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.