Yesterday, in a fit of enthusiasm, I reviewed each website for United States Unitarian Universalist Association membership congregations thirty-five members and fewer, and those which are aspiring for membership, known as "emerging congregations." (I excluded federated churches on the grounds that the total parish was, in each case, larger than thirty-five.)
Why did I review these? And what did I find? And who did best? Read further and see.
I've heard from "conventional wisdom" that small churches are where's not happening. Big churches are sexy, big churches are wonderful.
Well, a big church is a big church and a small church is a small church. Each has its ministry and can do it well or badly. The reality is a big church that does a bad ministry (or even suffers normal lifespan issues, like the retirement of a well-loved minister) can quickly become a small one, but a good, small churches doesn't necessarily become big.
Let's help small churches be the best churches they can be, and rather than picking on the bad, sick, or disturbing examples, I'd like to lift up something for everyone to admire - and emulate.
Now, since I don't have particular data for the ninety-odd small U.S. congregations with websites, I am basing my evaluation on the content of the website itself. After all, that's how new, unaffiliated people will judge you.
Without responding to the theology or the compass of program, I asked myself "Does this church know what it is? Will it welcome me? Does it have its act together? Will it make it easy for me to understand?"
Some congregations were so off-the-mark it was painful: little attention to where the group met; more attention about getting recognized by the UUA (and when and how and why, with fine detail) than a greeting from the people to newcomers; graphics so badly chosen or garishly applied that I literally jumped in my seat; and the misuse of free Internet services that suggested that the operation had neither pride nor funds (though I should note that others made clever use of the same freebies.)
About a dozen of the ninety made my "I like this congregation; I wish I could visit list" and they came from every part of the country, theological core, and style of worship (or non-worship, in one case.)
The one congregation that was head-and-shoulders above the others was Clifton Unitarian Church, Louisville, Kentucky.
First, a few technical points. They have their own easy to remember domain (http://www.cliftonunitarian.org/) with email address to match, and they pay for their own hosting: no pop-ups, banners, or other unplanned content. Good design: no "welcome page" and absolutely no Flash. (I would add "Louisville, Kentucky" to the title, and duplicate the address and email in text at the bottom; helps with search engines and those with poor eyesight.) Its graphics are responsible, professional-looking, and inspire confidence in the viewer.
The tag-line - "the little church with lots of room" - is memorable and works on so many levels. Great going! More importantly, as a church visitor, I can see what kind of sermons are preached (and what the congregation is like, to a degree) and they've made this the most conspicuous link on the front page. This is like saying: This is who we are. Looking inside, I get a feeling that these people are friendly, but have their act together. The two aren't always compansions in small churches!
I am interested in their ministry situation, and encouraged by their wedding hospitality outreach.
No heroics, no false claims, and it goes what can work with a congregation of thirty-one and growing. (It listed seventeen in the 2001-02 directory.)
Go and see for yourself: a winning church.