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