I’m guided by two other thoughts. In the business world there’s a saying that there are really only two questions: “What business are you in?” and “How’s business?” And then, of course, there’s the old aphorism, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Of course, the corollary to that, which usually remains unspoken, is, “If it is broke, do what you can to figure out why and then do whatever is needed to fix it.”
So . . . with that foundation . . . let’s look at the church today. (And by this I mean especially the liberal/progressive church and, perhaps most specifically, Unitarian Universalism.) By virtually every measure you can imagine the church, today, is broke. Attendance is down. Membership is down. Pledging is down. The number of people who say that the church is a major influence in their lives is down. In every major pole the fastest growing religious affiliation is, “none.”
Those of us who care about the church today – both our own individual congregation but also the greater concept of “church” – need to look at The Church Which Has Been and try to see what’s “broken” about it. We also need to imagine The Church Which Is Yet To Be and see what we have to do to get there.
Perhaps those two questions from the business world can help here. What “business” is the church in? Contrary to much of its appearance, the church is not in the “business” of maintaining and growing the church! The church is really in the transformation “business” – the transformation of individual lives and of society as a whole. To be more specific, a Unitarian Universalist church – and the movement writ large – is not in the “business” of building up Unitarian Universalist churches. It’s in the “business” of building up Unitarian Universalists – people who live out a Unitarian Universalist expression of the human impulse. The fact that so few of us have any idea what this means is proof enough that “business” is not all that good.
I’m the first one to admit that I don’t know – in any kind of definitive way – what is “broke” about the church today. I would certainly not claim to have The Answer about how to fix it. This will take, I think, a whole lot of experimentation on the part of actual congregations willing to try some new things, willing to try to behave like The Church Which Is Yet To Be (or how they imagine this church will behave). If enough of us do this, and compare notes on our experiences, we will, together, create this Future Church.
One thing I do believe – based on my own personal and professional experiences and observations – is that the Church Which Has Been is far too focused on institutional things. To be sure, an institution needs to pay some attention to institutional things, but without conscious and intentional choices to the contrary, the default emphasis will over time increasingly be on maintenance and, perhaps also, growth of the institution. If the church were a business, or a non-profit aid agency, or a school of some kind this might be alright. (Although even for these the question of “What is your business . . . really?” would come into play.) But for a church to be too focused on itself is . . . well . . . missing the point of church.
I wrote earlier about how we need to free ourselves from the idea of church as something that we go to to that of church as something that we are. This means that the church is not the institution; rather it is the relationships and activities of the people the institution exists to serve. I think that this is one of the key transitions needed to move from the Church Which Has Been to the Church Which Is Yet To Be.
And part of this transition – I think – will be doing away with the conceptual category of “member.”
What role does this concept of “member” play in the Church Which Has Been? As we’ve seen,
- It allows the congregation to measure its size (which assists in the figuring of its relationship with, and responsibility to, the wider movement);
- It creates clarity on who “owns” the church and, so, is vested with the responsibilities of leadership, voting, etc.;
- It provides a means of demonstrating one’s commitment to the institution.
This concept of membership begs the question – members of what? The institution! But in the Church Which Is Yet To Be the role of the institution will be much more clearly the support of individuals in community who are transforming their lives and the world. (Rather than the role of the individuals being the support of the institution as it, at least, so often feels today.)
- It won’t really matter how many “members” are in the institution but, rather, how involved people are in its transformative work (so we’ll count attendance and participation rather than “members”);
- It won’t really matter who “owns” the institution but, rather, who is “owned” by its mission (so we’ll rewrite our bylaws to say that decisions will be made by those most involved);
- It won’t really matter who is “in” and who is “out” but, rather, who’s lives are being transformed and who are active in transforming the world (so we’ll find other ways to mark people’s passage into deeper and deeper relationship with one another.)
As I’ve said, I don’t believe for a moment that I have all the answers. I don’t even claim with certainty that what I’ve written here is “true,” by which I mean that it will work as I think it will. But I do know that in order to survive the Church Which Has Been must transform into the Church Which Is Yet To Be. To do that will take courage, and creativity, and a willingness to experiment and see what happens. And I do believe that great things can come from this.
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