bridging eras.

19 Feb

Bridging Eras
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on February 15, 2015

Listen here:


Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel


Bonner Bridge

Arthur Ravenel Suspension Bridge

Rope Bridge to King Kong Zipline

Rope Bridge to Zipline



I have been thinking about bridges quite a bit recently.  Traveling to visit my in-laws, I crossed over the Bonner Bridge which connects Hatteras Island to the North Carolina mainland, as well as the Chesapeake Bay bridge and tunnel. When I was in South Carolina in December, I saw the beautiful Ravenel suspension bridge. And last summer, while doing a zip-lining course, I had the opportunity to  walk up a rope bridge before zipping down 1200 feet.

That will get your heart pumping!

Rope bridges, suspension bridges, truss, draw, lift, and so many more. Bridges are built in a variety of ways, but no matter what type of bridge we are talking about, the purpose of the bridge is always the same: to connect two places in a traversable manner. By their nature, bridges are liminal spaces – we cross the threshold of one place, journey across the bridge, and then enter a new space.

Metaphorically speaking, religious institutions are on a bridge right now. We are in transition. The previous era is behind us – the old ways of doing church, with worship being the central function (sometimes the only function!) and  committees populated by volunteers doing the brunt of the church work. We know those old ways aren’t working very well anymore – people are busier than they have ever been, there are fewer families with only one spouse employed leaving the other the freedom to be a professional volunteer, there are fewer people going to church than ever before (fewer than 20% of the US population on any given Sunday), and there as been a rise of what are called the “nones” – the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. We have left behind the old era and have stepped onto this bridge on our way to a new era, a new way of doing church. And that can be scary, indeed. Especially since we are not quite sure what it will look like. Some might fear doom and destruction – that the bridge will collapse or that we never should have stepped on it to begin with. Others might dream about the utopia that is waiting for us. Likely, it is something in between.

The problem with this bridge metaphor is that it leaves us just plodding forward, expecting the deck of the bridge to magically appear and rise to meet our feet as we cross. We have no responsibility, and can be totally passive. So perhaps instead of a metaphor of merely crossing a bridge, we should consider that we are building it, from one era to another. And so we have an opportunity to not just dream or dread the future, but to design it. To intentionally work to build this bridge to the future that we envision.

bridge-to-nowhereBut where to start when building this bridge? The first step is to attach one end to the ground. Wherever we go, we will have this connection to the previous era, anchoring us to the past. Though they are no longer suitable for the world in which we live today, the old ways served us well for many a generation. Then, as we design and build the span, it is important to take into consideration the elements of the terrain we will be going over. Are we crossing water, or a valley? Is the bedrock stable or shifting? How far will we have to go? As we survey the religious landscape, there are four specific changing characteristics of traditional brick and mortar congregations like this one that I would like to address this morning.

The first characteristic of the surrounding terrain I see are the changing expectations around worship.  In a world where people can easily find exhilarating TED talks, stirring UpWorthy videos, and so much more, people are not coming to worship to learn as much as they come to experience.
6TyopBbkcPeople come to experience in community  something that we cannot get by ourselves – whether it is joy of joining together in communal song, or the shared experience of reflecting on an inspiring sermon, or to struggle to understand how we should live knowing that we all will die – whatever the reason, we come to experience something we cannot get by ourselves. If a church is delivering uninspired lectures, no matter how excellently crafted, but not giving the shared experience people crave, then their spiritual needs are not being met.

To prepare effective worship that meets today’s needs, it is important pay attention to multiple styles of learning, knowing we are going to attempt to minister to someone who is walking in the door for the first time as well as to someone who has been coming here for the whole of her 90 years. We try to meet the needs of the person who has never sung a song communally before and really likes popular music, as well as the person who thirsts for more traditional hymnody. A challenge arises in congregations like this one: With only one worship service a week, creating an experience that can touch such diverse varieties of people is difficult. This is why so many congregations have added a contemporary or innovative worship service to their offerings – to try to meet the needs of a greater variety of people. The Faith Communities Today study from 2010 indicated that having innovative worship is a marker of spiritual vitality in a congregation because it removes barriers to participation. But in 2010 only 3% of our Unitarian Universalist congregations reported having such a service!

There is another reason congregations are diversifying their worship portfolio- not only can a congregation offer different types of services, but they can offer them at different times of the week and through various formats. This diversification of worship allows the church to touch more lives effectively, which leads us to the second change in the terrain around us that we must take into consideration as we design and build our bridge to the new era.

The Old Way

The Old Way

There is a changing tide of looking at how many members a congregation has to looking at how the congregation touches lives, both within the church and outside it. Up until now, there has been a stress on membership as the way to measure the health of a congregation. In this old model, the vast majority of the congregation would worship together on Sunday morning. After a certain amount of time, visitors would become members, and then they would be invited to participate in the structure of the church by joining one committee or another. If someone came into the church via one of the ministry groups, such as a book-group or a CUUPS group or a meditation group, they would be encouraged to come to worship and eventually join. People who did not participate in the communal worship of the church frustrated leaders who wanted these people to “count” by joining as members and helping to support the church through their volunteer efforts and financial contributions.

The New Way

The New Way

The new model for the future turns this old way on its head. Instead of a pathway to membership, there is a focus on multiple avenues of participation. Perhaps someone wants Religious Exploration for their children, or they are interested in the book club. Or they want to volunteer for the soup kitchen or they turn out for the public witness march. These are people who may be involved in the church in several different ways but who may only rarely (if ever) darken the door at Sunday morning worship.

Until now, we would try to get these folks to come to worship, with the goal being to get on that pathway to membership. Today, we recognize that these ways of participating are valid and valuable as the church can (and should!) touch lives outside of worship. This new focus on multiple avenues of participation has an impact on how we do things. Faith development cannot only happen in worship, it must happen at the group level as well, whether that group is the soup-kitchen servers, the book group, an RE class, or beyond. Stewardship is the same – you can’t just hit up the people who are in worship. Congregations are removing barriers to participation by considering folks who engage in these other avenues and groups as community members because they are, whether or not they participate in worship. Besides, they may have very good reasons for not attending on Sunday morning. For instance, they may have to work!

technology2Which leads to the third change in terrain as we design and build our bridge from the old era to the new: technology. Congregations are beginning to utilize technology in a variety of ways, from streaming services to having welcome videos on their websites, to projecting video, presentations, having google hangouts in the service, and more, during the service. But integrating technology into the life of a congregation is not limited to Sunday mornings, it can also be a way to remove barriers to participation. Video conferencing can be used for meetings so that people who have difficulty driving at night, or have children at home they need to be with, can participate from the comfort of their own home. Having a podcast or video-cast of the service allows people to access it whenever it works for their schedule.

It was not that long ago that congregations could get by without even having a website, but that is absolutely not the case anymore. And a website is just the beginning. Congregations not only need to be on social media, they need to know how to use it. Over 600 people have “liked” the First Unitarian facebook page – that is more than 3x our membership number and 6x the number of people we get on Sunday morning. Another 50 people are following the church twitter feed. These are people whose lives this congregation touches in some capacity. On social media, information is processed differently than it is in print, or even in email. Chunks of data have to be smaller, more discrete. They have to grab the viewer immediately with relevant details in case they don’t read past the first sentence. This necessitates a shift in how we share information, as we maintain the old era ways of the newsletter and printed orders of service while moving to the new era ways of using social media.

Congregations can also use technology to see what people are interested in at the church or how people are finding the church. Using customer relationship management software like Constant Contact to distribute our newsletter and then tracking which links get clicked on and which don’t would allow us to see who is reading the newsletter and what parts of it people are most interested in. Google analytics can track what search terms bring up a congregation’s website, as well as where the majority of the clicks come from. For instance, from this data I learned last night that our website was clicked on more often by people looking for Pagan communities in Louisville than from any other online search! Google analytics can also track demographic and geographic data of people visiting a website, as well as the total amount of time between clicks, which can give you a sense of whether or not they are reading what is on the website. This is all important data that can then be used when deciding what to promote, as well as how and where to spend advertising or marketing money.

money-tree-images-Image-Money-Tree-IllustrationAhh yes. Money. At this point, many of you are probably wondering how on earth we are supposed to do all these things. Not surprising, financing is another area in which the terrain between the old era and the new era is shifting and which we need to take into consideration as we design and build this bridge. With the economic downturn finally resolving, congregations are often still struggling to make ends meet. I know many of you are tired of hearing our pleas week after week that our finances are not enough to keep up with not only the promises we have made in the present, but also our vision for the future.

Some congregations have instituted a fee for service payment method, where services are broken down and participants pay for them separately. This might look like having fees to participate in RE classes, book groups, CUUPS rituals, possibly even worship. The trouble with this method is that it puts up barriers to participation instead of removing them. Instead, I believe it is time for congregations to get creative.

One way congregations can remove barriers to participation around money is to utilize technology more effectively. This might look like enabling online donations during the service, either though a website or through a hardware technology solution such as the Square.

Though we will still rely on your annual pledge as the primary means of supporting First Unitarian, I also believe we will begin to see more congregations applying for grants. There are thousands upon thousands of dollars available out there that congregations could be plugging into: from making our building more accessible to funding an OWL coordinator, to a variety of social service and social justice projects that congregations could be taking advantage of. These grants are available from local organizations, state and national organizations, and, if a congregation has been a UUA Fair Share Congregation for two years (and we were last year, so we are so close!), from regional chalice lighter grants or from Veatch grants from the Shelter Rock congregation. Grant applications are particularly appealing to deciding bodies when congregations partner with other area organizations, including other local congregations.

sharingWhich leads to another way to do more with less: sharing resources with other congregations. It may be that we could share a membership director staff position with Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church down the road, or we could share a bookkeeper with the Bloomington congregation. Not only does this help lighten the load on an individual congregation, it creates jobs that are more likely to provide both benefits and a livable wage – making the position more appealing to a larger array of candidates!  We can share resources with other congregations!

Worship, multiple avenues of participation, technology, and financing – these are just 4 aspects of the changing terrain that we need to take into consideration as we design and build this bridge between the eras. And underpinning it all is a practical theological exercise. Did you notice it? There is a phrase that I repeated in each of these areas: “removing barriers to participation.” removing barriers

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We accept one another and encourage each other on our spiritual journeys. These two statements combined mean that we strive to meet people where they are. Not where we wish they would be, not where we think they should be. It means meeting people in the lived reality of where they are.

The more we understand this, the more we realize that it is our calling to confront and seek to do away with whatever it is that prevents people from feeling as though they have a place at the table. This means intentionally looking at what accommodations a congregation can make to remove barriers to participation for all those who might find a home with us, such as only offering worship on Sunday morning (a time when many people have to work), removing a barrier such as not amplifying sound during worship, or such has having manually powered doors that are not wide enough for a scooter to get through. It means taking down barriers so that parents feel welcome to bring their child with autism who gets overwhelmed easily by providing a quiet place for the child to calm down when overstimulated. It means having toddler seats in addition to high chairs so that people with toddlers feel welcome to stay for lunch, and it means explaining what is going on throughout the service for those who are new or who cannot read the order of service. Though we cannot, and should not, try to be all things to all people, through being intentional about our worship, through providing multiple avenues for participation, through the use of technology, and through thinking creatively about finances, congregations can remove barriers to participation and thus walk the talk on our core values.

lastBridgeBridges connect one space to another, traversing a changing terrain. Our theological values provide the decking of this bridge that we are designing and building and traveling. Our values connect us to the old era, anchoring us in history and tradition, and will see us through to the new. Though the terrain may be unfamiliar, we trust that we will get to the other side together, and in the meantime, we design and build, travel and dream about what we might create together along the way. May it be so.

One Response to “bridging eras.”

  1. Judy Welles February 19, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

    Brilliant as usual, Dawn. And inspiring.

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