10 years at New Unity

We kindle this flame for trust
Trust that allows us to move without terror into an uncertain future
Trust that enables us to try and fail and try again
Trust that lets us place our hearts in another’s hands
May this light inspire trust
And may it lead us onward toward a brighter tomorrow.

Message, by Andy Pakula

Our current theme is ‘mystery’ and - although today is going to be mostly off-theme - a large part of what’s happening this morning has been a mystery to me. I’ve noticed the hushed conversations that break up when I arrive. I knew something was up, but even now, there is mystery… 

There’s something in there about trusting that mystery. I’ve had to let go of knowing and just go on trust. And I trust the people I think are involved in this implicitly - but even who’s in on it is itself a mystery.

So, I am going to talk about ten years at what is now called New Unity.

Ten years… nearly probably 450 Sunday mornings.

In ten years, almost everything has changed.

Our name, what we do, and who we are. 

I can start with Sunday mornings. When I started, we alternated Sundays between here and our Upper Street building - Unity. There were Newington Green loyalists and Unity loyalists and they tended to look upon one another with suspicion. 

A good Sunday was 15 people. The music was all organ. The singing was all from the green book - very traditional. There were no children. There were very few young adults. 

The difference on Sundays is symbolic of much of our overall change. From 15 people, we now average 70. From organ only, we have come to expect diverse and excellent music. From the green book… well, we’ve moved on. From no children, we’ve now got creche, younger children, and older children’s groups and - except for half-term or beautiful summer weekends - our Sundays are full of baby and child energy.

From few young adults, we’ve become massively intergenerational with good numbers in every range except teens and early twenties.

I am always asked ‘how did you do it?’

And I say - ‘I didn’t do it. We did.’ Because at every stage of our development, I have worked closely with others who wanted to make this congregation vital and exciting and multigenerational and multicultural and relevant and influential in the larger community.
And then they say ‘you’ve obviously had a lot to do with that massive change. What did you do?’

And I have to admit that while I know what I did, I don’t really know what I did right. I did a lot of things - a lot of initiatives - some lasted. Many failed. Some I did deliberately and thoughtfully. Others just happened.

Which ones helped and which were a waste of time and energy or worse? It’s almost impossible to know for most of them. Experiments in congregational life never have the advantage of a control group - a congregation with identical properties and people but where one thing is done differently.

I made a lot of mistakes. If I could start again from the beginning, I would do a lot of things differently, but then, I’m a different person than I was on the 9th of October 2006. This has been a journey of transformation for me as much as it has been for this congregation.

But I think there were two key things I and we did and these are the same essential practices that will guide us into an increasingly strong future.

The first is a willingness to experiment. 

When I first arrived, I took everything I knew to be the ‘right’ way to minister to a congregation and tried to do that. No - It didn’t suit me and it didn’t suit the congregation. And so, we started to experiment. 

When you experiment, you have to be prepared to fail and fail often. And, well… if I wasn’t prepared to fail, I certainly got used to it. And sometimes, the experiments annoyed some people, and sometimes they confused some people… But some of those experiments helped us find things to do and ways of doing things that work for us - this time in history, this place in the world, and this minister. 

And when you experiment, learn from those experiments before experimenting again. What worked? What didn’t? Why and why not? What does that tell us about the next experiment? And back into the fray we go.

When you live in a time where things are different than before, you can’t rely on the ways things were done before. And, for religion, this time is almost the definition of different. We are a secular society. The regular rules no longer apply. For our future, we need to be prepared to try and fail and try again.

The second essential I see in the past 10 years is a passionate devotion to a vision of the future as it may be. 

In ministry, there is never a time when the present and the past do not tug on you. People become comfortable with the way things are. They are hungry for constancy in a terribly changeable world. When I arrived, several people wanted to have the Lord’s Prayer recited every Sunday. It was important to them. But we looked to the vision of being a radically inclusive, transformative community and we had to go in a different direction. 

I always think to myself when there are opinions expressed ‘who is speaking for the future? Who is speaking for those who could be transformed by this place and make a better world because of it?’ It is hard to speak for that future when we live with our present needs, but we must.

And - like experiments - having a passionate devotion to a vision can be very irritating. It can be disconcerting. It can seem like I or we don’t care about those who are here now. I and we do, but we also have to care passionately for a future yet to come.

Looking back and looking forward, here is to discomfort. Here is to irritation. Here is to confusion. All of these may tell us that we are on the right track.

And me - I have to know that I am not always going to be popular. Sometimes, I will be despised, as I have been. But I hope that I will always be willing to try and fail and always focused on that vision of a greater tomorrow.