How our church came back from the dead and yours can too


Molly Phinney Baskette

6/4/2014

One of your sister churches, First Church Somerville UCC, where I have pastored since 2003, has enjoyed a remarkable degree of growth during the last decade: from 30 to 150 people in worship (351 on Easter!). Our pledges have nearly sextupled—multiplied like rabbits. I would guess that 80% of our people are under age 50, that 60% are under 30. Yes, we have actual twentysomethings in our church: many of them.
 
Part of our ‘luck’ is derived from the blessing of having a church building on a busy urban street in one of the youngest communities in Massachusetts. But our growth is no accident. As one of our members put it, “we worked really hard to get into a position to receive the gifts that God wanted to give us.”
 
Real Good ChurchI wrote a book—an instruction manual, really—that the Pilgrim Press is about to publish. It’s called Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too. I wrote it because I was fielding so many emails and phone calls from people who wanted to know “the ONE thing you all did to turn your church around.”
 
It wasn’t one thing. It was 200 things: about signage, about stewardship, about advertising, about staffing, about creative worship. I didn’t have time to tell every person all 200 things that they wanted and perhaps needed to know, so I wrote down them all down. Now everyone can know what we have learned from others, invented ourselves, tried, tested, failed at, adapted and brought to fruition.
 
I also wrote this book because I am huge church nerd. The church saved my life—multiple times. The first time was when I was 4 years old, the daughter of a single mom on welfare in a new community without many supports. The most recent time was when I underwent chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer discovered accidentally that should have taken my life. It would have taken my life were it not for excellent medical care—but, just as importantly, the kind of care that churches are great at providing: casseroles and child care, meaning-making in a difficult world, and most importantly, space to pray and grieve and rail at heaven and experience everyday joys no matter what is going on.
 
I love the church, and as our mainline churches close by the score, I want to do whatever I can to make sure more of them stick around for the long haul, because there are people who need us.  Most of those people are not inside our walls, but outside of them. Renewal means a fundamental reorientation toward the people who are not here among us yet—and it’s not necessarily intuitive to us how we will reach them, welcome them, assimilate them.
 
This kind of adaptive change is not easy. It can be very frightening, and the work at times is discouraging. But it’s so worth it. If you don’t believe that it’s possible, come on down and worship with us some Sunday, and see for yourself. Light your candle from ours, and bring it home to your own community.
 
Blessings and peace,
Rev. Molly Baskette and the entire community of First Church Somerville UCC
 
Book excerpts:
 
“Often in churches we are stationed at the back door, anxious about and attending to one or two or a few people who have decided to leave, and nobody’s paying any attention to the front door, where (perhaps many) people just coming in are looking for orientation and nurturing assimilation. Don’t privilege the people who have been at your church over the people outside your community who don’t even know about you yet—these are all God’s people, and if you are a pastor you took vows to “minister impartially to the needs of all.”  
 
Your work, as a pastor or lay leader, is to build up your own tolerance for disappointing people. Learn how to evaluate criticism for what it can teach you, don’t take it personally, and don’t let it slow you down or hijack God’s work.”
 
“I’ve read everything, and know that in the bibliography of church renewal, there’s a lot of plain old junk, and there’s also a lot of stuff that is great but falls under the category of what I call “swirly talk.” That is, it provides a great theological rationale, but it doesn’t tell you What To Do.
 
I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I will tell you what we did, and let you, who know your communities best, decide what applies. I’m writing this manual because our church is alive and well, and yours can be, too. Our demographics may be different from yours, our leaders are different, but many of the things we did to survive and thrive can be replicated in any church, anywhere.”

Molly will be selling and signing copies of Real Good Church at the Marketplace at the MACUCC Annual Meeting, on Friday June 13, from 2 - 6 pm. 

 



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