16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
So We’re a Church! Now What?
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 11/13/2011
A few months ago I went over to B. R.’s house with M. to check out a collection of religious books that SCUU has been storing in B.’s basement for a few years. While I was there, I opened a box full of videotapes – and lo and behold, the tapes were SCUU worship services, filmed mostly under the tenure of Rev. J. V. back in the day.
One of the tapes jumped out at me, because it was called “The Whole Loaf” and it was from April of 2000. There were a number of copies of it, so I figured that it was an important worship service of some sort. With M.’s permission, I snagged one of the tapes to watch at home (because believe it or not, I still have a VCR in the basement!) I wanted to see a glimpse back in time, into SCUU history.
It was really fun to see the video, even though the quality wasn’t great and it was hard to see who was speaking if you didn’t already know them. I was able to recognize just a few faces. J.W. spoke, and I saw K.W. walk by with a banner, and I could see T.W. in the congregation. I was very excited to finally see what I think was the bank basement that I’ve heard so much about, with the foldout chairs that had to be set up and put away every Sunday.
The minister was Rev. C. D., and the topic of the day appeared to be fundraising, a stewardship campaign. The banner that I saw K.W. walk by with was a graphic of how much had been pledged and how far there was to go. So this whole video was a little snapshot of time in SCUU’s history, where the members of the day were encouraging each other to give generously, so that SCUU could survive and thrive.
There was so much about the video that showed that the church was different then. There was a different minister, and you met in a different place, and you had different people in the congregation. But there was something more that was very much the same.
The thing that was the same, the cultural trend that I recognized as Sugarloafian right away, was the narrative. It was the story you – they - were telling each other. Those Sugarloafers were telling each other the story of “the little congregation that could”.
Sugarloaf has so much potential, the Sugarloafers of the day were telling themselves. If we succeed at this drive, we’ll be able to do so much great church. We will live into our promise. We will be as great as we know we can be, as great as we are, but more so.
It’s a story that I’ve heard time and again here at SCUU.
I heard it when I was learning about you through the year-long interview process that we went through together. “Sugarloaf has so much potential,” your minister and your former ministers and other ministers in the area who know you would tell me. “If they can just recover from the scandal and the financial crisis and the big congregational argument, they will take off. Sugarloaf,” I was told, “has so much promise.”
It was the story I heard from you all when I started working here, too, when I would ask about your history and your hopes and your dreams for this place. I heard: “We were so surprised to raise more money for the property than we were expecting to! We thought that once we moved here, we’d really explode in size.” “We had finally moved onto the property when our minister moved away. We had to direct our attention to a ministerial search, which ended up taking two years.” “We were so glad to have found you, and once we recover from our scandal/financial crisis/congregational argument, it will be great to find our purpose again.”
These are all statements that say the same thing to me, at their root: Once (insert situation of the moment) is resolved, then we will finally live into our potential.
Which is, itself, another way of saying this: We are not yet a real church, but we really want to be, and we will be, just as soon as (insert situation of the moment) is resolved.
We are not yet a real church, but we want to be. We are not yet a real church, but we will be, once something changes.
Folks, I find you just adorable. Your earnestness and your desire for perfection and your quest for greatness is admirable and I love working with you among all of those qualities and all those desires. But I’m here this morning to tell you something new about yourselves, something you yourselves are just beginning to notice.
I am here this morning to tell you that you are a real church right now.
You are a real church – a functioning, vibrant, quirky, energetic, skilled church. You are this church already. You are this church, right now.
You do not have to wait. You have a place to meet, and you have a minister. You have members who care. You have a religion that informs and inspires you. You are a church right now.
You do not have to be bigger than you are to be a church. You do not have to wait until no-one has hurt feelings to be a church. You do not have to have an overflow of money to be a church. You are already the church. You are the church right now.
When I say this, I’m actually speaking to the old-timers among us, those who have been around for a few years. Because the newer members already know this, aren’t I right? They didn’t join Sugarloaf because they were hoping it had potential. They joined Sugarloaf because it is the church they were looking for, already.
So, given this reality, given the fact that Sugarloaf is a real church already, the question that it is now time for us to ask ourselves has changed. The question that it is time for us to ask ourselves is this: Now what do we do?
What do we do to ensure that we are doing the things that an effective church does?
How do we do church well?
There are three things that a church needs to do in order to be effective. If a church does these three things well, then it is effective. It actually doesn’t matter how many people are doing these things. An effective church can have 20 people. You can do these three things without any church property, and you can do these three things without professional ministry. (I could have skipped that last one, but it’s true.) You don’t need property or money or professional ministry to be a good church, but you do need to be these three things:
1. You need to be a community that cares for its members.
2. You need to be a place that encourages the spiritual growth and development of its membership.
3. You need to be a force for good in the world, according to your values, and proportionate to your size. If you are big, be a big force for good. If you are small, be a small one. But you need to be one.
Community of Care. Spiritual Growth. Force for Good. This is the recipe that makes for good church.
The problem is, of course – or should I say “the challenge is,” or better yet, “the opportunity is,” – that there are many, many different ways to fulfill these three things, right?
Every denomination will have a certain perspective on it, and within each denomination, each congregation will have their own little way of being in the world, their own way of doing church. Each congregation will be best at some of these three angles, and will need to work on the rest. Each congregation has its own strengths, interests and viewpoints. Each congregation will need to decide how it will express itself as a church in its own particular way.
Each congregation needs to decide for itself where its deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, because it is at this place, at the intersection between the gladness and the hunger, where the most effective ministry is done. Where the most effective church is done.
Let’s look at Sugarloaf.
Community of Care. I think SCUU is already excellent at this. And by excellent, I don’t mean that we get it right every time. But being a community of care is so clearly valuable for us here at Sugarloaf that you can see most of us trying to do it, most of the time. We share the value that caring for each other is important. We come back to caring for each other automatically. When visitors come here, they can tell right away that we care for each other and we want to care for them too. It’s a very appealing quality, and one that we work at. I can’t imagine that Sugarloaf will ever get very far away from being this valued community of care.
But we couldn’t only be a community of care, and be an effective church. There’s not much that separates a church that only does good community care from a Lion’s Club, say, or a PTA group, or a close-knit neighborhood, or a members’ swimming pool in the summer. A church does need to be a community of care, but only being a community of care does not make a church. You need the other two legs of the stool in order to be an effective church.
And there is another reason why being primarily a community of care is not enough, and sometimes we see this reason rear its head here at Sugarloaf. It’s not enough for a church to only be a community of care, because if our primary motivation with each other is to feel good about and cared for by each other, then when we run up against each other with legitimate disagreements, and tempers flare and feelings are hurt, then we don’t have much else to fall back on as a reason to stay together.
Whereas, if we are together as a congregation because we are a community of care, yes, but also because we want to grow spiritually both together and individually, and also because we are making a difference in the world, then we are partially inoculated against many kinds of interpersonal trouble. When differences arise and feelings are hurt – and this happens in every church, folks, and more than that it happens everywhere where people gather and are real with each other – when differences arise and feelings are hurt, then we don’t forget why we bother to come together in the first place. Those hurt feelings don’t break us apart, if we are being an effective church with all three legs of our stool at work.
Two: Spiritual Development. A church is charged with seeing that its membership grows in its spiritual understanding. What does that mean in a UU context? Since we UUs believe that every person has an individual understanding of the truth that can be guided by many different sources, we are at our most effective as a congregation when we provide people with more information about those spiritual resources and more opportunities to figure out what is true for them.
As religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs once wrote, “The kind of agnosticism worthy of an intelligent and courageous person is the kind that is ceaselessly trying to decrease the range of its unknowing.”
So if you are unsure what you think about the nature of the universe, if you are unsure which values or priorities should underpin your life, or which spiritual truths are yours to follow – and it’s hard to be a religious person of depth and NOT be unsure about those things - then it is your job to work on being more sure of that, and it is our job as a good church to create the setting for you to do that work.
But what should we do to create that setting? Should we have classes? Should we have some sort of spiritual practice that we do together? Or is a weekly worship service plenty for a congregation of our size? There are quite a range of options. And in just a moment, we’ll come back to these questions, right after we generate some more questions with the third leg of the stool.
Three: Force for Good in a world that needs us. This leg generates a lot of questions for us here, because although we may find much common ground when it comes to what we think it would be good to change in the world, there are so many choices that it will be a challenge to figure out what our church particularly can do.
First of all, how big a project should we take on? Should all of us do it, or just whoever is interested?
From there, what social problem should we tackle? And how can we use our particular resources to guide our decisions? For example, here at Sugarloaf we have a lot of scientists, and we have a lot of land. Does that tell us anything about what we should do to help the world we live in? What else about us could inform our decision as to what we should do? Is there something particular to being an outer-ring suburb of a major east-coast metropolitan area that informs us or defines us? Is there something about living near an agricultural preserve that tells us something? Does the presence of stink bugs tell us anything? What helps us here?
I present this dizzying array of questions to show that being an effective church takes some figuring. It takes conversation. It takes time. It takes a common understanding of all the things that Sugarloaf is, and all the things we want to be like, and all the things we want to do.
And we can only arrive at that common understanding through talking to each other about the many things we value and hope for for our church.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t have a leader from on high who can come in and tell us who we are and what we should do. That’s work that we do, as a community, by coming together and asking ourselves big and small questions until we know some of the answers. In a church that works by democracy, the task of creating an effective church belongs to us and to no-one else. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
The Sugarloaf Board of Trustees has charged a task force with creating occasions for our congregation to do exactly this sort of work, the work of asking ourselves how we want to do church well.
And so, over the next year or two, be prepared to be invited to discussion forums and panels and round table brainstorming sessions and other opportunities yet unexpressed where you will be asked to talk about what Sugarloaf is and where you want it to go. Plan to do some serious thinking of your own. What is the best way to be a community that cares for its membership? How can you best be inspired to find your truth? How can our church be a force for good in a world that so badly needs it?
Sugarloaf is already a real church. It is a church of depth and energy and love. When we come together over the next year or two to figure out what we want to do with ourselves in the years to come, when we come together to imagine the ways in which Sugarloaf can deepen and change and learn and mature, we’ll be amazed at what we discover. We’ll be amazed at what this church can do next. I promise.