Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Liberal, Missional Church

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

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

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

Friday, June 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books For Learning More About Missional Church:

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


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Does Making More Church Members Make The World A Better Place?

I.             Does making more Unitarian Universalists make the world a better place?

Update Intro: Should have added that for the church the question is also WHO are you making the world a better place for; making the world a better place for some means making it worse for others. So just making it a better place still demands discernment and a preferential option for the poor...

When talking about the what and why of our missional ministry, I say that our goal is not to create more Unitarian Universalists, or for me as a Christian it is not to create more Christians. I get the feeling that is somewhat of a radical sentiment and statement. I don’t think it should be the goal of other UUs or Christians, et al either. I came across a post in a facebook group the other day that seemed to crystallize for me why this is the case. The post was passing on the statement that we needed to grow our churches because, to paraphrase, “the world would be a better place if we had more Unitarian Universalists in it.” I flinched a little when I read that and had to figure out why, beyond just the sectarian impulse behind it. It would have been the same if it would have said the world would be a better place if we had more x or y or z faith communities and traditions.

Colleagues Tom Schade and Teresa Cooley remind us lately, and I think I have mentioned it in a sermon or too :) that becoming Unitarian Universalist (or others for others) is not the end in itself, but is a means to a greater end. It is those greater ends we need to keep our eyes on, and our resources pointed toward, creating neighborhoods and communities that themselves help create lives of abundance and commitment to the most vulnerable and endangered in our society. Creating religious institutions is certainly one way toward that end, but only if they do not see themselves (and their beliefs) as the end in themselves; in fact, they may, in various ways through what they do and not do and keep people from doing, work against making the world a better place, especially for those beyond them (and maybe within them too) who are suffering the most. This is what happens when a church focuses on becoming the “best” church in a community instead of the best church for the community. It is what happens when a church thrives while a community around it declines.  
It is what I mean when I say that creating more Unitarian Universalists does not make the world a better place. In fact I can see ways that making more Methodists, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, etc might in fact make the world a better place to even a greater degree than making more Unitarian Universalists even though I resonate a little more closely, or a lot more in some cases, with the theological tradition of our faith community than others. Since there are more of them to begin with, and there is much good being done by people of these other faith communities and traditions, perhaps making more of them would make an even bigger difference in making the world a better place. But if I were in one of these other faith communities I think I would be saying the same thing, that making more people into Methodists, Muslims, etc. is not the end of our mission in trying to make the world a better place.

Is it then “by their fruits you will know them”? Are the best fruits those of “right ideas” about the Ultimate, or “right relationships” with the most vulnerable, shamed, and outcast? Which fruit is deemed the “most religious”? This is especially true in areas where there is a lack of any groups living in and with and for the poor and marginalized and it is not a case of “other groups” doing this mission. In our area, for example, the landscape is dotted with churches only opened on Sundays while buildings continue to be abandoned around them, or buses that come in from the big churches in other area who pick people up and bring them back and ignore the neighborhoods they live in, all to focus on creating a pseudo-community feel-good experience weekly; like a spiritual hit. These kind of areas seem to be growing in number throughout the US. It is an ages-old situation and question, and one the Hebrew prophets particularly, and the Christian early monks who moved away from Empire’s influence kept alive in their times.

II.           Why The Shift in Focus: Flipping Church in the Unchurched Culture… 

It is important to put this all in a wider context. If nothing else it should help alleviate anxiety, blame, shame, and conspiracy theories. This shift in ultimate focus is an aspect of living in the wake of the cultural move in the West from the churched to dechurched/unchurched culture. In the churched culture (that began to really lose its privileged place throughout the USA by 1963) the point of church life was, mistakenly of course but still the dominant perception, to continue the existence and power of the institution of the church in a world populated by the institutions of other churches, faiths. The church was primary, the center, and the mission field was secondary, was a resource for the church. People tended to become or return to becoming the church-goers of their families and neighborhoods; brand loyalty was high and clearly defined culturally and there was little competitiveness between the churches, and littler still between the churches and the culture and its various opportunities outside the church. In this world making more Unitarian Universalists, for example, was the way the church realized its beingness in the churched-focused world. 

Especially if you were in a church that also grew more and more percentage of its own coming in from other churches, then making more UUs became increasingly important, it would be seen, for its survival. In the dialectic of the age, the more the community became less focused on the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. “The mission” used to be to perpetuate themselves in a world where the “missional field” flowed toward the church; in a world where the church as institution has been marginalized, the missional field has shifted and become primary, and so too then should “the mission.” In response the church today either flows toward the missional field, or it dies, gradually or quickly depending on circumstances. (There are admittedly many ways the church can flow, can empty itself, toward the missional field).

Is making more Unitarian Universalists (Christian, etc.) a bad thing then, or an unnecessary thing? Only I think if we make more Unitarian Universalists who think that the purpose of their faith is themselves and what they believe, and that it is more important to have and promote the right religious beliefs instead of the right religious relationships. But aren’t ideas, beliefs, important and have   consequences? Yes. For example, I say that what I try to do as a leader of a missional community among the vulnerable has all to do with how I understand and experience following Jesus, and comes from a theological commitment to a God of liberation and radical solidarity. But in reality what has been manifested here has been enriched and deepened not so much by thinking about missional life and holding the right ideas about it but from living in it. It has come more from failing at visions and endeavors and being able to respond to the openings and relationships that happen as a result.

In the postmodern culture, the primary path of the religious way has shifted from understanding to experience, as from knowing to mystery, or as the ecologist have an extreme way of saying (Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry) moving from knowledge-based to “ignorance”-based systems. Still, isn’t there an ideological battle on between liberal and fundamentalist or conservative views of reality and “God”? One that requires us to promote our tradition’s ideas (encapsulated as “getting our message” right and easy to communicate and doing so as widely as possible) as the primary purpose of our being, and all the rest, so to speak, is commentary; so that spiritual practice, faith formation, and service to and with others are byproducts that round out in a holistic way our core purpose of waging a struggle over truth? I wonder at times if our “theist-humanist” conflict didn’t leave us and our systems in a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder where we are frequently triggered to still be looking to solve our identity, and promote “our side.” There is a sense in this approach, this underlying metaphor, that worship then becomes our side on a battlefield and the sermon the bullet fired toward others who have been firing at us or what we stand for; is it then another legacy of our hyper-protestantism, that continuing Reformation struggle, or even ghosts of Puritanism past?

Still another way of framing it might be: Was Servetus burned at the stake and David imprisoned so today we can say their ideas, or some semblance of them having been morphed into the current spirit of Unitarian Universalism, both theistically and otherwise, are not what we are primarily committed to keeping alive in the world? Yes. I am more concerned with and am more urgent about keeping alive those in my zipcode where there is a 14 year life expectancy gap with the zipcode just six miles away in a wealthier area (and by extension all those imperiled by even greater inequality and injustice today regardless where they are). That missional focus, that our reason for being is in being sent (hence missio) into the places and peoples around us who have been left out and left behind, and in doing so we come into our own more fully and grow in imitation of the beloved community the more we attempt to initiate it in the world, is something too that’s even greater than preserving and promoting the “how” we do church, our polity, what we used to say was our ultimate commonality no matter the liturgical form or covenantal language a church takes as its own. We don’t want to grow the numbers of Unitarian Universalists so that the democratic process in religious will flourish. Nor, for that matter, so any of the Seven Principles either will be adopted by more people. They can be and are being championed by any number of faith communities and more secular groups. Our calling is still higher than these, and the seven principles are also means themselves to put to use toward the ends of missional transformations in the world.

Again, I believe we are experiencing a shift from those who are seeking and coming into, or staying in, a church because of what they have come to believe and think already (the mark of the churched culture) to a condition where people are seeking and coming into or staying in a church because it is open and nurturing to what their beliefs might become as they grow and deepen as persons through the primary religious act of healing engagement in the world beyond themselves (the mark of the unchurched culture).

III.          The New Transient (Secondary) and The Permanent (Primary)

Seeing this shift in what is primary (mission field) and what is secondary (sectarian institutionalism) will, ironically, help us to survive and thrive in the new landscape of culture. Both are needed in the holistic system. But one is the end and the other the means, and it is flipped from what it used to be, and that makes a world of difference in how to impact the world now. Unitarian Universalism (Christianity, Buddhism, et al too) matters. Not because there is a difference and uniqueness it must preserve in order to be itself. Not so people of like minds have a place to call home and celebrate their like minds (or like values). No, it matters because it offers, or can offer, a way--an inspiration now, even a history of serving a God of lovingfreedomandjustice to point the way--for people to connect and grow with others into a more abundant people creating more abundant communities in the world.

UUism, and others, offer particular ways to do this. They are more particular in nature perhaps than peculiar in nature. Some people like to contrast or pit UUism, for example, up against “liberal Christianity” for example and bemoan its attraction or similar markers to liberal Christian ways and warn against “losing ourselves” in being like them, in being like what we, in large measure, came from and in some places still are woven into. But “liberal Christianity” has within it many particular strands, and is being overlaid these days with new strands like emergent and missional and others that are putting the old dichotomies like liberal and evangelical into dustbins. This openness to the Spirit wherever it might lead is not a cause for concern; in these times of “generous orthodoxy” the many tribal differences can be celebrated and be seen as portals for connecting with one another. UUism, in all its many tribes, can adopt the same generous approach, and apply it to those communities within UUism that may draw closer to liberal Christianity just as some in those spheres may be drawing closer to us; the same for some realms of Buddhist or other spiritual paths. Some people find us of particular interest (in our varied forms of “us-ness” and at rare times too even when we go to them instead of expecting them to come find us) and we are appealing to them in ways that they might not so readily find with other communities. We can share with other communities the purpose of helping people “to set their lives on fire loving the hell out of this world” in this new spiritual climate change without being anxious about either existing identity or future existence.

 That is why One of the particular promising ways that Unitarian Universalism at its best offers this kind of connection for people; in other words, why it matters—how it can connect people with others in order to make the world a better place. This is in our historic and current manifestation as a radically free church. We have such radical congregationalism, in the best interconnected sense (one that is in tune with the manifestations of an open-sourced world), that we can be a seedbed for experimentation for faith in the post-congregational world in ways that other religious bodies might not; which, of course makes it all the more painful why we have not launched, as another has, the vision of a thousand new churches in a thousand different ways by 2020. (By the way, this emphasis for the church of freedom as our marker supercedes the church of diversity; I say that it is not our existing diversity—theologically of course, since we seem to have little of the various other kinds of diversities in communities--that makes us valuable in this world; it is our radical ability to form free non-creedal communities and relationships of covenant, even if those communities use specific theological language and liturgies, that allows for the diversity we have to grow and flourish).  

Of course the fact that it is hard for us to live into and out of this promise and this potential for new communities causes us pause; our very success at bearing fruit of theological diversity out of our foundation of freedom means that we have elevated the presence of belief and the juggling of its diversity to the forefront, especially within specific faith communities, at the very time when much of our world is moving itself “beyond mere belief” and toward missional transformation and a desire for communitas, that form of group that pivots itself toward beloved community beyond itself. This is an issue not just for Unitarian Universalism, of course, but is particularly fraught for all those inheritors of Schleirmacher and the “third way” of religion where the meaning comes from how the faith is messaged to the world. We can become captive to our message, and our need for one.

Finally, the question to ask of course, and that underlies all this speculation, becomes eventually: What difference would it make to the “least, the last, the lost”, to the variously “disconnected” if our/your community/denomination ceased to exist? How many beyond yourself would notice? Not that it is a real concern for the forseeable future, and I suspect the bigger congregations would be “islands of strength” carrying on without the national institutions. But in pondering it, we move beyond the issue of whether growing more Unitarian Universalists (or others remember) itself makes the world a better place…we now face the question of the abyss, of mortality, of what if the world creates Odd Fellows of us, (I.O.O.F. lodge) where we have historical architecture, and here and there small groups, continuing to decline in proportion to the population growth around them, enacting old rituals, taking care of their own when it comes time to be buried? Well, here, the Odd Fellows are one of our partners and while all that is true of them, they are one of the few presences remaining in an abandoned place of Empire, and like the monks of old they are bearing witness and making the world around them a little better than it would be otherwise. 

We have to be willing to die; only then is resurrection possible. We mustn’t go gently into that good night either, trying to find ways to keep what we have had, making a fist to hold onto it tightly, and the tighter our fist the more slips through our fingers. The lesson from today’s missional planters, and the organic church movement, is that there is liberation in being able to “grow smaller to do bigger things” and being freed from maintenance to focus on mission impact, even the ability to move on. It grows a kind of radical trust, as Jesus’ parable framed it, in both the seeds planted and in the Sower. The goal is not to have a building and programs with your name on it 100 years from now and people still doing pretty much what you have done; that is not immortality but narcissism.

I remember words by the Rev. Carl Scovel entitled “Ghosts, Shadows, Witnesses” about the relationship of Christianity and Christians within Unitarian Universalism; in a broader sense now it seems an apt metaphor and message for the relationship of Unitarian Universalism (again, or other faith communities) within the broader culture. He said something to the extent that Christians remaining in the UUA could be viewed, by themselves and by others, as ghosts from the past that haunt, and scare, others they come into contact with, and that perhaps need to be met with ghostbusters?; or they can be viewed as shadows, reminders of what they carry with them even if they don’t see them all the time, something not them but illuminates what they are, good to have around in an antithetical way, a reminder of what not to become or lapse back into; or they can be viewed as witnesses, witnesses to a good news, to another way and world possible, a witness not just spoken but one lived out in response to one’s faithfulness to one’s God and that God’s mission in the world instead of from a sense of anxious scarcity and identity crisis. Witnesses measure success in different ways. Witnesses thrive on boldness. Witnesses live in but not for today. Witnesses make the world a better place now and tomorrow.