Message 132, “The Gathering at a Crossroads: What Does It Mean to Grow?”

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reservedgrow


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Recently, when a reporter noted that the currently popular singer Britney Spears had experienced some significant improvements in her bustline, the thirty year old celebrity quickly protested.  “I have not had breast implants.  I have merely undergone a growth spurt!”

As ironic as it might sound, Britney speaks to a larger question we each face.  How much do we change due to external influences that artificially cause us to enlarge, and how much do we instead initiate a process of deliberate and planned inner growth of the mind and soul?  In other words, do we simply change, or do we actually grow?

As we all know, change is inevitable.  Importantly, however, change is not necessarily growth.  When we grow, we qualitatively improve for the better.  We’ve learned something valuable.  We’ve gained wisdom, hard won experience and expansion that is good and helpful.  Growth is almost always intentional.  Indeed, growth is a process that should never end.  The status quo is not an option.  In a world that is rapidly changing, we can either grow or fall steadily behind.  By failing to plan our own growth, we have paradoxically planned for our failure.  We will change, but it will not be for our good.

As the Gathering nears its ten year birthday, we have a justifiable reason to celebrate.  Very few churches of our size last more than a few years.  More importantly, very few churches that begin from nothing reach a point where we find ourselves today – a congregation that attracts new members, is consistently able to meet an annual budget of $50,000, and is actively serving and changing lives for the better.  Henry Ward Beecher once said that, We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but rather by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.”  By that measure, the Gathering has grown substantially.

Birthdays that matter, however, look not so much to the past but rather to the future.  Holidays and anniversaries clearly celebrate what has already happened, but they importantly look forward to the “yet to be.”  What comes next?  How do we build upon the past?  What can we do to insure continued birthday celebrations far into the future?  Ultimately, how do we continue to grow and what strategies must we commit ourselves so that change is not forced upon us?   How do we, instead, embrace growth that is planned and derives from our inner values and beliefs?

I would be seriously remiss as a Pastor if I did not encourage growth in every one of us.  I would also be guilty of malpractice if I did not promote our growth as an organization and community.  Whenever I depart my position here, I pray that any legacy I leave behind will be one of positive and planned growth.  And I don’t hope for modest growth at our  margins.  I hope for real, durable and significant change for the better in you, in me and in the Gathering.  What I most pray for is that the amorphous thing we call the Gathering will be firmly on a path to long term survival and impact.  I pray for a progressive faith community that endures far into the future and one that nourishes and serves the needs of our grandchildren’s generation – a faith alternative to dogmatic and harmful religion.  As I often like to repeat, we give and serve today for the sake of others – both present and future.

But, as much as we serve others, we indirectly give to ourselves.  By planning to grow, we also serve our values and our purpose for living.  The Gathering has helped me to substantially grow into a more open-minded, confident, and capable man.  Spiritually, intellectually and emotionally I am a different man than I was almost four years ago when I began as Pastor.  And, I hope many of you can say the same due to your time at the Gathering.  If that is so, then we must both selfishly and selflessly plan for continued growth.  We must go deeper, broader and more boldly into the future in ways that expand who we are and what we do.  That must be a mission not only for us as a community, but for each one of us personally.  What can we do for ourselves and for others that stretches us and grows us in new and challenging ways?

For most faith communities, four engines of growth have been identified.  These so-called engines enable both individual and collective growth in ways that deepen the faith experience and help invite new members.  The goal for us is not just to expand numerically, but to expand in deeper but profound ways.  How many more volunteers are we sending out into the community?  What new areas of service do we build and promote?  How do we encourage fellow members to be increasingly at peace with themselves and the world?  What new insights into life do we discover and share?  Ultimately, how do we make a difference – individually and collectively – in other lives?

The four engines of growth in most churches are: 1) Engaging children’s and youth programs;  2)  Adult community-building experiences that foster supportive relationships and friendships; 3)  Meaningful and diverse ways to serve others, and 4)  Interesting and inspirational adult Sunday services.  Faith communities that focus on those four engines of growth will, it is said, grow in depth and in numbers.

Indeed, according to statistics on why new visitors return to a church, 36% say they do so because of the so-called sermon, 32% return due to the friendliness and welcoming nature of the congregation and 30% return because they enjoyed the overall worship experience.  For us, we would be wise to focus our qualitative and numerical growth efforts on these areas.

We obviously lag in offering children’s and youth programs at the Gathering.  While this is a chicken or egg issue for us – we don’t have many youth as a part of the congregation – that may well be due to our lack of programs for them.  I challenge us to work to rebuild a children’s program.  We can begin small and offer an engaging children’s experience perhaps once a month – thus requiring a rotating group of perhaps four adult teacher volunteers who would only serve a few times a year.

We do offer multiple opportunities to build adult friendships at the Gathering.  Indeed, this is one area many of us feel is best about our church and what keeps us coming back.  I challenge us, however, to seek growth in our racial diversity and in how we become even more inclusive for women in leadership roles.  We must be intentional in those efforts – perhaps purposefully inviting African-American friends or electing women as our leaders.  I also challenge each of you to help us grow by taking the initiative in planning community building events.  I cannot organize them alone.  I need other organizers and idea makers to plan and execute movie nights, pub nights, field trips, pot-lucks and other creative and fun events.

In serving our community, we have grown tremendously over ten years.  As a still small church, we have grown over the last few years from serving one charity to now serving five.  While I caution us not to over-extend ourselves, there is still room for growth in this area.   Out of approximately fifty regularly attending members, 19 serve in outreach efforts.  While almost everybody serves our congregation in some way, I challenge us to raise the number of volunteers who serve in outreach.  Even if it involves baking a few cookies for homeless kids, there are countless simple ways to serve in outreach.  As we expand our volunteer numbers, we can then explore more ways to serve the community.

Specifically, I call us to explore new outreach projects like obtaining new financial grants to further serve homeless youth – perhaps by joining or starting a tutoring program.  Also, we might partner with an organization like Habitat for Humanity and actually help, along with other groups, build a home for a homeless family.  Once again, we need ideas and organizers to plan and implement such new projects.

I firmly believe that a faith community that is primarily oriented toward serving others will never fail.  Volunteering in our city builds community between those of us who do serve, it underscores our purpose for existence as individuals and as a church, and it offers the kind of inner satisfaction that only giving and serving can bring.  As long as I am Pastor, we will be an outreach oriented faith community constantly seeking new and better ways to serve.

Finally, there is room for growth in how we conduct our Sunday services.  I want to continue to grow as a speaker and I seek your honest but gentle thoughts on how I can improve.  I encourage growth in the types and varieties of musical expression we offer – specifically looking to occasionally include more African-American music, inspirational songs by contemporary pop and rock and roll artists as well as other types of music.  I challenge us to be more inclusive and diverse in our so-called worship liturgy – occasionally including inspirational poems, dramas, videos and member participation in our services.  Overall, I challenge us not to become stuck in always doing things the same way but to expand our worship to sometimes include practices that speak to the wide diversity of age, gender, race, culture and sexuality.

As always, we need visionaries and thought leaders to facilitate those initiatives.  While I am responsible for Sunday services, I am not an island.  I welcome not only fresh ideas but also people who will lead the effort to execute them.  We are an intelligent and creative group who can collectively respect our Sunday traditions while engaging those of the future.

Last on my list on how we can grow, I encourage us to honestly consider moving to a new space.  As I have already discussed, such a move is not an answer to our growth.  Brick and mortar will never be more important to us than hearts and minds.  But our church space is a reflection of who we are and it sends out subtle but strong messages to those who might attend.  While our current space has served us well, I believe we must plan for a space that will add to our qualitative and numerical growth.  We want a space that can help us grow in each of the growth areas I’ve listed – in a youth program, in building stronger community, in serving outside charities and in our worship experiences – those on Sunday mornings and also those for our weddings, child dedications and funeral services.

If we think of the great prophets throughout history, they did not seek mass numbers of followers.  Rather, the huge numbers of people who did follow them came as a result of their deliberate plans and ideas.  Who we are as individuals does not happen by random accident.  We exercise, we read, we learn, we work, we eat, we seek medical care – all to help us grow.  If we choose to stagnate, we initiate our slow demise.  The Gathering is no different.  We need your help not to maintain who and what we are now, we need your help in how we become deeper, stronger, and better.   If this place matters to us and to our personal growth, we need everyone’s help.  We need ideas and leadership so that on June 23, 2053, there will be a Gathering birthday celebrating a thriving progressive community built upon the planned growth that we initiate.  By our past hard work and dedication, we have this unique gift called the Gathering – one that comforts, serves and enlightens.  Let us boldly and creatively build its future so that this gift will keep on giving.