Monday, 22 February 2010

A Growing Congregation

The Newington Green and Islington Unitarians in north London, the congregation of which I am the minister, held its new member recognition service yesterday and formally welcomed all of the 22 new members who joined over the past 12 months. 22! The congregation, which numbered 6 members eight years ago, now consists of 84 members. Over the past 3.5 years alone, we have grown at a rate of 35%-40% each year!

And the congregation is young. In a recent congregational survey, we found that 58% are between 18 and 40 years old. (38% are between 18 and 30.) Women outnumber men, but not dramatically so: 44% of our members are male.

This is not at all the normal profile for a liberal congregation - and we are extremely liberal. If we were typical, we would be tiny and shrinking further, very elderly, and at least two thirds of us would be women.

Between 1989 and 2005, church attendance in the UK has declined an average of 34%. Liberal religions have experienced the greatest decline (e.g the URC with -53%) while attendance for the most conservative groups has increased (e.g. Pentecostal +22%).

Yesterday, a new visitor to the congregation asked me what accounts for our success. I hesitated. I can't point to any single factor. We do not have lots of money and we do not have fabulous facilities. When we began to grow, we didn't have any young people. We didn't even have an experienced minister and we barely have one now! We're growing because people want what we have and because we're not invisible. And so, as I said to my questioner, the better question is why any Unitarian congregation in an vital urban setting is not growing.

You see, we know that - despite the drastic decline in participation in traditional religion - the spiritual impulse remains prevalent and strong. But today, people don't want to be told what to believe, they refuse to swallow the fantastic miracle stories that are often requirements for entry, they don't want some detached hierarchy in charge of their community, and they have no taste for seemingly arbitrary rules.

And so, instead of traditional religion, people in huge number try to meet this need through a wide range of good and not so good avenues that are collectively labeled 'spirituality': yoga, meditation, ecstatic dance, past life regression, homeopathy, angels, sweat lodges, reiki, chanting, etc. The list goes on and on.

And people have varying levels of success in finding spiritual sustenance in these pursuits. What is lacking in so many of 'spiritual but not religious' alternatives is a supportive community. Unitarianism at its best offers each person the freedom to explore and seek their own spiritual paths and truths. Importantly, it does this in the context of a community that stays with you and supports you no matter where that path leads you. That unconditional spiritual acceptance and support is unique. It is also exactly what millions of people want to find.

So, I ask, how can such a congregation in a populous urban context fail to grow?

If we make our congregations visible and stop doing the things that drive people away (such as bad worship, unfriendliness, conflict, cliquishness, and a tendency to be more academic than spiritual), our congregations will grow.

Lest I be accused of being too modest [there's a first time for everything!], I am happy to admit that I have had a lot to do with my congregation's growth. It is not that I am the greatest preacher in the world, the greatest pastoral caregiver, or the greatest leader of programmes. I think that I have excelled, however, in helping my congregation to be unafraid.

And we have been bold indeed! We have been unusually open about who we are and what we stand for. We have been bold in our welcome of new people - not hesitant to open our doors and hearts despite the risk. We have been bold in our banners and posters which do not hesitate to say exactly what we think. We have been unafraid to tell our community that we are here:  fear of being labeled as pushy takes a back seat to our passion to offer our a spiritual home to anyone who wants it. We are bold in our social witness, in which we have decried what we see as intolerance wherever it arises, unafraid that some other group may take offense. We have been bold in putting our financial interests well behind our commitment to justice, as we pledged not to perform any legal marriages until we can do the same for all couples - straight and gay. We have been bold in welcoming all kinds of groups and programmes in our buildings - relishing the diversity this brings and putting aside the natural fear of 'the other'. We have been bold in the events we have put on - mounting an enormous programme for our tercentenary and then another one shortly thereafter to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft.

As I look back on what we have done, I find myself amazed. I wonder how we could have been so bold in our actions. What could possibly have lead us to take on enormous challenges with a very good chance that we would fail?

We are driven by two things. The first is our vision - a powerful vision of our responsibility for helping to heal this broken world and bring tolerance and love. The second can best be described using a very traditional word with which some of us might even be uncomfortable. That word is faith. As irrational as it may have been, our diverse congregation with all its many different beliefs (and lack thereof) is nonetheless filled with a powerful, vitalizing, transforming faith.

There is a place for a radically inclusive faith. There is a tremendous power in this way of being religious that can overcome the cynicism, selfishness, despondency, and materialism of the day. As John Murray, 18th century American Universalist pioneer urged:
"Give the people … something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of [humankind]."
Have faith.

1 comment:

  1. Precisely Andy. It's a good example of what can be achieved by defying conventional thinking and embracing faith as it is, not as traditional religious thinking would shape it.