Sunday, February 23, 2014

Question on Missional Church, and Notes on its Characteristics

Ministry in Abandoned Places: Love Reaching Out with Three Rs
Relocation. Reconciliation. Redistribution.
Based on life and work and writing of John Perkins, civil rights leader and community renewal author.
Growing teams of “remainers, returners, relocaters” for renewal
Characteristics of Missional Church:
Go to others; not expect others to Come to us (recognize shift from churched to unchurched culture); Incarnational more than Attractional.

Church is not ultimately about attracting those who are of like minds to form a spiritual community to celebrate their values, but church is ultimately about the healing of the community beyond itself (though it takes a wounded healer vulnerable church of caring souls to do that}. Church is not to be content to be a safe home until all homes are safe. Church is not 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. 
Historical Grounding for This External Focus Move: The free church tradition of our congregationalism that traces back to the Cambridge Platform of 1648, establishing the covenantal foundation of our polity: Conrad Wright (Walking Together: Polity and Participation in UUism) highlights these covenants in his lecture “The Doctrine of the Church For Liberals”: external covenants: church and parish/world; church and God. Internal covenants respond to the external covenants, giving the church its shape to be able to respond to the external covenants: Person and Church; Church and Minister/Elected Leaders; Church and Church; Minister and Minister. We too often focus on the four internal covenants, the “how” covenants forgetting the two “why we exist” covenants.
The Church Doesn’t Have or Create A Mission; The Mission Creates and Has The Church
Mission Statement doesn’t equal Mission. And focusing on mission as purpose is not the same as missional/being sent. A group’s mission might be seen as completely inward focused, for example, so just being clear on a mission isn’t the same as being missional.
Missional has turned upside down the old connotation of the missionary; now being missional is not about the church going to convert the world, but going into the world to be converted by it, to discover how best to serve it and transform it.
You don’t vote on missional essence; not something you create and can decide to change; you uncover it, reveal it, spread it. For example, our mission at The Welcome Table is given to us through our commitment to “making the spirit of Jesus visible in the world” and so the essence of that spirit is in Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4 and Matthew 25 to free the oppressed, bring good news to the poor, heal the sick, feed the hungry, etc., serve the least of these. Non-Christian UU or other churches might frame being missional in other terms and use other sources: “make Love and Justice visible in the world” for example. The key piece in missional form of church is making it visible in the world, not just to ourselves.

The Post-Modern Culture: We no longer compartmentalize; we live in a blurry yet holistic world; boundaries of sacred and secular overlap; spiritual and material, personal and political or social are not kept separate; no one can go it alone in such a world; the church and non faith based nonprofits and business and government and philanthropic groups all need to play a part in the Mission, but they won’t inhabit different realms but will be partnering. Can’t say this problem is only for government or this role is only for the church.

Church is not ultimately about meeting personal needs, but about helping people get over ourselves, beyond ourselves (again while in the process of growing in health ourselves from the mutuality of care; but don't wait for perfect fully fuctioning people to be formed before engaging in the healing work with others for others, especially with the most struggling places and people in a community); not with the aim of creating lives of comfort and convenience and community, but of conscience and commitment for others. Church is about cultivating lives and communities that grow and go inward and outward.

Church heals the world not by saving individuals, not by focusing ultimately on individuals and their personal beliefs and attitudes, by privileging “the mind” but by connecting and growing and setting loose in the world persons as communities of missional disciples, persons who have increased their own capacity for generosity and service, especially serving those most vulnerable. We grow through 1. service, through 2. Community, through 3. discipleship/study/faith formation, and through 4. worship.

Focus not on “a church” but on “the church” which can have many manifestations. Church not a what, but a who; makes all the difference.

Don’t focus first or primarily on changing the church; focus on changing the world and the church will change.

Don’t expect mission to flow out of worship, but worship will be a response to mission.

Grow smaller to do bigger things

Ask the question: if your church ceased to exist, who would notice and who would be affected?

Programs and events don’t transform lives as much as relationships do.

Church not about showing up at a specific time and a specific place in order to get a message; especially the younger someone is the more the content has to go to them when they want it and can receive it.

The church does not go out to convert the world, but to be converted by the world as God is already there ahead of the church transforming the world. Wake up each morning and ask: where can I go meet God in the neighborhood today?

Shift from church of Three A’s---Affluence, Appearance, Achievement, all inward and identity focused; to church of Three R’s---Relocation, Redistribution, Reconciliation, which are focused on Others.

Going Missional or External: 1. Partner with other churches, and with groups outside yourself; 2. Eat together more often with other groups and in the spaces of others and the public spaces; hold potlucks in parks and places where the hungry go; 3. Look for ways to relocate worship or start a new worship in a new location, especially in a poor neighborhood; 4. Turn your space over to others; likewise hold your board and other meetings often in the spaces of others. 5. Send teams of 5-7 people away from your routine gatherings to go be the church in designated relocated spaces around you, such as apartment complex, etc., reporting back to you, being your partners your scouts; 6. see smallness with a big vision and sense of abundance, take the opportunity to move from being vulnerable under old paradigm to being vanguard of new paradigm; 7. divide up your church and do a re-start as networked geographical mission communities. Instead of small groups meeting monthly, meet weekly and then save monthly for the come together time of partying, worship, sharing, learning. The curriculum of the weekly, or more, church as small group: social, study, service, celebration. 8. Keep imagining ways to have "bigger bandwidth" of a church and the church.

Postmodern led to PostChristian led to Postdenominational led to PostCongregational culture emerging: post means simply a loss of privilege or dominance or centrality.

The Missional Church F.A.Qs.
1.     what do you mean missional?
Missional comes from the Greek word missio (to be sent). it is about being Sent, being called, to be with and for others, especially those hurting for whom my heart breaks. It is not about having a spiffy mission statement, especially one that is all about one's own faith community; and it is ultimately to me not also the same thing as Purpose. One can be purpose-driven, so to speak, and yet that purpose be self-oriented and self-serving. It is why missional church folks will say that the ultimate missional purpose is not about growing an organization, adding members, making more of "us" in the world, nor is it ultimately about changing the church; it is ultimately about the healing of the world beyond any notions or perpetuation of 'us" and ultimately about changing the world. In fact, when we put our initial and immediate focus and anxiety on changing the church we perpetuate this problem by keeping our focus on us; when we focus on the world, the neighborhood, we allow the church to form in response to that focus; that is missional.

2. Doesn't it smack of being a missionary, trying to convert others, evocative of coercion and cultural imperialism?
to me, though those concerns should always be with us, it is about the very opposite, the very undoing of that kind of mission-oriented past; living in Indian Nation, having been raised in large measure by full blood Osage aunts, I am cognizant of this response; but the new sense of missional is about at heart letting the church be converted by the world; i think those who see it as another means of evangelism, of outreach, of growth, are not being true to the missional soul; this might be one of the things that we progressives can bring to the overall missional table, and are, just as we get so much from the more theologically conservative who have helped shape the overall missional church movement. it is about listening learning being an ally living with others.

3. What is "church" about it?
We say the church doesn't have a mission; the mission has a church. the church is not pre-existent in being as an organization that then tries to set out to find its mission, its why, and which then often changes as people within the organization change. Instead, the church is not a What, not by essence a 501c3 organization with a bylaws, board, budget, building; it is essentially a Who which may take that organizational form to best live missionally but it doesn't have to; it is, in one way of phrasing it, a people making the Sacred visible in the world. As such it can be two or two thousand; it can happen anywhere at anytime by anyone. One of the other lens for this is to say missional can be more about "the church" than about "a church," that is a sense of being a part of a movement, perhaps even a particular history and tradition, more so or in addition to being a part of a particular group/institution.

4. Sounds like it can just as easily be the work of a secular nonprofit, or even a socially conscious for profit business? Why think of it as church at all?
 In some ways I believe the work of the church can be done, and might be done best in some circumstances, outside of the boundaries of what is called organized church, or even what is called organic or missional or incarnational church; it is okay by me when people are fulfilling their connection to the Sacred and serving others without calling what they are doing as church; i have witnessed some churches focused so much on themselves that i personally find the Sacred more in something like the proverbial Rotary Club, or in what a group of family and friends might do. But I see it as part of the history of the church, part of the renewal and reformation of the church, and in fact part of a major hinge in history reformation as we have had happen every 500 years or so; the major threads of the missional church in its recent manifestation ove the past 30 years have been located in church communities, or by people who profess a faithfulness even though not necessarily, but often, to particular faith communities. I guess finally for me it is a personal thing; I am connected to the church and so see it as part of the church, but I have no qualms with others who aren't and don't; again for me it is the mission that connects us.

5. Sounds pretty Christian. Do you have to be Christian to be at home in the missional church?
I am a Christian so I might not be the best one to address this; I am biased I know. But I think you don't have to be. In fact many many many Christians are anything but missional, which is why the missional church movement in many ways got its start and major push there. For me it fits into a theological framework, but I don't see it as having a prerequisite of believing in, for example, the Triune God to be missional, though not all Christians believe in that of course, and though many missional church advocates would say you need to be grounded in the Triune God to be truly missional (since they/we see the Triune God as inherently missio-minded, even libertion-minded): maybe I am an outlier both ways. You will definitely need to be conversant I think with contemporary Christian theology and terms and ability to translate and to see the depths beyond the particular language in order to really, at least at this point in missional church movement history, get the most from great companions in it who cross faith community lines, but it seems inherently unmissional to create such an insider group think and membership in order to be missional. We need all we can get in the mission. There are traditions of outwardly-focused, missional living, servants in many faith traditions. I and many others get our particular way of being and immersing in mission from the inspiration and story and way of Jesus, as well as from Christian theological perspective and history, and I think we who do need to be able to use it, but we shouldn't privilege it...I do think it is hard theologically to ground and sustain a sense of Mission without a sense of the Transcendent, call it Human Spirit, or other understandings, something that orients us away from ourselves, our own, and to others (even as we recognize our interdependence and that we have our own growth always at hand).

6. So what mission are we oriented to? Is it the same for all?
 I come from a liberation theological frame of mind, so I talk about Mission being given to us, to be with "the least of these"; it has shaped the particular ministry I am involved in; but when we say the Mission creates the church, that Mission can have many particulars; one broad way to look at it is "to connect the disconnected" and that disconnection comes in many ways and in many peoples and many places; while I think there should always be an ultimate orientation of looking at how the most vulnerable, with the least resources, are being neglected and left out and should be at the table of all Mission, still there is much to be done with and for others in all neighborhoods (even if in some it might be to finally find ways to turn the resources of those neighborhoods and families toward others). There is so much suffering in all communities, all families, so we shouldn't, again, try to limit the outward turn.

7. All this talk of serving others and external focus, doesn't it tend to lead to burnout and unsustainability? What about the primacy and the need for worship?
Yes, this is why Spiritual Direction and Mission have become intertwined and of an essence to many; just as so many churches have trended toward the internal pole and paralysis and irrelevancy and disconnection with the wider community and the folks in their own neighborhoods, so a too unbalanced fixation on others, without self-care and the refreshment of the spirit that comes from spriitual disciplines including worship, will undercut the missional service and ability to be with others in a healthy way. Regarding worship: there has been a mainstream tendency to see worship as reinforcing an inward turn, a group identity, but it doesn't have to be; not only can the message of missional living be crafted and called out in worship, but worship can be seen in some ways as another method for missional communities, especially if located outside of normal venues, or involving external communities, or done in such a way that the liturgy is serving the Mission and the lives of those who may never become a part of a particular organization as members. Some missional church leaders talk about a four part path of "becoming church": begin with service to and with others, especially those most in need; next do it as a community and grow in community relationships with one another in order to do the service the best it can be done; next grow in personal growth or discipleship and leadership formation so the community can be the best it can be so that the missional service can be the best it can be; finally refresh both the personal and communal spirit and growth through worship so that the other pulses or paths of church-ing can be best realized. But not all missional communities or relationships will even have a focus on all four of these; some of the communities that may be more organic and small may dedicate themselves and their spiritual mission on just one of these paths as its focus (while for example, worshipping with other groups, or going to other churches or groups for personal growth or education and leadership development); it is part of what missional leaders call being a part of "a bigger bandwidth" of what church can be.

8. Is there a way for an established institutional very organizationally focused church to be missional? Or must we "become smaller, decentralized, in order to do bigger things."? Can a church be "attractional" and "incarnational/missional" at the same time?
Yes, I believe it can, though it might be tougher; but then again it might have more resources to be able to do so, too, if it has the will. When we say "a bigger bandwidth" we mean there will be missional manifestations or frequencies all along the spectrum or bandwidth; some churches are large and form missional communities out of what were once small group ministries; others see those small groups not as secondary but as the primary reason for church itself; some churches see the outward focus as the exhaling, and the group identity and faith formation of individuals as the inhaling, both necessary to living. At its heart missional church is more about "going to be with them" than it is the former dominant mode of "getting others to come to us to be like us." That should guide us. But it doesn't mean that you have to give up being attractional in order to be incarnational; just remember which is primary, and which ultimately is oriented most to Mission. At this point in church history, it is important not to fall too quickly into our default modes of what constitutes church; so we should question, I think, all things attractional, but ultimately make the Missional the guide. Keep thinking imagining outside the box of that default mode; for churches in a strong attractional or organizational mindset, consider all the ways, small and large, that you can begin to make the shift toward more external being, even if it is holding more events and meetings off campus, with others, for others; as well as bringing others in and sharing one's space, or giving it away, to others.


Life on Fire: Loving The Hell Out of This World

UU Fellowship Fayetteville, AR Feb. 23, 2014 Rev. Ron Robinson
Life on Fire: Loving The Hell Out of The World


There are a few passages from the Bible being told in many churches around the world today, including in some of ours. They seem appropriate for my themes of missional living so I want to share them too.
The first is from Leviticus (yes, Leviticus; this section is a favorite of environmentalists and food justice folks): The Lord said to Moses…When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” This must have caused no small amount of grumbling and some blank stares: We were the poor and alien and enslaved without land and now we have some of our own and, can’t we do what we want with it? Isn’t it just for us? We are the poor and starving ones still and don’t have enough food of our own (or church members or money or space or…or…) You want us to turn what we have over to others; to let others use our land for free? Especially the outcast the strangers the ones different from us, who will never become like us?
The second passage comes from the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…If you only love those who love you, what reward is there in that? Don’t even the tax collectors also do that?” Here the people are, oppressed, under the constant violence of the Roman Empire, and their own leaders are often collaborating against them; their land taken in some of the first urban sprawl; their very existence as a people is threatened. Love who? Say what? We have been hearing that phrase love your enemy for two thousand years and trying to ignore it and domesticate it, and still it can jump out at us; imagine the shock and outrage of the early hearers, in their context. Pray for whom? Bring the concerns of who into our sacred spaces? That’s too much change for anyone; at least let us keep them at a distance; peaceful co-existence isn’t good enough? Love? That means going where they are, getting over ourselves and into their lives and scariest of all opening up our lives to them. And hey, look what happened, after all, to the one who said we need to do this. Can’t my spiritual life just be met with the occasional visit to the Temple and staying out of trouble and listening and learning from the words of others?
The final passage for this morning sums up this sense that the spiritual life is going to be full of such shocks, such paradigm shifts, blank stares from others, new risks, and challenges to our very core of identity and purpose. It comes from the first letter of Corinthians from the Apostle Paul. First Paul writes about laying the right foundation for this new Corinthian community, a new and different kind of community in their time that brought people together who had never been considered equal, people who were trying to live as if another kind of world was not only possible but had already started to emerge and become real. He said that only the right foundation that can withstand fires should be built, so be careful what you make your foundation from, and don’t just do it based on what the world values and expects, especially the Empire that was ruling them with its values of competition, us vs. them, power over, and great affluence, perfect appearance, and victory. He wrote: Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
So, Up against all that the Empire promised and proffered as the way, Paul puts Love. Faith, hope, and love these three, but the greatest of these is love; meaning love is greater than how we are feeling about ourselves and the world; love is greater than what we think and believe about the world and even about God; the radical foolishness we should follow is that it is in loving the hell out of this world, not creating more hell in it for others, that we draw close to heaven.
So, I might say, if a church isn’t risking such foolishness, becoming a church for others, turning itself inside out, it’s not risking the depths of spiritual community.
Much of The world’s wisdom and values, much like they were actually in the first century when Paul was writing and forming communities, stress being bigger, richer, more powerful and influential, taking care of one’s own, focusing on your own identity and hanging out with people just like you, on how much you can consume, how much you can offer others to consume, how many programs you can run, and how well, and how entertaining you are. How attractive you are, in the literal sense of how many people can you attract and keep?
What we are finding out, however, is the terrible cost to being able to be that attractive, so to speak, and even those few who are able to spend the resources to pull it off, to do everything in church right that we were taught we needed to do, may still often come up short—we are entering a time when mostly only the large will grow larger in number—all primarily because there is not only a different playing field now, and players, but different game as well. So in response we are finding we need now a different scorecard for what it means to be a successful church.
Church researcher George Barna in his 2005 book Revolution captures well our new post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational and now even post-congregational world coming at us quickly. He predicted that by 2025, in just over a decade from now, that 30-35 percent of Americans will get their primary spiritual community connection and experience and expression in local institutional or organized churches as they have existed, whereas even as recently as 2000 it was 70 percent; another 30-35 percent will be via a wide variety of alternative faith-based communities from house churches to marketplace gatherings to new monastic communities to missional communities to recovery groups to pilgrimages to special events, just to name a few venues, compared to just 5 percent who were connecting this way in 2000. Another 20-25 percent will be via popular culture, arts and media, and 5 percent through family.
Couple this with the generational data emerging, that 70 percent of those 70 and over are in congregations on a regular basis now, but only 35 percent of those boomers 55 to 70 years old are, and only some 15 percent of those 35 to 55, and only four percent of those 18 to 34. And the numbers aren’t increasing for the young as they get older, as once was the case.
Churches built in a different era then, with a different foundation for those times, are finding those foundations shaking, or gradually slipping out from underneath them. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing if it prompts us to get radical, to go back to the roots of what church is and is for, to live in the very Why of church, and of who it is for, before we spend our time obsessing on the Hows.
This allows us to create a “bigger bandwidth” of church in response. The current forms will continue and meet the needs of some, but we now have the chance to create new and different expressions for more and more people who aren’t connecting now. This is resulting in some forms of what we call the missional church, where the aim is to be the best church not IN the community but FOR the community; seeing ourselves as “a people” (not “a collection of religiously oriented individuals” [Conrad Wright, Doctrine of a Church], a people of passion, with lives on fire, to be Sent to listen and learn from others and, together with them, to love the hell out of this world.
 Sent. That is where the word missional comes from, out of the Greek word missio. We are ultimately to be not members of a religious club, with our gatherings as destinations, but our gatherings are to be our departure points, together in the community at large, and we are to be living missives, our ministry as our message.

Talk about paradigm shifts, changing default modes, and blank stares, I remember a time about five years ago when some of the church leaders from Boston came to Tulsa and were listening to me try to describe how we were doing inside-out micro-church in the far northside Tulsa area of abandonment and poverty and I could tell from their blank gazes that none of it was sinking in, our unwillingness to have members for example or our decision to give our space away to the community, or not having the name of our church on the front of the building anymore, or how we put service before worship, and yet how we were creating a community that were we to cease existing it would definitely be felt by the community beyond our group...To their credit they kept listening, and in the past few years, especially after being on the cover of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine, I have been privileged to speak often on what is called the missional movement; to keep giving people shocks and blank stares.
This movement, I hasten to say up front, is really more about changing the wider community beyond than it is about changing any particular way of doing church; for the world around us is always where we start, not with what we think we need to do for ourselves as church, but where is the suffering and the renewal going on in our neighborhoods (and globally too); in the process, we help one another heal and grow. To use a Lord of the Rings theme, it is not while safe in the Shire before the journey where we do all the healing and get ourselves all whole and then take off on the quest with and for others to change the world; it is only while on the mission itself, taking the risk, that we become vulnerable and trust one another enough to really the form the bonds of community it takes to accomplish our deed.

The title of the sermon today comes from the gatherings, the quests, some of us have started to share and explore together the possibilities of church manifestations that are radically focused outward to and with others, so radical that for some it might even mean living covenanted community lives of service beyond any congregational or organizational structures, while still being deep within a tradition or faith movement.  In part this falls under the beyond part of the “Congregations and Beyond” recent conversations of the UUA. But These gatherings of missional-driven folks are also for those who are remaining part of established churches and want to help turn them more toward counting people served than people in pews or as pledges. 
After a few years of workshop gatherings and online communities we had our first Life on Fire meeting in September at the UU church of OakRidge Tennessee and we will have our second one Feb. 28-Mar. 2 at our place, The Welcome Table in Turley and far north Tulsa neighborhoods in Oklahoma. In good UU fashion, and missional fashion, even though mostly we UUs have started the Life on Fire events, we have been enriched by the presence  and leadership of those in other churches and faith communities and we have them among us now too and welcome and need them too.

I will say that When we planted our faith community ten years ago, we began in a very different place and for a very different reason than where we are now and for what reason. We started in a fast growing suburb. The intent was not to become what we have become, but to be an established church that would look and feel pretty much like other churches and like what churches both UU and otherwise have looked and felt like since the 1950s and even the 1850s and even before. The intent was to start one that is focused on gathering people together around a message of religious freedom, one focused on how people relate to one another and support one another in the gathered community, one  where communal worship is the primary and central act of and for the gathered community as it sends out a message to the wider community.

Now here is where I say that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of that; it is just that it is now only one way, one manifestation possible of the church and that we don’t any longer live in a one-size-fits-all world, and that includes church; and we certainly are moving into a landscape where we need “a bigger bandwidth” of church in order to meet people where they are because of their new diverse expectations of community and faith; not everyone needing community wants an attractional church, one that is geared to spending its energies on getting people to come to us and be like us. That kind of church is getting harder and harder to sustain unless you already are bigger and getting bigger. We have to diversify our forms in a community because Our wider culture has become more diverse in its needs, and because more and more places and people don’t themselves have the resources they once had.
When I think of the categories of spiritual communities Barna outlines that are emerging now, I wonder, sometimes, How will our Unitarian Universalism match up? Will we still be limited to congregations in a post-congregational world? If we don’t create a bigger bandwidth of what church is, we will be appealing to a much smaller segment than even we do now. Even within a single congregation I think we need people creating that “bigger bandwidth” and not expecting all to be on the same place along the missional spectrum; anywhere you can get people to move from internal to external, from program focus to people focus it will grow health for all.

And yet there is hope, and good news in the news. Because the culture has shifted so much that the big, no matter how big they become and no matter how good they get at what they do, will no longer be the reigning model of what church should be, this means  small and very small groups, with a big vision, with deep commitment to those our heart breaks for, and with large risk-taking, can thrive by changing the competition, changing the scorecard of success (as missional church author Reggie McNeal describes it). Why maybe instead of working on ways to grow larger, many of us should be working on ways to grow smaller in order to relate to more. Why success should be found in how grand and how many times we experiment and fail and learn from it to shape our next response.
Our task: How can we become church anywhere anytime and by and with anyone? That question itself challenges so much of the reigning model or mindset of why so many of us have “come to” church in the past—to “find our home, our people” and to create a center for distinguishable religious ideas. In a deeper cultural framework, we are talking about the shift from a modernist focus on fixed places and identities and centers to a new post-modernist focus on fluidity and margins and edges.

In my missional community, seven years ago, after we had failed at first trying to be an attractional church in the suburbs and had relocated to the lowest income lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa area, it became clear we needed to change to change our area which was so in need of basic support. We believed with missional church leader and civil rights leader John Perkins 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 to do bigger things.
We learned that the numbers we needed to be concerned about were not the numbers in worship or that might join as members but were the numbers of the poor and sick and oppressed in our zipcode area where people die 14 years sooner than they do just six miles south of us along the same street. (Levin study, OU).  
So seven years ago, with a core group of just six to eight people and about a dozen in worship on a good day, and that really would be a good day, so to speak, these days, we made our big missional transformative move; we had just lost our biggest financial contributor from our original group,  but we felt called to serve our community and its severe needs especially because there was an absence of any other nonprofits or government and the other churches were only interested in their shrinking memberships. We were already shrunk so didn’t have to worry about that.
We talked among ourselves, and with our neighbors, about what the community needed. More People who believed like us was not on the list. Neighborhood Pride, spirit, safety, healthy food, cleaner environment, sense of a community, better animal control, better schools, these were tops. A church that helped that to happen is what was needed.
With fewer people and less money than when we started, we took a leap of faith and paid more and rented a four times larger space across the street and  opened up,  not billed as a church, but as a community center with library computer center clothing room food pantry health clinic and gathering space, in which we ourselves as the remaining small group church created space to worship amid the space we gave away for the service of others, rather than having a separate worship space of our own, and we also worshipped during the week and travelled to other churches to worship with them on Sundays, UU churches and others.  Lately we have been more of a roaming worship group to build relationships with others around us and to experience the kinds of dynamic worship we don’t have the resources to do week in and week out. Most of our small original group is gone, and most of the small group that made the missional move is gone too now, but the mission is still there and is beckoning a new form of church, again, to be created to help meet it.

One of my take-aways of our many radical changes as a group is that As we failed at what we thought we wanted to be, we became what the world needed us to be.
In doing this We were shifting from church as a What to church as a Who. Church in the new and ancient way that didn’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 mission. And Church doesn’t have a mission; The mission has, and creates, church. The mission is the permanent; the church form is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Theodore Parker who reminded us 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 the 19th century; and we can update him to say that the church of the late 20th century will not do for the 21st.
Even as far back as the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the founding document of our radical American congregationalism formed by the oldest churches in our Association, church was grounded in its covenants, which is a way of saying its mission to and with others, and not just with those who joined a particular church, or became its leaders; for a church to be considered whole and healthy, then and now, it needed to be in covenant with the world around it; in fact, the more it struggles with its internal covenants with one another and its leadership, the more it needs its core identity of a people on an external mission, to and with those beyond its own circle. 

In our zipcode, in what has been described as “an abandoned place of the American Empire” [The New Monasticism, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, et al]…by 2009 we completed the first transformational missional move by creating the separate non-profit A Third Place Community Foundation to connect  more deeply with others and partner with them for renewal in our area, and to be the organizational wing of our mission, while as church we became organic, incarnational, even smaller so that we could keeping dreaming and doing bigger things. Which we did the very next year.
In summer 2010 through our nonprofit we bought the block of abandoned homes and trash dump and transformed it into a community garden park and orchard. Then in 2011 the nonprofit bought the largest abandoned building at the time, an old church building, for our community center. We called both the center and the park The Welcome Table. And so our church/missional community that had started as Epiphany Church then became The Living Room Church then Church at A Third Place became The Welcome Table. Four location changes and four name changes in 8 years, not mentioning how we started in living rooms, in a hotel meeting space, in the back room of a Panera Restaurant, and how we still look for ways to worship in the garden or at our service sites or places we partied like a bowling alley. And we may be morphing again very soon.
The impetus is to keep turning the church inside out, keep responding to those in need, and letting that need shape what the church becomes.
Our reason for being, what calls us together, is to be sent out to make visible in the world that Sacredness of Life that compels us to love the hell out of this world. To discern who our heart breaks for, in fact to listen and learn I would say, in my language, to who God’s heart breaks for, and let that guide us into how we become church.

          Now we have been expanding our food pantry into a free corner store for our area where 55 percent say they are unsure if they will have enough to eat, where 60 percent say they can’t afford healthy food, and we have a community art space, and crafts space, and free clothing and more space; we hold community events and community organizing meetings and put on free holiday parties and throw open the doors to the community, because no one else in our area is; we are now leading the way in getting a new seniors group organized, and we have the lofty dream of trying to put together a coalition to buy and use for the community the recently closed school across from us. Meanwhile the community garden park and orchard is growing and becoming an award-winning site for events itself.
And we do all this and the last time we worshipped together this past Sunday we had five people, a good turnout. I never say “just” five people, or two people. For We embody a theology of enough. We are a church of enough-ness. That frees us to live abundantly amidst a place of scarcity.
Which is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned out, following that ancient image of the Divine as the bush that burns but doesn’t burn itself out, so we can be a spark for others. It is why mission to others is always mirrored with refreshing the spirit—why I hope you are here this morning, but as a Spiritual Departure point not a Destination Point.  It is why in our place we say we aren’t really giving out food or clothing or more as much as we are bearing witness to life in our neighborhood, giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us.
Finally, for perhaps the most difficult or challenging concept: While my faith and particular theology undergirds and guides all that I have done and seek to do, in our new unchurched and dechurched world it isn’t where I personally, or in community, seek to first connect with people. Not with shared ideas, not even with shared spiritual practices such as worship, but it is first in shared mission, service, something I can do with practically anyone. It is all because of Jesus for me, but As a Christian I don’t ultimately need, or think ultimately the world needs, more Christians. Just As a Unitarian Universalists, I don’t ultimately need or think the world ultimately needs more Unitarian Universalists. These are vehicles not the destination. Making more of either are not my mission.  What I need and I think we need and the world needs more of are neighborhoods and lives of an abundant and serving spirit growing justice. If that results in more people coming to adopt my or any specific faith perspective, great; but if not, if the specific communities and organizations I am connected with were to die away as the world changed from adopting their ways, then that is a legacy of radical love for the ages I will embrace. As Apostle Paul says, love is the greatest of these, greater than our beloved institutions, and I do, mostly, love them.
What I believe is that whatever happens in the future in and to my missional community we sometimes call church, and in and to my wider community we serve, or in or to our spiritual movement, the life and legacy of what we have done will, like all of us, ultimately live deepest in the relationships we make, regardless of what form they take or how long they last.
Our goal is not self-perpetuation, but growing our soul, and we do that by giving ourselves in risk, and foolishness, back to that Great Love, in which we live and move and have and find our being, our influence, our power, our new identity
It is a love that can set our lives on fire with a mission to love the hell out of this bruised and blessed world.