I just read (and highly recommend) the book by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi: The Great Derangement (May 2008). It addresses the 9/11 conspiracy crowd, the appallingly corrupt workings of the Congress and Senate, and the phenomenal success of lunatic right wing fundamentalism. For that third topic he went undercover for months and joined a hugely successful if ideologically evil Texas megachurch. (See the linked excerpt article below: “Jesus made me puke”. The provocative title refers to being made to spew out ‘demons’ into a barf bag during a ‘healing service’.)
What fills the pews in those 5000 seat arenas? (according to Matt Taibbi)
1) People are (as sociologists can prove) lonely and disconnected on an unprecedented scale. (I failed to dig out the statistics that I recently saw, their measure or indicator was how many persons someone had other than spouses or parents in whom they could trust to discuss deep emotional issues. Please respond if you can identify the study.)
2) People are hurt. Financially, emotionally, they suffer from evil jobs, endless commutes, they have little life outside their consuming drudgery. Addiction also figures prominently, as do abuse and bad relationships.
These churches are effective, Taibbi writes, not because of their often ludicrous ideologies but because they offer real support in those areas of affliction. (Whether they support is effective is another question, but at least they offer support, and starting to address a problem is always a step in the right direction).
They are also good at retaining folks because they form small groups inside their larger settings (sometimes called ‘tribes’) where people get connected through bible study etc with a regular subset of the same few people. It combines the pleasure of being part of a large group or movement (I call it the ‘stadium effect’) with the joy of really getting to know well a few people who embark on the same journey.
What can UUs learn here?
If a church wants to grow it must first make a visitor feel welcome as a person and then have a mechanism where s/he gets involved and makes lasting acquaintances. My minister, Peter Morales, explained recently that in his experience (both here at JUC and in congregations he’s visited nationwide) almost all visitors have already thoroughly checked out a church online (read sermons, been to http://beliefnet.org etc) before they step through the door.
So their question is (says Peter): Are these my people? and not: Do they believe what I believe?
If they are not actively welcomed and made to feel that, yes, there might well develop a deeper connection, they won’t return.
Many congregations apparently fail to make visitors return. Peter Morales thinks it’s not because of intentional snobbery but rather because our culture of welcoming is underdeveloped, too timid, or simply unreflected.
In a recent campaign event he said about the art of welcoming people: “You don’t have to do it perfectly, and we don’t do it perfectly, and the churches that grow like crazy don’t do it perfectly but they pay attention and they care. The first thing is to get people to care and then to pay attention.”
Since this post now has half turned into a campaign pitch I might as well give a direct link – to both candidates!
Don’t miss the candidate forum webcast this Saturday: 6:45 – 8:00 p.m Eastern time (it takes days until it’s available archived, you have to tune in live or you’ll miss it)
4059 UUA Presidential Candidates’ Forum with Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman and Rev. Peter Morales, Candidates: http://www.uua.org/events/generalassembly/2008/112314.shtml
The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire
Note: Our church, JUC, gets small Amazon referral fees when purchases are made through a JUC link. I suggest you look into that for your own congregation. People are slow to pick it up but I spend loads on Amazon and simply bookmarked JUCs referral button and use it religiously