Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yes, We Need a Giant Umbrella

Thank goodness for parody. This video, for example (found at James Ishmael Ford's blog) from Funny or Die, does a nice job at poking fun at NAM's "Gathering Storm" commercial, which perpetuates just-plain-lies about same-sex marriage:

If you haven't seen the original ad that this parodies, go see it on youtube here. There's also a very nice parody by Stephen Colbert.

Meanwhile, if you're done watching videos I just want to say that I'm very excited about going to the HRC Clergy Call in a couple of weeks. I made the decision to go today, and am looking forward to meeting up with other UU ministers who attend, as well as my elected representatives. This is my first ever lobbying trip to DC (and I've never attended a march on the Mall, either), so it's pretty exciting in that regard.

A sad sign of the economy, related to this however: the UUA's continuing education fund for ministers has dried up for the year. *sigh*

Thursday, April 16, 2009

After Easter

The Religious Education Committee asked me last night to talk with the teen group on a Sunday I'm not preaching. The teen group has been studying Jesus this year, and their curriculum goes up through crucifixion and resurrection, but their question is: how did we get here (modern Christianity) from there (Easter morning)?

It's an excellent question, and one that many people in our society have never bothered to consider. The (mis)understanding that, I think, many fundamentalist Christians hold is that the disciples immediately sat down and wrote out the story and bound it together. The words they wrote were either dictated by God or somehow inspired, endorsed, or edited by God. That Bible was handed down through the generations (with each translation being similarly divinely edited), and we have it in exactly that form today.

Nothing, of course, could be further from what those who study the historical Jesus believe to be the truth. Of course, there are different schools of thought as to what was exactly the case, but those who search for the historical truth rather than looking to bend history to match a preassumptions, come to some very different conclusions.

Here's what I've come to understand: The gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus. The canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were only some gospels among many. They won out to be canonized (put in our Bible) because they were popular, and, particularly, favorites of those in power. Mark is the earliest gospel, and the others used Mark as a source, as well as a sayings gospel we call "Q" for "quelle" or "source." Mark was written around 70 CE (AD). The latest gospel of the four New Testament ones is John, which is not one of the synoptic gospels. John, therefore, I believe, is less reliable. The much of the material in John is not found elsewhere. John may be as late as 100 CE. The process of deciding which books went in the Bible was not divinely inspired. Rather, it was a political process. There's no reason to believe that these texts have particular divine inspiration or religious import more than any of the other early Christian writings.

All this leads me to believe that there is no reason, based on what we know of how the Bible was created and put together, to accept any sort of literal understanding of the Bible as the word of God and inerrant. Rather, they are particularly human writings which contain some spiritual insight, but which are also full of contradiction and error. However, unlike what some people I've encountered believe, I do believe that there is reasonable proof that Jesus lived and was crucified. There are a couple of texts which are not from the Bible which corroborate this.

So that's how I see it... at least in a very brief way. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to talk about all of this 2000 years of history to 6-12 graders in 45 minutes or less without being incredibly dull.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Vermont & Iowa

Just wanted to give a brief shout of joy for the decisions to legalize same-sex marriage in Iowa and Vermont. I'm particularly thrilled about Iowa, as it's nice to finally have one state in the Midwest that promotes equality and love. We're not a complete wasteland here in the Midwest, despite what many of my New Englander friends seemed to think! :) And bravo to those UUs, clergy and lay, who worked tirelessly in both states, I am sure. Congratulations!

More on Church Growth--Finally

My apologies for getting so behind on this. I promised you a post last week, and I didn't post at all last week. At long last, now, here it is, my further thoughts on church growth.

Red Sphynx said:

But I look around my metro area and see at least 4 UU congregations that are dying. Five years ago, all five had part time ministers. Now none of them do.

Do you recommend some readings or some wisdom for turning the tide in those congregations?
Red Sphynx, I'm not a growth consultant, and I hesitate to comment on any particular church's situation. And having read lots of growth literature and gone to dozens of workshops, I'm not sure that any of them really have helped me, personally, turn growth around in any congregation. So, no, sorry, I have no advice to give you, sadly. I'm somewhat familiar with some Texas congregations, having served in Houston for half a year, but that was already seven years ago. At that time, Jonalu Johnstone was the Growth Consultant for the district, and she was fabulous. I'm not sure from your district's webpage who is doing that work now, but I would suggest turning there for help. The district usually is the best place to turn for growth help, in my own experience.

Hugh asks about the city size of congregations in relationship to church growth and then asks:

How much does location affect the size of our congregation?
Good question, Hugh, and since I'm obviously more familiar with our congregation. Yes, obviously the local population size is a limiter, and I've never heard a good solid number of what percentage of a population we can expect to grow to. When our own church got numbers as part of an extension ministry training that a previous minister went to, the numbers suggested there were a lot of potential UUs in the area, and we could be thousands large potentially. However, no UU church in any geographic area has ever measured up to those numbers from that agency, as far as I know.

We have a number of limitations on our possible growth at our congregation:
  • Size of the local population (Jackson County: 158442)
  • Size of sanctuary (Full capacity, about 100)
  • Size of parking lot (Unknown number of spaces, but overflowing into cemeteries when sanctuary is packed)
  • Size of religious education space (already we're using the social hall)
  • Location (outside of the city, not on the main highway)
  • Natural Plateau Points (between 50 and 70 in worship is a natural plateau point between family and pastoral sized churches--see The In-Between Church)
  • Staff (to be staffed for growth we would probably need an administrative assistant, but I don't have the literature on that one to be sure)
To start with the one I've done the most analysis of, let's analyze sanctuary size. Now, conventional wisdom would say we have a lot of space to grow there. We're not packed in at all, right? However, our pew length is 118 inches, and we have 17 pews. According to Raising the Roof, seating area per person is 30-36 inches. If that pew were two inches longer, so let's round up, and going with 30 inches per person, that's four people per pew. And, in reality, some pews have more people sittting in them, and some fewer--people will sit closer to people they know, but further from ones they don't know or aren't family with. At any rate, that gives us capacity for 68 people to sit comfortably in the sanctuary--including the front row. (If you omit the first row on each side, which, let's face it, nobody sits in, our capacity is 60 right there.) Now, the literature, as I understand it, says a church will plateau at 80% of comfortable capacity. 80% of comfortable capacity for our sanctuary is 54.4 people. In 2006, which is when I did this analysis, our average weekly attendance, adults and children, was 54.14, or 79.6% of comfortable capacity. So are we at a plateau? You betcha. Has anything changed? Not really. Our average attendance fluctuates slightly, but it's still around that number.

So we do have a number of space-related growth hurdles to overcome. But then there's the bigger question of if we had the ideal space, and a willingness to grow, would Jackson sustain a larger church size? That's the answer I'm not sure on. We are a smaller city (seemingly getting smaller every day right now), and a fairly conservative one. How many potential UUs are in Jackson? I just don't know.

What I do know is this: there are more potential UUs out there in Jackson. We haven't reached the limit yet. And we have an important and timely message to share with our area and the world. More people than have been in decades are unchurched. The number of people in our country who don't describe themselves as Christian is growing. The number of people looking for something inclusive of racial and ethnic diversity, gay and straight identities, and multiple theologies, is growing. So I believe despite any and all obstacles, UUism can grow and ought to grow. Jackson needs us to grow. Now we just have to figure out how to make it happen.