"The 90's New Thought Church: Contraction or Expansion?"

by Dr. Larry Morris

Delivered at I.N.T.A. Transformational Expo, San Antonio, Texas on July 22, 1994


There’s a story about former President Bush visiting Florida after Hurricane Andrew. He went to a nursing home, and while he was there, he met an elderly lady. He said to the lady, ‘Do you know who I am?’ The lady answered, ‘Ask at the desk, and they’ll tell you.’
A Zen Master once said to his students, ‘Those who come are not to be refused, and those who go away are not to be run after.’
if you’ve opened your loving to God’s love, you’re helping people you don’t know....
— Rumi

Dear friends in New Thought -- I'm thinking particularly of the leaders in our movement, the ministers of churches or directors of centers -- people who have a very active role in directing the churches and centers in our movement. I think that there is a kind of pressure on us to be something we may not really be or to achieve goals that may not really be ours. As Joel Goldsmith put it, in New Thought we are really ordained by God or not at all. If God has ordained us to lead our church, then the way for our leadership to unfold is also ordained by God. We don't have to break our heads and our hearts trying to be something or someone we are not. We may be getting confused between what our ministry really is and the chimera of success and achievement our society is ever holding before our eyes.

The traditional Christian church may be concerned with saving souls, keeping people from being damned and sending them to Heaven in the next life. I don't think that this is our mission or our purpose in New Thought. As stated in the I.N.T.A. Declaration of Principles: "We affirm the inseparable oneness of God and man, the realization of which comes through spiritual intuition, the implications of which are that man can reproduce the Divine Perfection in his body, emotions and in all of his external affairs. We affirm the freedom of each person in matters of belief. We affirm the Good to be supreme, universal and eternal. We affirm that the Kingdom of God is within us, that we are one with the Father, that we should love one another and return good for evil...." These are very different premises than, say, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed.

We are in the business of affirmation, recognizing and affirming the One Presence in all things. As Chuangtzu, the Chinese, Taoist philosopher, said, "That which is one is one, that which is not one is also one." Or, as I like to say, "Rule #1, there is only one Presence. Rule #2, if it looks like there is more than One Presence, go back to Rule #1."

In recent years New Thought has turned to the church growth movement as one means of fostering growth. The church growth movement began in the late 1950's. It was based on the experience of returning Christian missionaries who spent years in foreign lands converting peoples from other cultures to Christianity. Since the early 50's, there had been an increasing decline in church attendance in America; it was felt by many Christian clergy that the techniques and principles used in foreign missionary work might be effective tools to spur church growth in the U.S.

The basic premises of the foreign missions and hence the church growth movement were, in Robert Schuller's words, "Find a need and fill it. Find a hurt and heal it." The idea was to find out what the unchurched in your community want and need and then to tailor your church's programs to meet these wants and needs. So Schuller, himself, in the late 1950's, like a good missionary, when starting a church from scratch in Garden Grove, California, went door-to-door, interviewing a few thousand people and finding out what the unchurched wanted and needed in his community. He based his church's programs and services on those answers. And today Robert Schuller is probably the most successful exponent of church growth principles with a huge complex called the Crystal Cathedral, a congregation of 10,000 people and a T.V. viewership of several million people, worldwide. And he began with only two people, his wife and himself, and a meeting place in a drive-in movie theatre.

The question for us in New Thought is not whether church growth principles will or will not work for us, but 1.) whether we can use the principles of church growth without losing track of who we are as a New Thought church, and 2.) whether our particular church wants and needs to grow. The Christian missionary's essential motive is conversion; he or she is out to convert the non-believer, no matter what his religion for lack thereof), to Christianity. So Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems or Jews are simply wrong or misguided in their beliefs according to orthodox Christianity. 

But we in New Thought "affirm the freedom of each person in matters of belief." And we "affirm the inseparable oneness of God and man" regardless of religious preference. There's always a certain imperialism and colonialism about the missionary agenda that is certainly not a part of the New Thought affirmation of oneness and freedom. The missionary says, in effect, to the non-believer of his belief system, "I know better than you what is best for you." I think that we in New Thought need to be clear about our priorities. We may feel guided to use church growth principles as tools to make our teachings and our churches more known and accessible to oursociety, but let's not blur the distinction between strategy and theology. We are not missionaries trying to convert people to a dogmatic structure of beliefs because we know better for them what they need. At best, we offer a lifestyle based on a philosophy which affirms individual freedom within the One Presence that is God. We can be way-showers pointing to the oneness of all things, helping people to lift their vision beyond a narrow sectarianism. Indeed, perhaps New Thought will be the movement through which many people will break free from the rigidity of "my way is the only way" to seeing that "we are all in this together."

Are we trying too hard to evangelize people (or do we think we should be evangelizing more people and feel guilty because we are not) when this is not the intention or purpose of our movement? Traditional Christianity, like Buddhism and Islam, is a messianic religion; it depends for its growth on the conversion of non-believers into its ranks. But New Thought is really more of a way of life, a way of seeing life, rather than a religion of strict adherence to a certain set of fixed dogmas and beliefs. Ours is not a set system of beliefs as much as the adoption of a certain lifestyle. It may be called practical mysticism or pragmatic idealism. Ours is a way of living rather than a way of believing.

Though we all depend on new people coming to our churches and finding and receiving enough value from us, our churches and our teachings to help support us, our real support is always, and must always be, based on our ordination from God. God is and is always the source of our supply and our reason for existence. If we have a big church, fine. If we have a medium-sized church, fine. If we have a small church, fine. We don't need to blame ourselves or our board or our congregation or our community if we have a small church and feel that somehow it should be larger. Let's instead ask ourselves: Are we fulfilling what God gave us to do to our best ability, faith and understanding? If so, perhaps we can relax about the size issue. Someone once said, "God loves small churches or He wouldn't have created so many of them." 

It is possible for our churches to grow no matter how they've been up to now. But before we consider growth strategies and possibilities, we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question: is bigger better? In speaking of church growth, someone once used the analogy of the mama/papa diner versus McDonald's. When I first heard this, I was impressed: at first glance we would like to be a vast conglomerate of restaurants that encompass the whole world rather than a tiny diner. But the reality is that McDonald's is a vast chain of mediocrity offering standardized glitz to a nondiscriminating clientele, whereas many of the small, non-chain restaurants offer excellent and unique food in a warm and family-based atmosphere.

And this same point can be made with small versus large churches. The small church offers intimacy and a family-like atmosphere. Many people prefer small churches to large ones. Everyone knows everyone in a small church and the minister or leader is usually very accessible. The small church has the quality of a one-on-one relationship. As a church grows, there is a proportionate lessening of this sense of intimacy and closeness between members and the ministry. A larger church is based more on performance and service. It appeals to a wider group. Generally, people feel more loyalty and attachment to a small church. As Lyle Schaller points out, in the North American continent, 50% of churches have an attendance of 75 people or less on Sunday mornings, and the most frequent size is 40.

So is bigger really better for us and our churches? We need to carefully and prayerfully ask ourselves and our congregations if we really need to grow and, if so, why? If we release ourselves from the 'ought' word of traditional, missionary Christianity -- we ought to spread the gospel message -- then why must we grow? If our church is maintaining itself financially and otherwise, what is our incentive for growth? Our society tends to function in terms of growth-orientation, but this is a value system based on conquest and manipulation; we need to get more and more and more of market shares or gross receipts or customers. Yet, as William Blake puts it, "More, more, more is the cry of the mistaken soul / less than all cannot satisfy man.' And I would like to suggest that we can experience just as much, and perhaps in some cases, more of the allness of life in a small church as in a large one.

The question, again, is not what society expects or demands, but what is God calling us to be; what kind of New Thought minister or leader? If there is no compelling urge or need for us to grow beyond where we are right now, perhaps we can release any pressure we may feel from the drivenness of society and let ourselves enjoy and appreciate who we are and what we've been given. As I've stated before, a powerful and effective tool for church increase in our time has been the church growth movement. We can use church growth tools to help our church grow as long as we're clear that all growth (and everything else) comes from God, not church growth techniques.

In New Thought, there have been churches which have grown that never heard of church growth techniques and, conversely, there are churches which have adopted church growth techniques that haven't grown at ail. Church growth principles, at best, may help prepare  us to be powerfully used by God, but they are not the reason for growth, neither the motivation for growth nor the power behind growth -- both power and motivation come from God. So, acquiring church growth skills and techniques may be part of equipping ourselves for developing our calling, our ministry, but they are not the reason for our ministry. If we get our ends and means confused, we may think that we are in the business of church growth rather than in the business of New Thought ministry.

Perhaps we could look at our situation as New Thought churches in the 90's (to expand or not) in terms of the Chinese word for nature. As Alan Watts points out, the Chinese have a whole phrase for our word "nature," which means, "What is so, of itself." Can we let ourselves come into our New Thought ministry without force or manipulation? That which comes about naturally is ours; that which we fight to achieve, we must fight to hold on to. 

If we do feel the need to have a larger church, and we're willing to pay the price which at times is costly in terms of effort, risk and even money, here are three areas we might consider: music, ministry and marketing. As Whoopi Goldberg graphically demonstrated in Sister Act, music is a key to church growth. If we are willing to release our adequate if mediocre musicians and to hire more expensive, first-rate musicians who play upbeat, contemporary music, our church will most likely grow. However, be prepared. This shift will inevitably antagonize some of our members whom we may lose. And we have to find the right kinds of musicians and music that fits our style and our congregation. For some it may be jazz or pop or country; for others it may be international or classical or a combination of any of these. This is a matter of experimentation and trial-and-error until we discover what works best for us. At best, the music will "prime the pump" of the minister and the congregation and create a synergism of energy and joy for all.

In terms of ministry, we can look to see if our services and programs are accessible to a larger group of people. Are our Sunday talks and Wednesday services open-ended enough for new people (who may have never heard of New Thought) to benefit from them? Generally, as a rule of thumb, do people feel better after having attended our services, more uplifted, more comforted, more at peace? If we are really interested in growth, we might consider two services on Sunday mornings, just to break-up the small group consciousness. And we might want to examine our program offerings. Are we merely offering our denominational, basic classes, or are we offering new and innovative classes and workshops which can both fit within New Thought and yet speak to the minds and hearts of people in our culture? We might consider offering topics such as: self-esteem, meditation, forgiveness, how to let go, how to surrender, healing divorce wounds, weight control, intuition and anger management, as well as our usual New Thought offerings.

And, how well are we marketing our church? Even if we have a good product, if nobody knows we exist, who will buy it? Are we generally known in our community? Have we had newspaper articles within the last year or so heralding one of our programs or services to the community? Have we tried radio advertising? Do we routinely send notices on everything we do to all the media in our community? Have we established good relationships with key people in the newspaper, radio and T.V. industries in our community? Are we recognized in our community for some particular strength, i.e., the seminar church or the positive thought church or the church with great music or the church for Twelve Step people? Generally, marketing strategy is like baseball: the more times at bat, the more chances for a hit. The more we feed the media about our church, the more likely our church will become known in our community.

Finally, if we want to grow, it is worth the time, money and effort to attend a church growth seminar. Two of the best are Robert Schuller's Institute for Successful Church Leadership, in Garden Grove, California and our own New Thought Church Growth and Development Seminar conducted by Rev. Mary Manin Boggs at the Living Enrichment Center in Wilsonville, Oregon.

As we unfold through this decade, I think that there will be a shift towards a less driven attitude in our society. I think that people are growing tired of being pushed by a culture obsessed with the getting-ahead mentality. New Thought, it seems to me, offers a way of life that is geared towards a "letting is getting" attitude. We don't have to force our way and our will on others. Perhaps if we relax, we may even come into our own, and the happy byproduct may even be some amount of growth.

Once, when our church seemed to be sliding into oblivion, I put in an emergency call to my church growth mentor, Jack Boland. I told him, "Jack, I've done everything I know to do and tried as hard as I can, and we're down to six people on Sunday's. What should I do?" And Jack Boland said, "Good. Now you don't have anything to lose; you can relax and be yourself." And that's just what I did, and the church did grow. But not by following church growth prescriptions but by letting go and letting God. As Robert Schuller said, "One day, I just got up from my chair and put God as the head of the board and the head of the church."

If someone asks us, "What did you do to have a successful church?" and we say, "Prayer and surrender to God," he or she always looks at us and says, "No, what did you really do? Come on tell me the real secret." Perhaps the real secret is what we all already know: remembering that God brought each of us this far, why not trust God to bring us to where we need to be? Open our hearts to God, let go, and our way will be made plain. And relax. Perhaps our churches and centers will grow and blossom in the 90's as a happy byproduct of a philosophy of spiritual laissez faire: letting go and letting God guide each of us to where we need to be in the cosmic scheme of things.