from Bruce Knoth, UU Fellowship of Redwood City, California

“This is the most energy I have felt at church in a long time. And I don’t just mean since the pandemic, I mean in a really long time!” That’s what Cyndi said during coffee hour. The room bustled with people intent in conversation after our second “Action Sunday” workshop.

Our UUFRC (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Redwood City) congregation had just adopted a new format for Sunday services, one designed to build community by mixing generations, diving into small-group discussions, doing activities, and taking action to improve our world.  We did so in response to years of steadily-declining religious education enrollment and a sense that our congregation was growing older.

Our new approach strengthens our congregation’s “interconnected web” and rapidly enmeshes newcomers in church life. We changed our structure after learning that older members wanted to know the children and that many adults yearned for deeper connections with their peers. Parents wanted a place where their children could develop values, have relationships with other adults and where they, the parents, could connect with other families.

Our new Action Sunday services connect people through small-group activities and discussions that reflect our values. Two Sundays each month feature twenty-minute services that transition to workshops. Everyone, young and old, attends the service and then moves to the workshop of their choosing.

We offer a variety of workshops on Action Sundays. Some focus on discussion, others on music, crafts or other arts. All workshops welcome newcomers and some are designed for a mix of children and adults. Our religious education teachers supervise the children in workshops so parents can follow their own interests while knowing that their children are in good hands.

Workshops are key to engaging people with the church and with each other.  When we plan the mix of workshops for a Sunday morning, we ask ourselves many questions including whether or not workshops appeal to all ages or only one age group; can people attend in person or online; are we offering a variety of workshops; can some workshops be successful for adults with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities; and most important, do they align with our principles and values.

For example, our first Action Sunday featured six workshops. One on UU Jokes offered the opportunity to laugh at ourselves and discuss why the jokes were perhaps painfully true. A musician led a group in singing rounds. A writer guided participants in drafting mini-memoirs on that month’s theme of Belonging. Those wishing to express themselves through art, including most of the children, made posters about Belonging to hang outside the church.

Some attendees lingered after their workshops, and coffee hour was energized with folks comparing notes and continuing conversations from earlier. Our first Action Sunday was a rousing success!

We continued with two Action Sundays each month. Workshops included “UU Elevator Pitches from the Soul,” “Protest Songs,” “Painting Garden Rocks,” “Painting our new Little Free Library,” “Reflections on the Worship Service,” and “Writing Get-Out-The-Vote Letters.”

Action Sundays alternate with “full service” Sundays that feature traditional worship and youth religious education. We hired two Sunday school teachers. They are managed by a volunteer who has deep experience in education and a clear vision for how our program should evolve. Having the same teachers present every Sunday lets them establish relationships with the children. They encourage and supervise the children in the Action Sunday workshops (there are no R.E. classes on these Sundays). Furthermore, the teachers welcome arriving children, get to know them, and are a consistent presence in their church lives.

We spent a year understanding needs, defining goals, and planning before adopting the new structure. Now our rewards include newcomers making connections quickly, youngsters waving hello when they walk in, and parents chatting outside after church while their children perch in our “climbing tree.” One long-time member dryly observed “the average age of our Sunday morning attendees has dropped by twenty years!”

Late in our first church year of Action Sundays, during the quiet of a Spring service, one member gently closed our Sanctuary’s doors to block noise from enthusiastic children clustered around their teachers in the hallway. Hallelujah!

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