© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved, 9-18-11

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As a church, we do not have one of those changeable signs out front that often serve to both promote and provoke.    The best church signs, I think, are witty and don’t seem so self-important.  Some actual phrases posted on church signs that I have found to be very funny are:

The first, “God, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”  Or another:

“Life stinks, we have a pew for you.”  Or another:

“We’re not Dairy Queen, but we have good Sundays.” or

“Are you bored?  Try a missionary position here.” and, perhaps my favorite,

“Do you know what hell is?  Come here our preacher.”

Intentional or not, such signs serve a purpose.  They often convey the character and personality of a church.  Usually, the character of a church flows directly from its vision of itself and its implicit purpose for existence.

As with any organization – be it a Fortune 500 multi-national corporation employing tens of thousands of people or a small family of two or three, each successful grouping of people has a well-defined purpose for its existence that adds value to the world.  Some purpose statements are simple but precise, they are daily put into practice and they continually help focus the organization toward meeting its values and goals.  Other organizational purpose statements are outdated, inconsistent, not well known and offer little or no direction.

Ultimately, the stated purpose of a church or congregation, and the degree to which that purpose is practiced, will determine the church’s success or failure.  As we discussed in the message two weeks ago on finding and then writing a personal purpose for life, the stated mission of any church is not about setting specific goals of action or of achievement.  Those are important but they must flow directly from the vision and values of the organization.  Everything a church does, as much as possible, should relate to and support the purpose statement.  As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Those who have a why to exist, can bear with almost any how.”

What collective values and passions cause a church to continue to exist and hopefully thrive?  What motivates members to give their money and time?  Within the community and world, what does the church do that has impact?

These are essential questions and, I believe, of vital importance to the long term success or failure of any organization and especially for churches.  As I just said, absolutely everything that is done in an effective church will be motivated by a desire to fulfill its purpose – from cleaning the restrooms, to handing out programs, to music played and sung, to outreach in the community, to weekly Sunday services, to any of the smallest tasks performed.  Vision, values and purpose inform, motivate and define everything.  In this way, a spiritual community stays true to its reason for existence and thereby offers each of its members a higher reason for attending, giving and volunteering.  A clear vision also offers visitors a reason to want to belong and attend again.  Who wants to be a part of a church that has no idea for why it exists and no higher purpose other than to consume valuable resources others produce?

It is said that organizations with a clear purpose, that regularly work to implement it in all that they do, succeed far more than those with a non-existent or poorly implemented mission statement.  Over the last ten years, companies voted as some of the best to work for in terms of values and compassion for both customer and employee, they had a nearly 7% stock appreciation compared with a 1% appreciation for companies not considered best to work at.   Employees and customers are drawn to organizations that have meaning, purpose and impact for the betterment of the world in general.  They not only know where they are going but they operate with consistent values which inform all that they do.   These companies impact the lives of others for the better.  While a for profit corporation is not the same as a church, factors determining success or failure are still the same.  People are drawn to churches that have determined they will make a difference and then they actually do so.

In this message series on revival, we will have considered four areas of renewal that are valuable to any of us.  Two weeks ago, we looked at finding a personal life purpose.  Last week, we considered national revival and finding civility and non-violence in our dialogue.  This week we will consider church revival in general – finding the mission for churches, and in particular, progressive churches, to exist.  Finally, next week we will look at specifics as they relate to the Gathering.  What are our collective purposes and how will we achieve them in the coming years?

George Barna, the well known church analyst and pollster whose work examines the state of religion in America, performed an influential study on churches that are highly effective and those that are not.  He found that only 10% of churches are highly effective, about 50% are effective, with the remainder as failing.  His criteria for evaluation were not based on size, wealth, denomination or theology of a congregation.  Indeed, nearly thirty percent of all churches in American have memberships of under 100 people, and at least 10% of those are rated as highly effective.  He focused solely on whether a church had impact in the lives of its members and in the community.

Ineffective churches, he found, had four things in common.  First, they accept mediocrity as a standard.  Not only is the Pastor not encouraged and supported to be as good as possible, members are OK with token volunteerism, small giving and lackluster planning and execution of events.  There is little excitement or passion within the congregation.  People seem to just go through the motions of keeping the church running.

Second, ineffective churches also take few or no risks in anything they do.  They fail to innovate and are content with doing things the way they have always been done.  Experimenting with new ideas, advancing new projects, dreaming big for the future – all of these are not undertaken.  Stagnation is the result.

Third, ineffective churches are closed, insular and non-inviting. They believe visitors can find them if they want to.  There is no strategic effort to think about the visitor and how he or she might perceive the church or even choose to attend.  New people have to like them as they are.  There is little concern for offering a welcoming, friendly, comfortable and easily accessible facility to attend.

Finally, ineffective churches do not offer a compelling reason for belonging beyond being part of a social group.  Personal growth and learning is not encouraged.  Service to those outside of the church is not emphasized.  These churches are merely nice places to visit once a week.  They are not integrated into member lives and they offer few opportunities for personal growth through learning or through serving.

Effective churches, on the other hand, encourage the development of deep and significant relationships within the congregation.  The formation of friendships and deep relationships is vital.   These churches invest in and value excellent Sunday services – for the music and the message.  Pastoral messages uplift and challenge.  Music is meaningful and played with excellence.  Effective churches are strategic in how to bring in new people, they encourage and develop ways for people to grow spiritually, they promote giving and volunteering as a holistic and spiritual exercise – every member participates in the life of the church.  Effective churches serve those in need within the community and, finally, they equip and train people how to spiritually minister to and heal themselves.

To boil all of that down, churches should exist to impact for good the lives of people.  One way to do that is by encouraging and challenging members to grow, learn and deepen their spirituality.   Churches should challenge members to spiritually think and question the values and meaning of life, to ask thought provoking questions, and to seek out, through reading or study, new insights for better living.

Second and most important, a church exists to organize and challenge its members to volunteer and financially give as a way to express the value of service for others.   Doing church is not a spectator sport.  Churches should invite and engage people to be players – activists who participate in improving not only their own lives but those of others too.  Just as any effective organization needs every member to get involved in its purpose and mission, so too do churches.

You have heard me say before that churches are not museums of saints on display, a place of supposedly perfect people for the outside world to admire.  Churches are like spiritual hospitals and medical schools where people come to get better and learn how to help others.  As with any medical care, though, most patients do not simply lie in bed and expect others to cure them.  They take an active role in their personal health and vitality.  Furthermore, as communal organizations, churches bring together the combined energy and resources of their members to go out into the community and help make a difference.  The money I give or the time I volunteer, taken alone, cannot make as much difference as they can when combined with the money and effort of others.

Finally, churches offer a unique social setting that enables members to form deep, lasting and meaningful relationships with each other.  If each member of a church can say that some of his or her best and most important friends are from that same church, if opportunities are continually provided to develop and grow such relationships, then something right is happening.  Effective and successful churches are places where close friendships are both common and deep.

Recently, I heard a few of us lament the plight of progressive churches in our nation.  Since many progressive people question the standard religious purpose for churches – that of worship and obedience to a supernatural god – most progressives simply stay away from anyplace calling itself a church.  And that is, indeed, a problem.  Too many GLBT folk, I often sadly note, stay away from any church simply because they have been so hurt and demeaned by many churches and denominations.

Many of us reject that standard religious purpose for churches that I just cited – that of worship and obedience to a supernatural god.  But that does not mean we should reject principles that make any church or any organization effective.  A church purpose – or any organizational purpose – should be for the good of all people.  A progressive church, therefore, is in the unique position of being able to actually practice what it preaches.   Progressive churches really do advance the well-being of all people – not just those who belong, believe or act as they do.  Universal human growth, universal human potential and the betterment of all humanity and all creation are what motivates a progressive church.

As I have listed some general purposes for churches, progressive ideals must be added to them.  They are values that are favored by many in our nation.  One need not be a believer to join a progressive church.  Atheists are welcome.  One need not be straight, or white, or suburban.  One can be a transsexual, a person of color, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, a skeptic, a homeless person, disabled, young, gay, whatever!  And nobody in a progressive church will ask you to change your unique identity.  You are beautiful just as you are.

As a place that truly welcomes and celebrates all people, a progressive church is also a place of challenge and encouragement.  Members are not content with rigid dogma taught to them by supposedly enlightened men and women.  There is no spiritual rest for progressive church members.  Indeed, the spiritual work is all the harder because spiritual truths must be continually examined and re-imagined. Progressive church members question.  They seek.  They wonder aloud and to themselves.  Doubts continue to percolate and that is good.  Life becomes one long exploration of what is new, beautiful and wondrous.  The ancient is combined with the new.  Mystery is embraced along with reason.  The rational mind plays an important role, combined with myth and allegory, to determine important lessons for life.

Everybody is loved, valued and appreciated.  In Progressive churches, there is no sin under the sun except for that which does harm to another.  Progressive churches promote the Golden Rule as the standard for true morality – members strive to love and treat others as they too wish to be loved and treated.  People accept responsibility for their actions but they are not forced to carry guilt and shame imposed by false religious standards.  Forgiveness comes from within and from others.  The ethic is to live humbly in this world – meaning that other pathways for life, purpose and faith are equally valid.  As a progressive church member, one respects, loves and serves.  One gives, learns and grows.  Scripture is drawn from many sources and is ever-evolving.

It takes courage to be a progressive church member.  Such churches are not common.  If one rejects religion, one usually rejects church.  But progressives offer a new vision of church that takes the qualities of any effective organization and uses them to serve and impact all people, all faiths, all sexual identities.  No judgement.  No intolerance.  No false or outdated standards.  Love, peace and the true ethic of Jesus, Buddha and other prophets of history – compassion for the least of humanity – the hurting, sick, marginalized and poor; a rejection of privilege based on class, ethnicity or religion; a commitment to personal integrity – acting and speaking in ways that are consistent with beliefs.  Such are the ways of Jesus and of progressive churches.  I believe they are the ways of future spirituality.

In that regard, churches serve a vital and unique role in contemporary lives.  When functioning at their most effective, progressive churches profoundly impact the lives of the community and their members for good.  There are no other institutions that offer opportunities for meaningful personal growth, vital social interaction that builds deep friendships, and ways to serve the poor, outcast, homeless and hungry.  Indeed, my vision of an effective church is that of a beautiful, affirming and diverse community where all people are challenged and loved.  Churches change the human condition……………… and thus they change the world.

I wish you all peace and joy.