Embodying a Progressive Missional Faith
Part One: Reclaiming Abandoned Places: The Three Rs of the Missional Church and The Spiritual Life, Sunday, 10:30 am, March 20, 2011, sermon First Unitarian Church, Worcester, MA;
Part Two: An Epistle to Plymouth, MA—Abandon Church! Become Church, a sermon on the Installation of the Rev. Jay Libby as the 24th settled minister of First Parish in Plymouth, MA, founded in 1606 in Scrooby, England, Sunday, 4 pm, March 20, 2011
Rev. Ron Robinson
Part One, Worcester
From Luke 13:20-21. The Parable of the Leaven: And again he said, To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman stole and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was corrupted.
From Jorgen Moltmann's "The Source of Life"...Moltmann saw the devastation first hand of whole communities in Europe during and after World War Two:
The ideology of “there is never enough for everyone” makes people lonely. It isolates them and robs them of relationships. The opposite of poverty isn’t property. The opposite of both poverty and property is community. For in community we become rich: rich in friends, in neighbours, in colleagues, in comrades, in brothers and sisters. Together, as a community, we can help ourselves in most of our difficulties. For after all, there are enough people and enough ideas, capabilities and energies to be had. They are only lying fallow, or are stunted and suppressed. So let us discover our wealth; let us discover our solidarity; let us build up communities; let us take our lives into our own hands and at long last out of the hands of the people who want to dominate and exploit us.
First let me give thanks to your church and let you know I have many times spoken of you when I have preached on the presence and what I call the parable of the free church. One Sunday several years ago I was here for the first time sitting right about there…what I remember and tell is that right after the Lord’s Prayer the Rev. Barbara Merritt preached a powerful sermon about her belief in God and why it was important for atheists to be a part of this church. That combination of tradition, personal testimony, and inclusive community helped me to see anew and feel deeply what we mean by the free church, and like all good parables it has me still thinking and trying to live into it.
Jesus’ parables are one of the guides for our community back home. A favorite is when Jesus said The kingdom of God is like leaven, which a woman stole, and put into three measures of flour, until it was all corrupted. hat seemingly measures of meal, until it was all corrupted. That seemingly simple parable is about the radical fact of God changing sides. God’s Relocation. The kingdom of God, was itself a parable, for the kingdom, the world, the Empire as everyone knew, was Caeser’s. The evidence was everywhere; if you needed reminders just look at your coins or your crosses lining the roads. Caeser was Lord and Savior and what was divine was power and honor and property and propriety and security. Jesus immediately challenges those assumptions by claiming the world is not Caeser’s but that of the God of conquered, small poor Israel.
Then Jesus goes on to link this God with leaven, something ordinary, and also unholy, not like the purity of the unleavened bread, rather something moldy that was to be kept separate and apart while preparing your meal. Next God is likened to a woman, and as if that isn’t bad enough in the eyes of the world, she is a woman who sneaks or steals this leaven, and then foolishly puts it into enough flour to feed a feast, and what happens? It all goes bad, becomes useless. And that’s where the parable ends.
The God of this parable has relocated…from holiness to unholiness, from power and privilege and public status and acts to what happens in the home, out of sight is no longer out of mind, at least in God’s mind and sight; relocated from fullness and contentment to emptiness aand waste; also from A Static Being to a process, a movement that changes and corrupts from within the dominant culture’s status quo and beliefs in what is worthy and respectable. Jesus challenged the authorities of his time, as this parable challenges us today, to also pick sides, to relocate, to go experience God, and help make God visible, where the powerful and the privileged won’t go and even seek to keep hidden from others, in hopes of keeping their honor, their marketing, their economy intact.
One of the best examples of this parable in action in our times can be seen in the life of Civil rights and community organizing activist John Perkins, founder of among other groups the Christian Community Development Association. Little known to the general public, he has had a huge affect especially on young people today seeking to change communities the way an earlier generation sought to change laws.
John Perkins was born 80 years ago in rural Mississippi. His father left when he was young; He watched a white police officer kill his unarmed older brother while standing in a line at a movie theater; his brother had recently returned from service in World War Two. John was full of anger and was a ticking time bomb; he hated church because it seemed to do nothing for the community in the face of injustice; he had quit school at third grade to work. He married but continued to drink and party. His family, seeing his anger and despair and fearing for his life, managed to send him out of Mississippi to work in California. There he began turning his life around and became part of the black middle class; then through his young son Spencer he began attending a church that had a prison ministry; there in meeting with the inmates and encountering the bible for really the first time he not only became a Christian but began taking seriously this prophetic Jesus who calls out for justice for the poor and oppressed. And It was the late 50s, in the thick of the growing civil rights era in the South, and the Jesus he was now following led him to go back home with his family to rural Mississippi.
At first he was only going to teach this Bible, to the youth so they would get the message earlier than he had when he lived there. But soon the needs of the community, and the voice of this Jesus, were calling out to give more than a message: so a community center and farm was started, food was distributed, health care was begun, child care was given, adult classes begun, and worship held, and civil rights were supported. The God that relocated him also showed him that the work of God is in redistribution, both of goods and justice.
The more public his ministry the more it was seen as a threat. One night he and a van full of youth were stopped on a rural road by police who arrested him for contributing to the delinquency of minors and took him to jail where he was beaten and tortured near to death. In a hospital, the care of a white nurse coming so soon after his treatment by white jailers gave him an epiphany; it helped him to put his hatred into a larger vessel of God’s love, and gave him a new focus, racial reconciliation.
And so were born the 3Rs of community development that has guided and grown his work in the past decades and inspired many other communities: One R is for relocating to places of struggle and abandonment; a second R is for redistribution of services and spirit; and a third R is for reconciliation of peoples.
Actually he points out that to do this work requires combining three groups of people: remainers, those who have never left an area when others have and who have a native’s wisdom; returners, those like he was, like my wife and I, people who come back where they had been and who have brought new gifts of service and perspective with them, and relocaters, those called out to go to abandoned places new to them, called out by their own discomfort at being in comfortable places. All are needed. And while there is nothing like actual physical relocation, getting new neighbors, there are many important ways people can relocate their time, talents, and treasure to abandoned places. I just hesitate to go into them because they so easily become our default mode and will distract us from a more radically transforming calling whose simplicity itself might be what’s the most challenging.
A phrase has sprung up to describe places like where John Perkins lives and where I live, places located all over the place in rural and urban settings. It is called the abandoned places of Empire. It harkens back to the Roman Empire, there at a time when the Empire was crumbling, new communities on the edges were being created as small alternative socieites with values of cooperation instead of conquering. But now The Empire we feel at odds with is a contemporary American Consumer Entertainment Marketplace Empire with dominant cultural values that champion Appearance, Affluence, Achievement, Coolness, Convenience, Comfort, Strength and Safety. And above all, perhaps, personal autonomy full of choices never ending. Challenging those American Dream values now is akin to Jesus casting God as leaven, as unholiness. This is an Empire who says the good life, even the spiritual life, is found in being surrounded by the so-called best things. The goal of this Empire is for places like ours to exist only as places people leave, as places where people live as punishment for not being able to buy into all the Empire provides us. We are the “Left Behind” places, as if the Rapture had already happened, in an economic, political, communal sense.
John Perkins says think of the shame people have who remain with constant reminders they have not been good enough or smart enough or lucky enough or young enough to leave as they should. That shame breeds a paralysis that makes it hard for people to become active with others for their own and their community’s behalf. It makes it hard for them to see the counter-truth, that as theologian Jorgen Moltmann says, the opposite of poverty is not property but the opposite of both poverty and property is community.
Even the good news of our community, the 74126 zipcode, far northside edge of Tulsa covering an unincorporated and incorporated urban rural small town area, once working class and growing before a racist response to integration occurred and white flight began to suburbs and investment in schools and the community ended. Still, I sometimes wonder why anyone wouldn’t want to relocate there, where five years ago we bought a home on two acres with a great view for $28,000. Ten minute drive from downtown; ten minutes to a lake. A realtors dream.
Then I remember hardly a night goes by we don’t have a shooting; just between May and August last year there were 311 shootings in Tulsa, and the highest concentration were in our area, which doesn’t actually have the highest crime rate overall. And we also have the city’s huge mountain of a landfill that has risen up in just the past decade to rival the height of the natural hill behind our house, and it is perpetually on fire and being closed for environmental damages, which just means even more illegal dumping on our streets. We are in a healthy food desert where 55 percent worry about how much food they have and 60 percent can’t afford healthy food, and I do wonder if that number would have been higher if people were more aware of what constitutes healthy food. We have no home pizza delivery, no movie theaters, our parks have been closed or redesigned to be used by people driving in from the suburbs, and most of the businesses we do have are owned by people who live elsewhere, as do our teachers and police and many of our preachers; even some churches only rent in our zipcode for the low rent not because they serve people from here.
Our average household income keeps going down and is now just barely above $20,000; When we bought our property it had been abandoned for several years like 40 percent of the vacant homes near us, and we had to plead our case to the bankers to get the loan to buy the place; they didn’t believe me, an executive director of a national religious organization, and my wife, a physician, were actually going to live there, moving from our new home in a new subdivision in a fast growing suburb. A place where after spending more than the purchase price on renovation and remodeling the value of our property has remained virtually the same because the the rest of the ones around us have continued to decline.
The opposite of poverty is still even the good news of our community where We have the lowest life expectancy in our greater area, fourteen years less than the area with the highest rate just a few miles away, but we have the fewest, meaning none, health care services in the area. One of the first things our micro-church helped to bring to our area, locating it in the community center we created, was a university health clinic, but the economic and social dynamics of funding it and supporting it were not sustainable for funders and it has closed; while similar clinics in other parts of the city remain open full time, ours couldn’t maintain even a half a day one day presence which it had been reduced to by the end. Getting people to come wasn’t the problem; getting the right people to come, those with some insurance possibilities to help offset the uninsured, was the problem; there just weren’t enough of them, and those that were already were going elsewhere. On the advantage side, in the edge communities and out of desperation can come what we call “creative disruptive innovation” and we are now planning a health care mentoring network hiring people from our neighborhoods to partner both with their neighbors who are high users of the emergency room and to themselves teach medical residents about the communities in which their patients attempt to live.
The opposite of poverty is even our community where government and educational services have been cut and the fact that we are a small blue conclave—my precinct voted 225 to 25 for President Obama--in the only state where every county voted against Barack Obama, doesn’t bode well for having slashed state funds directed our way.
So If one adopts the values of the Empire, then ours and the places John Perkins has lived, are the last places you would want to live. But if you follow the values of the parable of the leaven, if you are intent on growing a soul in relationship and community with the most vulnerable, then these and ones even more severely stressed in other countries, are the first places. And once you relocate, and begin the work of redistribution and reconciliation, you’ll kick yourself for not going sooner. Every day presents an opportunity for the kinds of small acts of random justice, random love and beauty, random church, that sustain and deepen our lives of faithfulness to the Spirit Everlasting. They are the kind of places where a few people with a few resources can spread hope like leaven. They are places where it is easy to experience the counter truth that the opposite of poverty and property is community.
Besides the visible things we have created in just these past four years since we turned our little church group inside out and began incarnating ourselves into the community around us, instead of expecting the community to come to us, becoming like a guest in our own place, besides the clinic and garden and food pantry and computer center and clothing room and concerts and festivals and all the one on one personal assistance, what has really begun to be seeds of change in our zipcode is simply the ways people have begun to have a way to share their presence with one another through our presence. Which has been done with under a dozen leaders, with no paid staff.
What we have had has been God’s leaven, another name for which is beloved community, or communitas, the kind of community that forms itself by turning away from itself, outward with others. It is communitas on one side, and Empire on the other,and I say, as a Universalist, that God has chosen sides, has moved into the neighborhood of abandonment and not the gated community, and is hoping but not waiting for church to move there too. God hasn’t given up on those behind their gates, not given up on the well-off, on the cool and beautiful people who wouldn’t be caught dead in our zipcode; no, unlike the Empire, God is big enough to be an active loving presence everywhere, with everyone; It is just that God will transform our gated lives and communities not from within them but from the 74126 zipcodes that are located everywhere. I believe it is the next great adventure, mission, frontier, horizon for us as a progressive spiritual people to find ways to be there too. I am sorry I haven’t been able to tell you about the lives we have literally saved, about the joy that overshadows the setbacks. But these words by John Perkins from his book “Welcoming Justice” will I hope suffice.
“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."
Amen, John Perkins.
So, Go, find the abandoned places and the people who will be the leaven in your own life and for your own church, even as you then walking together with them become the leaven in the world which no Empire can withstand. '
[For more on John Perkins see www.ccda.org. On abandoned places of Empire see the work of www.newmonasticism.org. For more on our community in Oklahoma see http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/172162.shtml and www.progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com.
Part Two: Abandon Church!, Become Church---"An Epistle to Plymouth" on the Installation of the Rev. Gerald E Jay Libby as the 24th settled minister of the First Parish in Plymouth, MA. Sunday, March 20, 2011.
O God, May my words reflect Thy Spirit, May our minds and hearts be open to all the abundance and diversity of Life Itself, and May this time together inspire us to help make Thy Love Everlasting visible in the world.
First, my friends, from The Selected Texts for today from the Revised Common Lectionary comes this passage especially appropriate on this day of new beginnings: It is from the start of the 12th chapter of Genesis (using the version from The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Bible by Everett Fox). Adonai said to Abram: Go you forth, from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see.”
This pivotal passage in the Bible gets even more power and meaning as it comes right after the incident with the Tower of Babel. There humans discovered God does not like uniformity, hubris, and edifice complexes designed to put more and more people into one single place for their own identity and selfish aims. Right after the story of the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the people into cultures of peoples, then comes the story of Abram. He is not yet known as Abraham, and at this point is all of 75 years old. When he was a child his father had heard the Lord call him out of their home in Ur to go to Caanan but his father had settled in Haran. It was from there Abram is called out, out of his comfort, his safety, his identity, in response to the Voice that interrupts our plans, and confounds what we know, turns us inside out, and reminds us of whose we are and what that means.
Greetings and Gratitude, I bring to you, the oldest congregation in our Association, from a very small band of folks in the far northside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who are an emerging congregation in our Association. Gratitude for your gifts today, and your history, and your invitation to be here. Consider the invitation given to come be our guests. Perhaps, though we have a great age difference, we can find ways to walk this road as together, oldest and newest, in both service and spirit.
Walking together. That is what this occasion is all about. It is a phrase from the prophet Amos made popular among our religious tribe by the one whom recently we lost at the age of 94, our historian of The New England Way, Conrad Wright. He helped restore our foundations as a people of covenant, especially those covenants or promises that constitute and create our free church. These include the covenants between a person and church; church and its elected leaders, including minister. Also church and church; and minister and minister. These four are our internal covenants helping to establish right relationships and Identity. They are like the materials of a ship that hold it together and give it a particular shape.
But there are two other more externally focused covenants: 1. that between church and world, be it known as parish, or immediate neighborhood. and 2. ultimately the covenant and connection between church and God, howsoever is called the Transcendent Spirit that is also within, among, and yet beyond us, the Voice that calls us or rises within us, and sets us on a journey, sending us out to be servants among scattered peoples. These two external covenants are like the Sea and the Wind; they are what give the ship of church its purpose, its reason for having its particular shape, and when they change in drastic ways they can sink or stall the ship built in the best of ways for other environments.
The four internally focused covenants are often the ones we spend most of our time dealing with; they are the ones that present us with urgent matters; and because of this they are the easier to grasp, and to write guidelines and policies about and create celebrations like this one. But if you are not grasped by the other two, the church will not be complete, not be church; instead it will become, as Conrad Wright said, merely a collection of religiously-oriented individuals (see his essay Walking Together in his book by that name) who, if they were to disappear, would not cause much of a disturbance in the lives of the people in their surrounding community. That’s a good question to ask at annual meetings and pledge dinners: are we creating the kind of disturbance in the world that if we were to disappear would be noticed and felt by people in our community, and who are the ones whose absence would be greatly felt?
Today we do celebrate one of these internal covenants, that of church and minister. Know this: this covenant will only be as strong as are all the others. Where any one of them is weak or broken, the others will suffer. Strengthen any one, such as this one we celebrate, and the others will be stronger. Especially, though, to strengthen this covenant do we now need to put a priority on the external covenants we have neglected so long, for they are the Ground of being for the others; they call church into existence in the first place and continually re-orient church toward others, and re-create it among others, as a manifestation of The Spirit’s very own nature as sending, giving, liberating, serving, restoring.
When we make the shift in priority from internal to external covenants, and let them guide how we become church, we shift from a church having a mission, one that it can change like it changes boards or plans or programs, or ministers, to The Mission having a church.
Put in your mind, heart, and lives the mission of healing a hurting world, even writ small in very local ways, and let that dictate everything else, no matter what may then need to be changed. Engage the parish deeply, and let that wisdom, those needs, then create whatever form of church is mandatory to carry out the mission, and whatever personal transformations are called for in order to be sustainable servants.
As you do this, be prepared to see your world anew and not turn away from what you see. This is true at least for those of us like me who were born before 1963 especially, born and raised in Churched Culture. We, who perhaps have been here the longest, and longest steeped in church, are actually now the immigrants, the pilgrims in what has been our own land. Those who have come after us, those who are not and may never be Churched are the natives of this new land, new culture, and if we are to survive and to thrive and leave a more loving world behind us, we will have to learn from the natives, and let them lead us. Without them becoming us, and without them losing touch wiwith their varied cultures so they can continue to be the church there. (For more on this metaphor of church pilgrims and natives, see Leonard Sweet’s Postmodern Pilgrims).
A come to us church could thrive in a churched culture with little variance between it and others; but in our world of great distance between our church culture and life beyond, a come to us church must have tremendous resources and resiliency to bridge that gap. And those are few and far between. But the good thing is that being church is older than our models of it, older than Plymouth, older than Wittenburg, older than Rome. Originally church was a “go be with them” people, and is becoming so again. (for discussion of the cultural variances in missional work, see the scale used in Right Here, Right Now by Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford)
Here is what we need to remember: The church is not, fundamentally, a 501c3 nonprofit religious organization; it can and has existed, ancient and emerging times, without bylaws, boards, budgets, and buildings, and clergy. Church does not have to be thought of as “a” church, that one “goes to” on the corner of this and that, and is even named a certain thing, but church can be lived out organically as a way people, two or more at a time, participate as expressions of “the church.” Imagine. Church anywhere, anytime, by anyone. For Church does not have to be only in the mode of help us to become bigger and better, more competitive, where people despite our best intentions become the means to some organizational end; that is to follow the default mode of consumerism; church doesn’t have to be about attracting and extracting people from one environment, at great expense, and placing them in our environment, always worrying they will leave us; church can be about helping others grow, serving the ends of others, giving ourselves away, incarnating who we are into the greater life, and of course inviting others to do so with us.
Church may in the end choose to fulfill its mission being an organization with boards, budgets, bylaws and buildings, and marketing campaigns, and to make its worship time so attractive it can compete with all around it and fill up its pews again, but when we expand the horizons of church and then choose which one to move toward we will--to use the words fashioned by your, our, ancestors in Scrooby—have done so as the Lord’s free people, knowing we have chosen to be the church in certain ways. In a changing world, we need all the options at our disposal and to exercise as many as possible, even emanating from the very same people. There is no longer a one size one kind model of church; especially not if it is seeking to make visible in the world a Free Spirit of both Intimacy and Ultimacy.
Of course, if Mission creates church, how do you know what the mission should be? Who decides?.
How can it not change, even as church changes to fulfill it? How can a non-creedal people walk together down Common Mission Road? I am tempted, on this occasion especially, to say that these questions are why you have called a minister and why he has answered both this call and his own calling. But the questions, real and honest they be, are signs themselves of our misplaced priorities, of our old habits, of turning inward, turning only toward concerns for one another and those internal covenants that keep us perpetual in an Identity Crisis, our favorite crisis.
Mission comes from the Greek word missio, being Sent, and so is rooted in those beyond us covenants with the World and with God. Mission becomes then clear and compelling. As writer on the missional church Reggie McNeal says, no church ever votes to become missional (from a workshop I attended by McNeal at Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa). It simply begins living it and soon becomes it. Living into being the likeness of God in the world; or moving the world a bit closer to the Sacred.
In the Jesus tradition I follow in freedom, we take our missional words from Jesus who took his from Isaiah: to take God’s world transforming message of good news to the poor, to heal the sick and broken hearted, to free the captive, give sight to the blind, and proclaim the year of Jubilee when economic justice abounds and even the land is made whole anew. We are to be a Loving Liberating Justice For The Poor God’s Sent People. We fail, because we are people. But our mission is clear. We may differ at times on ways to best carry out the mission, that’s healthy conflict that is externally-focused; but the core mission is a given. All I know is if we argue over what to call it, we will miss it calling us.
You might have qualms about the word missional; it smacks too much of missionary colonialism; coming from Oklahoma, I get that. Here is the key difference: we do not take our Truth out into a world without truth or God, to make people out there like us in here. History has shown that doesn’t work; and theology has shown it limits God and turns God into an idol, something that can be possessed and manipulated. Instead, we are sent into the world to discover and uncover and nurture God’s surprising presence becoming visible there through the mutual relationships of service and study and celebration with others, especially with those most vulnerable, and those most unlike us.
Going back to our metaphor of the church as ship, with the world as sea, and God as the wind, my own community has helped me push this metaphor even further. For in our world today, our task is not just to craft a ship in dry dock then launch it into the world, like ocean liners or even like schooners, worried that it might sink, worried about its captain and crew; so much of church planting and church transforming is like that; it is what happens when we put first changing the church, something we are always trying to do it seems as our starting point, instead of what the real starting point should be, about changing the world.
What if we viewed church as a group of swimmers already adrift in the sea, survivors of wrecked ships already, joined by others dropped in to help them, who band together and assemble in the churning waters makeshift rafts to hold them and what they can salvage; rafts that are built so if they capsize, and they will, oh they will, they will easily right themselves again, even as the wind and the waves take them toward distant shores toward which, like Plimouth, they didn’t originally intend to land.
These are exciting experimental times with many amazing radical stories of how people are becoming church like this in response to such a Mission. Some of these ways are known by names used, like Church Under The Bridge, Church Without Walls, Pilgrims in the Park, The Salvage Yard, The Simple Way, and my favorite based on a saying of St. Paul, Scum of the Earth. Our own small group in Oklahoma is now on its third or fourth name in eight years, now The Welcome Table to bring it in accord with the name of the community center we started and the name of the community gardenpark we have started where abandoned houses once stood. And we are in our sixth main meeting space in that time, though we have worshipped also at gardens, in streets, parks, and bowling alleys while also being in service there.
But some groups becoming church, becoming disciples of love and justice, have no name, fearing, with good cause, that naming inevitably turns us toward ourselves and turns us more into an organization than an organic movement.
My favorite story in this category comes from the book Exiles: living missionally in a post-Christian culture by Michael Frost where a young man had grown up having a hard time, as a sufferer of ADD, sitting still in worship every Sunday in the spectator-manner of his church, and so when he became a young adult he decided that he didn’t have to keep “going to church” and so one Sunday he followed the invitation of a friend to go out on the lake in a boat; while out there, in a lull from swimming, his old habits reared up and he felt guilty for not “being in church” and he asked his friends if he could say part of a psalm and then say a short prayer, and his friend said sure, and he asked his friends if there was anything he could include in his prayer for them, and he did so. And he went back swimming and partying. Next Sunday the same thing happened, but this time he had also brought a Bible with him, and after a short time reading and praying they kept on partying. Gradually more and more friends were joining them. Gradually the prayers had more things mentioned. Soon they were spending time at the lake helping tow boats that had broken down, and were cleaning the park, looking for other ways to do random acts of kindness. They began to take time out for more bible reflection and they held communion on the picnic tables, and they kept partying before and dduring and after. Pretty soon worship was more party than program. And all the while his worried family kept bugging him to “come back to church.” They thought church is something you attend; but it is something you become.
Is that young man and his friends still there doing that? I don’t know. Maybe not; maybe they spun off and did the same thing in other places and ways. Was it a transient thing? Perhaps. But their story has lasted, and inspired, and that is a powerful thing, the most powerful change agent. The world now needs such random acts of church. And now think of something like that story, and like many other different ones in all kinds of places and times, happening not just accidentally or spontaneously, but intentionally too, from here, seeded even by people who love the pews they can’t any longer sit still in.
Reggie McNeal, in Missional Renaissance, writes: “An explosion of missional communities…will occur. These will be groups of believers and nonbelievers who will operate in noninstitutional settings. They will range in size from a handful of participants to a few dozen. Gatherings will take place in homes and restaurants, bookstores and bars, office conference rooms and university dorm rooms, hotel meeting space and downtown Ys, and yes, even churches. Their community life will center on an intense desire to grow spiritually and to aid the community. Some will be connected to churches; many will not be. Affinities will be common passions and similar life rhythms. Leadership will emerge from within.”
What this requires is nothing new, but that we begin again, as we did 400 years ago, gathering people in a new way for a new way, people willing to turn default modes of church upside down and inside out compared to the dominant way of being church at the time. What this requires is that we begin once more sending out such a people again out into the world, even sending them out as small groups while others stay in more familiar land in order to support them. What this requires is being willing to find home again in different harbors than we first imagined. And we require leaders again to remind the people of these requirements, these covenants, these compacts.
Like Abram after Babel, we too live in a changed and much more scattered and diverse world. Like Abram, we have settled into our ways, with our father’s calling unfinished. The mission, the adventure, is a distant fading memory. Until, until, the Voice is heard that says Go you forth, from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see.
[For more on missional and progressive faith and book and web lists and more for learning further see www.missionalprogressives.blogspot.com]