Monday, 5 April 2010

The elders and the rock band

At the 27 March AGM of the Midlands Unitarian Association [mentioned previously] I talked about how congregations need to change to create communities that are relevant to their context and to the people they hope to attract. Being faithful Unitarians, I said, is incompatible with the selfishness of keeping our communities to ourselves. As a religion, we are about generosity and service - not about preservation of what we have and tending only to ourselves.

That message seemed to get across. And the very difficult side of the commandment to 'give away' our congregations and our movement emerged - at least in the minds of some participants. One member of the audience - with a resigned tone in her voice - asked "do we have to have music we don't like when 'they' haven't even arrived yet?"

This question gets right to the heart of what many of our British Unitarian congregations are facing. They are small groups of older people who join together for a very traditional worship service led by paid visiting preachers. They have no minister. Sometimes, they have no accompanist and sing hymns along with a CD. The possibility of attracting and retaining new people other than those few with an affinity for small groups of older people and very traditional worship services seems vanishingly small.

The question posed to me makes the situation very real. Imagine 12 people - middle aged and older - sitting in their sweet old chapel together with a rock band belting out contemporary music. Imagine the cappuccinos being brewed, only to be poured out by this group of tea-drinkers. And all of this in anticipation that some young adult might just wander in that day.

Clearly, the way forward is more complicated and must be quite a bit more nuanced.

The first and biggest step is and must be readiness. A congregation that commits itself to readiness for change in response to the people who will arrive has overcome the largest obstacle there is. Yes, that readiness will be tested and tested again, but a true, faithful, readiness will make all the difference in the world.

Don't get the drum set and the electric guitar just yet!

The two essential steps after readiness are 1) directing your outreach efforts and 2) honesty to newcomers.

Do the work of learning about and understanding your congregation's context - the people within a reasonable distance of your location who might be attracted to the inclusive, accepting, saving message of Unitarianism. Choose the particular group you will try to attract and adjust every bit of your public communication to speak in their language. (This is described in the growth scheme posted previously.) Your outreach will be much more effective if it is directed in this way.

When the group you've targeted begins arriving - be it young adults, disenchanted CofE members, isolated pagans, empty-nesters, the recently-retired-and-looking-for-meaning, or any of a number of other cohorts likely future Unitarians - they are going to notice who you are today. Even if the rock band is blasting out the right tunes, those young adults will not fail to observe that the congregation consists of twelve people the age of their grandparents. The only possible approach is honesty. If you have truly done the work to reach readiness, then you can honestly and authentically say "Welcome! We have been waiting for you. We have been the guardians of a beautiful healing and saving tradition. We are ready to give it away to the world and we are ready to join with you to create the Unitarianism of tomorrow. We are ready to change. Will you work with us?"

OK, so you don't say exactly that the first time because they will think you are a bit mad and never darken your doorway again...  but the idea is to convey the readiness that is in your heart. Most newcomers arrive to find a very different kind of 'welcome' - a very clear  "don't touch anything sonny because this is how we like it and this is how it's going to stay!" message.

Readiness is hard. It means opening ourselves up to change and loss of what we know in exchange for a future that is deeply uncertain. And yet, this is why we're here. May the spirit of love be in the hearts and minds of us all and may it help us to be ready.

(And...  earplugs can come in handy if you do get the rock band...)

1 comment:

  1. Yes. I'm really keen on trying to explain who we are, and what people can expect when they come to our worship and other events. We need to say what we offer, and offer what we say. And of course, be prepared to change - after all, you won't know if you're going to like it if you don't at least try.