Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Longevity of Churches

Remarks from the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg delivered at the commemorative service held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Part 2 of 4)

Now, notwithstanding their social importance throughout human history, the study of congregations as a sociological phenomenon is only a little more than half a century old and the notion that congregations are institutions with something to learn from other human institutions, and with something to contribute in return, is not much more than a century old. So, when this congregation was founded, there were no real guidebooks about how to do so, other than the various denominations’ rules of polity and manuals of discipline. A familiarity with received traditions, the observation of neighbouring congregations’ practices, and the mentorship of wise – and sometimes not so wise – elders were the foundation upon which missionaries went about organizing new congregations. Beyond that, they had to rely on their own ingenuity and chutzpah – although no Christian missionary would have had any idea what chutzpah was, let alone that they possessed it.

First Icelandic Unitarian Church confirmation class
from 100 years ago. The minister is Rev. Rögnvaldur
PĂ©tursson and the two young men in the centre went
on to become ministers – Rev. Philip M. Petursson
and Rev. H.I.S. (Ingi) Borgford.
By the time I was actively engaged in church work, there was a vast literature on the nature of congregational life and a wide array of training programs aimed at guiding would-be new congregation organizers in their task, the name “missionary” having long since fallen out of favour among religious liberals. One of the striking assertions I remember hearing, having been the beneficiary of a quarter century of study, was that the average life expectancy of a Protestant congregation in North America was about 76 years – more or less the same longevity as the average North American person. Not only that, but we were told that the life cycle of the typical congregation was remarkably similar to that of a human being – they tended to reach their adult size by the time they were a quarter century old, they often experienced something akin to a mid-life crisis in their 40s or 50s, and their decline and demise often came on rapidly in their later years. And specific studies of congregations with ethnic foundations – like ours – revealed that few survive to the end of the third generation – that is, few outlast the grandchildren of their founders.

Like all sweeping generalizations, observations about statistically average congregations can be as misleading as they are illuminating, but I offer them up to reinforce an obvious but noteworthy point: this congregation is uncommonly old, which is to say that it has already outlived the average congregation by half a century. It has survived and prospered. And this is a testimony to the faithfulness, resilience, and ingenuity of successive generations of members and friends who have helped it to flourish. This is not an average congregation, it is an exceptional one – remarkable for its longevity, to be sure, but remarkable primarily for the qualities that enabled its longevity: a clear but evolving sense of mission, resilience in weathering the inevitable conflicts and challenges that all human communities face, a willingness to reach across the social divides that stifle growth, and a capacity to change without compromising its core values.

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