The following is a guest post from the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, minister of Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, NJ. Matt is the author of “Taking Back Faith: Heretical Thoughts for a New Century” (iUniverse, 2006); “Harvest the Power: Developing Lay Leadership” (UUA Tapestry of Faith, 2009); and “Bless All Who Serve: Sources of Hope, Courage, and Faith for Military Personnel and Their Families” (Skinner House, 2010). More content from Matt including his blog and podcasts may be found at http://www.revmatt.org.
“Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches” by Thomas Bandy
Book Review by Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle
As we approach our 50th Anniversary, the Unitarian Universalist Association is embarking on several new growth initiatives. Maybe we’ve finally noticed that we are the same size as we were fifty years ago, which is very small relative to other mainline faith communities, including those who have been shrinking drastically for decades. Several research studies over the past few years have confirmed that the religious landscape of the U.S. is changing to being more welcoming, more pluralistic, more accepting of others. You’d think UU congregations would be bursting at the seams! But mostly we aren’t.
From my perspective, the primary reason Unitarian Universalism hasn’t thrived is that our focus is too insular and focused on the individual. If we want to make a difference in the world we have to focus on the world. But we are too often addicted to our own habits and ways of being.
I imagine most UUs haven’t heard of evangelical church consultant, Thomas Bandy, but anyone in a leadership position in a UU congregation should read his book, “Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches.” Bandy’s bottom line is a shift from church members being enrolled, informed, nominated, supervised, and kept with a goal of serving the church system; to being changed, gifted, called, equipped, and sent to make a difference in the world. This is a shift from serving out of obligation to serving out of passion; from focusing on running the church to focusing on a viable mission in the world; from being addicted to being healthy congregations.
Bandy notes that thriving congregations are doing four primary things:
- Increasing the participation of the public in church life.
- Deepening the spirituality of adults, both in the church and the community.
- Multiplying opportunities for discipleship (serving and following a mission).
- Maximizing the impact of the gospel (good news) on the world.
Unitarian Universalism has so much good news to share, but we tend to hide our light under a bushel basket, just as we hide our church buildings in the woods. Even Thoreau eventually left his cabin in the woods! Bandy challenges congregations with 30 “shocking truths” about addicted congregations. He also offers 30 corresponding “positive discoveries” that can help congregations kick the habit!
Some of his shocking truths include:
- The youth are not the future of your church!
- It doesn’t matter what people “know” following the worship service!
- Church membership is unimportant!
- More volunteers to fill all the vacancies won’t rescue the church!
- Debt freedom always leads to church decline!
- Mission units (aka “committees”) don’t need to report to the church Board!
- Church insiders are least able to discern future mission!
Heresy indeed in most congregations! He offers the following corresponding positive discoveries:
- Transformed adults (18-40) are the future of the church.
- What matters most is how people feel following the worship service.
- Participation in any aspect of congregational life and mission is everything.
- Core disciples, who in turn make more disciples, expand God’s realm.
- Sound debt management is the key to thriving church development.
- Mission units must connect weekly with a worship experience.
- People on the fringe of church life are key to discerning the future.
I can attest both to the fact that UU congregations have a difficult time with these ideas, and that when we implement them, we do indeed thrive. Bandy hits the nail on the head when he says that declining churches are all about belonging to an institution (which our own UUA has called “the meaning of membership”) and that a thriving church system is all about changing lives and reinventing itself.
I know which church I want to be a part of!
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