Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Makes a Faith Community Indispensable?


So, in his blog at

Rev. Justin Schroeder at First Universalist Church (my congregation) asked for input on the following question:

"So what makes a church indispensable and relevant? What are your thoughts/experiences? What makes a church truly indispensable to the neighborhood and community, as well as those who attend?"

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts along these lines, including a past membership in another congregation when I was still living in Houston who asked similar questions. In committee we discussed these matters openly, and perhaps some of what we came up with might be of importance.

The church to which I belonged was Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, an outreach church for lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people as well as our allies. Our membership and the people to whom we served in the community were about as diverse as one can get. We came from all ethnic, racial, religious, economic backgrounds and it could be a real challenge. Here are some of the points we came up with in finding our answers:

1. Our church should reflect the community in which we live. I'm not really talking about creed or doctrine here so much, but rather the cultural elements of our community. In a city with a large number of Latinos, we included services in Spanish. Many of our members came from a past in African American churches. It's amazing how much music means to people who attend church. Our congregation numbering around 800 (and growing quickly) at the time had several choirs. We had one choir that sang the traditional choral music many UU's would be most comfortable with. Another was based upon traditional African American choral music. STill another sang the gospel sounds familiar to those who grew up in a Charismatic tradition. And yes, traditional Mexican hymns were common as well. The services varied. The primary service was more akin to the Episcopal while other services offered more of an African American flavor, and on Friday evenings a charismatic service was available as well. Now a UU church would not make necessarily the same choices, but there could be a variety of cultural options that reflects the community in which they live.

2. The leadership within the church should also reflect that community. Just as the programming should.

3. To be relevant in a larger community, congregants must be open to stepping outside their comfort zone. In preparation for such changes, there needs to be culturally relevant training on an ongoing basis. New members as part of the course to be admitted would cover areas of sensitivity in diversity. We also trained around how to proactively intervene when disagreement or unintentional offense should take place. If a congregation for instance is only okay with traditional services like they might do in Boston and are not willing to expand their perspective, then they will always be of interest primarily to people just like them.

4. Community outreach must be relevant. A wonderful example was I think the march we joined with others a couple weeks ago against the voter id amendment. When you take a stand for issues the community holds dear, you make yourself relevant in that community. One way back in Houston we did so as well, was by partnering with other churches, particularly in poor areas. We did not limit our alliance to a monetary one however, but engaged in social activities together. Nothing breaks down barriers so well as does breaking bread together. I think relevance means having ordinary folks in the neighborhood recognize you and see you as an ally and a friend. Hey, there's Jessica! She was there for us when this or that circumstance arose. Her and a bunch of other folks from that First Universalist Church. That sort of thing doesn't occur accidentally. Intentional outreach must occur.

I'm just thinking out loud here. Clearly doctrinally we might have substantial differences from many of the other churches in our community. But say this or that church, or a local community group was having a fundraiser, or a tornado or lightning struck their church or offices etc. The recent issues over at Simpson Shelter come to mind. Stepping up as a church concerned about our neighbors could mean so much. How about at the neighborhood festivals we see every spring and summer. Participating in those as a church could mean a lot. When our citizens are gunned down by gang violence or devastated by disaster, a church coordinated response could mean so much.

I think to be relevant, we've got to be involved. Not to raise our membership numbers though that would happen I think. People miss you when they know you. You become indispensable when they rely upon you.

I would share one other personal experience that drives home that point. As many know, I was seen by the community as a gay male before I transitioned to become female (but still gay, long story there.) When I began transition, there was a world of distance between the tg community and the lesbian and gay community. AT one point, a vote was taken by the lesbian and gay political caucus in Houston to include transgender in their charter. It was defeated. A few years later, a similar vote was also defeated. At that time, a decision was made among a number of transgender women and men in the Houston area. We began joining various groups as volunteers. In my case I offered a lesbian film night through the community center and was an active participant in Lesbians in Business. All the community groups saw trans volunteers working amongst them. A lesbian woman running for city counsel was swamped with trans volunteers in her campaign. She won that race and was the first elected official to ever even utter the term transgender in a public venue, her acceptance speech. I know because I was there. She went on, and now Annise Parker is the mayor of the city and is now known by many nationally. The point is,our work was not in vain. Another vote was held by the political caucus, and trans inclusion was overwhelmingly ratified. We had made ourselves indispensable and relevant.

My congregation will make its own plan for relevance I'm quite certain. Here are my thoughts on what we need to do to be more so, for I think we are already relevant in many ways. My ideas can join others, for as always, it is in our diversity where our strength lies.

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