Saturday, March 14, 2015

Growing Smaller To Do Bigger Things: Size and the Future of the Church



“Growing Smaller To Do Bigger Things: Size and The Future of the Church”
Rev. Ron Robinson
Houston Unitarian Fellowship
 Sunday, Mar. 15, 2015

Readings

From Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution:

Usually when things grow fast and large, they also grow homogeneously. Whether it’s the crowds in the streets during the Republican National Convention or the folks flocking into the megachurches, we like to be around people who look and think like us. Our big visions for multiculturalism and reconciliation will make their way into the church only when they are first lived out in real relationships, out of our homes and around our dinner tables and in our living rooms. Perhaps this is why Jesus begins it all by sitting around a table with a Roman tax collector, a Zealot revolutionary, a fisherman, a Pharisee, and a prostitute. As we build our buildings, human temples are being destroyed by hunger and homelessness. The early prophets would say that a church that spends millions of dollars on buildings while her children are starving is guilty of murder. Imagine the scene in a biological family: a father building a mansion while his children are going hungry. He’d be institutionalized or jailed. How much more preposterous should this be in our family of rebirth, in which we have been given new eyes to see others as brothers and sisters?

From Bill Easum and Tom Bandy in Robin Trebilcock’s book The Small Church At Large:

There is a future for small churches…but no future at all for small visions. Small churches can multiply mission beyond imagination…provided that small church leaders can imagine multiplying mission….The competition that challenges the future of the small church is not the influence of other major religions; nor is it the influence of deified cultural forms of sports, success, profit, or politics. The real competition comes from within the small church itself. It is the smallness of its vision, the smallness of its inclusivity, and the smallness of its heart.

Sermon:

I.

Given my age, and the culture I grew up in, I should be here inspiring you to become bigger, more numerous, instead of standing here, I hope, inspiring you to become, in many senses, smaller in number as a key to growing more love and justice in the world.
I was born in 1954 into the rise of the Big in culture; a mid baby boomer, we were receipients of big schools, of the bigger and fewer grocery stores, big parks, the big rock concerts and outside huge festivals, the mass movements for rights and peace, and one of the biggest influences on all that was the proliferation of mass communication and the era of broadcasting, with bigger shares of audience, the three Big Networks of News that created a bigger sense of Us even if not a deeper sense of We; I came of age in the rise of big business corporations, and the new subdivisions for their employees, and big box stores, in the bigger suburbs for it all, holding bigger homes containing increasingly bigger televisions and appliances, people driving to work over larger distances on increasingly bigger roads, flying in bigger planes, and all along the way eating bigger meals. As a reflection of all this, as a creation of all this, feeding into all this, our churches have become bigger too, in large part as a result of what was called the Church Growth Movement, creating church as consumer driven. Supersize Me Spiritually.
Along with the Rise of Big came the Rise of Faster and Faster to maintain Big and Bigger, and with it, as Shane Claiborne wrote in our reading, also the Rise of Uniformity, even in one’s sense of Place as well as Neighbor, and the demise of particularity in neighborhoods, the resegregation of where people live and with whom based on both race and class, all with a simultaneous destruction of specific ecologies and our overall environment.
That is the culture that fed me. And because I wanted our churches to be influences in that culture, I bought into the Church Growth Movement also. I did want us to start, as I had, churches in many more places than we had done so, and I still want that, but I wanted them to be churches like churches had been before in my experience and that structured themselves to grow bigger and bigger, to be more visible to others as a way of being more powerful in our communities. I wanted our numbers bigger, of buildings and members and ministers. Act bigger than you are in order to become bigger. Who cares about the anxiety in the system that produces or how it makes the be all and end all about ourselves. And not realizing that the culture itself was and is changing underneath and around us the more we tried to act like it.  

I am here to Repent.

Now I am here to say that Small is the new Big. Small Church is In. Just as is Slow Church, the name of a good book and movement that is paired with the Slow Food movement, the Slow Money movement. Small church is also paired with the Localism movement, and the rise of what is called the new monastic and new friars movement, with Tribal Church. Look and you will find all kinds of new books reclaiming the power of growing smaller to make a bigger difference in the world. And there have of course always been reforming movements within the church to go smaller, more relational, more radical, such as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement and the Koinonia multi racial community in Georgia during segregation. The more truly counter cultural you are the fewer resources you need to create change in that culture.

Small is the New Big…That is If, If, it is a healthy small, an externally focused small, one with a strong sense of both mission for turning itself inside out in order to impact lives and neighborhoods AND a sense of how it is already, just as it is, not so small to begin with, but is part already of a larger Whole. Grow Smaller because you have a Bigger Vision for Deeper Impact.  

Most churches in America today are small churches; and while that is defined as under 120 in worship attendance, know that a majority of those are actually very small with an average of around 20 in worship, an average, which means many are in the single digits. But most have not become this way intentionally and in order to realize a big vision, but because they have not been able to do what all churches need to do to have a sustaining impact on changing lives and neighborhood, and that is to cultivate radical discontinuity with the past as a method for carrying out their mission. But while most churches are small churches, remember that most people are in very large churches.

In fact, the very large and the very small, when both healthy, often respond in similar ways; the very large have constructed themselves as multiple small cells, and leadership itself is like a small micro-church coordinating others. Because of this, both very large and very small can be quick to respond, to make decisions, to have lots of trust in leadership, to operate in a permission giving culture, and foster an attitude of abundance and non-anxiety that itself fosters the risk needed to have that discontinuity with the past, to be able to fail their way to success, especially if they redefine their measure of success to be about faithfulness to their mission of going deep and going wide to impact people with Love, and especially going into places like ours where the big churches have seldom gone before in a meaningful transformative way.
II.
Which is our story in The Welcome Table church.
When the Unitarian Universalist World magazine did its cover story on our tiny micro-church in North Tulsa four years ago, it titled the article “Ministry in Abandoned Places.” Its focus was on the way we had transformed ourselves from a primarily inwardly focused group hoping to grow larger like most churches, grow as an organization of people of like minds and values, and turn ourselves inside out, growing smaller, becoming an externally focused group working on partnering with others to grow the spirit of our high poverty place, to start new services and programs with and for people in our low life expectancy community from which so much of business and government and civic life, including church, has fled.
The story chronicled some of how we, starting from a group of 7 all volunteer leaders and about a dozen in worship each week, how we started a library, computer center, free food store, health clinic, clothing room, community art room, how we bought a block of rundown burned out trashed out houses and yards and since have made an award-winning gardenpark and orchard where a week ago  we hosted 150 college students helping us and learning about poverty, how we have become the main neighborhood organizers and the leaders in seeking to turn blight to beauty, and are the community festival planners for holiday times, and have helped to reopen a closed school across from us and support other area schools, and be a major partner on projects with a new health department office that has been built since the article was published. And now we are working toward being a major housing partner in our area where 40 percent of the vacant houses are abandoned and not for sale or rent. And we still have three to twelve usually in our worship services.
In the missional church movement we say that no longer is it, in our emerging culture today, a sense of a church needing to create its mission, but instead it is finding The Mission that creates the church, church which will take many different manifestations to fulfill its mission. Many different sizes in many different places in many different styles in order to bring our radical sense of Love into the many different places and people, around us and among us, that are hurting.
We talk about church, our movement of faith today, not so much in terms of “a church” here or “a church” there, of this or that size, but as the church being incarnated in whatever forms are needed to make a deep impact on such suffering. We need a “bigger bandwidth” of church today, including the ancient way of where, literally, two or more are gathered. Our UU Association is recognizing this in its recent focus on congregations and beyond, and in fostering entrepreneurial ministries, in community ministries, and in a new category called Recognized Communities for the outside the box church like ours

When we originally planted our local faith community 12 years ago, starting in a fast growing suburb, we first met with nine people in our living room, and then in the homes of others. One of the first mistakes we made on our road to success was leaving that manifestation of church too soon; thinking that it was not right then and there REAL church, but only a preparation for the REAL thing. We had not yet learned the deepest spiritual theological lesson of Enough. We are always Enough to make a difference, in one another’s lives and in the lives of those we do not yet know. We no longer think---oh if we can’t get x number of people to come to this or that then it isn’t worth doing; it is either a part of our mission or it isn’t, and time and time again when remember this and when we have had smaller than we thought numbers show up for something, some transformative relationship emerges, connections are made, love arises in ways that would probably have been overlooked before.
Now in the past twelve years we have inhabited many different places; we rented 8 different places and used more than that, and we have adopted four different names in this time. Radical discontinuity with our past is not our problem. Numbers that come in worship remain a dozen or less, but then worship, as vital as it is, is not the numbers and the event we are most concerned about. Our priorities start with Missional relationships and service with and to our neighbors; then focus on communal relationships among us in order to carry out the service with more sustainability; then focus on individual growth as a way to be better in community in order to do the service; and finally focus on worship in order to refesh and restore both the individual and the community for the service throughout the rest of the week.
Back when we started our intent was not to become what we have in fact so far become, but to become an established church that would look and feel pretty much like other churches and like what churches both ours and otherwise have looked and felt like since the 1950s and even the 1850s and even before then. One of my take-away lessons is that as we failed at what we thought we wanted to be, we became what our place needed us to be. After a year and a half in the fast growing suburb, we moved to our current community on the north edge of Tulsa, my family and the church and my office with the national UU Christian Fellowship all moving there into one of the poorest zipcodes in the whole region. But for two years we still tried to be that attractional church just relocated to the poor community. A funny thing happened, though, along with my own growth as a minister reading the signs of the culture and times, and living amidst poverty and sickness; in our now slower paced economically declining place, as we connected with more of our neighbors, as the people who started coming to worship were the poor and the sick right around us rather than those coming to be with us still from the suburbs, it became clear to us that we needed to be able to respond better to the lives of our neighbors, and that what they were saying they needed was not more sermons and programs from us trying to get them to become us. And what we needed too wasn’t for there to be more people calling themselves Unitarian Universalist, or in our case also calling themselves even Christian, but more people who were living and embodying those seven principles of ours in our area where so much suffering is and so much scarcity mentality that causes people to circle their wagons and wall themselves and their families off, more people who were living out Jesus’ mission to be good news to the poor whether they ever came or not to worship with us in what our covenant calls his loving and liberating spirit.
We believed that churches or any groups should not get healthier and wealthier while the communities around them become poorer and sicker. And so Across from our 1800 square foot rented space was a 4000 square foot vacant commercial space. Following the guideline that we wanted to be the best church not IN the community but FOR the community, we decided to move into the bigger space, not knowing how we would pay for it, knowing though that we wanted it to not be billed as a church but as what we called A Third Place Community Center. The name A Third Place came from the global third places movement, traced back for many to a seminal book by sociologist Ray Oldenberg about the need for these free diverse places for people who were different to be able to meet and share and make a difference. Your first place is your home; your second place is your work or church or affinity group all where you are with people who share some common interest, but that life is lived in more abundance and community is nurtured, and change effected, by the presence of third places or spaces.
We became church more deeply as we focused not on the number worshipping with us (we never say “ONLY two or three or seven or twelve) but as we focused on that number that really counts, that the people in our zipcode die 14 years sooner than they do those just six miles away along the very same street. We became church as we, two or three here and two or three there, planted wildflower beds in public, and for businesses, as we gardened with school children and created beds for them where they could meet, as we have been instrumental in helping get old rundown structures torn down so that newer green and open spaces are more inviting to get people outside, as we have sought to reclaim streets and trails from stray dogs and from criminal activity, and most readily as we soon created the non-profit organization A Third Place Community Foundation to help us continue to expand outward into our community, to form partnerships with others, and to tear down a block of abandoned structures and transform it into the GardenPark and Orchard where many community festivals and events and simple one on one relationships happen now in a space that many couldn’t bear to even look at before, and eventually to leave that 4,000 square foot rented space and create a larger community center of 11,000 square feet in which our worshipping community might have three to a dozen or so when we worship there but we often worship other places than our places, and with other churches as well, but that the size of the building or the number in worship are not as important to us as the 200 at the free Christmas Party, or the 300 at the Halloween Party, events we throw for the community at large, at which almost every time a child experiencing this kind of event she’s never experienced before, finds one of us and tells us this is the happiest day of her life.
III
Church is now Place and People turned inside out. No longer here is the church; here is the steeple; look inside and see All the People. All The People are all around us. The church is At Large in the world around it. We should only Feel Small if we cut ourselves off from the world and all its potential partners for our mission. Instead of pulling from the community into the church, in the old model; we are constantly looking for ways to create church out in the community. You see, To be sent is the mark of the missional church (a phrase that should be redundant), especially to places where others are fleeing away from. (To be sent. That is where the word missional comes from, out of the Greek word missio. We are to be not members of a religious club, not even ultimately bearers of a religious message with our elevator speeches, but to be sent as living missives of them ourselves, embodiments of what we find Sacred, and incarnating that in the places and peoples deemed profane by the Powers of Bigness.  

Church in this new and ancient way doesn’t require it to be a 501c3 organization, with a building of its own, bylaws, boards, budgets, and a certain magical size, where all the energy is spent trying to get new people to come in and replace other people, like cogs in a machine, numbers on a ledger. Those things like organization and buildings, etc. may be deemed helpful, but they aren’t what makes a church a church; they aren’t the starting point; that is what calls it into being, and in the newly emerging culture what calls it into being is more than proclaiming a message and getting people to think what we think; and more even than just being a community of support for people who think like us; places for that will be popping up all around us in much more convenient and inexpensive ways than the traditional congregation, in both online life and in personal relationships and various affinity groups. 
So Now what calls church into being, what will really be the liberation of the church is becoming its connection to others who have been disconnected, in a real and symbolic sense those who have been disconnected in a host of ways from Life Support itself. The church finds its own life in helping support life in others. And this can be Church done by anyone anywhere anytime, and is best done in covenanted communities of two or three or more.
It is why many new church communities are being very targeted in their focus of why they exist to impact the world, connecting with one school, one neighborhood, one apartment complex, one park or one underpass where those without houses gather, one day laborer waiting zone, one struggling nursing home, one jail, one sex offender mobile home park, one abuse shelter. The places of need right within most of our places are unfortunately almost endless, and we also have to acknowledge that they are growing and that the public resources that used to be marshalled for them have been slashed and we need church to happen in all the upstream work too, witnessing for our radical sense of love and justice in places of business and government to get them to fulfill their responsibilities of being partners in society.
The church form, be it of worship or architecture or organization, is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who reminded us in his 1841 sermon on The Transient and Permanent in Christianity that the church of the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church of the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church of the fifteenth century did not do for his 19th century; and we can update him to say that the church of the late 20th century even will not do entirely for the 21st.

For example in his book on Organic Church, Neil Cole writes about how his place of church has been networked with base groups of four people meeting together weekly, with one of them looking for ways to grow another group of four people, and then when there is a network of 20 to at most 40 people they will gather too monthly or so for worship and storytelling and inspiration.

And I was told a story by a United Methodist minister in Oklahoma about the small church in a rural area that couldn’t any longer support a minister so they closed their church and held no more worship services, but the older members continued to meet once a week during the week for a potluck and conversations and as they did so they noticed the school buses from the consolidated school, the now bigger school but one cut off from the places where the children lived, going by their church building sometimes delivering children to home after a few hours on the bus. So they got to thinking, what if they offered a place for kids to go after school until parents could come get them; a way to put the needs of the most vulnerable first. And so they did and the parents came and the parents met them and began to relate with them and to ask them when the church met? Oh it doesn’t meet anymore, they were told, but of course it was, and some of the parents eventually talked them into reopening worship, into becoming a part of the church. Now would it have been considered a success story if the worship hadn’t started up again? I don’t think so. We don’t do missional in order to help get people into worship. But even then it was worship that grew out of mission, out of community relationships.

In his book Exiles, about faith in a post-christian age, missional church activist Michael Frost tells the story of the young man, Shawn, who had fidgeted in worship throughout his life and finally after turning 18 realized he didn’t have to keep doing so and so he accepted his friends long standing invitation to go party at the lake on Sunday, except when he was there the first time his instincts kicked in and he asked finally out in the boat if he could take just a minute and say a prayer and asked if anyone wanted to include anyone in it; they humored him and the day went on. Next Sunday same thing; gradually on shore they were taking a little time from beer and party to talk about a bible story and to start cleaning up the park in sites not their own, and looking for how they could tow or help boats in trouble, always still partying, and even sit up bread and wine and juice on picnic tables for any who wanted to participate in communion. Did they continue? I don’t know. They never took a name, never incorporated, never paid a minister’s salary. And all the while Shawn’s family kept pestering him to come back to church, not realizing that it was happening in deep meaningful transformative ways right where he was, having fun.
IV.
It is not that our traditional understanding of church and congregational life is not needed, does not do tremendous good, and won’t continue; it is just that it will not have the central privileged place that it had even at the turn of this century as the place for people to find spiritual community. One projection for ten years from now has the congregation meeting the spiritual community needs of just 30-35 percent of people in North America compared to the 70 percent in 2000; alternative faith communities such as home churches and missional communities and workplace and entrepreneurial ministries and recovery and health groups will account for an equal percentage, up from the five percent they served in 2000, and so rising will be spiritual communities formed around popular culture arts and media, and the family. Just as we are seeing this bigger bandwidth occur in many areas of society such as education.
The real survival of our faith tradition might not be so much in how much better we can be at doing what we have been doing, not in how many we can attract, but in how well we can diversify our various incarnations of our deepest truths, how many we can send out, how many connect beyond our walls and organizational life. Not how many can sign the book but how many can we help to read at grade level. Not only do we need a “bigger bandwidth” of church manifestations throughout our Association, but even within a congregation there needs to be a “bigger bandwidth” of ways that congregation impacts its place.
The future of the church ultimately, however, is not to be concerned with the future of the church, but to be committed to the future of the world, particular pieces and peoples of the world that are being left behind in a kind of earthly Rapture. The future of the church I believe will not be so much in how many members can be made and kept in our own distinct places (we have much greater aims than that) and not even in what we think and believe about the Great Mysteries, all that came out of church done in a churched culture with little competition for spiritual community beyond other churches,

but in our unchurched, dechurched, post-modern, post-denominational, post-congregational culture,
in how many people are becoming more loving, generous, justice seeking people whose lives are showing signs of being able to give more of themselves to others, and in smallness that is easier to start and see,
and in how many multitudes of ways can we relate with people and places of great suffering, and in smallness that creativity of experimentation can be nurtured,
and finally in how much we are guided not by gods of fear and deprivation and greed, but by the Spirit of Love that can’t be contained, sustained by our Stories of Faithfulness to deeds above creeds,
all for the creation of that Beloved Community  that prophets through the ages and in many different cultures have pointed out to us comes most readily and deeply and everlastingly in simple ways that restore the soul,
in ordinary things that extraordinarily turn the world upside down,

and in small acts of justice done with Great Love. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Third Places and the Future of the Church


For more sermons by Rev. Ron Robinson and the Welcome Table community, go to www.progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com and follow him and The Welcome Table on facebook.

“Third Places and The Future of the Church” by Rev. Ron Robinson
Thoreau Woods Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Huntsville, TX
 Sunday, Mar. 8, 2015

Ancient Reading from Isaiah 58:
 Is not this the fast that I choose:  To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;  If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

Contemporary Reading from “Welcoming Justice” by John Perkins
“So what does it take to make beloved community happen? I really believe that it begins with a place. I’ve preached relocation all my life because the communities I’ve been a part of have been abandoned. Everybody left, so I called them to come back. But my real concern is for the place. If the church is going to offer some real good news in broken communities, it has to be committed to making a good life possible for people in the place where we are. If you care about a place, you’ll care about the kids in that place. If you don’t care about the kids, they’ll knock out your windows. But the kids in our neighborhood don’t knocfor the place. If the church is going to offer some real good news in broken communities, it has to be committed k out our windows. One of the first things we did when we came here was to put in a sandbox and build a jungle gym. We made sure there was a field for kids to play ball.

When you’re committed to a place, you also care about the beauty of the place. The flowers around our place are important. Every summer the children come running to ask me if they can take some flowers home with them. They don’t have pretty flowers at home…Shared beauty makes people want to share life together. You don’t have to tend your flowers in a neighborhood very long before you have something to talk to your neighbors about.

It may sound simple but I think you’ve got to have neighbors you talk to and get to know before you can love your neighbor as yourself. That’s why community development has been so important to me all these years. The church can’t organize the perfect community. If people aren’t drawn by the cords of love to a vision of beloved community, you can’t force it on them. But we can organize for justice. We can develop a community so that there is a place for people to know one another. That’s the work God has given us to do. Only God can send the rain, but we can till the ground by committing to a place and making sure people can flourish there. That’s the first thing the church has to do if we’re going to interrupt the brokenness of society.

As we commit to our communities, we also need to learn how to see them as economic places. It’s not enough to just move into a place, plant some flowers and be nice to your neighbors. All of that is good, but that won’t address the brokenness of people’s lives because the structures of the community are broken. People need work, good housing, education and health care. So the church has to invest its resources in developing the community. We also need to use our influence to get businesses and government to invest in the community. ..I wish churches spent more time thinking about how their members could love one another and share a common life by working together as a community. Part of the reason our churches are so individualistic is that we just accept the economic systems of our culture without question. We assume that the people who can get the good jobs should go wherever they have to and the people who can’t get the good jobs should just take what they can get. But churches that want to interrupt the brokenness of society ought to be about creating jobs in the community and giving neighbors an opportunity to work together. If we take our communities seriously as economic places, we’ll spend more time thinking about creating good work than we spend thinking about more relevant worship styles or bigger church buildings."

Sermon:

I.                    
When the Unitarian Universalist World magazine did its cover story on our tiny micro-church in North Tulsa four years ago, it titled the article “Ministry in Abandoned Places.” Its focus was on the way we had transformed ourselves from a primarily inwardly focused group working on our growth as an organization of people of like minds and values into an externally focused group working on partnering with others to start new services and programs with and for people in our low income low life expectancy community from which so much of business and government and civic life had fled.

The story chronicled some of how we, starting from a group of 7 all volunteer leaders and about a dozen in worship each week, how we started a library, computer center, free food store, health clinic, clothing room, community art room, bought a block of rundown burned out trashed out houses and yards and since have made an award-winning gardenpark and orchard where yesterday we hosted 150 college students helping us and learning about poverty, have become the main neighborhood organizers and beautifiers, and are the community festival planners for holiday times, and have helped to reopen a closed school across from us and support other area schools, and be a major partner on projects with a new health department office that has been built since the article was published.

The article was mostly about what we do, and who we are, still all volunteers and probably with fewer in worship now than even then. What bears more witness still, however, is where we are, both in the sense of our designated service area, our parish as I call it using an old colonial term from our congregational past, and where we are in the sense of how we have created real transformative places within our Greater Place.  

The story, and our focus too, so often has been about our sense of ministry as mission, and about how we are a Unitarian Universalist connected body in a part of town where our free and progressive churches, particularly new ones, mostly are not located, either because too few of us live there, or because they do not fit with our current sense of our demographics of who will be “attracted” to us, to come and be like us. So often it seems too we are interested in being “attractional” so others can share with us the work of being us, and perhaps even so that we can find assurance that when we ourselves are gone that there will still be a corporate organized us of which we are somehow a part. Against this impulse, we seek to lose ourselves to find ourselves, to be members of some larger Body that may not even, or ever, know our name, but whose spirit and influence we have shaped.

I will talk today about both our ministries and our presence in abandonment  as I tell you more of our story and how we are still moving from church as attractional to incarnational, from organizational to organic. But, what has become clearer to me, through our experience, is how important, religiously important, is the sense of a particular place in all we are and do. That word Place that was used in the magazine article title of Ministry in An Abandoned Place, that is a word that calls to me today, that has crept up on me throughout my life, and is a word that I believe is and will be even moreso shaping the church of the future that is interested in healing the culture that in so many ways destroys both the sense of place and real places; in our area we build housing additions called Tallgrass Prairie where we’ve eliminated the real prairie. Pseudo-community replaces real community in our lives too.   

We in the missional church movement say that no longer is it, in our emerging culture today, a sense of a church needing to create its mission, but it is finding The Mission that creates the church, which will take many different manifestations to fulfill its mission. Now I believe that is true, and still revolutionary for many churches, and church people to conceive, who have a sense of church embedded in their psyches that has been formed especially in the post world war two days when we were more church-centric; people like me. But what I am now understanding is there is something even more foundational than Mission for what church becomes, or at least is so intertwined with mission that the two are incapable of being separated. Now I say:  Place Creates Mission Which Creates Church. Place Creates Mission Which Creates Church.

II
When people ask me to tell them something about our church, or who it is we serve, I have a very specific place in mind and begin talking about it first before anything else—before beliefs, before history, before times and kind of worship. When people come to see us and what we do, I really like for them to begin with a tour of our area, our parish, and how the people there die 14 years earlier than they do in other places just a few miles away from us right along the same street. I show and talk about racism and the great white flight of our area and how there are still ethnic differences between neighborhoods in our parish, though they are lessening, but how the schools have become unofficially resegregated. I am able to point out how we designated what the boundaries of our parish would be, the two mile service radius, in order to engage more fully in a part of our mission that is dedicated to racial reconciliation because of the history of our place.

And only then do I talk about how we made our missional move. When we originally planted our local faith community 12 years ago (notice that word plant vs. start, how it is grounded, rooted, organic vs. mechanical) when we planted, we began in a fast growing suburb ten miles from where we are now, and with a different name, and purpose. In the past twelve years we have inhabited many different places; we rented 8 different places and used more than that, and we have adopted four different names in this time. Finding our Place, our Mission, our Form of Church. Back then the intent was not to become what we have in fact so far become, but to become an established church that would look and feel pretty much like other churches and like what churches both ours and otherwise have looked and felt like since the 1950s and even the 1850s and even before then. I said now that through all our changes one of my take-away lessons is that as we failed at what we thought we wanted to be, we became what the world, what our place, needed us to be.

After a year and a half in the fast growing suburb, we moved to our current community, my family and the church and my office with the national UU Christian Fellowship all moving there, but for two years we still tried to be that attractional church just relocated to the poor community. But, as we connected with more of our neighbors, something that was easier to do in our slower paced economically declining community, it became clear to us that we needed to be able to respond better to the lives of our neighbors, and that what they were saying they needed was not more sermons and programs from us trying to get them to become us. So we decided we needed to change in order to change our area. We believed that churches or any groups should not get healthier and wealthier while the communities around them become poorer and sicker. As one missional leader has said (Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution) we risked becoming smaller in order to do bigger things.

Across from our 1800 square foot rented space was a 4000 square foot vacant commercial space. Following the guideline that we wanted to be the best church not IN the community but FOR the community, we decided to move into the bigger space, not knowing how we would pay for it, knowing though that we wanted it to not be billed as a church but as what we called A Third Place Community Center. The name A Third Place came from the global third places movement, traced back for many to a seminal book by sociologist Ray Oldenberg about the need for these free diverse places for people who were different to be able to meet and share and make a difference. Your first place is your home; your second place is your work or church or affinity group all where you are with people who share some common interest, but that life is lived in more abundance and community is nurtured, and change effected, by the presence of third places or spaces.

And so the space for others was created, and the church became like a guest in its own house. This idea also has roots in the ecological as well as sociological, and we had been inspired by the writings of Wes Jackson of The Land Institute and the poet farmer philosopher Wendell Berry who call us to both “Become Natives In Our Place” (to use the name of one of Jackson’s books) and to see our place in and our responsibility to our Greater Place. For our Unitarian heritage, it also has historical and theological roots; as I said, in colonial days our oldest churches now in the UUA often began, and are still named, First Parish; while there was a body of leaders in deeper covenant known as the church, one that was grounded in being of like religious experience, there was a sense of wider membership, and responsibility outward toward all those in a specific geographic sense, the parish.
A key fact is that even though we created a particular place called A Third Place, we have never seen that creation as the fulfillment of our mission, to be only seeking to attract people to come to our third place to do all their connecting; if that was the case we would be no different really from many of the older models of congregation, and we would be no different really from a commercial place like Starbucks, et al, that have capitalized, literally, on the cultural trend these days toward third places. No, from the start we continued to look for other physical places to be a presence in our Parish.

We became church as we planted wildflower beds in public, and for businesses, as we gardened with school children and created beds for them where they could meet, as we have been instrumental in helping get old rundown structures torn down so that newer green and open spaces are more inviting to get people outside, as we have sought to reclaim streets and trails from stray dogs and from criminal activity, and most readily as we soon created the non-profit organization A Third Place Community Foundation to help us continue to expand outward into our community, to form partnerships with others, and to tear down a block of abandoned structures and transform it into the GardenPark and Orchard where many community festivals and events and simple one on one relationships happen now in a space that many couldn’t bear to even look at before, and eventually to leave that 4,000 square foot rented space and create a larger community center of 11,000 square feet.

And even now we keep trying to turn ourselves outward and create new third places, or what we now call Welcome Tables (a little easier to explain) in many other places within our Parish. We are planting seeds of getting small transformation spaces such as our park throughout our neighborhoods, and we have a current project going where we will make Grow Pots of tomatoes and peppers in five gallon buckets and take them to the homes of those who want them who come to our community food store in order for them to have help growing their own food and not having to rely on only coming to our community garden and orchard, but to take it physically into their own neighborhoods. At our community center, we are working to make the outside of it as usable as the inside, with places for people without electricity to charge their cell phones and with wifi to access and a hydrant for those without running water, and gardens for growing and eating and decks for meeting, small parties, and more.

III
Church is now Place turned inside out. Instead of pulling from the community into the church, in the old model; we are constantly looking for ways to create church out in the community. That takes precedence over all else, including a need to worship as our own special distinct group (we go worship with others as much as worshipping together on our own.) You see, To be sent is the mark of the missional church (a phrase that should be redundant), especially to places where others are fleeing away from. (It is how you are being church when you are going to stand vigil for those about to be killed by the state at the Texas penitentiary here in your place; you are going somewhere others do not want to go, to witness to what others do not want to see). To be sent. That is where the word missional comes from, out of the Greek word missio. We are to be not members of a religious club, not even ultimately bearers of a religious message with our elevator speeches, but to be living missives ourselves, embodiments of what we find Sacred, and incarnating that in the places and peoples deemed profane by powers to be.

Church in this new and ancient way doesn’t require it to be a 501c3 organization, with a building of its own, bylaws, boards, budgets. Those may be deemed helpful, but they aren’t what makes a church a church; that is its missional field or place that calls it into being in the first place. It is why many new church communities are being very targeted in their focus of why they exist to impact the world, connecting with one school, one neighborhood, one apartment complex, one park or one underpass where those without houses gather, one day laborer waiting zone, one struggling nursing home, one jail, one sex offender mobile home park, one abuse shelter. The places of need right within most of our places are unfortunately almost endless, and we also have to acknowledge that they are growing and that the public resources that used to be marshalled for them have been slashed and we need to do all the upstream work too in places of business and government to get them to fulfill their responsibilities of being partners in society.

The church form, be it of worship or architecture or organization, is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who reminded us in his 1841 sermon on The Transient and Permanent in Christianity that the church of the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church of the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church of the fifteenth century did not do for his 19th century; and we can update him to say that the church of the late 20th century even will not do entirely for the 21st.

It is not that our traditional understanding of church and congregational life is not needed, does not do tremendous good, and won’t continue; it is just that it will not have the central privileged place that it had even at the turn of this century as the place for people to find spiritual community. One projection for ten years from now has the congregation meeting the spiritual community needs of just 30-35 percent of people compared to 70 percent in 2000; alternative faith communities such as home churches and missional communities and workplace and entrepreneurial ministries and recovery and health groups will account for an equal percentage, as will communities formed around popular culture arts and media, and the family.

The real survival of our faith tradition might not be so much in how much better we can be at doing what we have been doing, not in how many we can attract, but in how well we can diversify our incarnations of our deepest truths. Not only do we need a “bigger bandwidth” of church manifestations throughout our Association, but even within a congregation there needs to be a “bigger bandwidth” of ways that congregation impacts its place.

The future of the church ultimately is not to be concerned with the future of the church, but to be committed to the future of the world, particular pieces of the world that are being left behind in a kind of earthly Rapture. The future of the church I believe will not be so much in how many members can be made and kept in our own distinct places (we have much greater aims than that) and not even in what we think and believe about the Great Mysteries,
but how many places of suffering can we enter into,
in how many multitudes of ways,
and how we are able to do so with the Spirit of Love that can’t be contained,
sustained by a Story of Faithfulness to deeds above creeds,
all for the creation of that Beloved Community John Perkins was beaten nearly to death for, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma fifty years ago talked about, and gave his life for,
Beloved Community,
Beloved Community that is more than a feeling,
More than something for a few,

and is instead a place of abundant life for all peoples. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Liberal, Missional Church

Sermon preached at Hope Unitarian Church, Tulsa, July 6, 2014
Rev. Ron Robinson

It is a privilege to be starting off your month’s theme on liberal theologies. Independence Weekend is an appropriate time to begin with this particular theme.  

In Professor Gary Dorrien’s monumental trilogy of religious history published a few years ago called “The Making of American Liberal Theology,” he begins his first chapter in 1805 with us and our roots in American soil that had sprouted that year with the liberal or Unitarian control of Harvard University. The decades-long reaction to that by others would soon lead leading New England minister William Ellery Channing to preach his Unitarian Christian sermon in 1819 and to the American Unitarian Association being founded in 1825 to promote “pure Christianity” (their term for liberal Christianity) and with that American Liberal Theology was flowering institutionally, in both academy and church and some of society. Many today, both in and out of church life, across faiths and denominations, whether they have ever heard of us much less our religious ancestors, have inherited much from us as Dorrien’s work shows, even as it chronicles much of the ups and downs of liberal theologies and as it concludes on an upbeat note---as will I. While it starts with Channing in the first chapter of the trilogy, also in the final volume there are chapters on some of the leading liberal theologians of recent times who were also in our church life—Henry Nelson Weiman and Charles Hartshorne and the great James Luther Adams and even more recently Forrest Church and Thandeka, all received chapters for their influence in and beyond our own church life.
Of course the actions in the early 1800s were a direct result of the changes brought about through the events of the year we celebrate this weekend, 1776. The revolutionary spirit in politics manifested itself right along with a revolutionary spirit in theology. For example, The war had caused half of the members of Boston’s King’s Chapel to flee to Canada loyal to the British Empire. King’s Chapel was the first Anglican, or Episcopalian, church in the colonies. In 1785, after the war, those who had remained tried to get a new priest appointed by the Church of England but were unable to do so, and so they turned to one of their liturgists, a former Harvard student who was also a convert to the liberal movement and anti-Trinitarianism that had been emerging in the United Kingdom. Acting then like the other churches in the Boston area, like Channing’s church for example, what were called the Standing Order churches that were the oldest in New England, King’s Chapel voted to call their own minister. And when he became the minister, James Freeman, with the support of the church, made some changes in 1785 to the Book of Common Prayer to fit in with his theology. So they then became, as their motto now says, Anglican in worship, Unitarian in theology, Congregational in polity.  
Another result of 1776 is seen in the story of Joseph Priestly, the famed scientist in England, friend of Benjamin Franklin’s and supporter of American Independence, and liberal Unitarian minister, who was chased out of his country, found refuge in Pennsylvannia and started the first church on these shores explicitly named Unitarian in the 1790s.
Liberalism’s openness to differences—even back then there were major for the time theological differences between the likes of Channing and Priestly and others in how they understood Jesus—and liberalism’s historic trust in human nature and God’s nature and in what the future might unfold means it is somewhat inherently revolutionary. James Luther Adams used to write about the Religious Reformation always being through liberalism in process of Reformation. And liberalism itself too. Liberalism is dead. Long live liberalism, he wrote. The first of his famous five smooth stones of religious liberalism is that truth is continually being revealed. 
Of course if you look at the Unitarian Universalist Association today you will see that our oldest churches have been in existence many years before 1776 and its revolution and King’s Chapel or the church Priestly founded. Those Puritan Standing Order churches in Massachusetts date back to 1620 in Plymouth and in enough other places that just by 1636 they needed to start Harvard University in order to educate the ministers. By 1648, they had experienced enough controversy that they needed to come together in the first major gathering of churches in order to write the founding document of our covenanted congregational spirit, the Cambridge Platform (a few of our oldest churches, though, like Plymouth and a few others, proudly and somewhat in jest point out they didn’t attend that Cambridge Synod and so have their doubts still, though they follow its tradition.)
That document maintained as one of its major covenants that the voluntary association of persons coming together to become the church had the authority, the wisdom, and the responsibility to choose its own lay and ordained leaders, whom they called, in their typical counter Roman Catholic style, Christ’s representatives on earth. Not one pope you might say, but one for every congregation. And If they could do that, why not be trusted to elect other mere public servants like governors, Presidents? The Cambridge Platform and the Independent Puritan Congregationalism that came to these shores in New England set the stage for the political discernment that those same people had the ability and calling to choose their own governing leaders.
We wouldn’t consider those Puritans as liberals today in many ways, as for example they restricted their leadership according to gender, and they weren’t theological Unitarians either as they accepted at Cambridge in 1648 without debate the Westminster Catechism that was rooted in John Calvin’s theology. But they were still religious revolutionaries; and an unintended consequence of their action in placing so much focus on the covenantal nature of religious community is that those very covenants came to be perpetual new wineskins for new wine and took the place of the creeds. Not that creeds didn’t and couldn’t contain religious truth, but they would not let even that truth become the arbiter for all time; that went to the covenants. And so, many of these churches too, after the revolutionary war, bloomed with a new spirit that took Unitarian shape whenever they discerned the spirit of their age and called a new minister to serve with them. The covenants allowed them to do so. The same way they allow for radical changes to this day.
In this way, 1648 led directly to 1776 which led, on the Unitarian side to 1825 and the founding of that side of our Association today. And there is something inherently liberal about the choice of covenants to be the structure or the way of the church even when the outcomes of those covenants is far from what would be called the liberal, progressive, generous spiritual path of today. Covenants reflect a belief that, as one of the old brochures at All Souls used to put it, God works in freedom. And does so in large measure through the blessed imperfections of humanity. And that freedom is not the same as the license to do what one can do or one wishes to do, but is a gift we give to one another and maintain in community.
Those covenants of the Cambridge Platform guide our liberalism today: the covenant between persons and church; the covenant between church and elected and called leaders; the covenant between churches; the covenant between leaders of those churches; the covenant between a church and its parish, its wider community; the covenant between a church and what it finds Most Sacred.
The liberal tradition says there is not one way to be liberal, not one way to craft those covenants that fits all congregations, not even all congregations within the same religious association, but that we should take them seriously. Conrad Wright, the late Unitarian Universalist professor emeritus of church history at Harvard, in his essay on The Doctrine of the Church for Liberals, said that too often liberals focus attention and concern on the adjective liberal and what it requires, and not enough on the noun Church and what it requires, and that taking all of these covenants seriously and in love is what makes the difference between a church and a “collection of religiously oriented individuals.”
We can see then that liberal religion is often focused on the how of religion, on the processes and openness of community. In his work, Professor Dorrien describes this focus as liberalism’s foundation as a mediating force, as a third way movement, that always has one eye on how it differs from the fundamentalist or dogmatic religion, and one eye on how it differs from disbelief, from the non-religious. This is a valuable function, but it can result in liberalism becoming consumed with its self, and how its identity crisis is wrapped up in how unique it may or may not be, and it can become so attached then to how it presents itself, to what it proclaims, to getting its message right, that it can become irrelevant, especially in a world that is increasingly more concerned with what difference a religion makes in communities that are suffering than in what a religion says about itself, and especially in a culture where many of the values of liberalism and pluralism and free thought have become the air in which newer generations naturally breathe and grow up in, in ways my generation and older ones did not experience and had to struggle to achieve and needed religious community to help us do so.
In the churched culture of this country, dominant in the 1950s and before,  liberalism’s inherent process-orientation and third way focus for helping liberal churches define themselves in society helped them to thrive because the church was primary, and so the primary mission of the church, rightly or wrongly, was how to promote how one church differentiated itself from another. Particularly if you were a church where the majority of its members came from other churches. The mission was to get as many members into a church as possible in order to perpetuate the institution of that church as part of the overall churched culture of society.
If we simply were to take a view of what Sunday morning options were like even in Bible Belt Tulsa in 1960 and what they are like this morning we will easily know that we are in a different environment for churches, what is now called post-Christian, post-denominational, and finally post-congregational. In this world, has liberal theology’s success and its foundation—a focus on how of church more than on why of church and on message and membership more than on ministries in the world—has that become its greatest weakness? If as Conrad Wright said, we tend to focus on the liberal too much and not on the church part of the liberal church enough, will all the great manifestations of theology that Dorrien has chronicled we have helped usher into the world become nostalgia, become spent, or at best become real not in our tradition and our communities but in and through others? 
I write a blog that is called MissionalProgressives. The aim of that digital space is to cultivate connections between what is called now the missional church and the liberal church, because I believe that each needs the other in order to better become its best self, for a world that needs desperately a church both missional and progressive or liberal. A situation that reminds me of the words of one of the founders of the Catholic Workers movement, Peter Maurin, who said the problem is that those who think don’t act and those who act don’t think. A liberalism in Unitarian Universalism that was more concerned with ministries in the world than with its own elevator speech or getting its message right would be welcoming more new churches planted in the world than only the single one that it welcomed last week at General Assembly, and it would be present in places of great and growing poverty and sickness instead of just occasionally visiting them. And the missional church that is transforming the church landscape and what it means to be a spiritual community in countless ways, if it truly wants to make an impact in the emerging world it says it wants to impact, would be open to and embracing the growing rich diversity of the world not only in ethnic terms where it does a decent job, but in terms of gender and sexual orientation and also theological orientations.
Such a liberal, missional church is the response to the question of what the emerging world needs. A liberal, missional church does not create or have a mission; it is the result of what the world’s needs creates, and so its orientation is always radically outward beyond its own internal needs in order to thrive and realize its beingness in the first place. It is like the perhaps apocryphal story of the company that used to see its mission as making drill bits when what its mission really was, making holes. Making that shift allowed it to focus on what counted and to create new ways to make holes. 
In this shift from the churched to the postchurch culture, a strange dialectic took place. The more the world out there, the external community, became less focused and dependent upon the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. Especially liberal and so-called mainline churches who also during these recent decades of the Sixties to the Nineties in particular often seemed to feel that their theology and their place in the spiritual landscape had become marginalized compared to what it was before. “The mission” then became to perpetuate churches in a world where the “missional field”, the world out there, flowed toward the church and for the church; but in a world where the church itself as institution has been marginalized, and the missional field has shifted and has now become primary, the mission or purpose of the church must shift; instead of the world being a resource to draw upon to sustain the church, the church must see itself as becoming a resource for the world to draw upon to sustain itself, especially in all the places the world suffers today.
The good news for liberalism (which I maintain is also inherently good news for missionalism) is that as we talked about just a few minutes ago, the revolutionary spirit that is required for the shifts underway today is a revolutionary spirit embedded in liberalism—if we can disembed it in all the ways it has become bound up over time in such things as classism, in its own self-reflection, in moderation and fear of risk, fear even of embodied vulnerable communities.
We are inheritors of a tradition of those who sought revolutionary new forms of spiritual community. It was our great preacher Theodore Parker in his sermon The Transient and The Permanent in Christianity who said the church that worked for the first century didn’t for the fifth, and the one for the fifth didn’t for the fifteenth, and the one for the fifteenth didn’t for his nineteenth century, and I have found, with society’s revolutionary not evolutionary change now, that the one for the late twentieth century doesn’t for the first part of the twenty-first century.
Even those covenants in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, at a time when colonialism’s evil was running full bore and the church was trying to master the world and the indigenous people in it, those covenants reminded us with their vision that the world had a claim on the church and the church needed the support of the parish. What the missional church today has done is to revolutionize that old missionary church and turn its focus upside down; instead of going to the world in order to convert the world to its ways and and make more church members and get more resources for the church’s sake, now the church goes to the world in order to be converted by the world’s needs, to make beloved community in the world where so many institutions are seeking to disrupt it, and to put the church’s resources into the world.
Even at the center of James Luther Adams’ five smooth stones of religious liberalism, the third stone, is the principle that we have a moral obligation to direct ourselves toward creating a just and loving world, and we know from his own witness in the world that he didn’t mean we did that focusing on building up communities of the like minded to stay like minded.
No, Our revolutionary ancestors have given us the structures of freedom to be able to respond to the changing world. Liberalism’s fuller sense fosters Freedom as Freedom To Do, To make anew, even to renew the old in the world, not to be stuck in a paralyzing perpetual Freedom From the world, from one another. That’s what so many of our politicians and preachers around us don’t know when they cavalierly toss around the word freedom at this and all times of the year.
How have we used this better understanding of freedom? Well, in Theological and liturgical expressions, liberal churches have used it often among us—it is why this past Sunday I could go to a church in the Unitarian Universalist Association in Providence, Rhode Island just a few minutes walk from our General Assembly and attend worship and take communion in First Universalist Church that is Trinitarian Universalist and uses a universalist Book of Common Prayer, or could have gone to Boston to King’s Chapel that is Unitarian Christian and uses its own Book of Common Prayer, and someone else could go to a Unitarian Universalist Association church nearby or far away where Christians and prayer and communion of many varieties are few and far between and rarely mentioned. But, at the same time, we do not have much variety among us in the very forms of spiritual community; at a time when this is more vital than ever to connect with people looking for different forms;  we have few missional churches and communities and ministries, and there are many different kinds of those operating in the world today too to model after; we have few new communities period that we adequately support and resource. We have too much kept liberalism’s revolutionary spirit locked in the box of churched culture that it was born in, though that culture is dying or gone.
Again, the good news is that the seeds of revolution are being planted nevertheless; community-based ministers are becoming are dominant form of ministry; part time and bi and tri vocational ministers are being seen not as a weakness but as a potential strength in our movement; we are seeing ourselves not as individual institutions, but as a movement with many manifestations for a diverse world; as parts of “the church universal” not just, to paraphrase Conrad Wright, collections of individual churches; our existing churches that remain with worship as the central act oriented and are attractional in nature, these are seeing that how many they can help turn out for community justice meetings and missions is more important than how many join their church; at www.faithify.org you see just a glimpse of new innovative ministries among us (though still only a few like ours I would see as disruptively innovative); and finally we are finding new momentum with a mission that sees making more Unitarian Universalists not as our end but simply as a means, as only one way among many, to the greater end of resourcing refreshing and sending people into the world to build beloved community, and so become the church, liberal and missional, there.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Love Reaching Out

Here are the background resources in the packet given out during the UUA General Assenmbly workshop on The Welcome Table, the 3Rs of community renewal, and the missional church. This was augmented by the witness and testimony by Rev. Debra Garfinkel and Rev. Cecilia Kingman and Rev. Susan Smith. I believe you can go to www.uua.org/ga to find out how to buy the CD of the worship, including all the presentations and the questions and answers.

Ministry In Abandoned Places
The 3 Rs of Reaching Out
Church Focused on Relocation, Reconciliation, Redistribution
On Ministries in the World, not Members
Rev. Ron Robinson, The Welcome Table missional community
www.athirdplace.org www.progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com follow us on facebook at TheWelcomeTable Mission, and The Welcome Table GardenPark
also learn more at our www.missionalprogressives.blogspot.com
1.     Video and Slideshow of Our Presence in the 74126 zipcode of Tulsa---what 3-12 people in worship accomplish by turning their church inside out and connecting first with neighbors and partners
2.     Our 3Rs Missional Transformation that is Transforming Our Community—Rev. Ron Robinson
3.     Impact on Lives, on Church, and on our Movement: Witness by Rev. Debra Garfinkel, Rev. Cecilia Kingman, Rev. Susan Smith
4.     Questions from the Gathered

How to Help: Go to www.faithify.org and donate to our ministry projects: 1. Kitchen Greenhouse Community at our GardenPark and Orchard where abandoned houses once were. $6,000
2. Missional Community Room to serve our neighbors and create hospitality for those (you) coming to stay and serve and learn with us. $7,500.
45 days to raise the funds; all or nothing campaign; you are not charged unless the full amount is raised; during the campaign your money is put in escrow and returned to your account if the full amount is not achieved.
Please Share Widely. Join the Online Facebook Event for support of both projects:


Come to Life on Fire: Missional Spirituality Retreat: Growing spiritual practice and discernment in abandoned places. A missional gathering, May 29-31, 2015, at The Welcome Table. Just $50 total fee for program, lodging, meals with us.

Come Stay and Serve and Learn in our “University of Poverty” With Us: contact revronrobinson@gmail.com 918-691-3223
If you come just for a half or full day, no overnight, a “love offering” per person recommended.

Overnight stays: Daily fee, no meals provided by us: $10 per person; one meal provided, $20 per person; two meals, $30 per person. Lodging on site or in area included. Scholarships may be available.

The Welcome Table Missional Community/A Third Place Community Foundation
Renewing The Far Northside: Volunteer Grassroots Response
History Highlights:

Epiphany Church began in Owasso in 2002-03; fast growing predominantly white suburb but didnt have the resources leadership or culture match to grow and sustain as an attractional church model. 
moved to 6305 N. Peoria Ave. Turley/McLain School area in 2004; a declining low income multi ethnic area. 
became The Living Room Church in 2005 and began partnering with Turley Community Association and Cherokee School on beautification projects
Opened A Third Place Community Center at 6416 N. Peoria Ave. and moved in it in 2007, began working with OU Graduate Social Work program on community forums;
hosted OU Health Clinic in 2008; began calling ourselves simply Church At A Third Place.
created A Third Place Community Foundation in 2009, began demonstration gardening with Turley United Methodist Church and providing school gardens and landscaping for Cherokee Elementary School and helped form McLain School Foundation;
bought a block of abandoned houses and trashed property at 6005 N. Johnstown Ave. in 2010 to begin transforming into a community gardenpark;
bought an abandoned church building at 5920 N. Owasso Ave. and moved the community center into it in 2011, and planted the community orchard;
created The Welcome Table Free Corner Store Food Pantry in 2012. Became using the name The Welcome Table Church. 
5-7 people transformed the small church into a missional community that serves more than 1000 people a month; our worship service is still 3-12 people usually when we worship as our own group; we also worship with other churches each month as well. Grow smaller to do bigger things.

Area We Serve:
Primarily from 46th St. N. to 76th St. N. and from Highway 75 to Osage County Line; all within the McLain School boundary; far north Tulsa and Turley community area but our food store also serves the Sperry area. We are located in 74126, one of the lowest income zipcodes in the Tulsa area with a life expectancy 14 years lower than midtown Tulsa. 12,500 people.


Current Offerings:
Twice a Week Free Food Store; 4-5 times a year Mobile Pantry giving out 5 tons of food in one hour; occasional Mobile Eatery from Food Bank
Computer Center/Free Wifi….Free Books….Clothes and More (take what you need; leave what you can)….Community Art Studio and Art Events…Washer/Dryer…Community Recycling Bin…Weekly 12-Step Recovery
Community Holiday Events and Festivals…Monthly Community Planning…Monthly Turley Area Seniors
Community GardenPark and Orchard and Free weekly meals at the Park
Current Community Projects
Abandoned Properties: Demolition or Upkeep….66th and N. Lewis Intersection Transformation…Welcome to Turley Sign Project…Roadside Wildflowers/Trash Pickup….Prairie Trails Wildflower Preservation Rest Area
Planting Project Seeds: In Conversation or In Vision
Cherokee School Repurposing…Scattered Site Low Rent Housing Program, plus “Relocation Homes” transforming abandoned homes….Osage Prairie Trail Awareness and Appreciation Event(s) and Community Info Kiosks…Far North Main Street from 46th to 66th St. on N. Peoria Ave….Community Lay Health Advocate Program (turning health clinics inside out)
Current Partners
University of Oklahoma-Tulsa…Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma…Tulsa Health Department North Regional Wellness Center…Tulsa Food Security Council…Tulsa Community Gardening Association…McLain School Foundation…Turley Community Association…Turley United Methodist Church…Turley Fire and Rescue Dept…Tulsa County O’Brien Park and Recreation…Sarah’s Residential Living Center…Newsome Community Farms…Oklahoma State University Extension Dept…The LightHouse/Gilcrease Elementary Schools..Tulsa Sponsoring Committee, Industrial Areas Foundation.  



Background on the 3Rs
Relocation, Reconciliation, Redistribution
Comes from the life and work of the civil rights leader and community development activist and African American pastor and author John Perkins of Mississippi who moved back to the south in the heart of the civil rights struggle, was jailed and beaten, and grew ministries that greatly impacted his community, launching a national organization and 3Rs movement. www.ccda.org. He has also been an influence on the new monastic movement and the new friars movement. See the books by Shane Claiborne and Scott Bessenecker. It is a “holistic church” approach, as he often says, that truly balances worship, learning, living in community, and service instead of churches that spend so much time and energy and resources on “proclaiming a message” that they don’t make practicing and embodying their faith, making it real in the world, equally as or more important. 
Form missional teams in an abandoned place with Remainers, Returners, Relocators for they each have their particular experiences and gifts.
Relocation:
Go where the need is, not where the numbers are.
A spectrum of ways to relocate: from moving in to poverty areas to spending time, money, resources in them and forming relationships there on a regular basis even if you live elsewhere at the moment.
Relocating helps you to truly understand the “felt needs” of those in need and therefore is critical to understanding your mission. Spend time learning from those in the area before you relocate there.
To every fear expressed about relocating, Perkins would respond: “That’s why you need to go.”

The Relocation Strategy:
 A. get to know the area by working with others in it or working with a group that works with the poor in another area.
 B. Share your vision with the church.
C. Form a ministry team.
 D. Become a community with your team for over a year or two.
 E. Get special training for your team or a big part of it.
 F. Choose the community of most needs.
 G. Outline a target area: this is important as we have a tendency to take on too much and dilute our relationship power; he says if the community has a lot of subdivisions then your target area might be simply six blocks; if it is an area of apartments your area might be one single apartment complex.
 H. Build relationships and allow even the friends you have made first to help you choose where to live and to point you to it.
 I. Listen to the people, visit them, invite them. Plan to stay. (He encourages people to commit to 15 years).
J. Once you begin to act, begin with bible study or prayer group.
 K. Work with children.
 L. Raise up indigenous leaders to take over what you start.
 M. Join or establish a church in the area; join is the first and best option, but if can’t find healthy one, start one.
 N. Respond to the needs, begin the redistribution.
O. In developing leaders to help you in the work of the 3Rs, I like to use and adapt his three ways of recognizing gifted people to work with: those who evidence
1. “people of peace” (Luke 10); non-anxious presences, people of inner abundance even amid much external scarcity;
2. Servanthood, are they willing to be led, see where their growing edges are?
3. Fellowship,  are they comfortable participating in all aspects of community?


Reconciliation:
For Perkins, and for us, Reconciliation is most directly focused on racial and ethnic reconciliation, giving the history of our service area and its current demographics. But reconciliation is a broader mission that includes all kinds of ways the culture tends to disrupt and divide and oppress peoples.
Reconciliation is the ongoing spiritual work of vulnerability, trust, forgiveness, letting others from a less privileged position take leads and be teachers; it means working on reconciliation with those within the ministry team as well, and with our closest neighbors, all of which can be tougher than a vague commitment to meeting with and working with people across ethnic, etc lines.
It means not being too illusioned at the onset of relationships and relocation that it turns into deep disillusionment and causes us to leave.
Don’t rush into the third R of redistribution without not only working on relocation but seeking reconciliation; this is what will help shape and inform the redistribution work.
Perkins points out that a church working on reconciliation won’t be a consumer church because it is not what people are seeking to engage with; it goes against the grain of church adopting the homogenous unit principle of people seeking and staying with those like themselves.
Reconciliation begins with the person and the church reconciling, or keeping in balance or right relationships, their polarities of Doing (action) and Being (reflection and nurture). The challenges of relocation (returning, remaining) and the hard work of redistribution can only be met with the centerpiece of reconciliation focus.

Redistribution:
This is scary to many because it focuses on shared common goods as well as sharing the Common Good. We tend to think of people who do this as “saints” but that is a way to distance ourselves from the calling of engaging in redistribution.
There is not just one model. Not only the person and family and church commit to sharing goods, but also working to see that government does its job of caring for the vulnerable with resources, and calling on businesses to invest in abandoned places and projects and partners, and for a variety of non profits to be created or nurtured in the areas.
Commitment to a “God’s Dream” Economy vs. the “American Dream” economy.
Also not just focusing on people as receivers of goods, but helping to create them as producers, owners of businesses; that way they grow community health by already living in the area and not like business people who use the area but live elsewhere.
Church as an economic institution for the impoverished area, employing neighbors and helping to start and spin off businesses.


The Missional Church Background
1.     We have entered an era where we need a “bigger bandwidth” of church manifestations because we are not in a one-size fits all world any longer. People increasingly are finding spiritual community and relationships outside of congregations. Barna’s projection: 70 percent in 2000 connected in congregations; down to 35 percent in 2025; will be co-equal with alternative faith communities, and close behind will be communities based on popular culture media and arts. 

2.     Terms. Missional: Being Sent, to Serve. Not necessarily the same as a Church Mission, or Mission Statement; The opposite of old style “Missionary” church which went to others to convert them to become the church; the mission-al church goes to be with others and to be converted (especially in focus and in forms) by them, and their needs, in order to better serve. “Mission Field” is the place where church becomes itself missionally, where it is sent, and lives out its covenant with the world beyond it; it is the answer to the question who does the church exist for, why does it exist, and in particular for whom does one’s heart (or God’s heart) break for? Can be very narrow and specific, such as one apartment complex or school or zipcode or group of people struggling with a specific situation. “Missional Community” can be on its own, or connected with others and with a church or group of churches; can be various sizes though usually core groups no more than 12 to 20. Can be Two or More. Other names often associated are Incarnational Church, Externally-Focused Church, New Monastic. It is sometimes seen as a category of the “Emergent or Emerging Church” but Emergent is most often seen as a postmodern worship reformation movement, with missional overtones and connections; Missional in focus usually includes worship, but doesn’t have to, and worship may be with various churches as well as or in place of its own worshipping group.

3.     The Shift from The Churched Culture where Church was Primary and Mission Field was secondary and was a resource for the church, to Unchurched/DeChurched Culture where church has been marginalized and Mission Field has become Primary, so church now must flow toward the mission field rather than expecting the mission field to flow toward it. In the old culture, Church found its mission in how it differentiated itself from other churches, which put the focus on the church institutionally and making more members was its mission, especially if it was a church where most of its members came from other churches; this put added stress on institutional membership; in the emerging culture, where mission field is primary, as the external community put less focus on churches, the churches increased their focus on themselves. “The mission” used to be to perpetuate churches in a world where the “missional field” flowed toward the church; but in a world where the church as institution has been marginalized, and the missional field has  become primary, so too the church should shift from focusing on building itself up to engagement with and building up the world around it, its missional field.  The movement resulted in movement from focus on membership to ministries in the world with or without people who identify as members or even as adherents to a particular church or faith.

4.     Church Doesn’t Have or Create A Mission; The Mission Creates and Has The Church.  Theologically speaking, the mission of the church, or ecclesiology, is a salvific, healing response, soteriology, to the suffering and the ways that we have been separated, hamartiology, from the image of God and from the aims of that Imago Dei being manifest in beloved community. So we are to be oriented toward those who are suffering; suffering comes in many forms. Discover the suffering you are called to address and create church to respond to it.

Church is not to be content to be a safe home until all homes are safe. Church is not to be content to be growing and thriving in a community that is suffering and declining. Don’t be the best church IN your community, but be the best church FOR your community. Start making shifts in focus From internal to external ministries, from program development to people development, from church-based to world-based leadership.

5.     Four Paths, or The Loop, of Church-ing: 1. Missional Service; 2. Community Life in order to better serve; 3. Discipleship/Leadership in order to have healthier communities in order to better serve; 4. Worship that refreshes the soul and deepens the community and sparks the desire for discipleship/leadership for the missional service.

6.     Focus not on “a church” but on “the church” which can have many manifestations. Church not a what, but a who; Church anywhere, anytime, by anyone. Grow smaller to do bigger things.

12 Marks of New Monasticism (many of these can be easily adopted by theologically diverse groups in case of #6, and in the case of #8 can be expanded)
1.     "Relocation to Abandoned Places of Empire."
2.     "Sharing Economic Resources with Fellow Community Members."
3.     "Hospitality to the Stranger."
4.     "Lament for Racial Divisions Within the Church and Our Communities Combined with the Active Pursuit of a Just Reconciliation."
5.     "Humble Submission to Christ's Body, the Church."
6.     “Intentional Formation in the Way of Christ and the Rule of the Community Along the Lines of the Old Novitiate."
7.     "Nurturing Common Life Among Members of Intentional Community."
8.     "Support for Celibate Singles Alongside Monogamous Married Couples and Their Children."
9.     "Geographical Proximity to Community Members Who Share a Common Rule of Life."
10.                        "Care for the Plot of God's Earth Given to Us Along with Support of Our Local Economies."
11.                        "Peacemaking in the Midst of Violence and Conflict Resolution."
12.                        "Commitment to a Disciplined Contemplative Life."

Books For Learning More About Missional Church:

*The Almost Church Revitalized, and Church Do’s and Don’ts and The Church We Yearn For, by Michael Durall;
*Missional Renaissance and also Missional Communities by Reggie McNeal;
*The Shaping of Things To Come, and The Faith of Leap, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch;
*Exiles by Frost, and The Forgotten Ways by Hirsch; and On The Verge by Hirsch and David Ferguson;
The Road to Missional by Michael Frost; The Permanent Revolution by Hirsch and Tim Crimmin; Right Here, Right Now by Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford
Introducing the Missional Church, and also Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, by Alan Roxburgh
Launching Missional Communities by Mike Breen
The Abundant Community by John McNight and Peter Block, see also McKnight's Turning Communities Inside Out
Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan;
*Welcoming Justice, and Let Justice Roll Down, and With Justice For All, and Restoring At-Risk Communities, by John Perkins, and Follow Me To Freedom by Perkins and Shane Claiborne
*The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne,
Houses That Change The World, Wolfgang Simson,
*Change The World by Michael Slaughter
Emerging Church by Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs,
The Organic Church, and Search and Rescue, and Church 3.0 by Neil Cole,
Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen,
*The New Conspirators by Tom Sine,
*The New Friars, and also Living Mission by Scott Bessenecker,
*The Tangible Kingdom, and The Gathered AND Sent Church, and Bivo, by Hugh Halter and/or Matt Smay;
The New Monasticism and School(s) for Conversion, and The Awakening of Hope, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove,
Economy of Love, by Claiborne and others
 The Church is Flat, by Tony Jones
Revolution, by George Barna, Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola, UnChristian by David Kinnamon;
The Secret Message of Jesus, by Brian McLaren
American Religion: Contemporary Trends, by Mark Chavez
Church Morph by Eddie Gibbs,
Reimagine The World by Bernard Brandon Scott,
Under The Radar by Bill Easum,
An Altar in the World and Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor,
Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer,
Inside The Organic Church by Bob Whitesel.
Lyle Schaller’s books especially Discontinuity and Hope, and The New Contexts For Ministry, and What We Have Learned, and Small Congregation, Big Potential, and From Geography to Affinity;
Postmodern Pilgrims by Leonard Sweet
The House Church Manual by William Tenny-Brittain
Small Church At Large, Robin Trebilcock.