New in church formation?

I was reading a work of biblical interpretation from 2002 which referred to the house churches of the early Christian era. Memories of then-chic church planting came back, almost accusingly. Were new house churches such a good idea then? Did they endure? Did it lead to sustained growth, either numerical or spiritual?

I realized that I’m so out of touch with church planting and church growth (not just house churches but all models) that not only did I not know, but don’t know what’s current now. Churches, in any case, seem more fragile now than then whether “old line” or more innovative, of any theological stripe.

Do you know what the trends are? I’m not afraid to ask for ideas and citations.

Mapping demographics: an online tool

Remember those expensive demographic surveys — Precept, Proscript, something — that the districts provided for church planting, say, 15 years ago.

OK: perhaps not. After all, they were expensive.

Well, I learned today that ESRI — and no particular endorsement for ESRI, by the way — has a map-based zip code look-up tool. Not the same thing, but it does suggest where you might want to target in-person (or postal ?) outreach activity, and what the people who live in that zip code likely value.

Oh, I’m sure it’s a gateway to more refined data, at a cost, I’m sure. But we’re hardly ready for that kind of granular data (for new churches, anyway) yet —

In the meantime, here is a link to the demographic profiles and segmentation overview.


A new church applying to the UUA, but…

The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association posted the packet for its forthcoming (April 15-16) meeting — and the April meeting is always the best. Why? It’s when you’re most likely to see applications for membership, and the most applications — and this is no exception. [Fixed typos.]

So I will presumptively congratulate the forty-two members of the (PDF link) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Bentonville, Arkansas, and wish them well and many years of prosperity and ministry.

But the summary memo (PDF) that announced the Bentonville congregation application also noted that two other churches — All Souls Church (Belgrade and Oakland, Maine) and the Hattiesburg (Miss.) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship — had disbanded, and that the Redding, California congregation has applied to re-classed as a “covenenting community” which by definition  (PDF) is not a member congregation. So not all good news.

Unitarian Universalist church planting, a document review

Several years ago, I wrote about a then-new resource called, and was hopeful it might spark new churches. That page has since vanished as a free-standing resource, but re-appeared as a page within the UUA Mid America Region site. But new church planting is as low as I’ve ever seen it.

There used to be quite a bit of church starting literature, both historically and within “career lifetime memory” but about the time I was coming on the scene in the 1980s, it was already drying up. Perhaps in repudiation of the Fellowship Movement model? The new model was to create a highly developed, programmatic church with high-commitment donors. This has worked in a couple of places, though I wonder if there has been any net gain in those areas. In any case, this is not the kind of church start that you leave new start publications out for. There’s not a new model that’s yet emerged, and it would be helpful for the appropriate authorities within the UUA to produce some, particularly as the “primary purpose” (as in “Principles and Purposes”) of the UUA is “to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.” (By-Laws C-2.2.)

Scanning the web this morning, I found:

The thing that first hits you is that the most important goal of a congregation is to affiliate with the UUA, without much of a case of why a congregation would want to do so. Oddly enough, there’s almost nothing said about what a congregation is, and while the site mentions some things (faith development, social justice, environmental concerns, for instance) it doesn’t go further to say why these are important. Administration trumps ecclesiology. It’s hard, without a huge amount of commitment and training, to come up with pathway for starting a new church without help, and it seems to me that the UUA ought to be generous this way. What better way could it earn its reason for being? Who better to lead this important work? Keep this in mind as the new congregations are welcomed at General Assembly. If any are welcomed at General Assembly.

Asking Micah Bales's question: Are we capable of planting churches?

A cautionary tale. I’ve worshipped with Micah here in D.C. so I sawa little of what he described but I’m certainly no Quaker, and (happily) have since gone back to my old church. But the critical mass issue is one that Unitarian and Universalist Christians are going to have to grapple with, in part because we’re probably too radioactive to attract ecumenical partners. Which is its own shame.

If Quakers don’t have the strength or inclination to seed new congregations, perhaps it’s time to partner with those who do.

Source: Are Quakers Capable of Planting Churches?

So, one new congregation in the UUA this year

The UUA October Board packet is up, and the good news is that there is a action scheduled to admit a new member congregation to the UUA. I don’t recall an application going this far and not being accepted, so let’s assume it’s going to happen. But that means that for the second year in a row, only a single congregation will be admitted to the UUA. (This is the last Board meeting of the year.)

But take joy where you can; I’ll recap the worrying signs later.

My best wishes to the thirty members of the Iowa Lakes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, of Okoboji, Iowa. It has existed for nine years, but presumably only recently become large enough to petition for membership.

It sits in the middle of the Spirit Lake/Dickenson County, Iowa micropolitan area — one of the smallest in the country — and the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation is the Nora Church, Hanska, Minnesota, about 80 miles away. So it serves people who would have otherwise not had a Unitarian Universalist church nearby.


How much church can you get for minimum wage?

I ask the question “How much church can you get for minimum wage?” not to suggest that low-waged workers should be segregated into their own parishes, but consider the proportional sacrifices and ability to give.

I routinely advocate for the formation of new churches: to keep up with population growth, to replace those declining and defunct, and engage with under-represented groups of people. But this doesn’t mean we have the same level of resources we did in the 1980s or 1940s (or 1880s or 1640s.)

One down side of a secularizing culture is that it’s harder to make a case for funding a religious endeavor, unless, perhaps there’s some attendant ethnic or cultural reason. And with a trend of declining wealth, stagnant wages and increasing student debt, the people who are left to contribute are likely to have less to spare.

We’re coming out of church culture of big asks, big sacrifices and big capital projects. But that just doesn’t seem realistic — certainly not in the same way — in the future.

Now, we look at millions of America who are just keeping body and soul together. The churches have to prove their value; double so with new ones.

So, how much church can you get for minimum wage? And more importantly, how will they work? And what will they do?

The church, in its history, has been impoverished, tested, challenged and troubled. I can survive, even prosper. But how?

All Souls Miami to reboot

Some good news, this morning! Happy Pentecost!

Per Kenneth Claus, their minister:

All Souls Miami votes unanimously to re boot…..some of the people who attended this AM…Wild Lime Center….UUA affiliation also unanimously reaffirmed

Filing for non-profit status: hope and help for smaller organizations

Ever been stymied getting a non-profit organization together?

Got word from the IRS yesterday that a draft form 1023-EZ was being make available for review, for possible use this summer. And little wonder: the form 1023 is what an organization files to acquire its tax-exempt status. It’s a beast to complete, and the filing fee isn’t trivial for a group bootstrapping. Form 1023-EZ should take away some strain in those fragile, early days of of new organization.

So I looked at the much-shorter proposed form (PDF) and a couple of blog posts sharing the same news; this is the one to see for more detail. First, only relatively small organizations can use the 1023-EZ to apply: annual revenues of less than $200,000 and assets less than $500,000. Second, no word on the fees. Third, churches (which formally are exempt from applying, but need to do so to get a letter of exemption) would not be able to use this form at release time.  Fourth, the IRS also benefits due to its long backlog of applicants, which may not sound like much until your fundraising is inhibited for want of a determination.

So who, in church circles, should care? Smallish, independent mission-focused non-churches, like mission societies, charitable projects, publication efforts, travel funds and the like. Think of the former independent affiliate organization. Who shouldn’t? Those who can work through an existing non-profit organization, and those who want to form a very, very small organization (under $5,000 in annual revenues) because the IRS provides for those without application, and they’re unlikely to really need a determination letter. (I thought I had written about this option, but cannot find that I have.)

Watching Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act, 2014 edition

I’ve written before how state adoption of the Revised Uniform Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act — look; RUUNA, a UU acronym with no Unitarian Universalist reference — can make church organization easier and polity more organic, rather than always borrowing the idiom of corporations or trusts.

It is being considered this year/session in two states: South Carolina (S 552) and Oklahoma (HB 1996).

(Links are to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States project. I work for the Sunlight Foundation, but these opinions are mine alone.)