The 21st Century Congregant, Part 2: How Congregations Can Adapt

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece called “The Century Congregant: A Profile”. I wrote about what we might expect from a typical attender to our chapels and fellowships and churches – aware that none of us are completely typical, but trying to get a broad sense of what the needs and interests are of those who arrived at our doors.

If you don’t want to read the whole essay, here’s the short version: many of our congregants these days are spiritually curious; are open to different beliefs and complexities of thought; are painfully aware of injustice, power imbalances, and our ongoing ecological catastrophe; tend to move around frequently in life, both geographically and philosophically; spend a lot of time online, for better or for worse; may have grown up unchurched and aren’t really interested in the “mechanics of church” such as committees and annual meetings; may be unable to feasibly attend Sunday services regularly; is feeling stretched thin by life and economic precariousness, and yearns for authentic community.

Does any of that ring true for you? It’s a composite picture, and not an exact picture by any means.

At the end of that essay, I promised to follow up “probably in a week or two” (it’s now a month and a half – I’d say that’s close enough!) with a sequel about how the implications of the 21st century congregant profile on how we “do church”. So here we go.

I begin with the assumption that congregations often have somewhat limited reserves of energy and enthusiasm. In our Unitarian and free Christian movement, we are blessed with incredible volunteers and talented ministers. But our congregations are on the small side, and most don’t tend to have the wherewithal to launch twelve-point plans with multi-staff teams. Furthermore, I don’t believe we need to. A congregation of four loyal people, who can put in an hour to help every now and again, can accomplish some pretty impressive things, I have found over the years. Here’s what I suggest.

  • Focus on the why, more than the what. Keep reflecting on what your congregation is all about. Why does it exist? I recognize not every congregant is a navel-gazing, frustrated philosophy graduate like myself (I pity you 😊), but these ruminations don’t need to be complicated. What do you like, and what do you value? “We like to be together, see each other’s faces, get to know each other.” Great – if that’s the case, obviously finding time for social gatherings and getting to know each other is going to be a priority. “We feel a sense of connection to the generations in our historic sanctuary.” Amazing, start from there, think about ways you might connect even deeper on your history. “The growing inequalities in our society have us fed up, and the way the homeless outside our sanctuary are treated breaks our hearts.” YES – acknowledging this is powerful and holy. Talk about it, pray about it, call an organisation that deals with poverty, talk to your neighbours.

Keep thinking about the why – because the what may change. “Church is a weekly service, an annual AGM, the council once a month, four social events, and three committees.” It’s not necessarily a bad model – but if you aren’t thinking about the why, you will constantly be scrambling to fill roles to do all these things, without having adequately explained why they are important. And when you reflect on the why, you might find you are able to let some things go. Doing less ­– imagine that!

  • Emphasize local. Congregational leaders are anxious to make the most of social media and the internet. This is deeply important to consider. But one of the big strengths of many of our chapels and congregations is our local nature. Shops and civic institutions are closing – and churches, too. While we are spending a large amount of time online, we also are longing to get out into physical community again. Find ways to welcome people into your building, if you have one – Heritage Days, weddings, mums’ groups, community events, or just keeping the door open. Find out what your local community actually needs. If you rent space, try meeting in places where you might rub shoulders with others. Be a part of your community. Stroll about and say hi to people, as a spiritual practice. You don’t have to wear an “I’m a Unitarian” button – though there’s nothing wrong with that – but people will naturally get to know you, and you them. Get to know the neighbours. Many of them will be very glad of the chapel’s existence, even if they never attend themselves – we need local places of community and values. And they will tell their friends, a few of which will attend.
  • Think beyond Sunday mornings. I’m not saying do away with weekly worship, which so many of us find incredibly vital. I’m not even suggesting changing the worship time. I mean get rid of the expectation that the “real” congregants are the ones who attend weekly worship. If you have other activities through the week, and people attend those, and never come to worship – those are your congregation, too. Keep up the weekly service for those whom it is so meaningful, and provide a few other opportunities to deepen spiritually and to build community.
  • Be keepers of a tradition. This is always an interesting one for Unitarians and free Christians because we belong to such a proudly heretical tradition. But we do belong to a tradition – and that’s important. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything our foremothers and forefathers said. It does mean we take seriously that we are in some sort of living conversation that stretches across the generations. It’s one of the great things about religious involvement, part of our “Unique Selling Proposition”, to use a business phrase.
  • Live authentically in the midst of uncertainty and heartbreak. Chapel should be a place where you are able to bring your full selves. Ideally, we all should feel free to cry in our congregations – or to laugh uproariously. But even in our non-conformist tradition, we can sometimes put on a stifling veneer of respectability and confidence.

    There are simply ways to foster mutual vulnerability and being human. Admit loudly about things you don’t know or are unsure about. Be open about the world events that are heart-breaking. Say “I’m sorry” often, and try to forgive each other where possible. It only takes a couple of people modelling the behaviour for it to spread into the culture of a congregation. And a congregation where we can truly be ourselves is a liberating thing.

  • Ask for money. I know I said that the 21st century congregant is often in a financially precarious position, so ask gently. But often people want to be asked to contribute a little something. It helps them to feel they’re a part of something, even if they can’t necessarily attend every event. Online giving and standing orders can help create a regular inflow of financial support. A congregation that is supporting itself tends to be a more involved congregation – everyone knows they are pitching in together to make the chapel happen.
  • Welcome endings, sometimes. In our culture, we tend to view any ending as a failure. We might keep an ancillary chapel committee going for years, even when it dwindles from twenty members to two, because we don’t be the one to fold up shop. But really, there is nothing wrong with things ending. Especially when endings pave the way for new beginnings. Are there any groups – or ways of doing things at your chapel – that might be folded up, with proper gratitude and appreciation, to allow room for something new to be born? As the words of a popular hymn say, “Don’t be afraid of some change”! (Enter, Rejoice, and Come In)

  • Make Your Online “Presence” an Extension of What You Already Do For congregational leaders unfamiliar with websites and social media, it can be tempting to think that getting an online presence – preferably with some brilliant young person to run it – will bring loads of new people into the chapel. In reality, it’s not really that simple. As others have said, an online presence can be thought of as a window: it lets people see into your chapel, get to know you a little bit before walking into your door. It can be an incredible tool for growth – but only if it really reflects what you’re already doing at the congregation.

    I once facetiously suggested to an older congregation asking about a social media strategy: take four pieces of cardboard and one sharpie. Write on there something bold, courageous and true (“Trans rights are human rights”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Peace Now”, “Love Your Enemies” – as long as you believe it and it’s compassionate, it’s the right thing to write). Stand on the road, wherever there is traffic in your locality, with your friends for two hours every week. (Brings chairs for when you get tired.) Before long, a young person with tech skills (or old person with tech skills) will join your band and volunteer to run your social media outreach. Simple.
  • Enjoy life. Do it with gusto. Have fun! This is similar to the first point. Just as the why is as important as the what, the how is really important too. Whether you are raking the chapel steps or having a discussion on world religions, remember that life is meant to be enjoyed. It’s a great privilege to get to be with others in a congregation. If we remember how much fun it is, that joy is bound to spread. Don’t spend your whole life worrying. Have fun, be grateful, be kind. Everything else will naturally follow.

OK, friends, what’d I miss? Where’d I go wrong? I don’t have ALL the answers you know…I only think I do. Feedback welcome!

About bobjanisdillon

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