One evening in the fall of 2011, back when I was living in Chicago, I went down to the corner of Jackson Boulevard and LaSalle Street to drop off a tent. That was the autumn of the Occupy Movement, and I wanted to donate it to the activists who were camped out there. I was a little nervous. There was a pretty big crowd and a weird energy – a combination of the frenetic excitement of a protest march, and the delirious exhaustion of an airport lounge in the predawn hours. There were all kinds of people and they seemed to be everything all at once. There were children and elderly folks. They were dark and light and every shade in between. There were bicycles and bullhorns and sleeping bags and boxes, and signs that read, “We are the 99%!” They were tired, angry, optimistic, welcoming, confrontational, loud, asleep… I had to ask around a little bit but it didn’t take long for me to be directed to a table that was set up on the sidewalk and was being used as a makeshift desk and stock room. The guy sitting behind it seemed harried but focused. He was keeping an inventory and speaking in staccato, 5-word conversations with people who approached the table for one thing or another and then disappeared back into the crowd. I got his attention and told him that I had a tent. He pointed to the appropriate pile of stuff and I set my tent down as he made a note of it in his constantly shifting inventory. I turned and started to walk away but I heard him say, “Wait!” When I turned around again, he stopped what he was doing, set everything down, stood up and took my hand, then looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you.” It just took a second, and it was just two words, but I’ll never forget the way he said it. There are a lot of different takes on the Occupy Movement. There are different opinions on what it was about, whether or not it was successful, and whether or not it should have been started in the first place. On the surface it was about addressing income inequality, an unstable financial system, a housing crisis, etc. But what that guy knew was that, deeper down, it wasn’t really about any of those things. It was about people.
We’ve known for a long time that we have a space problem in our congregation. There are actually experts on church growth and attendance who study this sort of thing, and they’ve developed formulas that can predict the number of people who will attend services in a particular space before attendance reaches a plateau. I don’t mean the number of people who can safely fit into a space in terms of fire codes. I mean the level of attendance that can be achieved before people start to feel too crowded and stop coming. According to the experts, attendance in our space should top out at around 56 to 58 people. Our average last year was 57. It’s kind of spooky how accurate the formula is. Conventional wisdom also says that a smaller church like ours will usually get attendance on a Sunday morning that’s about 60-70% of the number of members. We’re only getting about 44%. That number is a sad one. It means that we’re missing out on connecting with about 20 people from our own congregation each Sunday. Our mission and vision statements say that we are a welcoming
congregation that seeks to build community and we’ll “…welcome the stranger into beloved community…,” but right now we don’t even have the space we need for the people who are already part of our congregation. And it’s not really about space. It’s about people.
Over the last year, we’ve had a special Space Committee look into our options for accommodating our current community and being able to welcome newcomers into the fold so that we can live our mission. They’ve done some truly impressive work. Now that we have a clear understanding of our mission and our resources, we have some decisions to make as a community, and some of them might be difficult. We’ve always been a welcoming congregation and we’ve gotten to a point where, in order to keep being the welcoming people we are, we’re going to have to make some changes. It might make us a little nervous to think about making changes and welcoming new people into our community. But what a great problem to have! Believe me, I get no sympathy from other ministers when I tell them that we’ve run out of space. While a lot of congregations are struggling and closing their doors, we have a healthy, vibrant church that only needs more room to flourish. What an exciting time! This won’t be the first time we’ve made a leap of faith and I, for one, can’t wait to see where we land!