Faith Matters: The Rev. Bob Sichta

January 4, 2014 

Resolved: Every church, every faith, every body of worship is different.

So are people. And all of them are resolved to grow - especially in this New Year.

That works against the numbers, and the numbers are facts: churches are in decline, in membership, in attendance, in giving.

Yes, you can walk into a local house of worship on a Sabbath and find it full. But the people present will tell you it's not like it used to be as they cling to memories of people of all ages swarming the grounds with vigor at events.

They will reminisce about children, too -- mostly because most children are absent.

More to the point, those days, and those people, are gone, and they're not coming back.

It's not that the absentees are not believers.

They are.

They're just not goers.

With good reason.

In a highly technical world made of shades of gray, they've grown tired of the message that life's complicated decisions are black or white. They've decided to live in the 21st century instead of the 19th century.

It's our fault.

We churches, synagogues, temples, shrines and mosques, that is.

But, as Gandhi once counseled: "I know a way out."

Proclaim who you are. And allow others to do the same.

Even if it requires starting over.

That's the track our church is on, after some two decades of decline, during which we tried to pattern ourselves after other churches in our community and couldn't figure out why the good old days weren't coming back.

So, as we enter our 56th year in this community, we've declared ourselves a New Church Start.

Starting new isn't easy.

It has to come from a core of people willing to declare who they are, to identify their niche in the scheme of things and embrace it.

Wholeheartedly, magnanimously, unreservedly.

We've resolved to do that.

Part of that declaration involves saying and admitting things that, while uncomfortable (and even completely incompatible) in other denominations and faiths, fit into our own tradition like an old pair of shoes.

We are, after all, the first folks in this country to oppose slavery (1700), and ordain African-Americans (1785), women (1853) and openly gay people (1972).

Which is why our New Church Start is unconditionally inclusive.

And it is why, within our New Church Start, issues that are divisive in other places are, for us, part of our conversation. Within which, we share the opportunity to grow by respecting everyone's right to be who they are (and who God made them to be).

Consider the composition of our membership right here in Bradenton, which has been on the rise ever since our decision not to shy away from the expansive, inclusive niche that is part of our core tradition.

We are women and men -- including our clergy.

We are young and old though, because we are located within the most aged demographic of all 435 congressional districts, we are mostly -- in calendar years -- "old."

We are black, white, Native American, Latino and Haitian.

We are gay, and we are straight -- and some of our gay and our straight members are married.

We are a source of music education and child care through our Creative Arts Academy and our Kid's Club -- particularly for children from homes whose family's resources are more limited than the rest of us.

Through a group called PRISM, we are a safe haven for young people at risk -- particularly gay teens.

We are a supporter of field worker's rights and a source of volunteers for a magnificent thrift store, of senior citizen's seminars relating to fiscal and social needs, and of bridge lessons, field trips to the South Florida Museum, rides on mystery trains and groupgoers to Bradenton Marauder's baseball games.

We are a place of discussion for AA, Al Anon and Narc Anon, a place of meeting for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, a place of rehearsal for our choir, a host of a communitywide Christmas concert, and a place of conversation for our own quirky Not Your Mother's Bible Study Class where we celebrate being Christians, not Biblians -- people with the book, not people of the book.

We are all those things because we embrace everyone on every journey who walks through our door, period.

More than that, we are a self-declared New Church Start that has resolved to grow in the coming year, not by declaring who we aren't, what we require, or who we exclude, but by embracing and proclaiming who we are, while resolving to allow others to do the same.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Sichta, Congregational United Church of Christ, 3700 26th St. W., Bradenton, can be reached at 941-756-1018 or e-mail PBKAlpha1@gmail.com. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday's Herald, written by local clergy members.

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