Monday, March 03, 2014

Sermon: "Why Membership Matters" (Delivered 3-2-14)

Opening Words by Peter Raible

We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know

This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.

We are ever bound in community.
May it always be so.

Reading “On Going to Church” by A. Powell Davies

Let me tell you why I come to church.

I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe my fellow men (and women). I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do.

I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism. Workaday enthusiasms are not enough. They wear out too soon. I want to experience human nature at its best—and be reminded of its highest possibilities, and this happens to me in church. It may seem as though the same things could be found in solitude, but it does not easily happen so.

In a congregation we share each other’s spiritual needs and reinforce each other. In some ways, the soul is never lonelier than in a church service. That is certainly true of a pulpit, for a pulpit is the most intimately lonely place in the world—yet it is a loneliness that has strength in it. Perhaps this is because the innermost solitude of the human heart is in some paradoxical way a thing that can be shared—that must be shared—if the spirit of God is to find a full entrance into it.

We meet each other as friends and neighbors anywhere and everywhere, but we seldom do so in the consciousness of our souls’ deepest yearnings. But in church we do—in a way that protects us from all that is intrusive, yet leaves us knowing that we all have the same yearning, the same spiritual loneliness, the same need of assurance and faith and hope. We are brought together at the highest level possible. We are not merely an audience, we are a congregation.

I doubt whether I could stand the thought of the cruelty and misery of the present world unless I could know, through an experience that renewed itself over and over again, that at the heart of life there is assurance, that I can hold an ultimate belief that all is well. And this happens in church.

Life must have its sacred moments and its holy places. The soul will always seek its nurture. For religious experience—which is life at its most intense, life at its best—is something we cannot do without.

Welcome to March in Kansas and welcome to the more than 60 of you who braved the frigid cold and driving snow to be with us here in worship this morning. Back when I first began my ministry here, I remember choosing a hymn for worship in early December. The hymn’s words contained descriptions of wintery frost and chill. We sang that hymn that Sunday despite the fact that it was 70 degrees outside and some members had worn short sleeves to church. That spring I selected a hymn with words about spring’s flowers. We sang that hymn during a blizzard.

The section in our hymnal that deals with seasons has a distinctive New England, or at least northern, bias. Here in Kansas we can’t sing about the cool evenings of summer, as one hymn puts it. I am friends with the UU minister serving our congregation in Key West – someone has to do it! – and he’s commented to me about how the hymnal describes a cycle of nature that does not resemble the one in which he lives.

The point I’m making here is one about the cycles of life. We all go through cycles in our lives, just not all in the same way, or at the same time. As a community we come together, some of us warmed by life’s sunshine, some of us in the green time of new beginnings, some of us chilled and cold, some of us wearied by darkening clouds. This idea relates to what I plan to say about membership.

Last Sunday I preached the first part of a two part sermon series on membership. Last week I asked the question of what membership means. I began the sermon last Sunday with a story about the meaning of membership in the churches of the early ancestors of the Unitarians. They had rigorous rules about membership but then later relaxed those rules a bit when people found them too rigorous. Last Sunday I mentioned that in our Exploring Membership classes we talk about the four Ps of membership: Presence, Participation, Pledging, and Passing It On. And then I casually mentioned that we have never had a conversation as a church about what the expectations for membership ought to be, that the four Ps are more suggestions than requirements. I ended last week’s message with a dual invitation. The first invitation was to write to me and tell me what you think is fair to expect from members. What does membership mean to you? What do you think it ought to mean? Later this morning I am going to share what some of our members wrote. The second invitation I extended in my sermon last week was an invitation to volunteer to work with me on some membership related projects. Last Sunday, seven of the members of this church volunteered to help me out with membership. Right now they are making calls to current members who may not have had the highest levels of presence and participation lately. I am still looking for at least a dozen additional volunteers to help with some membership projects related to Passing It On.  This work includes developing materials and initiatives that will help promote the church in the wider community and help our members to better be able to Pass It On. Contact me if you are interested.

This morning the title of the sermon is “Why Membership Matters.” The title of the sermon assumes that membership does matter. Actually, that is an assumption. If you were to go around and ask a bunch of thought leaders and outside-the-box thinkers and paradigm shifters within Unitarian Universalism – or if you were to ask people who spend a lot of time thinking about the contemporary religious landscape of America and the future of religious institutions – a lot of them would tell you that membership is not as important. Here is what they might say:

They might say that membership is a concept that is passé. They might say it is a boring institutional word, like committee or meeting, that harkens back to ways of civic engagement that are in decline in today’s world. They might say that contemporary organizations, including churches, need to rethink how they do things in order to remain relevant.

Critics of membership might point out that the idea of membership has been harmed by consumerism. Membership was once a lofty idea, but now membership is too often confused with our identities as consumers. Membership in a church should not be confused with membership at Costco or Sam’s Club, membership at the fitness center or the country club, or membership in the frequent shopper rewards club at your favorite shopping establishment.

Those who say that membership doesn’t matter might point out that for leaders of the church, membership can become an idol, a false God that we’re tempted to worship. You hear this at denominational meetings when someone asks, almost luridly, “How many members does your church have? What’s your membership?” Membership too often becomes a number that people tend to focus on; it is how we calculate the amount in dues we pay to the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is the number that’s used to rank and categorize and evaluate churches. Focusing on membership numbers can be an idolatry, taking our attention away from other important questions: What difference is your church making in the wider community? Whose lives are being touched by the church? How are lives being changed by the church?

I think these cautionary considerations are important, but I still think that membership is important. I believe that membership matters. I want to talk with you about why I think it does. But first, before I do that, I want to share with you some of the responses I received to the questions I posed last week about the meaning of membership.

Several members wrote to share with me their ideas related to growing membership within our church. Several people wrote about the importance of warmly welcoming newer people, of members intentionally taking time to step away from their own groups of close friends and engage in a warm and hospitable way with visitors and newer members. Others wrote to me and talked about the necessity of connecting people to groups within the church. It is simply imperative, they wrote, for the leaders of groups to be devoted to reaching out, inviting people, and promoting their programs in attractive and welcoming way possible. I received numerous ideas about membership related programs and activities.

At least three different members wrote to express their uneasiness about the idea of mandating a certain level of participation. One person put it this way,

“I understand how vast the gulf can be between different people's levels of ability, and how it depends on a multitude of physical, mental, and circumstantial factors. We cannot meaningfully evaluate whether someone else is participating to the best of their ability, since we will never fully understand what they are going through. All we can do is encourage one another. We can also help fellow members with the things they are struggling with in ways that will enhance their ability to participate meaningfully in the life of the church.”

Another member wrote to me about health issues related to aging as a limitation to presence and participation. A third member wrote to me about having a very demanding career that includes extensive travel. She’s at a place, right now, where church involvement is simply a lower priority.

But here’s the thing, each of these members who took the time to write me described their current levels of involvement as fluid rather than fixed. They may not be highly active now, but there was a time in the past or there will be a time in the future, when they will be. Our lives have cycles, they said. A fourth member put it like this,

“One of the issues that we think could be acknowledged is that membership is a long-term commitment. Sometimes life allows for much participation and involvement, and at other times, life demands our time and efforts be given to other aspects of life, such as job, family, and other commitments. So taking a cross-sectional look can be misleading rather than taking a longitudinal look at peoples' involvement/participation in church.”

Levels of participation wax and wane, ebb and flow. Which is only natural and healthy.

Our lives are like this. Not only do our lives have cycles with high points and low points, but religious life, faith life, and church life contain these cycles as well. Just as our own lives have their cycles – cycles of youth and aging, cycles of work and rest, cycles of journeying and settling down, cycles of narrow focus and broad exploration – so too do our spiritual lives have cycles. The honest, authentic, engaged spiritual life has moments of gratitude, wonder, and joy as well as moments of pain, anguish, and discomfort. And, more than that, the serious spiritual life will challenge us, will force us to ask uncomfortable questions, will sometimes require tough and difficult things from us. The spiritual life has peak experiences, valley experiences, and plateau experiences. Sometimes, our faith brings us equilibrium and sometimes our spiritual lives shake us up.

It is just as A. Powell Davies writes, “I come to church… because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them… I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism.”

And all of this, all of this, implies something to me about why membership matters so much. Membership matters not because of the numbers we report the Unitarian Universalist Association. Membership matters not for trying to determine who gets a vote at a congregational meeting. Membership matters as an affirmation of the cycles of our lives and the cycles of our spiritual lives.

The cycles of our lives mean that there will be times of diving in and times of pulling back, times of greater and lesser involvement. We are all at different places in the cycles of our lives. We’re grateful for our new babies, our high school youth, our young families, our empty nesters, our retirees, and our seniors. A church made up of only one group at one place on life’s spectrum would not a church make. Being a church means that we will drink from wells we did not dig and sit in the shade of trees we did not plant. Membership matters because it really does take all of us to do this well.


This idea of staying connected to a church across our life cycle reminds me of an email I received earlier this week. Earlier this week I received a questionnaire from the college I attended. The college was engaging in strategic planning work and was sending a survey to all alumni. There were a bunch of questions, but one question caught my attention. The question was about alumni giving and asked, basically, why I gave to the school as an alum. I’ve given something every single year since graduating. I’ve given even as a broke graduate student. I’ve given even when I was still paying off the student loans I had incurred. I give generously now even though the cycle of my life is very, very far away from anything related to college life.

The question about why I give as an alum was multiple choice and offered a multitude of choices: Sheer gratitude from my few years there so many years ago, belief in the mission and values of the college, a desire to pay it forward by helping others to have as good of an experience (or an even better experience) than I had, a desire to contribute to financial aid to help to make it more affordable for someone else to attend.

I’ve often thought Unitarian Universalist churches should ask for the generosity of its current active members, but also its historical members, its alumni. Did Our Whole Lives make a difference in your life as an eighth grader? Were you held during your time of loss? Did you find community when you were lonely? Were you welcomed and accepted? Were you inspired? Were you changed?

Are you grateful for the impact the church has made in your life?
Do you believe in the church’s mission?
Do you want others to have as good of an experience (or an even better experience) than you had?
Do you want to make it possible for others to be touched?

It is true that our lives have cycles. This obvious and good and healthy. And, membership, I would say, is what keeps us connected through these cycles. Membership is for now and for the future when our lives cycle back, for when others come in the trajectory of their living.