Lots of religious liberals get discouraged when they hear about or see the slick marketing efforts of those mega-churches. They should remember what the critics of mega-churches point out: All that slick marketing is swamping the basic product, as mega-churches find themselves with a watered-down message, and most probably a fickle congregation who are ready to switch to another church should they get bored.

Those of us who are guerilla marketers know that you don’t need huge ad budgets and slick ad campaigns to really succeed. When I was selling building materials, I posted high gross (1.2 million dollars a year in the late 80’s), and high net (30% when the other salesmen were below 20%) by being honest and straightforward — and by using guerilla marketing techniques that didn’t cost a cent.

Among liberal churches, Unitarian Universalist congregations in particular serve a niche market that no other religious group serves. We don’t need to waste time with expensive mega-church techniques. We are poised for explosive growth, if we could just stop navel-gazing long enough to do a minimal amount of guerilla marketing….

Part 3 in a series adapting Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerilla Marketing Excellence to church marketing. Part 1 of the series has a general introduction to Guerilla Marketing: Link. Part 2: Link.


The world’s best customer list: Guerilla marketing’s golden rule #5:

Your own customer list is the best in the world — but only if it bulges with information about each customer.

This one is very simple for churches to implement. Buy the best church database software you can afford.* Make sure your office administrator or a talented lay person (you?) is trained to use it. Then start collecting information about everyone who comes into your church.

Two good ways to collect information:

1) Get your ushers/greeters to ask everyone they don’t recognize to sign a guest book. That guest book should ask for names of adults in the family, mailing address, email address, names and ages of children. Don’t ask if they want to receive the newsletter — if they’re within an hour’s drive, just send it to them!

2) Get staff and lay leaders into the habit of collecting information about everyone in your church. Your religious educator should be collecting names and birthdays of children. Your minister should know the name of everyone who participates in small group ministries. Your youth advisor should have the names and mailing addresses of all youth, and if their parents aren’t in the church, the parents’ names too. Every time the secretary takes a phone message, have her enter work phone and cell phone numbers into the database. Etc. Etc., etc., etc.

Once we have the information, we market the church, not just to outsiders, but to our current members and friends. Here’s a few ways we use database information at First Unitarian in New Bedford:

  • We send the newsletter to everyone we can.
  • We look at where our current members live (I have push pins on a big map) so we can see where we should advertise.
  • We send a book of bedtime prayers to everyone with kids.
  • We’re going to send that same booklet to everyone with grandkids.
  • We’re going to start asking for college and military addresses from every family with a child in college or the military.
  • The designated guerilla (me) reads over the entire list of members and friends every month, to see who’s coming and who might be slipping away.

How do you collect information about your congregation? How do you use it? Share your ideas in the comments section!

[* For the record, here at First Unitarian we just started using Shepard’s Staff, and so far we love it. It generates all the reports we need, and allows us to collects all the data we can think of; it’s even given us ideas for more data to collect. It’s far more flexible than our old Access-based database. So far technical support has been excellent. Also, Shepherd’s Staff is good financially for small churches because you can start out with a license for under 200 names, and then upgrade to an unlimited number of names later — that has allowed us to spread the cost of the program out over two years, since at the rate we collect data we’ll have well over 200 names by next fall.]

Some problems on my end

My Web hosting service experienced an attack through my blog, and I am currently going through an upgrade to plug security holes. The blog may be unavailable temporarily over the next few hours, and it may look different over the next week as I tweak the appearance due to the upgrade.

Also, to those of you who receive email notification of new posts — unfortuantely, the upgrade will erase the plug-in I’m using to provide such notification. I will not be able to reinstall it, and until I can find a new plug-in I’m happy with, this will be the end of email notification of new posts.

Hijacking Jesus

Just went to hear Dan Wakefield talk on his new book, The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. I had to arrive late to the talk because I was meeting with a wedding couple, but what I heard was fascinating. One small sample: Dan Wakefield attended a worship service at one of the big evangelical mega-churches. He said he found “nothing offensive” about the sermon or most of the worship service — until it came to be time for communion. Then the minister said, “Normally we like everyone to participate in every part of the worship service, but not when it comes to communion.” Only those who had been “born-again” were allowed to participate, and then the minister told a story about someone who had not been born again but had taken communion, and then (drumroll please) died. Dan Wakefield reported that the minister finished the story by adding, “Graveyards are filled with those who took communion without being born again.”

Another small excerpt from the talk: the religious right group who call themselves “dispensationalists” believe in different “dispensations” during different historical eras. In practice, this means that in certain historical eras, parts of the Bible may be (should be) ignored. In the current historical era, they tell us to ignore the “Sermon on the Mount” — you know, where Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Dan Wakefield also told us about the progressive evangelicals, and he told us that just recently progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis have split from the main body of evangelical Christians in the United States, the National Evangelical Association, to form a new evangelical group called “Red Letter Christians.” They call themselves “Red Letter Christians” because in many Bibles, the words of Jesus are printed in red. They say they would like to get back to those teachings of Jesus — you know, teachings like “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

During the question and answer period, I asked Dan Wakefield if his research for this book had changed his own religious or devotional life. Yes, he said. He found himself going back to re-read parts of the Bible that he hadn’t looked at in years, particularly the words of Jesus. And he also found himself attracted to the passion of evangelical Christianity. Although he himself is a liberal Christian (who has belonged to both Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches), he said that much of mainline Protestant Christianity is not longer exactly passionate about religion. He also mentioned his attraction to the emergent church — and since he must be getting close to 70 now, this shows that the emergent church is not just for twenty-somethings.

He pointed out that during the Civil Rights era, white northern mainline Prostestants could go down South and participate in passionate worship services led by Martin Luther King and others, worship where you sang and prayed filled with emotion — but, says Dan Wakefield with dry sarcasm, this was somehow acceptable because these worship services were in the South and led by this charismatic African American man; and once they got back north, it was back to the usual.

Once I read the book, perhaps I’ll have some more to say about it. In the mean time, it’s worth buying the book just for the title alone. It will be displayed prominently in my office at church, I can assure you.

Dan Wakefield will be speaking on his new book on April 27, 7 p.m. at First and Second Church, Boston. For the rest of his schedule: link.