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"What's Holding Us Back?"

Sermon delivered by Rev. Dan Harper in three locations during the winter and spring of 2005.


The first reading is from the short story "Seasons of the Ansarac" by Ursula K. LeGuin:

"People are always telling you that 'we have always done thus,' and then you find out that their 'always' means a generation or two, a century or two, at most a millennium or two. Cultural ways and habits are blips compared to the ways and habits of the body, of the race. There really is very little that human beings on our plane have always done, except find food and drink, sleep, sing, talk, procreate, nurture the children, and probably band together to some extent. Indeed it can be seen as our human essence, how few behavioral imperatives we follow. How flexible we are in finding new things to do, new ways to go."

The second reading [Mark 9.50] gives words which the rabbi and faith healer, Jesus of Nazareth, allegedly said not long before he entered Jerusalem:

"Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."


[As always, I diverged from the printed text when delivering the sermon, sometimes quite a bit. If you think this doesn't sound like the sermon you heard, you're right. It's not.]

According to Charles Gaines, a Universalist minister who is now retired, there are 65,000 fewer Unitarian Universalists now than there were in the 1960's. And in that time, the population of the United States has increased by more than 90 million people, so considered as a percentage of the total population, we are really in decline.

According to Bill Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, there are 250,000 people who are certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. But there are another 250,000 people who regularly report themselves as Unitarian Universalists on surveys and polls. In addition, Sinkford says that if you look at the demographic data, there are between five and six million people in the United States today who seem to be pretty much like the people who are already Unitarian Universalists.

Charles Gaines is convinced that we are declining. Bill Sinkford is convinced that there are large numbers of people who are ready to become Unitarian Universalists, if they could only find a way into one of our congregations. I'm convinced both Bill Sinkford and Charles Gaines are correct. The evidence does point to a slow decline in the numbers of Unitarian Universalists. The evidence does indicate that Unitarian Universalism could easily be five times the size it is now. And so I ask the question, what's holding us back?

Not that I have the final answer to this question. I have some ideas about what's holding us back, and I'll share two or three of those ideas with you this morning. But I hope you'll think of this sermon as part of a conversation. After the sermon, I assume you'll continue the conversation -- maybe you'll talk with me directly, or maybe you'll continue this conversation here in Akron. From what I understand, you are already asking yourselves questions along these lines. Do we want any more people in this congregation? If we do, do we want lots of people, or only a few? -- and why should we grow? From what I understand, I'm jumping in to the middle of a conversation you're already having.

I'm going to start by telling you about the congregation I'm currently serving. I am an interim minister, and this year I am serving as the interim minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois. The Geneva congregation is about an hour due west of Chicago, in a fast-growing suburban area. They grew slowly but steadily from 1979 through about 1999, and since 1999 they have hit a plateau and essentially have not been growing at all. Even without advertising at all in the surrounding community, I have been observing an average of about 6 newcomers each week visiting the worship services, and the Geneva congregation has a solid Membership Committee whose members do a pretty good job of welcoming and integrating newcomers into the congregation. The senior minister is known as an excellent preacher, they have a well-regarded church school for children, they have respectable youth programming. Yet they're on a membership plateau, they're losing people just about as fast as they are welcoming newcomers. This year, I have been asking: what's holding this congregation back?

We feel we have figured out one of the big things that is holding the Geneva congregation back. People mostly want to grow, there's a plentiful supply of newcomers, lay leaders seem to be doing everything right. But the congregation is facing a problem rooted in group dynamics. Let me explain....

An organization called the Alban Institute, a group of church consultants and sociologists, have been studying the group dynamics of congregations for some time now. According to Arlin Routhage, one of the sociologists associated with the Alban Institute, congregations operate in quite different ways depending on what size they are. Routhage identifies four different types of congregations based on size -- family size, with up to 50 active members; pastoral size, with 50 to 150 active members; program size, with 150 to 350 active members; and corporate size, with 350 to 500 members.

By the way, "active members" means something different than we Unitarian Universalists tend to mean when we talk about how many members our congregations have. The best way to count the number of active members is to count total attendance -- adults and children -- each week for twelve full months, and then calculate the average total attendance per week. By this measure, your congregation here in Akron is right on the border between the pastoral and program size.

Arlin Routhage says that each of these four different size congregations looks quite different to a sociologist. And he contends that it is quite difficult to move up to the next size. The most difficult transition can be the transition from a pastoral size church -- 50 to 150 members -- up to a program size church -- 150 to 350 members. The church in Geneva, Illinois, is facing just this transition. In order to make the transition, they are finding that they have to change the way the make decisions, the way they communicate with each other, the way they treat their senior minister, the way they do worship -- in fact, there is very little they won't have to change.

I'll give you one specific example. The Geneva congregation has been a small, pastoral size church, for so long they have gotten used to the way they get news and information. Back when they had a hundred or so active members, the way they found out about church news and events was they called each other up on the telephone or talked with each other after worship services. Or, even easier, you could just call Lindsay Bates, the minister, and ask her -- which is what most people did.

But now with just over 200 active members -- in other words, just about the size of this congregation here in Akron -- it is impossible for everyone to "just call Lindsay." Lindsay has found there aren't enough hours in the week for her to answer all those phone calls! And with all those people at three different worship services, there's no way you can catch up with everyone and learn all the church news and events. As a result, lots of people are feeling left out -- lots of people feel as though they don't belong any more -- and so people start drifting away from the church. As fast as new people come in, others leave.

By contrast, in a program size congregation, everyone knows that you have to plan all events months in advance. Everyone knows that there are half a dozen sure ways to learn what's going on at church -- the church newsletter, the bulletin boards where you have coffee hour, the church Web site, the announcements printed in the weekly order of service, and letters mailed directly to church members (but not word of mouth). The leadership of the congregation know that they have to pay careful attention to maintaining these half a dozen communication paths, and they know they have to give everyone plenty of advance notice for all church news and events. Two different size congregations have two completely different ways of doing things.

Lyle Schaller has a term for the size of the Geneva church. Schaller calls it the "awkward size church." It's no longer pastoral size, but not quite program size. It's at a size that tends to burn out ministers and staff and lay leaders. It's just plain awkward.

Now we Unitarian Universalists like to believe that the most important thing about our faith is our theological freedom. We are justly proud of the fact that we do not require our active members to believe in any creed or doctrine. We are also justly proud of the fact that we like to argue, and question, and have long conversations about deep questions. We also know that the world around us could use a little more of our openness, could benefit from our ability to keep asking questions without having to settle on a set doctrine or creed. We have a great theological message. But it's our flesh-and-blood congregations which carry our theological openness. I strongly believe that one thing holding us back is that we have forgotten to pay attention to how our flesh-and-blood congregations actually work. Our congregations provide an open space in which our theological messages can flourish. Therefore, it behooves us to pay attention to the sociology of our congregations. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, we have built our castles in the air -- our congregations in the air -- now let's put foundations under 'em!

Which brings me to my second idea. Let me start with a question...

In all of North America, of all the congregations that have been founded in the past thirty years, guess how many of those congregations have become mid-size congregations? Anyone care to guess? [Someone called out, "None!" -- they were more pessimistic than I had expected.]

Well, the answer is exactly one, and that congregation is the Horizon Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carrollton, Texas. Horizon was founded in 1987 with 34 members, and now they're up to 350 members with a $350,00 budget, six acres of land, and an 11,00 square foot building. Their goal is to continue growing until they reach 750 members

Their parish minister is a fellow named Dennis Hamilton, and last June he spoke at General Assembly, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists in the United States. In his talk, Dennis Hamilton said that one of the things that allowed Horizon to grow was that they believe their congregation changes people's lives, and changes the world. He put it more bluntly, so I'll read you his words directly:

"To grow and thrive a church must see itself as a redemptive force in the community, that its presence makes a difference. It cannot see itself as a reclusive retreat for free thinkers and rebels. Ministers need to project this vision for their congregations and members need to share in it. Even more, from individual congregations and from our denominational leadership, we need to see ourselves as the religion of the future. We cannot live in the past or find our importance in the past. As we continue to celebrate our religion through our historical leaders, and find validity by pointing to past heroes, we come to look like trust fund babies, living indolently off of past greatness. It is up to us to create our own history by being great and by being bold in our vision." So writes Dennis Hamilton. Hamilton's words lead me to the second reading this morning, words supposedly spoken by the rabbi and faith healer, Jesus of Nazareth: "Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it?"
I think one of the things holding us back is that we are like salt that no longer tastes salty. I grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church in Concord, Massachusetts, and when I was a teenager my minister was Dana Greeley. Dana Greeley had three sermons (which shows what a good preacher he was, because most of us ministers have just one or maybe two sermons that we preach over and over again, but I digress). Dana Greeley preached about how Unitarian Universalists are the ones to bring about world peace, he preached about how Unitarian Universalists are the ones to bring about racial harmony, and he preached about how we Unitarian Universalists carried the world-saving message, found in all world religions, of "Do to other people as you would have them do to you." Dana Greeley made it quite clear to me and the rest of the congregation that we had a great vision, and that we better do something about that vision. To me, Dana Greeley's sermons were like salt that tastes salty.

My life partner doesn't go to church much at all. But she sometimes does come to church, and over the years she has heard a fair number of Unitarian Universalists sermons. She says that Unitarian Universalist sermons are like those little commentaries you hear on National Public Radio -- reasonably intelligent people saying interesting, comfortable, informative, engaging things. I would go further than she does -- much of what we say and do as Unitarian Universalists sounds a lot like National Public Radio. I don't mind public radio as public radio, but if our congregations sound like public radio, why bother getting up Sunday morning to go to church, when you could stay at home and listen to NPR? That to me is like salt which no longer tastes salty. If we have salt which no longer tastes salty, what then will we use to season our salt so that it tastes salty again?

Dennis Hamilton gives us one answer: "To grow and thrive [we] must see [ourselves] as a redemptive force in the community, that [our] presence makes a difference." And he doesn't mean just trying to do more and more social justice projects, although there's nothing wrong with that as long as you don't burn out your social justice committee. We need to do more than that. I want us to take our great theological message out into the world. I want us to be clear that the search for truth is more important than trying to codify truth in doctrines. I want us to be clear that the world needs open conversations about deep questions, rather than fights and wars based on preliminary conclusions.

Some examples of what I mean -- Carole Fontaine, professor of Hebrew Bible at Andover Newton Theological School and a Unitarian Universalist, argues that we Unitarian Universalists are the perfect people to work for human rights around the world. She points out that right now human rights workers are split between those who work for human rights on religious grounds, and those who work for human rights based on secular "natural law" grounds. Because we are a non-creedal religion, Carole says we are the ones who can get these two groups to work together, and really make human rights happen. That's one way Unitarian Universalists can recover our saltiness.

Another example -- Dana Greeley believed that one route to world peace was to get different religions talking to one another, since so much violence comes from religious clashes. He spent a fair amount of time engaging in dialogue with religious groups around the world, because as a Unitarian Universalist committed to theological openness he was the perfect person to do that. That's another way Unitarian Universalists can recover our saltiness.

In short, what's holding us back is that we're reluctant to claim our Unitarian Universalist faith as a redemptive force in its own right. We are really interested in talking about Ralph Waldo Emerson. I'm a fan of Emerson, but he's been dead and gone these many decades. We don't talk about Tim Berners-Lee, a Unitarian Universalist who invented the World Wide Web and who thinks the Web is an expression of how our religion can change the world through making connections. We don't talk about Mary Pipher, a feminist scholar who studies how adolescent girls can lead healthier lives. We don't talk about Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Unitarian Universalist singer, scholar, and composer, who believes in the power of songs and music to change the world for the better. Here are Unitarian Universalists who have reclaimed out saltiness, and there are so many more that we don't need to look to the past.

Let me connect these two ideas. Our congregations tend to stay the same size, not because we lack newcomers, but because we say, "We've always done it so -- we've always been small, and we're probably just going to stay that way." Our wider denomination does not grow, not for lack of people who want to join us, but because we look to the past rather than the present and future. In the words of our first reading this morning: "People are always telling you that 'we have always done thus,' and then you find out that their 'always' means a generation or two, a century or two, at most...." It is no longer sufficient to say, "We have always done thus." The world out there needs us too badly. It's time to change, and grow.