Friday, March 30, 2007

Holy Week: Parable of Passion

A popular saying is that there is no way to bridge the gap between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith." I have sympathies for that, especially as my own journey has taken me deeper into the traditions of the Christian community(ies) that sprang up in response to the resurrection (I am more of what might be described as a catholic-liberationist UU Christian using Tom Wintle's categories; see the now 20 year old essay on Who are the UU Christians at But I think the saying is wrong.

The key is the parables of Jesus, which contemporary scholars see as the key to the historical Jesus and his mission re: Kingdom of God, but as they are transformed into the "parable" of the death and resurrection of Jesus known as the events of Holy or Passion Week. What Paul does first, then the gospel writers elaborate on narratively, is to connect the essence of Jesus' parables, a kind of com-passion which over-turns the values paradigm of the world, with the Passion Week story itself.

The "moved by compassion" which Jesus portrays by the Father of the Prodigal Sons (plural intended) and by the Samaritan, both of whom are in positions of being shamed and dishonored in the eyes of the hearers of the parable, is what happens as God is moved to raise and anoint the crucified Jesus. The unholiness of the leaven and the mustard seed, the corruption that becomes a sacred spirit erasing oppression, becomes the cross transformed from the world's power-over ending and finality into a doorway to the divine relational power always creating more and abundant life.

And so the Palm Sunday event becomes a parable of how the really divine enters into the world, a parody of the Caeser's entry based on war and victory and might and youth and beauty and wealth and education and achievement. Deep freedom is to be so connected to God you can walk past the rows of crosses into Jerusalem at Freedom Passover time and cause a disturbance at the precise time when the most power is aligned against you in order to teach people to see again who it is they should be serving.

And so the parable of being anointed by a woman overturns our notions of projects and plans of justice for others somewhere else at some other time and calls attention to the sacredness of the here and now, to the abundance of spirit that there is enough to go around, and to the importance of the blessing of the body, and speaking or acting about the elephant in the room, the danger of death impending. As Spong has written, Jesus' model was about love freely and wastefully, in the world's eyes, spent. This event enacts that model.

And so the Maundy Thursday event is a parable about the divine world is a banquet of fools and outcasts rather than conqueror's feast; a parable that even betrayal and confusion, etc. amid the banquet is part of the transformation and the coming of the Kingdom of God. And that the kingdom of God is like fear and loneliness and despair and surrender in the garden, and about lying and denial and more betraying.

And so on Good Friday the kingdom of God is a parable of true divine power, of silence not oration; of beaten not beating; of humiliation not detachment; of nakedness not finery; of helplessness and fear and abandonment and mockery. Of not being able to choose, living freely nevertheless, for it isn't that Jesus chose these things, or that, God forbid, we would seek to choose them. But they are not the final and ultimate events that define us. The kingdom of God in this day's events carries an emptiness like the parable of the woman with the empty jar in the Gospel of Thomas. Like the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that challenges what we think about such human concepts of "deserving" rewards; it challenged the notion of justice. Parables, like poems and dreams, are unable to be closed off with interpretation. So it is with the Good Friday events particularly, they belie even this interpretation, refuse to be understood, and only call for our presence not our answers.

And so Easter Eve is the parable of the kingdom of God is like a mother mourning, like the going through of motions, like stunned moments when life seems to stand still, and realizations of what is lost hit us, like the parable of the rich man and his storehouse of grain.

And so Easter is the parable of how the kingdom of God is like women, (how many times were women, the personal and private spaces deemed insignificant turned into places of the sacred in Jesus' parables?), or even a lone woman, returning to a place considered shameful, out of sight and out of mind, like fear and trembling at something not understood but you feel in your gut, your womb (that Greek word that has been translated in the parables as com-passion or pity is about the deepest movements in the bowels, our gutsinks, something born in the womb connecting us to others), that calls us to likewise move with compassion, to turn again (how many turnings in the story of Mary of Magdala in the gospel of John account?), to see again. [william ellery channing's advice to new ministers--teach them to see!, based on jesus' way]. Like the hierarchy of who God should come to first being overturned, the women receiving it first, the learned receiving it lastly and doubtfully. Like coming into the world not on the great avenues of the Empire, or in Temples, but on the road to Emmaus, not in crowds but in twos and threes and small groups, and along the shores where daily work and living take place, in eating together. And coming even to touch one who was most unworthy, who had persecuted other followers. The Kingdom of God then vs. the Kingdom of Rome vs. the Kingdom of America/Churchdom/SecularNihilism/Consumption now.

The calling of the parables Jesus taught, and likewise of the Passion Week depicted in the historical Jesus becoming the Christ of Faith, is to turn upside down and inside out and open what seems to have been closed all things that echo more of the Empirical world's values and culture and ways of being. It is the reason for being for the missional incarnational gatherings we call church. It is the week when we should celebrate what has been done once and can be done again, even in our time, as we commit ourselves to what it means to really follow in the spirit of Jesus the Christed of God, and to form and reform communities and relationships in that spirit.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Next 300 Years of Unitarian Universalism

This is the background, and elongated print version, parts of which I preached as a sermon given March 25, 2007 at Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa.

This sermon began a few years ago at a conference here in Tulsa held by my alma mater, Phillips Theological Seminary, and comments by my professor and faculty adviser Dr. Brandon Scott whom I know many of you have either heard in person or seen lately on the DVD curriculum, Saving Jesus. I remember two things Brandon said that night—one, that he has come to a point in his life and career where he spends a lot of time trying to think not of the answers as much as what are the two or three most important questions he should be spending his life on; and second, that we need to be thinking, imagining, and preparing based not on three-year strategic plans but on three-hundred year visions.

Now if Brandon were here today listening to me he might question how I’ve paraphrased him, but since he’s an historical Jesus scholar, I say turnabout’s fair play.

What I am sure he recommended that night, though, was the book by sociologist of religion Rodney Stark called “The Rise of Christianity: How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries.” (Princeton University Press, 1996; Harper Collins paperback, 1997) It is a primer in 300-year imagining. It is also a hopeful and challenging work for any of us who might today find ourselves feeling obscure and marginal religiously. As we well might. For as Catholic priest Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine, recently wrote of Unitarian Universalism that it is “now almost institutionally extinct.” (“Metaphysical America,” First Things, Mar. 2007, p. 28)

Welcome to the ice age of UUism. And certainly our percentage numbers in comparison to the population within the United States, continue to drop, half of where they were 50 years ago I believe. And there has, of course, been a decline from the days of yore when the churches in our movement were the principal players in the creation of the nation and its institutions and values. Which is one of the main reasons, I believe, for pondering these matters with a look to the future and whose values will be taking hold.

The book lays out a natural matrix for how the numbers of followers of Jesus within the Roman Empire could have grown steadily and exponentially from an estimated number of 1,000 in the year 40 of the common era, that’s say a decade after the death of Jesus and the beginning of the stories of his being raised to life by God, to 1,400 in the year 50 when Paul is beginning to write his letters to Jesus communities (when Paul dies in the early 60s there are probably only 2000 Jesus as Messiah followers in all the Empire), to 7,530 followers fifty years later in the year 100 which is after the pivotal destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans and after the composition of much of the New Testament, to 40,496 fifty years after that in the year 150 when you begin to have the spread of diverse forms of communities such as the Gnostics and when a self-identity is becoming rooted as something else than Judaism, and then to 217,795 Christians fifty more years in the year 200. I think, by the way, that 200,000 plus number is also in the ballpark for how many Unitarian Universalists, adults and children, are listed as current church members within the UUA.

I am going to pause at this year 200 to point out that there were still then fewer than 1 percent Christians within the Roman Empire; actually Stark’s estimate has it at 0.36 percent at that start of the third century. They weren’t as numerous then, in the first few centuries after Jesus, as what we often think, looking back as we often have done only through the lens of Hollywood at depictions of Rome and the early church. And I doubt things went as neatly as they might appear on graphs of statistical estimates, but over time it shows what happens when growth is exponential and sustained at just an estimated 3.42 percent a year, or 40 percent a decade. I say “just” because this kind of rate per year is often attainable and exceeded even by American churches in such an unchurched culture as we have in our world today, and it has been attained a few years even by Unitarian Universalism—we didn’t, however, sustain it for more than a year at a time and never for a whole decade.

Spread out over 1,000 plus congregations, an annual average rate of 3.42 percent doesn’t translate into that much growth per congregation, but not all congregations are alike in growth capabilities and so the ones who are get offset. It’s one of the reasons why growing church associations put so much resources into church planting—creating new healthy congregations is the number one way to grow total numbers. But we don’t do that. Others have. Stark is a scholar of new religious movements, particularly Mormons, and their rate of growth has matched what he lays out for the early Christians. 300 Years from now I wonder at the title for the book about who in America went from being an obscure marginal movement to the dominant religious force.

So up to the year 200 Christians weren’t as numerous as what we often think they were, but keeping the same steady rate of growth for the next 100 to 150 years they soon would be more numerous within the Empire than we often think they were. By 250, the numbers reach 1.17 million or now 1.9 percent of the Empire, and by the year 300 they number 6.29 million or up to 10.5 percent of the Empire. By 350, this rate results in 33.8 million Christians or now 56.5 percent of the Empire. Although before this date you had the case of Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea in the year 325, forming a kind of preliminary church state connection which some Emperors tried to minimalize after Constantine, Christianity still didn’t become the official religion of the Empire until the close of the fourth century, after a majority of its inhabitants have become Christian.

On the one hand, to those who look at the rise of Christianity as purely supernatural and occurring inevitably because of God’s will and miracles, Stark’s book shows how it could have happened otherwise. And on the other hand, to those who think the Empire became populated by Christians only because of the Imperial actions of Constantine, Stark points out that the actions of the Emperors were probably more a response to Christianity than a creation of it. He certainly seems to have been a suspect convert. In fact, Stark has written that Constantine and the Emperors did more harm to the nature of the original Christianity, you might say, to the essence of what got them there, than any benefits of being an Empire Church. As we will see, they took the edge off of it, and only now in our lifetime, as we have truly entered an Unchurched post-Empire end-of-Constantine era of Christianity, is the edge beginning to come back. Which is why we need to learn, for our next three hundred years, what we can from those first three hundred years of the pre-Empire Church about what it really means to be a church influencing lives and the world. The real concern is not the rise of numbers itself, but what propelled them.

This emphasis on the first 300 years of the communities following Jesus has long been a central concern of Unitarians and Universalists. It is what led us into being known by those names. We point to how our theological heresies were only heresies after the first 300 to 400 years. We are more at home in the earlier times. You might say we can claim to being the truly traditional or conservative Christians. (I can understand why you may not want to…but believe me, it’s a good conversation starter).

I also don’t want to fall prone to the error of primitivism and a mistaken belief that all things early early on are best—we have certainly benefited from many of the theological and other developments that have arisen after those early years, but because of the hinge of history we are in with the rise of the quantum or postmodern age and its primary means of communication and culture and effects, it is crucial to see again what is transient and what is permanent in what should guide us forward. Being replaced is the Modernity and Enlightenment age and values that gave rise to our very forms and institutions of free church as we have known them. Just as Unitarian minister Theodore Parker said in his 1841 sermon on The Transient and The Permanent in Christianity, the church that did for the first century didn’t for the fifth, and what did for the fifth didn’t for the fifteenth, and what did for the fifteenth didn’t’ for the nineteenth century. We know now, that as change itself has changed, what did for the 1990s doesn’t even for the 2000s. But, interestingly, because of the recent changes what worked for the year 70 might for the year 2007. It’s called “Ancient-Future” thinking.

It’s not necessarily or primarily about theology either, though I have a bad habit of seeing all things through theological lens. Occupational hazard. A big part of the problem for Unitarian Universalist, and mainline to liberal Christian churches as well, as we face the current crisis and the future uncertainty, is that we think the big changes are all about theology, about message, what we think. Theology is an important motivator, but no matter whether we are a UU Christian oriented church in Massachusetts or Michigan or Oklahoma or a UU church of some other dominant or mixed orientation in these places or somewhere, our challenge has been and is the same—how in a changing culture in and around and through us do we change ourselves so that we are able to meet lives and culture where it is in order to continue the mission of healing lives and bringing wholeness to that interdependent culture of which we are a part. Or, since studies show that 9 out of 10 people in effect choose to die rather than to change habits leading to death, how do we entertain ourselves during extinction, or at best ineffectiveness?

This “ancient-future” change challenge isn’t the same for all churches. For UUs, and other progressives, theology about God and Jesus and the Bible, etc. is actually pretty well reflective of the non-creedal focus and pluralism of those first 300 years. Our leading of the way in scholarship has helped us from the start in this regard. It is, and should be more, one of our gifts to the world. Presenting this gift has been one of the reasons for being for my employer, the UU Christian Fellowship, since its founding in 1945. However, for the more conservative and so-called evangelical churches, they are finding that their challenge is often theological on these questions; in order to meet the new and changing pluralistic and tolerant secular culture they are being faced with being bound up by medieval answers and ideology. They are having to learn theological change, and in many places already are doing so. But where they have it easier to change, by and large, than we do is that their sense of being church, of purpose and mission driven and flexibility on forms of the church, is more in line with the nature of the early church’s 300 years.

We have forgotten history’s lessons, even within our own church tradition’s history, that theological change itself is often a response to changes in organizations and their wider cultures. Since my title today is the Next 300 years of Unitarian Universalism I thought it would be interesting to do some reading about what was going on in our founding churches in New England some 300 years ago. Back then, in and around 1707, the conflicts were actually about changes in church structure and membership and worship (You might be interested to note that it was the liberals or innovators who for example wanted to bring back in ritual and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer which the original Puritans had deemed too Catholic, and they wanted to form new churches to reflect this new change, and others were opposed and wanted to keep things the way they’d been and in some places as a result more authority was placed over churches, and in some places authority was lessened and more innovation allowed.) All that conflict over the form of the church sowed the field for the next generation’s beginning theological liberalism from which we often point to as the beginning of Unitarian Universalism in America. I think a closer look shows where the real innovation and beginning took root and the importance of examining the very forms of who we are.

Instead, our thinking what it means to do and be “church” still pretty much is what it has been since the 1500s, and 1950s, with some tweaking of late.

Too often still our default mode of Church is a set-apart place you go to, a building, usually the same building for many years, and in which you receive certain things from, which you then take back to the world out there, it is hoped in a good way; church is the Sunday morning for an hour or two thing, focused on being a spectator to a sermon or other presentations led by others, often those with learned degrees; or church is an organization, with bylaws its scripture, a kind of machine that needs to be kept well-oiled with time, talent, and treasure, as we say; and maintenance of all that, including maintenance of its leaders, becomes the mission, and the purpose of “getting in” (hear that phrase) newcomers is to share the load. Energy is spent on trying to “attract” visitors and “hold” them and “orient” them to the ways and works of the church. It is a Constantinian Empire, Newtonian Machine Universe approach to church that would be foreign to the early followers of Jesus who would see it more like what occurred in the various forms of Temple religion, and its anathema to many today who want to rage against the machine not manage one. I don’t think it will be sustainable much longer the further in we go to the wormhole of the new era.

See if these characteristics that marked that rise over a 300 year period sound an echo in our world. I am sure they didn’t hold true for all communities in all places then; and that there were, as now, unhealthy expressions of faith. Reading Paul’s letters to the communities shows they were anything but pure models of spiritual health; that’s one of the things that gives me hope. They didn’t wait for perfect before spreading out and reproducing themselves in new places and ways. But they seemed to know, to have the spirit in their bones of the truth that the aim of any healthy organism is to reproduce itself, even in a new environment, and the healthier the DNA of the organism the more inevitable will be its growth; it can’t help it; and so what we might call church planting or incarnational mission today was natural for them, their community wasn’t successful, not being its true self even, if it didn’t multiply. That’s the difference between an organic movement and organizations. And something we lost over the years as UUs.

Let’s take a quick journey back to those 300 years before Constantine to consider how the model of one rise might be a guide for taking action now that will be aimed at the next three hundred years. See if then echoes now.

Epidemics and death ravaged the world of the early followers of Jesus, time and time again. There was great commercialization and increasing urbanization and ecological damage and resulting dislocation of peoples from families and from the land and traditions. There were constant wars and militarization. There were many new religious faiths intersecting. Old religious structures were destroyed. Women and widows and children were particularly marginalized and oppressed and abused. Ethnic cultures dominated and competed and if you weren’t in the right ethnic group you were endangered.

Into this world came the early Jesus communities. They offered relationships of social networks, what we might today call “fictive families.” They had an ethic of radical love for one another and hospitality to the stranger, continuing in the best tradition of Judaism in which they were originally embedded and in which many still saw themselves, Jew or Gentile. When others fled the epidemics, they had the commandment to stay and risk and nurse their fictive families and strangers. This actually increased their survival rate and widened their communities and relationships. They provided leadership positions for women, and slaves, and regardless of ethnic background. Offering such a community of relationship for women and children actually led to growth in their birth rate.

They established themselves in places of great urban unrest, of instability, in the seaports where there were crossroads of faith and diversity and people seeking a connection to the divine. Places of desperate lives and danger. They were often made up of what might be considered the middle class, artisans, craft workers, people of some wealth who would host the gatherings in their homes, but who were willing to share their wealth and social network and greater still their identity with those who did not have what they had. In times of persecution, they were willing to be martyred—the original meaning of martyr is to witness—not just because they saw it as a way of entering the afterlife, but because it had a real here-and-now effect; someone would be thrown to the lions for the spectacle of the Empire; it not them, it would be someone else; they became known as the ones who would take the place of others so they might live. It was part not of their creed; they didn’t have one; but part of their story. There weren’t as many of these persecutions and types of witness as Hollywood and tradition has seemed to portray, but the effects of those that did take place were known by and influenced many, to deepen their own commitment or to be drawn toward the community.

They were counter-cultural communities, in high-tension with the values and actions of the Empire but not completely cut off like some sects; offering a way of living that was much different from all that was around them, but still in, even if not of, the world. You could tell their difference. And they offered a new way of being religious that still carried the familiar stories and traditions of what had come before. Their communities, their networks, their relationships (hesitate to call them their churches) were low maintenance and high mission. There weren’t for many years the set-apart places considered sacred while other places of gathering were not considered sacred; they were mobile, de-centralized; without budgets or bylaws as well as buildings of their own; they let their lives be their message and didn’t for many years have texts that were considered sacred. They were stronger after each crisis because they were present in them. They had no advertising or web sites; just their lives and their ultimate faith that they were commanded to share their good news of how God had been and was active in the world by sharing their goodness in acts of compassion to those whom others wouldn’t consider their neighbor or family.
Stark writes: “Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the marketplaces (although there may have been much of that going on) or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility. It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the ‘invincible obstinacy’ that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the “good news.”” (Rise of Christianity, 208, HarperColllins)

By intense community, or what some now call communitas to differentiate it from the kind of inward-focused community, think of the kind of bonds that are formed when you are on a service-to-others-oriented trip like going to New Orleans, or fixing a meal and eating with the hungry in your own town, time and time again until you are fed by them, or find yourself in deep conversation on important matters and the time passes at a party with someone you’ve just met, or on silent retreat. Think of that as not something your church does, as a program, but as its essence or reason for being. Now think of channeling all time, talent and treasure toward that or events like it. What you have is both the Jesus movement of the first century and the emergent church movement of the 21st century.

By ‘invincible obstinacy’ think of what it means not to surrender your religious heritage or language even when others tell you you don’t have any right to it because you don’t think or believe a certain way, or that you are going extinct or powerless and have no place at the table of the real religions where all the action is.

And by invitation, think of not just inviting someone to come be a spectator at worship and pick up some literature to think about it; invite them to see you and be with you in action in the community. Or do like Stark said Mormons have done. Their studies showed that knocking on doors only got new members 1 in 1000 tries (of course they don’t do it for that, but for the bonding and faith-building for those who do it) while they got new members 50 percent of the time when they created a dinner and invited a friend or relative to come eat and talk with church leaders or other members.

Perhaps above all, in Stark’s book’s title, the phrase used is “Jesus movement” not Christian Church. Organic. Dynamic. Ready to risk. Built on relationships and not rules. It’s time to breath in the air of a movement again and look for a thousand different ways we can plant ourselves in our communities, either by “from scratch” new incarnations like we are doing in Turley, with a model of where two or more are gathered it is church, building community space first and then gathering the church within it, or by existing established churches shifting resources to mission teams and small groups who are charged with being present in the community, sowing seeds that might someday multipy and grow to become more than the originating church itself. Movements are to think big, go small, and turn themselves inside out to follow their mission. I think of the church that gathers at 3 a.m. to be there for those who finish their shifts at that hour, or the church movement that designs itself to never have more than 16 members in any one group but to have groups all over the place, or the church that instead of trying to attract people to come from an apartment complex by knocking on doors or leaving tracts and invitations for them, actually pays the rent for a couple for a year to live in the apartment complex and meet and serve others there and form a church within the complex.

Three hundred years later, you never know what the results will be. That vision, that history and hope, keeps me going. There is nothing magical about 300 years by the way; remember that 300 years back then in many ways is not the same pace as 300 years now. Maybe a span of 50 is the new 300! It is more a symbolic number, just out of reach enough so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can plan your way toward it. Planning is out! Preparation is in. One example of our recent UU short-sightedness I think was the reaction to the beginning of a new church in the Dallas Fort Worth area called Pathways. A lot of planning went into that and when it didn’t meet expectations of numbers of members, more in the 70 range than the 300 range for its starting, it was then labeled by some a failure, a waste. God we need more wastes like that. Part of its difference was to be an intentionally great expectations kind of church with a high standard of mission for each of its members. I tell you that in 300 years a plant with 70 such prepared folks, particularly if prepared to be church in a new way, might become the most numerous. It’s happened before.

The alternative church goes by many names today. Emergent. Organic. Incarnational. Missional. Ancient-Future. Submergent. Under-the-Radar. Beyond-the Box. To name a few. So many labels for folks who hate being labeled. Another reason Unitarian Universalists should feel at home there. And there are even more forms and expressions and experiments of it (ask me about the church in Denver called Scum of the Earth). But they have one thing in common—they know, as did the early followers of Jesus, as did James Luther Adams in our reading, that there is a Spirit that bloweth where it listeth and maketh all things new, even if it takes the ancient models to make them new again and sustain them for what the future brings, and for how they shape the future.

My prayer this morning for Unitarian Universalism is that it be guided into that always emerging Spirit not by fear or a culture of scarcity or superiority or complacency, but by love for others not here and a culture of abundance, so it will risk dying to what has been in order to help others live. If we are to go extinct, let it be in a blaze of mission and not by self-suffocation. And since Unitarian Universalism is no separate body more important than the local body, that prayer is for your church, and since your church exists in the covenant each of you enters into with it, that prayer is for you.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Forgotten Ways: Notes on Mission

The following comes from "The Forgotten Ways: reactivating the missional church" by Alan Hirsch, foreword by Leonard Sweet (you should also read Sweet's new, The Gospel According to Starbucks). What a good summary of incarnational missional church, and points to remember.

"In a remark ascribed to Gordon Cosby, the pioneering leader of that remarkable community Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. [], he noted that in over sixty years of significant ministry, he had observed that no groups that came together around a non-missional purpose (e.g. prayer, worship, study, etc.) ever ended up becoming missional. It was only those groups that set out to be missional (while embracing prayer, worship, study, etc. in the process) that actually got to doing it....Mission is being used in a narrow sense here to suggest the church's orientation to the "outsiders" and ministry as the orientation to the "insiders." Experience tells us that a church that aims at ministry seldom gets to mission even if it sincerely intends to do so. But the church that aims at mission will have to do ministry, because ministry is the means to do mission. Our services, our ministries, need a greater cause to keep them alive and give their broader meaning. by planting the flag outside the walls and boundaries of the church, so to speak, the church discovers itself by rallying to it--this is mission."

Hirsch goes on to describe the effect of the Empire taking over the church in the 4th century and bringing in philosophical orientations that were foreign to its more Hebraic beginnings, namely infusing it with the spirit of dualism (all that Platonic stuff). And so God and the World were juxtaposed as dualistic opposites, and the Church became the great sphere of itself between the spheres of God and the world. And so people come out of the world and into the church in order to experience God. This has been the predominant model from Augustine to today. It lies at the heart of the modern, mechanistic, attractional, organizational church. Hirsch uses a great allegory of contemporary times to illustrate this and I will try to come back and put it in when possible. For now click Read More to read on.

But if dualism is not allowed to be the underpinning of the church, and God is not seen as separate from the world but already active within the world outside the church, then the spheres change position. Hirsch has them overlapping, and in the space where they each meet is the space for the new communitas or missional incarnational church. But I think of it more as spheres within spheres, or conical. The world sphere is a smaller one within the bigger sphere of God, and the Church is a smaller sphere within the sphere of the World, but of course still within the larger circle of God. And so for the church to have its own shape and to actually be the church it must engage with and merge with the world in order to experience or draw closer to God. It flips Constantine and the Empire Church on its head. It also throws into question, and perhaps chaos, the identity of the church in regards to religious pluralism, for God in this model would be possible anywhere in the world, beckoning to the church to find itself there.

Hirsch continues to talk about the Third Place Communities in Tasmania, Australia. [the Living Room Church where I am in Turley, OK, see the links, is involved with this in creation of the new "a third place" community center here where we are in the Tulsa area]. He says, "This group of Jesus' people refuse to gather as God's people in sacred, isolated spaces. Rather they exist to incarnate and do mission in "third places,' where people hang out in their spare time. So they gather in pubs, sports clubs, play groups, interest groups, subcultures, etc. and people look in at what they are doing. He talks about the re-thinking of what it means in such contexts to "do public worship." (If you try to just replicate your sanctuary style worship while you are in one of these public spaces, you likely will not be allowed back in. Point is it means a rethinking of worship and interaction and mission.).

Friday, March 09, 2007

Letting Loose The Young

One of the things I should have said in the post directly below is that I was 37 in 1991. I had actually started making moves to start the church as early as 1985 when I was 31 years old. That's a great time to be doing what I am calling for below, or even earlier. Even in your college days. It is a native vs. immigrant in the culture thing, quoting Leonard Sweet.

(another things we need to get over, in that list below, is the mindset that "churches" have to have an indefinite lifespan; I think there's a tendency to think, or act, that if if we can't start one that will be around in the same institutional form for 400 plus years, like First Parish Plymouth from 1620, then maybe we shouldn't make the venture at all--what will happen if it dies out or we move on?). Part of the speed of the new age we are in is that the lifespan of groups will speed up; what the lifespan of a church might have been before, say 60 years statistically unless it makes certain plateau leaps, will now be maybe 10 years, or less. Experimentalism and entrepeurism should guide us.

Where in our youth gatherings are we putting out the call to be planters, of missions and new gatherings; or are we saying to those who have such an urge, go first ye to seminary and then you can be about the business of the "kingdom."? Maybe they are there; maybe I've missed it; I admit to not being up to snuff on all the denominational goings-on. But if people, especially young people, want to make real changes in institutional racism and classism, for example, then go about creating new communities; it is easier and more effective and likely will have more of an impact than trying to transform existing communities and cultures. Come to Turley and see how we are doing it, here with a 50something immigrant white geezer. Let's change the turf rather than fighting over old turf. Where are these calls at Convos and gatherings of youth and young adults? Are we afraid of offending seminaries? If seminaries are smart, they will see where the future is and, as the church should, go where God/Spirit is already present and giving birth and see about connecting with it, incarnational rather than trying to be an uber-attractional institution.

Why are you waiting on someone's blessing? Go meditate and pray and journal daily on the parable of the sower for three to six months, if you want to wait on something.

We make it way too hard when it is very easy which is the hard part

When I "started" my first church in 1991 (it was definitely a modern-era start hence the mechanistic metaphor of starting vs. planting, and it was a UU church), I got several dumbounded looks---from UUs that I was doing it where I was doing it, in one of the poorest counties of Oklahoma albeit a college town, and from both UUs and non-UUs that I was just doing it. Can you do that? was the question I got. Do that, they meant, without a lot of denominational funding, without the okay and oversight from "above." And it wasn't a split-off from a church fight, I should add, one of the time-honored ways of starting a new church :). And I wasn't ordained, or seminary-trained (but I was in right relationship and communication with leaders, lay and ordained, and in UU and non-UU churches, all around me). And I hadn't been a strong lay leader in a church yet, not really; too busy going to school, working, going to school again, establishing a family, a career. I had a spiritual urge and calling to start a church, for many reasons mostly healthy but probably not all, but I didn't go through boot camp, discernment, and I was just getting back into being a newbie at following Jesus in my deeper way than childhood and teen days and ways.

It was a kind of grassroots "fellowship" but consciously was trying not to be a "fellowship" in the ways that I had witnessed and heard from others about the Unitarian fellowship movement of the 50s and 60s. It was one of the best times of my life, I would do a lot of things different now because 1991 isn't 2007, but in the early days it could be a model for exploding new church and mission plants across the country.

Small is good as long as there are networks of relationships. If we get over geographic-blindness, we could start plants, call them missions or churches or whatever, just about anywhere people are at home--make campus ministries into campus churches, meet in apartment complex clubhouses and start with a video or book discussion or service projects for families, meet in bars or Panera breads or in a park, or in cyberspace. Get over worship-production values and see the value in small sharing circles and go to big church worship for the things that only it can give jump-start-wise. Get over organization. Don't worry about officers, bylaws. Just relate and let spiritual passions and gifts lead the way.

Go under the radar. Don't worry if it doesn't show up in the UUA directory or pay dues to the district, etc. All that is secondary or tertiary and will come and happen in due time, and for all the right reasons and not wrong reasons. Don't even worry about calling it a church.

We need to be casting vision for such missionaries and turning them loose and nurturing them and networking them. But who is the "we" in the previous sentence? I hope it is you.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Organic in Organic Church

One of the best church planting seminars I have been too lately wasn't about church; it was about organic gardening and especially community gardening. Rich with lessons and metaphors for anyone interested in being missional in this world. And, besides that, community gardening is a great way to be in mission all by itself.

A few notes I took, translated into church or mission planting (I am increasingly finding myself drawn away from the term church and toward mission; it is just more dynamic):

1. The organic church foundation is a theology of compost, breaking down into simple and abundant life. There is more things alive in a handful of good compost than there are people on the planet, or stars in the sky, so I've heard and believe. Another reason why the next big thing is smallness. A good small group of people on a mission is equivalent to the enriching power of good composted soil

2. Use a cover crop to protect the soil. It is easy I have found with so much outward-focus and permission-giving culture in organic church to neglect the attention to protecting the DNA and keeping personal relationships uppermost. Dysfunction is clearer to see and check the more intimacy there is. I have to pay as much attention to the people as to the mission opportunties, and not go into over-reaction mode away from the institutional church focus only on itself. This is that difference between community and communitas, but community is needed to.

3. Takes heat to make good compost, but you need to put your compost pile in the shade. A kind of moderation and balance in all things. Keep things heated but not burned out.

4. Use the right kind of hoe in weeding, and till and rake rather than spray (of course). Pay attention to your ergonomics. Use don't abuse your body. As Easum says, put on your own oxygen mask first so you can help others put on theirs. Oh, about weeding, particularly do it when the plants coming up are small--attention needs to be most intensive and intimate at the early stages of church planting (learned the hard way).

5. Use drip irrigation. Point here---everything is local; you can't go wrong narrowing down your niche or area to serve, at least start there, because it is all about using resources to the best benefit.

6. Pest Control. Oh boy, the connections run thick here. Make sure you use organic sprays that are specific to the prey. In other words, don't treat all alike when you notice the red flags of dysfunction or disruption. I think this is a real danger in the mid size church where you dont have a lot of small groups and there are natural tendencies to use the same policy or approach to all who are distracting from the mission.

7. Prevent disease. Make sure you have good airflow. Let people breathe. Make sure you are watering roots and not just the air around the plant. In fact be careful that you don't, by your watering method, make the environment a damp one for diseases to use to multiply.

8. Diversity is necessary. Work flowers into your community garden; plant different things; try to get as many bees to come around as possible. Don't be afraid to open up to all kinds of people. I have people in my plant that I never thought would like it or there wouldn't be good matches with others, but shows how much I know when I let my assumptions take over.

9. Rotate crops. Give all the soil a chance. Reminds me to do more with giving away leadership and rotating with people being able to lead from their various passions and teach one another.

10. Keep a journal. Well, there is this blog...It does help to look back and see what I thought was important, what I wanted to do and got sidetracked or distracted, what should have been dropped, etc.

11. Get as close to the dirt as possible. Smell it. Taste it? Look at it. Monitor compost often, though whether you are active or have a static pile doesn't matter as long as you are intentional about it. The organic missional church is a way to stay close as possible to the soil of the soul of life. Programs dont come before people.

I am going to start considering how every time there is a gathering of folks on mission here it will be like working to make a better compost pile, or taking the compost and putting it onto a new part of the garden.

What God does of course is to use us as compost. It's all about transformation, change, taking the decay and turning it into the kind of gold that saves the earth, literally. Jesus in his parables understood the theological power of manure and dirt and water and the "waste" from our daily living inside the Empire.

Emergent Organic Church Panel Set

Just a note. On Saturday, June 23, from 2:45 to 4 p.m. at the Portland Convention Center Room 139-140, there will be a panel discussion on "What the Emergent Organic Church Can Teach UUs" and will feature District Executives Ken Brown, Susan Smith, and me, sponsored by the UU Christian Fellowship. Hope to see you there and more as we get closer to it. Also check back at