Friday, May 26, 2006

Local newspaper story on community service

If you want to read some about The Living Room and how we made the local Tulsa World newspaper about an on-going service project and signature event in the community, check out and go click on the Today's Newspaper and then go to page Local A 13 for the first page of the story and picture and then A 18 for the jump. I don't think you have to be an online member to see it but you might after today when it becomes part of the archives. I also have saved it in pdf file and can send it to folks by email if you want and let me know at And keep up with the ongoing projects in the coming days and weeks at

Heresy #1: Where to focus re: visitors

I am going to be posting over the next days and weeks some various "heresies" about church growth, church planting, as part of a "what I have learned/unlearned" over the recent years. I will start with a heresy about welcoming visitors to worship............It may not be the most vital heresy but is a good place to start. We need to get out of our box of understanding of what "visitor" means to many of our folks and to think of visitor not just in terms of the worshipping community, but as those who are invited or in some other way meet up with us in mission beyond the worshipping gathering. I try to think of the process of welcome, integration, etc. with all who we go to join with when we are doing something as a community in the world and not just those who come in for the worship experience............I have grown to prefer making contacts when I meet people working on community projects, and to put more energy into that than into what happens in the worshipping community; I have found that their understanding of the church as a place to give and not get seems deeper than with those whom I first encounter in a worship setting. And if they don't come join us, fine; I trust they are telling people about us and the seeds will sprout down the road........For long term health, one of my heresies is that I'd rather (and I try to encourage actually) someone be invited to participate in service project with us or party with us and then learn about and decide to come be a part of "the service" than to present the worshipping community to them as first contact and then hope to connect them socially and in service beyond the worship service. When that happens the worshipping community sometimes, sometimes, becomes about meeting the needs of anyone who might wander in to check us out, and of course for church planting the worshipping community needs to be built up towards rather than the first face, unless you have gobs of financial resources and even then maybe not...I think we have to be careful that we don't try to do big church small when we plant.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Onward Christian Liberals

Marilynne Robinson (novelist of Gilead and Housekeeping) has an article called "Onward Christian Liberals" in the Spring, 2006 issue of The American Scholar. It is, as you would expect, a good read. On the cover of the journal it is paired with an essay by Garry Wills and packaged as "The Other Christianity" and hers is subtitled "Why liberal Christians need to pull up their socks." You can google it and find one site where you can read it online with a free trial, or pick it up still at your bookstore. There is also some blog activity on it but not much, and I haven't seen any through UU blogs yet either.

Well, I liked the piece a lot, but I will say up front it didn't quite have the oomph that the promotion seemed to signal (but then, what does?). Still, a good defense of the basic foundations of the liberal tradition in Christianity--focus on God's gift of the mind, social justice, and the spiritual power and necessity of not being too sure of one's self and one's salvation. It is another reminder that we need a series of ".....For Liberals" starting with "Calvin for Liberals."

Side note to those who followed the calvinist thread at Peacebang's blog a bit ago (, this is a good followup theological discussion.

One of Robinson's thrusts is that "faith is not about piety or personal salvation, but about helping those in need" and develops the concept of personal holiness as one's "openness to the perception of the holy in existence itself and, above all, in one another." Hence, what God calls us to do, and where to be.

The essay is full of great gems of sentences, as any reader of Robinson's would expect and desire. One of my favorites was: "And here is the culminating irony. This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez-faire capitalism. It has helped to push American society toward what the English economist Herbert Spencer called 'the survival of the fittest." Darwin borrowed that phrase from Spencer to name the dynamic of natural selection in the evolution of species, otherwise known as Darwinism. In other words, our anti-Darwinists are social Darwinists."

And, "The division between the liberals and the evangelicals is often treated as falling between the not really and the really religious, the dilettante Christians and those adhering to the true faith. This is the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism."

Finally: "Liberals assume the existence of what is traditionally called "the invisible church." They believe that no institution is uniquely the people of God, that God knows his own whoever they are and wherever they are. And they believe, therefore, that this invisible church can, of course, include their Christian detractors. This view of things implies that no doctrinal tests exist to distinquish the true faith from the false, real Christians from poseurs, the orthodox from the erring. To object, to dispute, to counter text with text, all this is legitimate and necessary, though liberals have been far too hesitant to make their case, even among themselves. But to judge the state of any soul is to presume upon a perogative God reserves to himself."

I think of myself as a liberal evangelical. I think of the "invisible church" as the presence of the Holy Spirit, which is a liberal Spirit, resting on and emerging through many people and places. But I think Jesus set up some tests about who his true followers are, that are not creedal in the sense creeds came to be created, but which are commanding imperatives nonetheless. So we liberal/progressives should be able to at least echo to the world those commandments (the Great Commandment, with no ifs ands or buts added; the Matthew 25 commandments; the mission of Jesus which stands in the Isaiah tradition), while reminding ourselves that of course we are not God and are not damning our brothers and sisters in Christ.

What does all this have to do with church planting? One of the best ways (to put it mildly) to be good faithful steward and "members" of this "invisible church" and of the commandments of Jesus is to create embodiments of it in the visible, finite world. The Spirit was never meant to be a solo actor in the world. The "invisible church" as M. Robinson points out, is vital to our tradition and who we are, but I think we have relied too much on the Spirit to do its thing in the invisible realm of history and people's hearts. We have let our visible churches die through increasing invisibility and staked all on the actions of the Spirit and the invisible church to carry the ball, or cross. Church planting is a way to show the world that we take seriously the commandments of Jesus and will do our part in our time and place to be co-creators with the Holy Spirit of "the invisible church."

Maybe I just have Pentecost tugging at me.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The initial questions

I am going to visit this weekend with a group in another city interested in forming a new Unitarian Universalist church. I have done this a lot over the years in this general area and mostly now I regret, in hindsight, the advice I've given. In fact a couple of years ago I gave a talk about Growth called "Unlearning Church" (title from Michael Slaughter's book) as a way of kind of repenting of how I had "helped" groups in the past. That's because mostly I focused on the how and the organizational ways to get up and going and growing; mostly I focused with them on "how to grow A church" instead of how to begin in their area a growing movement of churches, a church that will have as its ultimate measure of success how many and how often and how soon and how diverse from itself can be the churches its starts, and how deeply it can affect lives and its community, making disciples of love and justice.

Some of the questions I mistakenly dealt with were: Should we get a minister first or a building? Should we advertise, and where? How many members does it take to be official, and how do we get them and keep them?

These days I do it a little differently. For example, here is the outline I am working on for this weekend's visit.

Hymn Sing: A Church Planting Narrative in Song
We start by singing together, a community act, something that builds spirit and exposes vulnerability. All movements should sing or die. And this arrangement of hymns from the Singing The Living Tradition hymnal moves from welcome, to personal centering, to community centering, to mission, to disappointment, to deeper community, to hope.

188—Come, Come, whoever you are
389—Gathered Here
123—Spirit of Life
131—Love Will Guide Us
121—We’ll Build A Land
168—One More Step
352—Find A Stillness
205—Amazing Grace
116—I’m On My Way

And then these are the questions that I think now we need to grapple with as we begin our efforts--

A Few of the Initial Questions For Church Planting

What is your "default mode" for “church”? What mental image comes to your mind? Why? What mental images might come to the mind of someone different from you who doesn’t go to church? How limiting is our own perspective?

What has to exist for a church to exist? Hint: The church doesn't have a mission; the mission has a church. And the church is more than the contemporary congregation of bodies who have the power to vote. More on this in a later post, in particular reference to Conrad Wright's writings.

How many UU churches do you want in your area? One church in one way in one geographical area is a warning sign of impending death. Like so many of the usual questions, when we think about starting "A" church, this turns into starting a church for me and my wants and my tastes and my needs. Like the previous question, the answer to this question determines our DNA and how healthy we will grow.

How will you determine and protect and spread your “DNA”, your Mission, Vision, and Values? Will a committee decide it? Or will someone or some two people who have a gift and finger on the pulse of both the forming church and the Church Universal and the free church tradition within it, be moved to help name it? How will these days determine how much of a permission-giving church culture there will be? Will it be a mission statement or a song in the heart, a story? What will be your creation story? Can you sum up your aims in less than 8 syllables? Will you be able to say that while you welcome all, you won't and can't be "for" all, in the sense that you won't be the right church for all looking for a church? Trying for one group to be all things for all people is a recipe for discord and death. And will you have the guts to create a safe place to take risks? To say no to unhealthy behaviors? New churches often are magnets for people who have not found a home for their behaviors in other churches and seek out the new, needy, church plants as vulnerable places--just as new churches will be magnets for those healthy people who have left for good reasons unhealthy churches. How will your leadership circle become an accountability group to keep on track with the MVV?

Which model of church planting will you use, and why?
Don't rush into assuming only one model. Know the strengths and weaknesses of each model. In the UUA report on Pathways Church in Dallas/Fort Worth area, several of these models were listed. The report itself is good for conversation and I will pick up on it in a later thread. You can read it at The main models listed in the report are:
Pioneer/Parachute: Starting from scratch in a new location or for new group
Adopting/Affiliation: Embracing groups who approach the denomination
Propagating: Multiplying network of cell groups: 12x12
Daughtering: Halving off a core group from a parent church
Satellite: an existing church starts an off-site worship
Partnering: A cooperative venture between several churches
Mission developer: A developer goes into an area and starts congregations
Transplanting: Selling and relocating a church to begin a new church
Nesting: Hosting a congregation within an existing congregation
Restart: Take over a new church and start in the same site with new leadership
Conference/District/National start: begins with initiative from outside target area

Under the propagating model there are many varieties, it should be said.

I will say that underlying some issues about what kind of church people want to start are some issues of class and acceptance (a church should look and act like other churches so my neighbors won't judge me, e.g. and "be respectful") and these should be acknowledged and addressed up front. Get a control on them so they don't control the church.

One of the key questions is also about the relationship of a church planting team and a minister? Is any seminary trained person capable of being a church planter? No. Especially since so many progressive seminaries don't pay attention to church planting. The ordained will have some skills that non-ordained don't but they will sometimes lack key skills that others in the group might have or need to find. Granting lots of responsibility and authority to those with gifts for different facets will be key. There are advantages to having a strong presence of a church planter and leadership team right from the start, but the strong presence of clergy can also help create clergy-focus instead of mission-focus and kill the plant. If the minister isn't a strong DNA-setting church planter, with lots of authority granted by the team, the best connection might be in the form of coaching or mentoring or assuming certain functions, like spiritual director to the leadership team, while the team continues to develop and deepen and be the more visible leadership face.

A Few of the Initial Tips For Church Planting

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First---planters, lay and clergy, should have their emotional, spiritual, physical house in order before starting on this major undertaking, even moreso I think than in other ministry positions with existing churches. Perfect never exists so don't strive for it, but don't be under major stress and transitions. If you have to turn more and more inward for your own health, it will create inward-turning as a norm of the church.

Do Everything As A Team of Two or More--Actually two is a very good number to take on whatever tasks there are, but one isn't. Sets a bad precedent, and even if there is one person with the passion and skills that you want to encourage to turn loose in permission-giving culture, a partner to check in with and meet with and turn to is still going to help prevent burnout and going beyond value boundaries.

Know Yourself and Others on The Team---encourage all church planters/teams to do Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, conflict styles profiling. Share results. Test them out by experiencing something together as a team and reflecting on it.

Practice Embracing Healthy Conflict and Small Group Dynamics--This comes with knowing yourself and others and you can use the differences in temperament and style to talk about how that leads us to need guidelines for how to interact with one another (use I statements, etc.) and setting behavior boundaries. Along with this as a leadership team building I would right away get the group reading and reflecting on the book Friedman's Fables and the principles in Generation to Generation, family systems theory.

Know Your Community and Let Your Community Know You--obviously getting a Precept psychographic study of the area, as well as talking with people about the biggest needs of the area, know its history, its players, and who all aren't going to church already and why. Then engage in servant evangelism ( and random acts of kindness and look for ways your group can find a niche of addressing those needs. I would rather people first encounter the church plant out in the world doing things rather than trying to get people "into the church" to become a part of it. I will post more about the role of worship in mission and church plants, but the first place people get to know you will also set your DNA and your future. Those who join from seeing you in mission are more apt to help keep that mission and sense of the church outside itself going. Energy needs to be directed there, moreso than what happens when people gather for worship, which is why worship needs to be understood differently and, as it is commonly conceived, delayed as much as possible. Question that comes from a newcomer after visiting with a church planter during a mission project or party or just a good conversation: When does your church meet? Answer: It just did.

Learn From Others/Be Coached so you can Coach. Go to boot camp somehow if possible. At least immerse in online communities, visiting church starts, bringing in church planters, read through a book together on planting and emerging church.

Some general places to begin:
Build Personal Relationships and tap into your extended field of family and friends. Invite them to be with you and your group as it---
Parties. Takes trips. Shares spiritual passions. Studies. Sings. Cares for one another. Does acts of kindness for strangers. Covenants and Celebrates to keep the spirit of community alive and growing. (if you have to feel like you are doing something "worshippy" do it as a small group event for those already a part of you, to celebrate what and why you are doing what you are doing, get your main morale boosts in other ways, but keep worship informal at this stage; same goes for bylaws. Just do articles of incorporation for non-profit status and setting up bank account; if for some reason you need bylaws keep them very vague and flexible at this stage; you don't want to have to revise them, spend energy on them, refer to them, or else DNA will be organizational instead of organic, maintenance instead of mission.)

Make sure that topics of buildings, budgets, bylaws, and staff, all the structural stuff, comes along to support the Spirit and Mission, not the other way around. Don’t rush. Keep anxiety out of your system. Laugh lots. Beware premature birth, burnout, controlling, too much focus on “us”, perfectionism, and the "failure to experiment, risk, and fail."


Brian McLaren's latest book, The Secret Message of Jesus, has a wonderful appendix that is useful for a church planter. Like many contemporary resources, it is good both for developing and deepening small group experiences or as the basis of creating "emergent church". I am including summaries of the best parts of the appendix which he calls "Plotting Goodness" in hopes you can use them to begin or re-start or develop small group gatherings in the spirit of Jesus.

Here are the three major activities or plans for such a group:

1. Gather for Conversation
2. Launch Experiments
3. Plot Goodness

1. Gather for conversation:

He reminds us that the "kingdom" of God was originally explored in a group of twelve, and yet you don't need even twelve, for Jesus says "where two or more are gathered" and small groups can do big things. In fact the smaller, the easier it is to act.

Begin by gathering for conversation. Who? Friends at work for breakfast or lunch. Friends from church or neighborhood to meet in your dining room or living room. Maybe to meet regularly at coffee shop or pub. What to converse? Might pick this book by McLaren or another and agree to read a chapter a week. When you meet share reactions to the week's reading, presenting favorite quotes, raising questions or disagreements, or relating the ideas in the book to your life. "What did you like best? What didn't you understand? What didn't you agree with? What seems most relevant to your life/ What questions are raised for further study or discussion? You can converse over the Bible too. Read through parts of it, using the following questions as a guide: What does this passage tell you about God? What does it tell you about the kingdom of God? What does it tell you about Jesus? What does it tell you about yourself? What does it tell you about our mission in the world? What questions does it raise for further study and discussion?
You might want to sign a simple covenant with each other to stay with the group for a certain amount of time, and agree to common respect rules. As new people hear about it and want to join, you might want to create subgroups that meet close by, even groups of four meeting in different parts of a house or restaurant.

2. Launch Experiments:
So often our small groups start and stop at number 1, gathering for conversation. This part of the McLaren Model is vital for nurturing the Spirit. He says the message of Jesus is not meant just to be studied, but to be practiced. As a group, he says, launch certain experiments to practice "some facet of Jesus' teaching over the next week and then report on your experiences--your successes, failures, surprises, reflections, and conclusions" the next time you gather.
For example, he suggests, turn the other cheek for a week, pray for and bless people who mistreat you; don't judge; forgive people so that "your holding of a grudge becomes more serious to you than whatever the grudge is about,." care for the least of these by seeing and serving needy or vulnerable people as if they were Christ himself. Try spiritual practices such as silence and solitude and mindfulness, giving to the poor (keeping a sum of money in your pocket to give to the first person who needs it, or raising money for some good cause). Fast for a mealtime or a day; consider non-food fasts, such as media fasts; include the "Lord's Prayer" in your daily life, maybe two or three times a day. Be grateful. Share meals together, and invite unexpected people to join you.

3. Plot Goodness
Do something as a group for others who are not included in your group. Collect clothes or food or toys, etc. and give to a family(ies) suddenly one day. Make a picnic and show up to eat it somewhere where the homeless gather and invite them in to join you, eating with them and not just fixing food and serving them. Become the opposite of a terrorist cell, he says. Throw parties, visit hospitals, give out flowers, plant gardens, fix houses, clean homes, fix cars, babysit for single parents, clean up trashy areas, etc. Or, he adds, take on an issue together, global like Darfur.

One of my favorite paragraphs in the chapter:
"You might wonder what a group like this should be called. Some might want to call it a study group, a fellowship group, a faith community, a missional community, a lay monastery (a group of laypeople gathering around spiritual practice and mission), a spiritual formation group, or a spiritual conversation group. Some people might eventually want to call a group like this a church--perhaps a microchurch, a minichurch, a house church, or maybe a liquid or organic church. After all, it is a group gathered around Jesus and his message.

Some websites for resources for small groups, for more on this book and others by McLaren, or for ideas:
For small group dynamics and rules, see materials on the Simple Spirituality site at See resources at Check out and You might like and And you can continue the learning at Or for those with a Unitarian Universalist connection go to and

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Film Section

Have you encountered whole movies or great scenes from movies that capture the spirit of the emergent church, critique the established church, or that provide "teaching moments" about sowing seeds of God's radical mission? If so let's build a section together.

At The Living Room on Wednesdays we have "Reel Spirituality" gatherings. This week it was to see "The Spitfire Grill." Lots of good stuff about where and what "church" is and can be in this depiction of a staid small dysfunctional New England town (UUs and UCCers take note!). And how it is transformed by the outsider/outcast/spirit of Christ. Note how the empty church is depicted, and how the minister-less community is depicted, and how they learn to be a community/church together in an out-of-the-box project they undertake, and how much it changes at the end. Great vision-casting and contrast between the church that was and the church that is coming.

I have a whole host of other movie scenes and full films that preach church planting well and will add them later. Here lately we have been doing Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, Chocolat, Saved, Smoke Signals, Stuart (Smalley) Saves His Family. More reflections to come relating movies to church planting, et al.

The Book Section

Do you have reflections on the following books that have meant much to me? If so please share them. If you haven't read them, I urge you to do so and let us know your reflections.
In the coming days I will go through them with more commentary in different posts. But here they are, no particular order of importance:

1. Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century by Aubrey Malphurs
2. Starting A New Church: The Church Planter's Guide To Success by Ralph Moore
3. Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age by Ed Stetzer
4. Church Planting: Laying Fopundations by Stuart Murray
5. Church Planting For a Greater Harvest by C. Peter Wagner
6. Changing Church by Wagner
7. Home Cell Group Explosion by Joel Comiskey
8. Emerging Churches by Gibbs and Bolger
9. Organic Church by Neil Cole
10. Out of Bounds Church by Steve Taylor
11. The Present Future by Reggie McNeal
12. The Small Church at Large by Robin Trebilcock
13. The House Church Manual by William Tenny-Brittain
14. Houses That Change The World by Wolfgang Simson
15. Small Congregation, Big Potential by Lyle Schaller
16. What Have We Learned by Schaller
17. From Geography to Affinity by Schaller
18. A Mainline Turnaround by Schaller
19. The New Context for Ministry by Schaller
20. Discontinuity and Hope by Schaller
21. The Very Large Church by Schaller
22. The Emerging Church by Dan Kimball
23. Emerging Worship by Dan Kimball
24. Unlearning Church by Michael Slaughter
25. Out on the Edge by Michael Slaughter
26. Worship Evangelism by Sally Morganthaler
27. The Church in Emerging Culture ed by Leonard Sweet
28. The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World by Tex Sample
29. Postmodern Pilgrims by Sweet
30. Soul Tsunami by Sweet
31. A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church by Sweet
32. Jesus Drives Me Crazy by Sweet
32a. All the other works by Sweet
33. A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren
34. The Secret Message of Jesus by McLaren
34a. All the other works by McLaren
35. Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers by Bill Easum
36. Dancing with Dinosaurs by Easum
37. Growing Spiritual Redwoods by Easum
38. Put on your own Oxygen Mask First by Easum
39. Unfreezing Moves by Easum
40. Beyond the Box by Easum & Dave Travis
41. Under The Radar: Risk-Taking Churches by Easum & Tenny-Brittain
42. Moving Off the Map by Tom Bandy
43. Coaching Change by Bandy
44. Fragile Hope by Bandy (I know, I know, should have put a Schaller book here :) )
45. Kicking Habits by Bandy
46. Road Runner by Bandy
47. Christian Chaos by Bandy
48. Mission Mover: Beyond Education by Bandy
49. Revisioning the Church by Peter C. Hodgson
50. Friedman's Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (you can't plant and grow without embracing conflict in a healthy self-differentiated way; pearls of leadership wrapped up in these fables)
51. Generation to Generation by Friedman (the classic)
52. Lump together some of the New Perspective on Paul books, the original church planter--Reinventing Paul by John Gager, Paul: A Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright; Rereading Romans by Stanley Stower; Paul and Empire ed. Richard Horsley and In Search of Paul by John Dominic Crossan (I will do a separate section on Paul and planting)
53. The "usual suspects" of progressive Christianity--Borg, Crossan, Spong, Lamott, Wallis, et al (I will do separate section on them too; though they don't have experience with starting new churches in new ways, they provide good theological reasons to do so).
54. In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Emergent Church--Sermon

Hi all. Here is my sermon from this past Sunday given to the UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR. A kind of general introduction to the emergent church movement and to the necessity of church planting in its various forms. There are many seeds for further exploration here, which of course can't be gone into in a sermon. Ron.

Readings For the Sermon:

Scriptural Reading: The parable of the dinner party, by Professor Brandon Scott (Reimagine The World, p. 113-114):

Introduction: In a world where on one hand the banquets of the well-off were for and with the well-off, and on the other hand there were many who even if they were able to get food on a regular basis ate it alone, Jesus said God’s world, God’s party, God’s meal, God’s kingdom was like---
“A man was giving a big dinner and invited many guests. At the dinner hour the host sent his slave to tell the guests: “Come it’s ready now.”
But one by one they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I just bought a farm, and I have to go and inspect it; please excuse me.” And another said, “I just bought five pairs of oxen, and I’m on my way to check them out; please excuse me.” And another said, “I just got married, and so I cannot attend.” So the slave came back and reported these (excuses) to his master. The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”

Contemporary reading, from “Emerging Churches” by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger:
Quoting Mark Scandrette (p. 42) of ReImagine! In San Francisco: “The emerging church is a quest for a more integrated and whole life of faith. There is a bit of theological questioning going on, focusing more on kingdom theology, the inner life, friendship/community, justice, earth keeping, inclusivity, and inspirational leadership. In addition, the arts are in a renaissance, as are the classical spiritual disciplines. Overall, it is a quest for a holistic spirituality”…Emerging churches 1.)identify with the life of Jesus; 2.) transform the secular realm, and 3.) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they 4.) welcome the stranger, 5.) serve with generosity, 6.) participate as producers, 7.) create as created beings, 8.) lead as a body, and 9) take part in spiritual activities. (Gibbs, Bolger, p. 45)... “I read the gospels over and over. Nothing I was doing on Sunday was what I thought Jesus would be doing if he were here. (Joe Boyd, Apex, Las Vegas, p. 47). “We don’t believe in any religion anymore—including Christianity—but we do believe in following Jesus. We no longer need religion with its special buildings, dogmas, programs, clergy, or any other human inventions that displace genuine spirituality. Why do we need a name and address to be church? We’ve come out of religion and back to God.” (Jonathan Campbell, Seattle, p. 47)

My ministry as Executive Director of the UU Christian Fellowship allows me to travel and talk about the contemporary state of UUism, of Christianity, and of UU Christianity, and the many big changes in each of these in just the 30 plus years I have been a UU, or during the past 61 years since the UUCF was founded in Boston. But today I am moved to preach about the religious movement called—for want of a better term—the Emergent Church.
My sermon grows out of my other passion church planting, my other ministry hat, and my on-going experiences with an emerging group we call The Living Room. To encounter the UUCF check out or please pick up some of the literature I’ve brought. If you want to keep up with us at The Living Room go to

Theodore Parker, one of the great Unitarian preacher of the 1800s, preached a sermon that could be an historical guide for the emergent church. He called it The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. In it, he says that the church that worked for the first century didn’t work for the fifth century, and the church of the fifth century didn’t work for the fifteenth century, and the church of the fifteenth century didn’t work for the nineteenth century. By not working I believe he meant it wasn’t fulfilling the church’s constant mission to reach out and transform lives and communities so they better fit into what another early Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, called “the likeness of God.”
If Parker were here today, I believe he would say, with the leaders of the emergent church, that the church of the nineteenth century, or the church of the 1950s, or maybe even of the 1990s, doesn’t work now for many, and maybe most, in our world—those who aren’t here this morning.

Both in message and method the emergent church is challenging the established church culture of today.

One of the challenges for many in Christianity has been the rise within its own ranks of the message of the progressive spirit of generosity, liberalism, freedom. Even in the so-called evangelical world, among professed theological conservatives, a new more liberating spirit of Jesus is beginning to emerge. There is the expected reaction and backlash to this, but as some of the samples of the readings showed, the emergent church is moving away from dogmatism. For example, one of the big issues in that world today is…guess what?...universal salvation. Evangelicals are having the kinds of controversies and debates that we had in the 1800s. Prominent evangelicals are looking hard at the role of women, of ual orientation, of the relationship to other faiths, and of justice-making. They are moving closer to positions where we were once on the cutting edge.

Emergent church leaders (such as Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, Bill Easum, Tom Bandy, and Sally Morganthaler) understand that the broader culture has changed, has become more unchurched, and more pluralistic, and with a more negative impression of the church. They know if the church is to live and fulfill its mission in the changed environment, then the church must change in order to do so. Ala Parker!

Both the message and the method of the church have to change to meet the changing world. One without the other falls short. Those churches that have kept a very narrow message of God and Jesus and the Bible but put everything into the latest cultural methods, high tech, consumerist-oriented, mega-churches, all of which especially attracted the Baby Boomers my age, are not now meeting the needs of many of those Millenial Generation born 1984 and later who have grown up in a more pluralistic world and who are yearning for authentic personal spiritual communities. There will probably always be in the foreseeable future the mega-churches, and some of these are developing a more progressive inclusive spirit, and I hope some of them will be our own UU churches. But the “super-sized” “very large” church won’t come to define the image and meaning of church.

There is now the rise of the house church network, of what is called micro-churches, organic churches, the natural church, or gatherings that even shun the word church because of what the word invokes in people’s minds, and hearts. The word God, Jesus, spirituality and sacredness—these that give some UUs trouble—these are attractive, but church is not. A recent poll showed only 19 percent of Americans felt involvement in a local church was vital in the spiritual life. (Barna, cited in article in April 29, 2006 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

You can get a feel for this emergent movement in simply listening to the names that you encounter for the groups. Like our own The Living Room, which was changed from what we had originally called it, Epiphany. Others are called Solomon’s Porch, The Ooze, Tribal Generation, Axxess, Quest, Matthew’s House, The Rock, Levi’s Table, Headspace, Eternity, The Bridge, Landing Place, Ikon, ReImagine, Warehouse, and one of my favorites, located in Denver, is Scum of the Earth, which Jesus would have understood.

How many people here, like me, were born before 1963? (Please raise hands. –it was more than 3/4th). We are the oldest but are often like immigrants in the new world, still with one foot in the old world. But in the church we are still the natives and the rest of the world is the immigrant population. How many after 1984 (just five people raised their hand, and four of them came with me from Oklahoma)? You are natives of the new world. How many in between 1964 and 1984 (this was another almost 1/4th)? You may feel torn between the worlds, like much of your world and lives have been torn.

If you were born before 1963, you are likely to have a common mental image come to mind when you hear the word church—a building, on its own, often with a steeple, with pews, and a pulpit and a seminary-trained paid minister, and an organ, and full of people, meeting on Sunday morning around 10 or 11, and the name prominently included the name of the denomination, and there was almost always a denomination. And the mission of the church was to maintain its tradition and take care of its people, those who found there way to it. And the worship services were all alike, usually only one, and if the church grew it was by addition of members, and adding on space, or moving all together into a new space, keeping all together. “How is your church doing?” was another way to ask—what number of people sat in the sanctuary that Sunday?

From just the names of groups I mentioned before you can imagine that in each of these ways church is emerging with a different mental image. In emergent churches there may be no building, especially an owned building, but gatherings happen in different kinds of places—living rooms, cafes, warehouses, parks, parking lots, apartment clubhouses, nightclubs, coffeehouses, at work, the streets. One of the maxims of the Emerging Church is that there is or should not be a dualism between sacred and secular space. People gather in circles for conversation, for sharing their gifts and experiences, music is not one-size-fits-all but authentic to whatever their micro-culture is, and they may meet at any time, such as when the graveyard shift ends, and they train up and equip their own leaders. And, this is of utmost importance in setting the DNA of the emergent church, the intent is not to start “a church,” but to start a “church-planting church.” Not a single institution, but a movement. It grows and changes by multiplication not addition. One of the most interesting aspects of these churches, by the way, is how they embody what is called an ancient-future faith; they often sustain themselves through ancient spiritual practices that were eclipsed during the Modern and Reformation and Enlightenment eras. One pseudo-motto is “Go Old To Get The Young.”

The goal or measure of success is not numbers, but depth of relationships. In fact numbers at any one time are kept small enough to foster relationships with another and strangers. Emergent churches want to be numerous all right, and to spread, but to do it like the early small c church did it in the years before the church became the large C Church.

Now there is a lot of vital middle ground I am not getting into this morning. There is a lot of emerging happening within existing churches. It is called the Transformational Church movement, growing and extending the established church in new ways while keeping the old ways. It is good, but harder in some ways than new church planting, and it will be a force in the future. I think of it as the Evolutionary Church while the emergent church and its sphere is more the Revolutionary Church. We need both experiments. One size doesn’t fit all, including if the one size and style is the Emergent Church. Defeats the purpose.

I picked 1963 because I like the story of how that was the year when the change was complete in American society from a churched to an unchurched world. In 1963 in a small town in Bible Belt South Carolina, the local movie theater opened on Sunday, and that was news, big news. Think of how far we’ve come since then in what competes with the church for people’s time, talents, and treasure, and loyalty.

The church that did for pre 1963 existed in a world that no longer exists. I use the example of the telephone to depict that (attribution to author and consultant Gil Rendle, whom I heard use this at the UU Large Church Conference in Portland in 2001). Once upon a time in the world of most of us, a telephone was all one shape, all one color (black), it was fixed in a place and if you wanted to use it you had to go to it, and everyone used it for the same purpose, to talk to someone else. But now my phone can hardly be called a phone anymore—it is lots of different shapes, and colors, and it goes where I go, and it is also a computer for the internet and calendar and calculator and camera and more.

I chose 1984 because, well, it was 1984. Also it was the year my first daughter was born. Thirty years after I was born. Also the year I got my first computer, or word processor in those pre-internet days. Theodore Parker didn’t get into it, but he could have explained that the church has changed in major ways when the way of communicating in the world has changed. From oral to manuscript, from manuscript to printing press, from printing press to our multi-electronic culture. Each change in how people experience their world changes their world, and communities such as churches within the world.

I think theologian Leonard Sweet captures this well in his book Postmodern Pilgrims when he talks about so-called immigrants and natives to the changing new world. I am clearly an immigrant. My default mode is in the pre-1963, and certainly pre-1984 world. (Much of my learning, i.e., failures, as a church planter has been living in my default world instead of the world around me today). The natives in our new world will find communities of meaning somewhere, just as they always have, but their expectations and orientations have changed and if the church thinks it has something life-transforming to share it needs to be aware of these changes and learn ways, a variety of ways to be sure, to incarnate and re-new itself. Change or Die. Actually since change entails of sorts, it isn’t a question of whether or not the church dies. It is just whether or not it dies to oblivion and the footnoted pages of history, or dies to live fuller. Which is a lesson for our personal lives as well.

Sweet uses the word EPIC (E-P-I-C) to describe the natives in this new emerging world and how the emerging church responds. They are more Experiential driven, than driven by logical reasoned common sense understandings. This is why emergent churches often offer different hands-on worship opportunities the way the 50s and 60s and 70s church offered classes. They are more Participatory driven, rather than content to be spectators of a religious show others produce. They are more Image-driven, rather than word-grounded in print-culture (hymnals, sermons, debate). They are more interested in embedding their selves in Connecting in deep and intentional communities than in fulfilling themselves as free-spirited autonomous individuals.

These EPIC people, growing in waves around us and in our midst will encounter a variety of answers and opportunities and churches. I hope that our progressive message, particularly now that it is beginning to be heard again and is being explored again by others in society, won’t be lost due to our inability to incarnate it in new methods, new experiments, new risk-taking, new churches. The conservatives can learn about a new message for new times from the liberals. The liberals can learn about new methods for a new time from conservatives. And both will learn that people in this century aren’t interested in old labels and the same old, same old.

All of which brings me around again, as I said it might, to Jesus and his parable of the radical dinner party. Here, in this ancient example, we find a clue to the emergent church.
Church is the dinner we make for others, with others.
We are in a time when guests are making excuses for not coming inside the house for our dinner. And others don’t think the dinner is for them. Maybe those invited guests who didn’t become guests were the usual ones for his parties and were often invited. The man giving the dinner was rich and he was inviting those like him, who had much already. Maybe even they knew something about his dinners and had grown bored with them, or they weren’t nutritious food for the soul. Or maybe, probably, they were taking care of their own worth in the world’s eyes, worrying about maintaining their success in the nt culture’s world’s eyes—tending to their property—instead of looking for opportunities to be in right relationship with others, in celebration and spending of what they’d been given and who they were, being God’s people, otherwise known as the church.
And so the boundaries of the dinner, the invitations, were expanded. A whole new world of people would become guests, become the church. Or so we hope—the parable leaves us with the invitation, not the arrival. Which is the way of the “kingdom.” But the people who would be coming would not be the ones to bring honor to the host in that culture’s worldview, but instead would bring shame, which God’s invitation erases. And so the nature of the dinner is transformed. Banquets of the rich were highly-organized, controlled, predictable—but this new dinner is spontaneous, risky, permission-giving, downright contagious.
The new dinner of the emergent church would even go beyond the parable by taking the food out of the house. The host would become the guest. The dinner would be made together. The welcoming table becomes a truly moveable feast.
So should be the spirit of the church, of our lives.