Who is your congregation?

In my conversations with Unitarian and free Christian congregations, one specific bit of good news is repeated again and again: congregations are reporting new attendees to their online worship. It may just be one or two – though occasionally more – and they may, or may not, come every week. But congregations have been delighted to welcome new attendees.

Sometimes these newcomers could not ordinarily access the physical chapel, for whatever reason. Maybe they live far away from the physical chapel, but feel a connection to its ethos and culture. For some, physical mobility is limited, and being able to attend a service from home is an incredible blessing. Maybe they have some prior affinity with the congregation – friends or family of a member, or a past member themselves. Or maybe they were just curious on a Sunday morning, logged on, and discovered a community of hope and thoughtfulness.

Every congregational leader I’ve spoken to has expressed joy and gratitude that new people are finding meaning in our communities. And, looking to the future, it brings up an interesting challenge.

Most congregations are hoping to hold in-person services again, when it’s safe to do so (who knows when that is!). Many congregants are eager to get back in their chapels and see their beloved friends face-to-face. But what to do about the new attendees? Surely, it’s not fair to just say, “well, we’re going ‘back to normal’ now, good-bye?”

Some congregations are exploring continuing online worship and/or programming, after in-person services are resumed. It can be a challenge to do both, certainly. But it’s worth remembering that even before pandemic, the congregation was arguably composed of more than just the people who turned up on Sunday. Frequently, newsletters are sent out to far-flung members who cannot attend in person. Lay leaders and ministers make visits to shut-ins in nursing homes, who are a cherished part of the congregation even though they are unable to make services most Sundays. And well before pandemic, congregations with a social media or online presence found themselves connecting with people far and wide – some of whom had never heard of Unitarianism, let alone the congregation, but found in the tolerant and liberating message, something that appealed to their way of life.

A few congregations are being really visionary about this, and thinking about what it means to be a member. If someone attends online events…or contributes to the congregation from afar, even supporting the congregation from afar – aren’t they part of the congregation in some way? A few congregations are exploring options like membership from a distance, or friend or affiliate membership.

These are wonderful, important conversation to have. I’m not proposing a particular solution – different approaches may work for different congregational contexts.

What I do think might be useful is re-imagining congregations helped by a tool devised by Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Church: “concentric circles of commitment.” Rev. Warren is a pastor of one of the USA’s largest megachurches, and a bestselling author and church growth pioneer. I firmly disagree with many of Warren’s very conservative theological and social views. However, I do think he’s a bit of a genius. And the concentric circles idea has been used in progressive organising as well – here is a link to it so you can see the basic idea, on a website committed to social justice:

https://commonslibrary.org/levels-of-commitment-from-community-to-core/#:~:text=Rick%20Warren%20focuses%20on%20five,them%20from%20the%20outside%20in.

As you can hopefully see in the above link, the concentric circles are, from outer to inner: Community/Crowd/Congregation/Committed/Core.

The basic idea – and this idea is really pretty simple – is that we not think of our communities as a binary between “members” and “non-members”. Instead, there are different levels of involvement. The inner circle are the people who make the congregation happen, the leaders who are not only there every week, but are doing the work to make sure the congregation functions. Then, working outward, we find the “committed” ring. These may be the congregants who turn up most every Sunday, maybe occasionally serve on some sort of committee and or task force but aren’t as heavily involved as others. Then there is “congregation”: the good people who show up pretty regularly (maybe not every week), and that’s it. Outside of that, is “crowd” – you know who I’m talking about, right, they come at Christmas Eve, or the church fete? And then “community” is pretty much everyone the congregation could conceivably reach. Maybe they’ve seen the chapel Facebook page. Maybe they live in the area of chapel. Warren would argue that even these people be considered, if not the congregation itself, part of the circles which matter to the congregation.

Congregations can get a bit judgmental about who’s in what circle, can’t we? “Rob shows up whenever there’s a party, but can’t seem to make it into services on a Sunday.” “Gwen has been coming for umpteen years, and she just refuses to be a part of the chapel committee.” It may be better to just admit that these concentric circles are a permanent fact of pretty much every organisation. Some people are going to be more involved than others – and that’s not such a terrible thing. I may be a core member of my chapel, but in chess club I just show up and have fun, letting others lead. Yes, we should all pitch in and do our part to help – and yes, there’s nothing wrong with chapels encouraging people to pitch in and do their part to help. But we shouldn’t expect everyone to have the same level of commitment to an organization. That’s just not natural. We’re all diverse people, and we commit in diverse ways.

How do these concentric circles apply to the specific question of online participation in chapels? I’m not sure! It depends, I’m sure – in some organisations, in our internet age, you can be part of the “core” while never actually attending in person. I mention this idea of concentric circles not as a one-size-fits-all solution, but an important way of thinking about your congregation. The people who watch one of your videos are part of your congregational system. They may be an outer circle. Who gets to be members, and what the process to membership involves, should be reflected on carefully. Beyond membership, though, I think every congregation should reflect on the people who are on the fringes of their congregational system. Not because everyone in the “community” circle will become “core” – some might, actually, and it is important to create genuine opportunities for people to become more involved, and move towards the centre on this diagram. Even more than this, however, it’s because the people in the “crowd” and “community” circles are an important part of your story. Jesus, it is said, fed 5,000 people that day near Bethsaida. In the story, we don’t know all 5,000 people, though presumably they all would have had names. But it’s important that they’re there. Closer to home, at our chapels it’s not just about the 8 people who might be there in the chapel, or on the Zoom screen. It’s about the 200 who are fed by the food pantry initiative. Or the one person who needs a voice for reason and liberty and tolerance, and who’s so reassured that your chapel exists, even if they never quite make it to the service.

It’s pretty clear we are reaching new people in new ways. This is a wonderful development. Where it will lead, I don’t know. But I’m so grateful for all of the people in any way affiliated with our ragtag bunch of devoted, freethinking, hopeful radicals. Welcome!

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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