The Church of Just Becoming
April 3, 2011
Rev. David W. Chandler
Somebody e-mailed the church not long ago and offered to split $150 million with us. You have to admire the ambition, as the saying goes. It might be a little too easy to laugh at the fantasy. It is not so funny how people are prone to delusional thinking when it comes to money. If you’ve bought a house or watched the financial world melt into a puddle in recent years, you know exactly what I mean.
Churches have been known to preach delusional thinking about money. There is the “prosperity gospel” on the one hand – God wants you to have things, so believe and it will be so. If indeed you have things, flaunt them. There is the Calvinist stricture on the other – God will send you to hell for having things, so don’t. If you have things, pretend you do not.
Most of us muddle somewhere down the middle. Most churches muddle somewhere down the middle. One of my favorite artifacts from our past is a summary of the budget for about the last 70 years of our Universalist forebears in Biddeford. What stands out? They almost never had a year without an operating deficit. The budget grew little over that period, until the last decade or so, which means it was actually shrinking year by year. So was the congregation, and that is of course not a coincidence.
Also not a coincidence: There is almost no capital expenditure shown in all those decades. As churches will do – as the Unitarians did also – they essentially strip-mined their building. They labored mightily to keep it functioning, but never invested in real renovation, let alone the upgrades necessary to make it more useful instead of less. The result was foregone. Take a look at the picture of the original building which hangs near our front door, and then go back to the bulletin board in the Parish Hall and check out the postcard of the church as it was in the 1950s – covered with siding, stripped of its once-soaring steeple, looking not a little forlorn.
But call it the season of winter in that congregation. Without those walls, the blast and chill – decades of adversity for them and these old mill towns. Within those walls, something entirely different, something vital and stubbornly resilient. People loved and cared for each other without fail. They gave hands-on support to their community with good hearts and hard work. They gave what they had to give. And they kept faith with the future. They prevailed – and we are here as a direct result. They kept faith with us, with our possibility – that you and I might someday come, if only they could keep going. One month, one year, one decade – keep going for those who are here and for those who will come. Hold out for the chance – however slight – the church will once again grow. The magic was not what they spent, but what they shared.
What constitutes a season of growth for a church? The traditional measurement is the number of enrolled members. Ours has grown steadily for a decade. It is not so much the number itself as the trend, and the year-by-year progress. Our growth spans different ministers, different staff and different lay leadership. It spans different phases of the economy. It spans the cycles of programs and even congregational energies that ebb and flow. We are gradually filling out a new set of clothes – almost 30% larger than five years ago. I believe that growth will continue. More than 50% of our members have joined in the last five years, and there are more here who want to make that decision.
A better measurement is the one the UUA started collecting about five years ago. Every January, every Unitarian Universalist congregation reports its membership to Beacon St. We also report our Sunday attendance. You may not know this, but more and more church experts say that is the number that counts. How many people are in the building on Sunday? Yes, please count all the children, including the babies, and count those caring for and teaching them also. So many churches did not. Why not? The uncomfortable truth is they were the “downstairs church” – or down the hall. The hard truth is they didn’t matter as much as the “big church.” The minister and the adults – and the financial support – was in the big church on Sunday. The minister’s wife or a parent or two were down the hall – if anything, a drain on resources.
One of my blistering memories from my early UU days – in a great UU church, mind you – is how often people asked, are those RE parents pledging anything like what those programs cost us? Some of the same people said, how can we have minorities if they don’t live around here? Good Unitarian Universalists asked, if we’re welcoming to gays, won’t we become the gay church?
The false counsel of risk aversion is always with us, but thankfully, our church vision has a deeper courage. We have lifted our sights from caring for the church that is – or in some ways, was – to planning, operating and inspiring the church we believe will be. We focus more and more on being and building the church of just becoming.
What we are just becoming is making magic in a larger and more vibrant church. We are averaging 75 people on any given Sunday this year. Again, that has happened gradually – although the jump from last year is significant. It is a 20% increase over the previous high in 2003 – 2004, and clearly the largest number in many decades. We may soon have to – Lord help us – buy more seat cushions for the Sanctuary. We will certainly have to find more space for the children. I am sure we will do both things.
You will have noticed more worshippers and more children. I hope you observe that is not a coincidence either. Children, now more than ever, are the number one drivers of church growth. They act in a simple way – parents commonly find it more compelling to seek community for their children. Often it is only later they admit how much they need it themselves. I speak from experience in this matter. I became a UU because my wife insisted. I became a churchgoer because of our children. I became a different person because my church offered that opportunity – to teach RE, to join a men’s group, to bare my heart and soul, to the special leadership of church community.
I became a minister essentially because I was asked to, from within and without. I was called to make in whatever small way I could the church of just becoming more possible for others. I realized long ago I really kept coming to church because it made me happy. I still do – and it still does. I can no longer even imagine being without it.
“Happy” may seem like the wrong word – somehow trivial in the episodes and long narrative of life. Some of our days are darkened with despair and disappointment, with loss and grief, with toil unrewarded and love unrequited. Yet to sail against the wind gives the greatest speed – and is anyway necessary to arrive at the longed for harbor. Even in the greatest sorrow, lies the chance of the deepest peace and understanding. Gratitude and celebration are always flowing just below the surface of the everyday, and amazement breaks through to those who turn their heads to catch even a glimpse of the wonders that enfold us. Beyond merely happy or sad is joy.
The church of just becoming is the place where this revelation takes place. It is a place where we invite the unfolding. It is a place where we invoke it. It is a place where we are encouraged to be certain it will happen – no matter what the cynics may say.
The church of just becoming is where we understand growing inside can only be accomplished fully by growing outside – growing by becoming who we are together.
Amen. Blessed Be. Shalom.