When I was asked to do a presentation for my start-up at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu in 2011, I immediately thought of a growth strategy that didn’t just involve numbers and finances (the typical holy grail for most congregations), but a deeper and more sustainable spiritual growth that may eventually lead to growth in membership and financial generosity. I called it my “multi-everything” strategy. Here are my top three:
- Multicultural Growth. When I was pre-candidating, I heard the typical desire to attract more people of color into our predominantly white congregations. Most “technical fixes” have been tried and I told them calling a minister of color will not magically solve their problems! I talked about a shift in culture by becoming more welcoming to all cultures. Not just to those who have a different skin tone, but to younger families, to those serving in the military, to those who may be houseless. Shifting congregational culture is about learning to speak languages and crossing borders until we experience holy discomfort.
True confession time. Yesterday, I went to a megachurch (over 9,500 worshippers) that was diverse in every sense of the word. To be honest, I was turning green with envy that their play, their singers, AND the folks sitting next to me represented every color under the rainbow. While we may differ theologically, I found myself nodding when one of the associate pastors said that “Here in this place, we practice radical acceptance because we are family and we are a community.” Their pastor had an especially profound experience he shared openly during the sermon about being in recovery and it’s OK to be who you are and belong to the church. Not once did he mention multiculturalism. It just was. This is when I realized we Unitarian Universalists need to stop chasing after multiculturalism as if it were an idol. What we ought to focus on instead like this megachurch is a common mission that we can all connect with and relationships that are genuine instead of a superficial window-dressing to make ourselves feel good as liberals. Stop talking about people of color and forget the curriculum. Just be and think about why you’re there to begin with.
- Multifaith Growth. What the shooting in San Bernardino taught us and what Islamophobic statements by certain political candidates have shown is our country’s fear of what we perceive as the “other.” Some still think America is a “Christian nation” and the only place we can find people of other faiths is by hopping on a plane. How about walking next door? Religious pluralism exists in our own backyard. As a community organizer (interfaith organizer to be exact for the UU Legislative Ministry of California), I’ve come to realize that if we are to build Beloved Community, we need to use the materials we can find on our own turf. Neighboring faiths is not just a curriculum our children go through as part of their religious exploration, but it’s a way of life our adults need to learn as well. In Hawaii, we won marriage equality in large part due to the efforts of Unitarian Universalists reaching out the progressive Christians, who reached out to Buddhists who reached out to the Jewish community. We are in this together, and our values bind us together to create a larger ripple in the community we live in.
- Multisite Growth. The concept of satellites, mergers, and covenantal communities that extend beyond the walls of brick-and-mortar congregations are at least a couple of decades old now. They’re no longer part of the “emerging church” movement, but an emerged reality we all have to contend with in the ever-shifting landscape of American religious life. Yet, when we UUs talk about establishing another site, our reason more often than not has to do with either a split from congregants we don’t get along with or we don’t want to be bothered driving 45 minutes to church on Sundays. We love being with like-minded people and the kind of community we want to build seems more insular rather than inclusive.
A more compelling reason for me is because there is a hurting world out there and someone has to save our environment and heal the lovelessness and injustices that we all face. The more we focus on simply conducting insular worship “serve-us-es,” the less we are able to live out our “services” to our community. It’s really not about our needs and what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for the common good. Becoming multisite (in the broadest sense of the word) allows the church to fulfill its call to transform lives.
I think this three-prong multi-layered approach is still a pretty darn good recipe to spread our Unitarian Universalist faith. I call it the architecture of “multidependence.” Tune in to a future blog to find out what this structure looks like.
The Rev. Dr. Jonipher Kūpono Kwong proudly serves as a Congregational Life Staff for the Pacific Western Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Part of his key area of ministry (though by no means is he an expert) is to be a coach (or more like a cheerleader with pom-poms on) for innovative, experimental ministries. He is an entrepreneur by heart and an out-and-proud Unitarian Universalist Evangelist.