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On Being a Church

By Rev. Carol Bodeau

Dear friends,

This last Sunday in our worship service, I explained the newest research on churches succeeding, or fading, as they attempt to adapt to the 21st century. As Board President Linda Fippin said in her recent blog, things are just changing really fast. Churches as we have understood them are on the decline, and we need to adapt in order to ensure that Westside will continue to thrive for a long time to come. Churches of all denominations across the U.S. are struggling with an increasingly secular society, and UU congregations are particularly vulnerable to these changes, because we lack a theological imperative to “go to church!”

Here are a few of researcher and consultant Thom Rainer’s most relevant points, from his books Autopsy of a Deceased Church and Anatomy of a Revived Church.

o 20 churches close their doors each day in the US; 20% of all churches are definitely headed that way (it’s just a matter of time); 75% of all US churches are headed into decline and death unless they engage in significant change (Westside is in this category)

o People don’t like change; they would often rather die than change

o Church decline is evident in: declining attendance numbers; declining participation in committees; lack of a relationship with the larger community; and stories of the ‘good old days’ that were 20 years or more in the past

o Members of declining churches tell stories about activities and people from past eras rather than talking about exciting new ways the spaces and resources can be used

o Declining churches have a history of ministers leaving or being forced out when attempts to create change generate conflict that is never resolved

o Declining churches are preference-driven, meaning they think about what they like, rather than about what might be uncomfortable but necessary

Probably one of the most important messages in Rainer’s book is that we have a tendency to resist change, even as we speak about the desire to grow:

But here’s the bigger issue. Even if the church began to grow on its own, the members of the dying church would only accept the growth if the new members were like them and if the church would continue to “do church” the way they wanted it. (Autopsy p44)

We have certainly been experiencing a time of dramatic social and cultural change. And churches are deeply impacted by these shifts. The Board of Trustees, having read and discussed these two books, saw a lot of Westside in their pages. As part of a faith-based community, we have to explore these changes honestly, openly and courageously so that we can continue to bring the message of Unitarian Universalism to people seeking to find it. So if you didn’t have a chance to hear the October 2nd service, I encourage you to check it out on our YouTube channel. And please join us for these upcoming conversations:

Sunday, October 16th “What the Heck is a Congregation For? And Do We Really Need One?”

Sunday, November 6th “What the Heck is a Minister For? And Do We Really Need One?”

Together, we can build a bridge from the treasured traditions of our past, to the challenging but exciting and rewarding future that awaits us.

Rev. Carol Bodeau

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