Here is the paper from which the talk was given at the North Texas Unitarian Universalists Leadership Conference Saturday, June 9 2012, at Horizon Church
I. The Revolution
It is said that we often have only a few topics in our hearts and on our minds that we find ways to preach about over and over again. I thought of that in coming here today, because I had been thinking about the very first sermon I ever preached. I was seventeen. It was 1971. The setting was my United Methodist church in Turley, Oklahoma on the northern edge of Tulsa, then as now far from any cultural center or place of power, though it was a thriving blue collar community then right in the midst of the ethnic and economic changes that would create it as what it is today, an abandoned place of the American Dream Empire. My text was from a kind of contemporary Hebrew prophet; it was from the book Revolution For the Hell of It by the Yippie prankster Abbie Hoffman.
My point was that a revolution was going on in the world, that it was coming close to us too, through our television screens and our own families and our own schools and our own churches, and that we should learn from it on how to create a revolution for Jesus in our world. In many ways, that is my sermon today. Though I might phrase it today as a call to join the revolution underway in creating the kind of world Jesus advocated for. What the new monastic leader Shane Claiborne has called in his first book, The Irresistible Revolution for Ordinary Radicals. One carried out, as Mother Teresa said, with small acts of justice done with great love, and one where as Shane himself said we seek to grow smaller in order to do bigger and more outrageous things.
It is not so much anymore, even for me, a revolution for people to believe in Jesus, whatever that might mean, especially if that’s where their religion stops, but it is believing with Jesus and with all those leaders, revolutionaries, disciples themselves of the One Great Mission to create a world that leans a little on the side of the least of these, the most vulnerable, for a world that puts their world first not last. Be clear on this: what is called the missional church revolution is not about the church; it is about the world. The focus is not on how to change or improve or fix the church; if we put our focus on that, as we are so inclined to do, as it is part of our default mode, then we perpetuate the problem of making us, the church, the center of attention and anxiety to the continual neglect of the world, and that filters down to our members who might think church is foremost about them and their needs, when getting over ourselves and out of ourselves might be our real spiritual need. The best way to lead us deeper into our life’s healing is to walk with and work with others on theirs, especially when there is little in the community that is healing. It is not just all “persons” who have “inherent worth and dignity”; it is all communities who do. That is an important change I would make to our UUA first principle. Communities shape people. We need to remember that, and so we need communities connected to communities.
This revolution is about changing the world particularly in its most struggling places, and how church can happen in response to that missional calling, missional in the sense of being a sent people. But equally true is that the focus is not put ultimately on fixing the world’s problems and meeting people’s needs, as it is also in our default mode to attempt to do; it is instead a revolution about getting to know those who are poor and in trouble and responding as a neighbor. That is why we create “third places” as we do, to make it easier to be neighborly. The first place is the home; the second place is our job or where we are with people who are like us, our affinity groups, our churches. But we need places where we are with those who are different from us, whom we wouldn’t otherwise be with.
Our goal in our new unchurched culture should not be to create the best church in the community; our goal should be to create the best church for the community.
Which gets to the heart of a good question I get a lot so I should address it upfront:
“Why should the church be involved in those things, especially as first things we do?" Things like what our small missional community in Turley and NorthTulsa has been involved in: feeding hundreds every month, clothing, starting a health clinic in our area, organizing for community improvements like a park and orchard, trash litter cleanup, community recycle bin, disaster response, school support, incorporating as a city, roadside wildflowers, taking over an abandoned and overgrown but busy intersection and doing what is called guerilla gardening to beautify it, beautifying in front of businesses with native wildflowers, advocating and educating on behalf of the poor, providing a library and computer center, throwing festivals and holiday parties for the whole community? Shouldn't social service and civic groups and government and philanthropies take care of that? Shouldn’t we be focusing on spiritual or religious topics and how people think and believe about those topics, or focusing on worship in order to broadcast to the world our message about those ideas and the issues of the world today? If I wanted to do those other things, shouldn’t I join something like a Rotary Club!
My response I realized lately has been a little short-sighted: I used to say: hose people are not present in our abandoned area in any visible way to folks at least; if they were then we would be looking for other ways to care and connect; or 2. the church has always connected service and spiritual growth. But the real answer, the one that I think is the most missionally centered the longer I am involved in it, is that we are not about meeting needs, but meeting neighbors. It is so easy to slip into the find the problem fix the need approach of the modern age; we do all we do, like our big food giveaway this Thursday at Cherokee School, for the same reason we throw the bbig community halloween and christmas parties, and all the smaller events, because it is how we get to know our neighbors better, and put our life alongside theirs. When we focus on meeting needs, fixing problems, and problem people, we turn community into a commodity and we use it up and burn ourselves out real quickly, and come up with false measures of successhose people are not present in our abandoned area in any visible way to folks at least; if they were then we would be looking for other ways to care and connect; or 2. the church has always connected service and spiritual growth. But the real answer, the one that I think is the most missionally centered the longer I am involved in it, is that we are not about meeting needs, but meeting neighbors. It is so easy to slip into the find the problem fix the need approach of the modern age; we do all we do, like our big food giveaway this Thursday at Cherokee School, for the same reason we throw the bbig community halloween and christmas parties, and all the smaller events, because it is how we get to know our neighbors better, and put our life alongside theirs. When we focus on meeting needs, fixing problems, and problem people, we turn community into a commodity and we use it up and burn ourselves out real quickly, and come up with false measures of successhose people are not present in our abandoned area in any visible way to folks at least; if they were then we would be looking for other ways to care and connect; or 2. the church has always connected service and spiritual growth. But the real answer, the one that I think is the most missionally centered the longer I am involved in it, is that we are not about meeting needs, but meeting neighbors. It is so easy to slip into the find the problem fix the need approach of the modern age; we do all we do, like our big food giveaway this Thursday at Cherokee School, for the same reason we throw the bbig community halloween and christmas parties, and all the smaller events, because it is how we get to know our neighbors better, and put our life alongside theirs. When we focus on meeting needs, fixing problems, and problem people, we turn community into a commodity and we use it up and burn ourselves out real quickly, and come up with false measures of successYes, it would be great if those people and agencies were actually present in any visible or real meaningful way in our area of great poverty and abandonment, but they aren’t, and assuming they are betrays a position of privilege that isn’t present for those in abandoned places. And I talk about how the church at its best has always put those on the fringes of society into the center of the church, and left many great community institutions as a legacy of that. (((But the real answer, the one that I think is the most missionally centered the longer I am involved in it, is that we are not about meeting needs, but meeting neighbors. It is so easy to slip into the find the problem fix the need approach of the modern age But the real answer, the one that I think is the most missionally centered the longer I am involved in it, is that we are not about meeting needs, but meeting neighbors. It is so easy to slip into the find the problem fix the need approach of the modern age
But the real answer, the one I have learned by now, is that we are not really about meeting needs but about meeting and making neighbors. It is so easy to slip into that find the problem fix the need approach of the modern age; we do all that we do in order to get to know our neighbors, to put our lives alongside theirs, to grow in our own discipleship to the Spirit of Generosity that will hold our lives forever as we give our lives away. To do other than this, to fall into relating to people as needs and problems and issues, as a civic duty even, as we so often do, is to turn community into just another commodity and to be used up and to burn out and to follow a false measure of success. Church should then be a creator of missional disciples of a loving and liberating spirit. A people who because of their faith formation holistic encounter with the intersection of 1. religious traditions, 2. contemporary cultures, 3. their own deepest selves, and 4. the cradle to grave commitment to other people’s lives can’t help but serve those beyond their own groups. Such a church is in no fear of being mistaken for the most powerful of Rotary Clubs; though I would choose some Rotary Clubs I know over some churches I know.
Turning church into a conduit, a point of departure not a destination, for engaging ultimately and intimately in mission to the poor and oppressed, the sick and the imprisoned, and letting that be the measure of what it means to do church, letting that rule our budgets, our buildings, our worship, our decisions, will take a revolution in what we mean, and what we do, as church. The good news is that such a revolution is underway. The bad news, perhaps, is that it may be passing us by.
I know This might be as popular a sermon now as my sermon was then in 1971. I know My point might have been lost for them back then in the shock of what text I was using. And that you might be shocked by some of the texts I use and the language of the missional church. I trusted them to translate, and to take what was useful, and I hope you will too, as I speak out of my context. I will say that during that same year I did begin my journey exploring other faiths, and by the time I was 20 I was a Unitarian Universalist. It might have had something to do with that sermon.
II. The Making of The Revolution
What I didn’t know in 1971 is that a real revolution going on at the time from the Sixties wasn’t just in what I was watching in my little CBS, NBC, and ABC world that seemed so big at the time, but the real revolution was one that had started, or culminated really, in a little known way, in an out of the way place, not that different from the place of my birth.
It happened on a Sunday night in 1963, in Greenville, South Carolina, when the Fox Theater, despite opposition, showed a John Wayne movie, just at night mind you, not at 9 in the morning like today. That moment in that place has come to mark the end of the churched culture in the United States (Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens). It paved the way for the post congregational culture dawning upon us. That event in Greenville was scandalous; imagine if they in Greenville then could have seen ahead to our Sundays now and what competition congregations face for people’s attention and allegiance in a consumer driven society where it takes more and more resources to attract people who with each passing year are less and less inclined to be attracted.
Broadly speaking, it has taken quite a revolution to get to where we are even now, since our culture in the West has been church-centric since the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries absorbed and sublimated much of the Christian faith communities. Empire to Empire, manuscript culture to print culture, that remained the same. Then a revolution happened, aided by the electronic, visual, digital, web culture emergence that caused our channels of communication to exponentially multiply, and the church’s centrality in society in the past fifty years, like many an institution, has been lost.
Church has become less influential, less favored, even in areas like ours. Even as all things spiritual have continued to be a major part of lives. Today people say they don’t leave church because they have lost their faith; they say they are leaving church in order to keep or grow their faith. Today more and more people are saying they are finding God in the basements of churches on Saturday nights, in recovery groups, than in the sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. 1700 years of church-centric culture isn’t toppled overnight, but to the churches still behaving as if that culture is dominant, the revolution going on will turn them into ghosts of what once was, into religious re-enactment sites.
Church researcher and consultant George Barna in his 2005 book Revolution has captured well the post-congregational world coming at us quickly. Based on his research of what is already happening, he predicts that in 2025, in just 13 years, that Americans will get their primary spiritual experience and expression in these venues: 30-35 percent will be in local churches, whereas in 2000 it was 70 percent; 30-35 percent will be in alternative faith-based communities compared to just 5 percent who were in 2000; 5 percent will get it through family which is the same percent as in 2000; and 30-35 percent will connect spiritually primarily through the arts and media and culture compared to 20 percent who did so in 2000. How will Unitarian Universalism match up in those categories by then? Will we still be limited to congregations in a post-congregational world? If we don’t create a bigger bandwidth of what church is, we will be appealing to a much smaller segment than even we do now.
To have a significant presence in that world will mean seeding communities now that will grow in all of these venues, in these different ways. To do so will challenge many of our default modes.
I use that signature 1963 moment as a stereotypical generational boundary timeline dividing our experiences about culture and, by extension, church as part of that culture. Default modes are those tapes in our heads or programs that are running inside us about which we aren’t conscious. When how we communicate changes, it changes the culture, and when the culture changes it changes the environment for institutions like churches within the culture, and when the environment changes some institutions will respond, adapt, and grow, and some will not.
Before 1963 we lived in a more uniform society, and those like me who were born before that event in the church-centric culture experienced church in a more uniform way that sticks with us, but few of us have continued to use the 1950s single style of phone, even though we act as if our churches should still be 1950s single style churches: as a set aside place, a what, an It, a special looking building, with a name on it that tells you it belongs to others like it, with a main room where people gather for an hour or so once a week at a designated time you had to fit into your schedule, and do a thing called worship and Sunday school and listen to someone speak for a big portion of that time, all supported by a legally constituted organization with leaders and members and multi-generational families, above all as a group one comes into, either by birth or by choice. It is institutional, organizational, and attractional, existing as a “come to us” people.
That 1950s style church attracted those who believed the same, and had much of the same needs. Believing led to belonging and out of belonging one then was encouraged to behave a certain way, to do certain things, like helping others, especially the poor or vulnerable, usually just by sending money or things to them, as an afterthought, with your disposable income, for disposable people. And then by talking about them, so to speak, at church, behind their backs, way behind, as churches moved throughout the Sixties away from places of increasing poverty. Following the people, it was said; following the money was more like it.
Once upon a time the state absorbed the church; now the church, displaced by the new culture, too often reacts by absorbing the culture; in our case, the American Dream Empire of bigger and newer, of convenience and comfort, of affluence and appearance, becoming a spiritual gated community taking care of one’s own.
Now let me hasten to add that when we talk about post congregational culture we are not talking about the end of congregations, just the end of their setting the mark of what church means. The existing attractional church does much good in the world, especially for those who are attracted to it, and in projects in the world; it may even be a springboard for an array of non-institutional more missional expressions of church. Some studies have indicated that half of all social capital in our society is traceable back to congregations; it gives us pause when we think about the affect on public ventures from the rise of the post-congregational culture. But that just makes it all the more important to grow healthy externally focused churches and missional communities to fill the gap.
But what I want to leave you with today is that no matter how good a congregation and its people are, and no matter how much it grows in number as well as in vitality of its programs and events, that fewer and fewer percentages of people in the world surrounding the congregation are likely to be attracted to it—though they are still hungry for spiritual depth and connection to others and service. The pool, or mission field, of people who seek to be nourished by a congregation, any congregation, will shrink, and the competition by congregations for them will be fierce, cutting across denominational and religious lines as we are already seeing, with the already haves having the upper hand in landing the potential new members. Fewer and fewer will be able to commit the resources needed in order to have the best of both worlds, to both equally attract and keep and feed members, and to initiate missional communiities that exist to serve others who will almost never become dues paying members. Something usually gives, and that is the life in and for and with the outside community.
The good news is that in this new environment, this new spiritual landscape, in this so-called unchurched world, this post denominational world, and now post congregational world, this cultural change is opening up whole new ways and niches of being church. Especially for those who can turn their vulnerability under the old default mode into becoming vanguards in the new broader bandwidth called church these days.
The church’s measuring stick in this new culture is how it grows the world’s vitality and resources rather than its own. How many beyond itself is it serving? Not how many are serving it. How will it be able to connect with those growing percentages who are unreachable by congregations. In a given week now 65 percent of people in their 70s and above are in a congregation; for baby boomers the number is 35 percent; for Gen Xers it is 15 percent and for Millenials, some of whom are already at 30 years old, it is 4 percent [from Mike Breen in Launching Missional Communities]. And due to the culture shift from churched to unchurched, with the highly competitive marketplace churches are in now, there is not projected to be the kind of return to church phenomenon as younger generations age, as was the case in the past.
To survive will actually mean embodying discontinuity with the past [radical discontinuity says church consultant and author Lyle Schaller]. The new measuring stick will be perhaps not how many new programs are you starting, but how many existing ones are you stopping?
So, if they aren’t coming to church, the new missional revolutionary church says, go to them. And to make that easier, quit thinking of the church as a thing, as a what, as an It, and remember it is a Who. In this way the postmodern church is returning again to the sense of itself as a force, a movement, an organism, as it was in the early premodern era, and not so much as a fixed identifiable object such as the modern era prized. For Church, it bears repeating, is at heart not a 501c3 religious organization; it can and has existed, in 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, especially in covenant, participate as expressions of “the church.” Imagine. Church anywhere, anytime. Especially if intentionally sparked.
For Church does not have to be only in the mode of help an us to become bigger and better, more competitive, where people despite our best intentions become the means to some organizational end; to seek that is to follow the default mode of consumerism, to give allegiance to the Empire which is always seeking to co-opt the church, now as in the days of Rome, to subsume it with the controlling worldview that says the quality and meaning of life is about what you have and can get, not just in things either, but also in terms of appearance and achievement and personal power and the ability to tap easily into a wealth of choices and experiences especially those that are “cool” “hot” “trendy”, and that what you give is of secondary importance, something you do with your disposable time, talents, and treasure. (Believe me if the prevailing quality of life standard was to live so as to be able to give easily and naturally and neighborly, then my zipcode would be booming and not busting). 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, treating them like Pepsi or Coke people; church can be about turning outwards, helping others grow, serving the ends of others, giving ourselves away, incarnating who we are into the greater life, and of course always inviting others to do so with us, and very importantly, nurturing and reproducing leaders to keep this movement, this revolution, for the One Great Mission alive.
Which is why for leaders spiritual direction is now companion to mission; both take more seriously the need of going inward and going outward at the same time. Missional Church leader Alan Hirsch adds that this is true for communities as well; they need to be led by a team of leaders who reflect a balance of gifts and ministries, realizing that in our one size does not fit all world that we have asked, or taken on, too much from single leaders of communities who cannot embody the diversity needed to go meet the world on its terms today. Taken from the letter to the Ephesians in the Christian Scriptures, Hirsch says the best missional communities today will create a balanced team of leaders, some to be Apostles, those sent out to start new relationships, some to be Prophets, those who re-connect the community to its core vision and values, some to be Evangelists, those who help recruit and connect people to the various doorways to mission and community, some to be Shepherds, those who foster the caring for one another personally and communally, and some to be Teachers, those who bring wisdom learning and resources to the others to support their ministries. A team of five such leaders will change neighborhoods and lives. Unfortunately, he says, most churches are organized traditionally around only two of those leader types and functions, shepherd and teacher. And we too often put both of those into one person. To be fully functioning to grow naturally we need to emphasize more the role of the other needed leader functions.
Growing multiple communities of mission that are required of us now will also require that we increase our capacity to grow and turn loose these multiple kinds of leaders among us, for working together outside of our organizations.
To grow fully both inward and outward personally and as a community, and to grow in the multiple ways of leadership as Hirsch illuminates, will take radical re-orientation of our lives, which takes radical re-orientation of our communities. Radical re-orientation is another way to say Revolution. And I am reminded, when I speak of re-orientation, about the power through the ages of the Psalms. They have a structure that moves from reflecting an original sense of orientation in the world, praising what is, and then a sense of disorientation, lament what has become, reflecting the crisis of the people in exile and slavery, and finally there is a sense of re-orientation, praise again for what might be, reflecting liberation and trust and hope and the continued presence of God among the people even in a new and strange land. Now, in our time of cultural transition, of being in exile from the default world of our formation, our Psalms are the new communities we form as we help our world around us find praise and hope in its time of great dis-orientation.III. Revolutionary Communities
The church in a post-congregational world will be a complex church, with no single style or norm of church as The brand or icon of what church is. Bill Easum in the book The church of the Perfect Storm sees these major manifestations in the following forms: 1. existing denominations will have “islands of strength” churches (our large churches will get larger and be able to be competitive, but others will be submerged), 2. new “marketplace congregations” emerging organically without institutional form; 3. a growing number of newer, less institutional, purposefully smaller or more tribal emergent worship churches, 4. house churches growing and becoming more networked, and 5. the continuation and growth of non-denominational “high-commitment, disciple making, culturally indigenous megacongregations.”
Despite their differences in forms, he says that to thrive they each “will focus on the penetration of the people of God into the world rather than on the maintenance of the institution.” Putting on programs will likewise give way to mentoring people. Easum says he tells religious leaders who ask him what kind of curriculum there should be for the church now, that they are the new curriculum; they should encourage people to just hang out with them. If you doubt which one entails more risk for a leader, and which is more apt to grow mission, just try it.
Missional church leader Reggie McNeal talks about a bigger bandwidth of church expressions for our world today. Those of us who have found the church now and love its shape and rhythms will still have our church frequency, and others will be drawn to it, but it will occupy a much narrower part of the bandwidth. The revolutionaries will occupy other frequencies, such as these existing already:
The 3 am coffeeshop church for those on the nightshift. The café church that sells its food for whatever people wish to pay, and who gather for study and worship in the café. The church that sends and pays for two couples to move into an apartment complex, one of the great unchurched areas of our culture, to live and form relationships and study and worship in the clubhouse. The house church with two couples sharing the residence and who organize a community garden for their neighborhood. The church of 80 who can’t fund their minister full time and sustain their building so they divide into 8 groups of ten based on their residential geography and these become eight new congregations who serve in their neighborhood and worship in small group weekly and meet together once a month for bigger worship, and the pastor moved into a poor neighborhood and worked part time at a car repair shop so he could scale back or eliminate his paid ministry, turning it into connecting and coaching the different small groups; over time his parishoners also began downsizing and moving into the poorer neighborhood with him, growing a new small church there.
There is the movement of so-called new friars, a few families who move into urban slum areas around the world, and let their simple living and serving their new neighbors be a witness to their faith, and connecting their new life with those in their old home and old faith community. They are the glocal, global and local, missional disciples. There are the new monastics who live in co-housing or in proximity to one another and who eat together and help one another and serve others throughout the week together, especially in the poorest areas of a community, and who worship together daily or several times a week. There is the large church that takes its established small groups and turns them loose to become missional groups---meeting weekly.
One missional group may be related to one school or one neighborhood or one apartment complex, or an even smaller segment of those, even one family to one family, one person to one person. There are the organic churches who are at most 16 to 20 people and who meet weekly in odds and ends places usually over a meal in groups of 4 for sharing and serving in life transformation groups, with one of them intentionally leaving to start a new group of 4. There are churches who meet in bars, parks, restaurants, bookstores, after movies, during lunch at work, in tutoring students at school, and on the internet.
When the question arises: But is that really “a church”? The answer is that the question still assumes modernity’s definition and emphasis on “a” this or that thing, like a taxonomy, something that can be affixed, known, named, organized. When what is happening is not “a church” but manifestations of “the church.” Or, as I might put it for those among us, manifestations of “the mission.”
Despite the varieties of missional communities, they each find a way to carry out the four focuses of becoming church: mission, discipleship, community, and worship. They serve others together (mission), they study together (discipleship), they eat together and care for one another and build ties with one another (community) and they celebrate together (worship), either by conducting their own worship in small groups, or with a cluster of groups, or with their own larger church, their sending church, or by going to worship with others in their churches, as a way of relating to more people and participating in a kind of worship they could not with their size create.
One of my favorite stories of radical missional church incarnation is from Michael Frost’s book Exiles, about the young adult who had attention deficit disorder and had always found it difficult to sit still in the pews with his family during worship, and so when he became an adult it dawned on him that he really didn’t have to go to worship anymore as he had in the past in the congregational setting, so he went with friends to the lake on Sundays. But he felt a little guilty and he wanted to be spiritually nourished so while he was partying at the lake he asked his friends, most who had not had his church background, if he could take a moment to pray and he asked them if they had anything he could include in his own prayers, and he went on partying. The next Sunday he brought his Bible and took a few minutes to do the same, adding in a brief reading, and then he went on partying. Not taking more than a few minutes at first. But then he and his friends started adding more prayers, and they started doing small acts of service at the lake, cleaning up, towing boats, and then they sat at picnic tables and had bread and juice for communion alongside the burgers and the beer, and wove spiritual issues into their conversations. Still, it was a party; still, his family pestered him to “come back to church.” Imagine such an organic expression of church being seeded intentionally by an institutional church or a mission planter.
IV. The Revolutionary Risk
But why should Unitarian Universalists in particular be called to this revolution? This One Great Mission of solidarity and liberation that will require many kinds of communities to carry it out in a postmodern culture? Partly because while we have been a revolutionary faith when it comes to our theological changes, we have been a status quo church when it comes to our forms; this is ironic given that one of our originating events, the Cambridge Platform Synod of 1648 in Massachusetts focused almost solely on the revolutionary shaping of the covenanted form of church, while simply affirming without debate the Westminster Confession of Faith as its theological document. But maybe that is part of the homeostasis force that keeps us from changing---the more revolutionary we are in thought, the less we are in deed. With dire consequences for our impact in society.
In 1776 we, part of Congregationalists, were the most prominent religious body in the thirteen colonies, with 668 congregations out of 3228; that amounts to some 20 percent amid 17 different religious groups. I am not sure what our percentage of individuals were compared to the total of the population then, but it is safe to say it was the most sizeable. The impact of our values then upon the culture around us was even greater.
In 1960 around the time of the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists we were down to 1 member per 1000 Americans,; by 2007 that number had dropped by another 30 percent, down to 0.7 members per 1000 Americans. I believe in the past five years it has continued to drop. In 1960 we were double the numbers of the Foursquare Gospel church in the U.S.; by 2007 they had grown by 80 percent and are now double our size in the U.S. I remember sitting on a plane to Boston with the leader of their house church networks back about 6 or 7 years ago who was flying into Boston to help organize their networks there as they had been for a while branching out beyond their traditional congregations. In 1960, Jehovah’s Witnesses were only three-tenths of one percent more numerous than we were in the U.S.; since then they have increased their share of the U.S. population by 177 percent and are some ten times our size. One group increased by more than 700 percent during that time. (Rodney Stark, in The Triumph of Christianity). Unitarian Universalism has its years when it does grow overall compared to a previous year, with usually that growth coming in the largest getting larger, but after years of decline beginning in the Sixties, we are now basically back to the numbers we had at the time of merger.
But In just comparing religious bodies from 1960 to now, we miss out on a lot because by far the fastest growing groups in terms of percentage of members to the population were groups not around in 1960. They have not had to have the kind of radical discontinuity with the past that is necessary to grow in the new cultural and competitive context. Their DNA, so to speak, was not formed in a time when church inherited its people, or when people naturally had it on their main to-do list, right after get an education, get a job, get a family, get a home, get a church. Their DNA was not formed by spiritual settlers, but by pioneers. It was not formed in a time when to be missional meant the many sending a few off to do good and spread the good news about themselves; instead it was formed in the next context now when missional means concentrating on your own neighborhoods and cities, when it is about the few connecting with and sending the many. It is about what came to be one of the taglines of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.—a church with more ministries than members.
These churches, and the newer missional communities, have been born in a culture of the Spiritual but Not Religious. There are still far more Spiritual And Religious folks, but the percentages are increasing for the Spiritual But Not Religious who unfortunately associate religion indelibly with the brand of the reactionary hypocritical right-wing bigoted exclusive churches (Mark Chavez, Contemporary Trends in American Religion). Trying to break that branding and attract that band of folks in any sizeable numbers that would reverse our percentage of the nation’s population, by saying but look come to us, see we are different from that, even though we have a lot of the same cultural format that requires you the potential member to be the one to do all the work of fitting in to us, to reach and convince them is going to take tremendous resources spent both internally and externally, and is going to have to be done consistently year in and year out. Few can or will do it.
But that is only if we try to keep doing what we have been doing. It all changes if we change the paradigm; if we re-orient ourselves and create a wide variety of missional communities that we send out to whole people groups. If we join the revolution and learn to dance to the new rhythms of what moves us. If we create church in response, as my colleague David Owen-O’Quill puts it, to what breaks our heart, and with whom our heart breaks for.
It is interesting to note, however, that as the old mainline and liberal churches, such as ourselves, have declined sharply in relation to the growth of the population, our values and attitudes in general about religion have become more widespread in society (Chavez). There is a saying in the missional and emergent church movement about society today: They like Jesus but not the church. You could also say about us: They like our message, but not our churches. They don’t need our churches anymore to get our message, and that tells me that when we make our faith all about a Message, about what people think, then we will lose connection with people who want more, and it might explain a bit about our revolving door as people get our message and then leave. In the old days of the churched culture we thought they would stay naturally because, after all, we were a church and they had found us, especially if we connected them with responsibilities within the church for taking care of it; what more could someone want then to be on a committee and have the ability to vote on things. But people, especially those beyond our walls, want more from a church than a Message they can agree with, or more than the freedom to debate with the minister or others about the Message and how it is delivered. (Here again, our very DNA as liberals works against us because as Gary Dorrien stated in his three volume trilogy on American Liberal Religion, the birth of our theology came from a desire to define our message as being different from orthodoxy on one side and from secularism on the other side; this constant jockeying for a middle way or third way creates anxiety about identity and positioning that keeps us looking inward and keeps us looking for the best way to get our message out, instead of getting our lives out, instead of forming new communities in and with those on the outside.)
Instead of the Right Message, people today want to be a part of a Mission to bring a little more “right-ness” and justice to the world, a mission that grows their own souls along with the soul of the world. So the point of our churches, I would maintain, is not about making more Unitarian Universalists, but fulfilling our mission to changing the lives and communities of the least of these (the missional church is not, in other words, a new and clever strategy for evangelism); how does that set us apart from others becomes a mute worry; the fact that we have a shared mission with others as the reason for our being is nothing to recoil from; it does not make us less that others also share our core mission; in fact it makes us more; the question for our time in choosing our partners is not what do we believe together but what do we care about together.
We can if we want carry into the mission field our faith identity, our historic past, we can wear our tshirts, we can tell people about why we are doing what we do and invite them to be a part of our missional adventure with our tribe, though remember that many of them are allergic to institutional church and anything that smacks of manipulation. Ultimately, though, we are committing not to brand loyalty but to the world, trusting that our truth about the world is more important than the identity of those who bear it.
Our truth that real freedom, found in and through covenanted inward-outward relationships, is foundational for the Spirit of Life to grow, and that diversity, as this freedom’s byproduct, is to be celebrated and not feared. We must trust that this truth about the world does not have to have an organization, a congregation, even a name, in order to be of everlasting worth. In a world that wants to make ultimate value all about a brand name, such an attitude of radical trust, such a 300 year perspective, seven generations perspective, takes a revolution.
We practice this revolution of radical trust every day in our community. For all that we do in and for our community, very few know the name of our church, and we keep changing it anyway, as we do our location; when we removed the signs about church from our front windows and put up signs of a community center instead, and put our money and energy and time into serving others rather than putting on services and classes for ourselves, we did not become less church but deeper church. When we sought to make church more like a mission trip away from home, we liberated worship and made it as we say more like a party than a program or spectacle. When we are vandalized; when we have precious things donated to us stolen; when we have our native prairie trails and guerrilla gardening sites poisoned or mowed down, when we have people fearful of working with us because of what they think might happen and all their work will be destroyed, when we have people who can’t believe that they can take what they need of our food or clothing and just leave us a donation of whatever they can for it, or nothing; and when people are always trying to judge who in our community is really deserving and who is not based on some scale---in the midst of this culture we remind ourselves and them that once upon a time just a few short years ago none of this existed and that if everything were to be lost, as it very well could be, that the relationships will continue and even deepen, that we can do it all over again. People often ask us “Aren’t you afraid you will have xyz stolen, or that someone will do xyz, or that xyz will happen?” And our mantra is: “We know that might happen, but we aren’t afraid it will happen.” Living out of a spirit of abundance and radical grace and hospitality in our area is a spiritual practice and is in itself a missional act.
Know that Unitarian Universalism as an organization might fade away or die, but don’t be afraid it will; don’t let that fear keep us turned inward for then we surely will.
V. The Revolutionary Why
I said upfront that the starting point for the missional church was not the church, but the world. Changing the world should be our focus and we should let that lead us to any talk of changing the church in order to be better able to do that. But really, the starting point of mission is in God, our sense of Something More, that is infused in and among us but is ultimately still More than anything we can claim, that liberating and healing spirit by whatever name. That is a tougher principle for us to grasp, I think, we whom are eager to commit to changing the world, even to change ourselves, eager to change our mission statements, eager to change our bylaws, our ministers too sometimes. But we might balk at the core axiom of the missional church revolution: The church doesn’t have a Mission but the Mission has the church, and that Mission is God’s mission. Our task is then to discern what God is up to in our neighborhoods, where the sacred is happening, and to go participate and propagate it, connect with it.
And how we see God will perhaps help us to see God in places and people and situations that others will not see; for example, our missional church is the only group on all of the northside of Tulsa that participates in the gay pride parade, that creates intentional welcome around sexual orientation in our area, for we see the Sacred at work in lives that others do not; we have such a commitment to every area of blighted earth because we see God there in the transformation of those places for the sake of the place itself and not just for the people-centric uses; even in our local worship gatherings we make clear, or we make it as clear as a conundrum can be, that we are a Christian church where you don’t have to be Christian, and we are in relationship with non-Christian churches, all because this is how we see God at work. This is one of the key reasons we need progressives to be missional, why the missional church needs progressives as much as progressives need missionals.
Do not get hung up on what I call God, but go be where it is found—call it the Mission of the Transcendent, The Goddess, the Human Spirit, or something else—just go be where it is already present and transforming the world, especially in the abandoned places and people, in the areas of poverty and shame and despair; don’t worry about what to call it, but worry that it is calling you to go be with others without trying to make them like us, without trying to get them into our doors, all the while inviting them to care about what you care about, and go with you, and you with them, where you can live out that caring.
Revolutions are often about returning, reclaiming, restoring originating visions and spirit. So, in that spirit, I remind people that our congregational history that has created us as a covenant church has laid a foundation for this missional revolution, even for the movement to move UUism beyond just congregationalism (and I might say to move us to be in radical covenant and mission even with those who will never come to identify themselves as UU, or perhaps any other religious label). Our churches have throughout the years despite our changing theological orientations upheld the covenants that our religion was found in the struggle for right relationships between the person and the church body, between the church body and the elected and the called or ordained leadership, between the ministers and other ministers, between the gathered church and other churches, that those four covenants give us our primary shape, but the other two fundamental covenantal relationships in our tradition give us the why of that shape and the what for; they are the relationship between the church and the world, and between the church and God. In this way our faith grows metaphorically both horizontally and vertically, broadly and deeply (debt to a Prairie Group ministerial study paper written in the 80s by the Rev. Laurel Hallman, and to Conrad Wright, Harvard University church historian and his work on covenants, especially in his address on The Doctrine of the Church for Liberals). For too long we have focused so much on the issues at hand in those first four covenants and have neglected nurturing our relationship the other two, more elusive ones, the relationship with our world beyond us and with our God who sends us out into the world, trying to catch up with where God is, and being transformed ourselves in the process.
When we neglect those two external covenants it puts extra stress and tension on our other four internal covenants and keeps us riding the treadmill of our own anxiety and conflict instead of dealing with the anxieties and conflict of our neighbors.
When I was in my early 20s having found not only Unitarian Universalism but eventually a UU church, one of the first things I was taught there was that what held us together was not theology, or worship, but polity, our free church tradition of radical congregationalism. It was not the answer to what do you believe that gave us our identity, but the answer to how do we believe. It is what I was told united, for example, our Christian Unitarian Universalist churches, even a Trinitarian one, with our expressly secular humanist fellowships (and now we could add even more specific theologically oriented congregations). I later was taught that there is not such a clear split between theology and polity, especially through the theology of covenant, and it was this that most moved my soul as I saw it as a powerful antidote to individualism and to fundamentalism. The covenant of the freedom of the pulpit and the freedom of the pew.
But lately, I have begun to see how our unity and ultimacy in such free pulpit/free pew covenants stress only our internal community, our internal covenants. They define us as an answer to a “how question”; how do we do church, how do we grow bigger, better, even how do we grow healthier (as if our end is to grow healthier churches while our world grows sicker). Our polity, especially as practiced, has tended to keep us focused on ourselves and on process and it prevents us from finding our unity in what my colleague Tony Lorenzen calls the all important “why question”; why do we exist in the first place? Is it just to create homes for those who think alike, have values alike, to preserve those, even spiritual homes for those who feel spiritually homeless in other churches? Or is it more?
When we don’t know why we exist, and exist together, we can’t know our mission, and without it we can’t thrive, or even in the long run it seems survive.
It is time for the One Great Mission, spark of so many revolutions, to take its place alongside theology and polity in order to complete our answer to the why question, and to what calls us into being in the first place and unites us even in our different manifestations. In taking us beyond ourselves, mission gives direction to our covenants, our polity, and it allows us to grow the bigger bandwidth of church required of us to help grow the value of generosity and liberation in this new culture, and ultimately mission gives life to our theology of freedom and diversity. Mission gets our hands dirty with divinity.I believe that in this anxious age, the One Great Mission can pull us out of our need to feel unique, which is a reaction of scarcity, and can unite us not in spite of our different spiritual wellsprings, as much as it can provide a reason why we need our different spiritual wellsprings, why we need to share the full gifts of our different spiritual sources, and why we then need to go deeper within them. But it is in the outpouring of our selves for the sake of others, even, even, when we are empty and feeling abandoned too, that we will find our common ground among us, and with others, especially those least like us in the places waiting for us, even us.