Sunday, March 8, 2015

Third Places and the Future of the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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