Saturday, July 21, 2007

Organic Church Sermon

On July 15 I returned to the church I "started" in 1991, to talk about the church I am "planting" these days, and others of its species. Here is the sermon text from which my actual and more dialogue-oriented sermon came from. One of the things I wish I had stressed more is how even existing churches can become more organic by (of course church planting; never too late; reconceiving of their mission not being accomplished until they reproduce, but also...) beginning organic incarnational missions where they are and turning them loose to grow and multiply. I tend toward the revolutionary approach but even if a church continues its status quo approach it can start being intentional about sending groups of three to five people on various kinds of missional "scavenger and salvage" hunts; a kind of breeding of its own insurgency; and see where the energy goes from there. If nothing else it might prompt some "necessary splitting" and conflict, out of which health may grow. This particular church has done some organic things perhaps unintentional; one of which was occasioned during a time of anxiety by the minister leading the way on going from full time to three-fourths time (heresy, right?); but such things help to create stress pressure points and, what might happen, is those people who only want to be associated with a church that "has" a full-time "pastor" because of the kind of image that sends will eventually leave or be marginalized or have transformations themselves. Ministry might actually increase when the minister's "hours" are reduced.

I am not a gardener but as some of you know I have been married to one for almost 33 years. So there has been a lot of cross-pollination, so to speak, between our two worlds of dirt and divinity. It was only natural I suppose that I should be drawn to the organic church movement—also known in some ways as the emergent or post-modern or quantum or natural or simple or liquid or multiple or micro-church movement. Especially as I have been involved with church planting—as the term church planting itself shows, different say from the more mechanistic term church starting, the way we talk about church is telling.

In his book, “Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens” Neil Cole of Church Multiplication Association reprints a story about the importance of these perspective changes. It is a very Toad and Frog like story (I had previously in the worship told the Toad and Frog story "A garden" which Cole also quotes in his book), but it is the story of two men, let’s call them Ben and Jerry, who saw an advertisement placed by local farmers who were tired of having their livestock eaten by a pack of wolves. The ad offered $500 per wolf, taken dead or alive. The two entrepeneurs set off with their camping supplies and rifles. After a couple of days of fruitless hunting, the two collapsed in fatigue by a warm campfire they had built. Hearing a noise, Ben awakes, only to notice the glow of fire reflecting off the eyes and teeth of a pack of hungry wolves surrounding their little camp. He slowly, yet urgently, reaches over to nudge his partner awake. In a hushed and frantic voice, he whispers, “Jerry! Jerry! Wake up! We’re rich!”

How we see things, what our default modes are, determine so much. Our cultural experiences shape our worldviews and they in turn shape us. That culture has been drastically changed is at the root of the organic church movement. Author Leonard Sweet divides us up generally into those who are immigrants to this new culture in which we live (those born before 1963 for sure, and in some ways those born even before 1975) and those of the more recent generations who are natives to this new culture.
Show of hands.
I am going to shift metaphors for a bit. Think of church as a telephone. Now compare it to what can already quaintly be called a “cell phone.”

We often are doing church as 1950s era telephones and trying to be significant force in people’s lives who are shaped by the expectations of the 2007 IPhone. Even doing church as we did it in 1990s has problems connecting now. Even using technology as a metaphor is problematic for categorizing organic churches.

We in UU churches are not alone. The organic church movement I will describe in a moment has sprung up in response to this challenge. It particularly grows out of the experience worldwide of unchurched and de-churched younger people, the children who don’t find authentic community and life transformation in the megachurches of their boomer parents. It is not that it will necessarily replace megachurches either; most see a time in this century when there will not be any one model of church that is prevalent, as there has been, but only that the organic models will be growing in percentage as the kind of communities of faith people seek.

The organic church revolution goes to the very root or heart of what people have as their default mode associations when they hear the word church. Just about every characteristic of that word church is being turned upside down and inside out.

In the book “Emerging Churches” these churches are identified with these characteristics: 1.) they identify with the life of Jesus (not dogma or creed or denomination or tradition); 2.) they transform the secular realm, and 3.) they 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)... As one leader says, “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). Another says, “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)Let’s look more closely at some of these changes, and I will do so also from what we have undergone in a few years in our part of the Tulsa area.

The name---no denomination even if it is part of one; you know you are in the presence of organic churches often when you hear names like 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, smallboatbigocean, and one of my favorites, located in Denver, is Scum of the Earth, which Jesus would have understood. (I talk about the changes in ours from Epiphany to The Living Room but now mostly just “the church” meeting in the community center we started called “a third place." and also how we have grown fond of one suggestion of calling our group at the first site "The Salvage" since we are surrounded by them here. ) AND anyway, no real place to put or use name; you can’t drive by our very busy highly visible location on north Peoria Ave. and see a sign that says Church. Instead of trying to attract people with a message to a message; organic church is incarnational, people being the church in different ways and relating to people; more mission and no signs. Break our addiction to PR; one of our heresies is that we don’t try to attract people to be “visitors” at worship, and the kind of co-dependent treadmill of “do they like us when they don’t even know us” but to be partners with us in our actions in the community; if they don’t have a church already and are interested in going deeper with us, that’s fine; if not, good too as long as we are doing God’s work in the world.

The building—not just one but several places of varying types, usually rented, usually looks like so-called secular space, might even be in or be started as a commercial establishment like a coffeehouse or art gallery; might be a house; and more often than not might not be a building, but meet outside in variety of spaces, apartment complex clubhouses, restaurants, movie theatres, parks, lakes. [story of young man with ADD forms group at lake]
We recently more than doubled our space but have given it over to the community and we are guests in our own space. Turning inside out. Instead of getting people to come into our building past all the religious symbols and words and then go back out to do things for the community; we begin with community interaction.

The time of gathering---not just one hour on Sunday morning, but when people can get together, even reaching out to those unable to be in Sun. morning; maybe when people’s shifts end at 3 a.m. Ours is Sunday afternoon because of less stress on families with children.

What you do together---more mission to others as focus, service and social justice oriented; worship isn’t the main thing but the main thing is helping to transform the community and form relationships with people to help transform people’s lives, and whatever worship there is, signing and praying and sharing and study, is important because of how it helps keep up your mission with others who may never be a part of your group.

The numbers---intentionally kept to size in any one site where it is easier to form relationships and communal bonds—12 to 20 maybe 40 at most, but since the goal is to reproduce, to multiply, then you might have that number at different sites and they may gather together for celebration only. Easier to be more flexible, to meet more often, when only trying to mesh teams of 3 to 6 people

The worship---more what you might experience as small group worship, more sharing, more participation, longer. Not very print culture oriented; use video; not built around sermon but around meal. Some see small group as way to keep people attached to the bigger church; organic sees small group as the main church gathering, everything flows to support it, not other way around. Also almost always contain common meal as central to worship itself.

The membership and structure---no committees; only loose bylaws, hardly any voting. But high expectation on membership: to be a member is to be a leader of a team and to help grow other leaders to take on new teams. First three years without bylaws and meetings as we were forming our culture, getting to know one another, sharing our passions, doing random acts of kindness or servant evangelism in the community.

Minister---perhaps not ordained professional especially in non-denominational organic churches, or if there is one that person is more a trainer or leader of leaders of the groups; if you are clergy-focused then it inherently limits what you can do and when depending on that one person and his or her gifts. I often say in Turley especially an MSW or MBA might be better than M.Div; and we are partnering with the OU Dept. of Social Work on projects in this first site of ours in Turley, the poorest area of Tulsa County; our zip code has the lowest life expectancy in the County.

The thrust of the organic church is to take the anxiety and stress out of church life; to make it refreshing and passionate; to replace sense of obligation with sense of opportunities presented. (Never fully realized; an imperfect mission because we are imperfect humans, thank God; and there is a tendency to fight against that the organic church can be the "real" church)Let me go back to organic gardening. So much of what church leaders often do, that treadmill of producing a production week after week, meeting after meeting, in the rut of trying to attract people just so the status quo can be maintained which gets harder and harder to do, all that is like the pesticides we keep using in gardens that eventually kills the very soil that naturally contains all the life needed in the first place to grow.

And the outcome desired is radically different too. I love the story of that wonderful garden writer, the late Sara Stein, in Noah’s Ark who writes about how she “unbecame a gardener” because of what her default mode for a garden was. She and her husband moved into their new home and acreage and she wanted to put in a garden like she thought she was supposed to. So they went about tearing out all the natural native plants and grasses and trees that were there and replacing them with sod and beds that were planted with exotics that had to be highly maintained and replanted often so its look would stay the same. Then one day she looked outside, out of frustration and exhaustion I bet, and had her ah-ha that she had removed all the life of the nature around her, nothing was allowed to live and reproduce and die, not only grasses and plants but she didn’t have any of the wildlife, birds and bees and frogs and foxes and so much more that had been right outside her door before. She had organized away the organic. So she went back and began all over again, this time putting in a native-plant, wildlife friendly low maintenance, ecologically-sensitive habitat.
The organic church movement is having to, as one writer’s book was called, Unlearn Church.

The real difference? She changed what her definition of a garden and a gardener was. Before it was something that reflected her relationship with herself and what she thought her human neighbors would want; it was an extension of her ability to control nature. But after her transformation the garden for her became a way to be in relationship with nature, particularly her local piece of nature. She became a kind of temporary caretaker of something that ultimately didn’t belong to her; she saw herself as part of a something beyond herself, her time and place. Her moral obligations were enlarged.

So likewise the organic church revolution emphasizes that Church is not a Place Where, but a People Who. That makes all the difference in what follows. The organic church revolution emphasizes that Church is universal as the “people of a relational God who are on God’s mission in the world” and so church is not a monoculture but polyculture. Knowing this frees up the aim of any particular local incarnation of that people to respond in the best way it can to live relationally with those in its wider community. And since the aim of the organism is to reproduce and multiply, so the organic church, in its own DNA, is not fully a church until it has multiplied. That’s why it makes all the difference in the world to think about starting a church-planting church, instead of just starting a church.

Now another thing that both organic gardeners and organic church folks say is that what they do is not new. Gardeners often say “we are going back to the way my folks or grandparents did and they didn’t call it anything special; they didn’t have to call it organic; it was just the garden; it was just growing your food; just filling your yard with the beauty God had planted there.” So organic church leaders talk about ours as an “ancient-future” faith; going back to the way church was in its first 300 years before it became corrupted by being a part of the Empire, of Christendom. Gardeners and church growers both have a distrust of what was called “modern methods.”

For many organic gardeners, and ethical eaters, we have been put back in the time when you had to grow most of your own food to survive; put back there because of the consequences of the modern agribusiness world.

For the organic church growers, it has all come about because of the collapse of the churched culture, the end of Christendom, which one has dated to a particular Sunday in 1963 when the movie theater in Greensboro, South Carolina opened for a showing. It signaled the beginning of the end of the time in American culture when people were expected to go to church, were born with a church identity, when most religion in your town could be summed up as simply Protestant, Catholic, or Jew, and when people were still living in and being formed mostly by print-culture and the focus was on “the organizational man,” the chain of command with everything in its place on a flowchart like cogs of a machine, when even the Newtonian machine-like view of the Universe was slipping away.

Since then the religious landscape, like other cultural manifestations, has seen a tremendous disruption and change. The surrounding culture to a church is now more like what it was in the first 300 years after Jesus—more pluralistic, the church is more marginalized, there is a rapidly changing mode of communicating, and the emphasis on the individual alone is giving way, especially among those born after 1975, to an emphasis on the communal or social nature of a person, with the rise of fictive families and new tribalism. De-centralization is in. You know it is a new world when new Christian evangelical leaders, or as they call themselves post-evangelical organic missional leaders, are looking at the model not only of the underground house church movement in Asia, but also of the way viruses and epidemics spread and how Al-Queda works.

For me it is all important for a few reasons:
I do care about the religious values that have been incarnated in the Unitarian and Universalist traditions and I would like to see them live on after me and not go the way of the dinosaur when the environment changes as it has. We are less and less of an influence on the world around us.
But my ultimate allegiance isn’t to a denomination and I see all forms of spiritual communities, and the notion of authentic community itself endanger of being overwhelmed and left behind by the entertainment/marketplace fantasy producers of pseudo-community that tends to drive people away from one another and results in treating the sacred, that is people and our environments, as objects instead of subjects with inherent worth.
And I care about the ways we have organic, relational, less-anxious lives because that is the way we will be able to best transform our communities, our families, our workplaces into sacred places. And organic churches can be a place where we practice and risk and hold up as valuable those kind of lives and those kinds of places.
And ultimately, for me, it is because I seek to be in relationship with an organic, growing, relational Spirit I call God, as a free follower of the way of Jesus, whose whole story is an organic one.

So I will end with one of the many such stories from Jesus. My seminary teacher and author Brandon Scott calls it the parable of the dinner party. Think of it as the parable of the church.

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, would have to eat it alone because of their outcast nature, Jesus said God’s world, God’s party, God’s meal, God’s kingdom, I would say God’s organic church, in fact Jesus was saying God is like ---
“A man who 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.”Here, in this ancient example, we find a clue to the emergent organic church. Church is the dinner we make and eat with others. The radical part of Jesus’ parable is that he is saying God is also the dinner we make and eat with others, especially with those whom we wouldn’t normally think of inviting. Banquets of the rich were highly-organized, controlled, predictable—then and now--but this new dinner is spontaneous, risky, permission-giving, downright contagious.
We in the church are in a time when guests are making excuses for not coming inside the house for our dinner. They don’t even both making excuses anymore. 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. To them it was no big deal. Well, Jesus is saying that for God, to be in God, being together is a big deal.
The man giving the dinner was rich and he was inviting those like him, who had much already. Jesus is saying God and those whom we should be in relationship with will not have much already, in the many ways that “much already” can be known, and yet they will give us much.
Maybe even the invited ones knew something about his dinners and had grown bored with them, or they weren’t nutritious food for the soul. Jesus is saying that God is the opposite of boredom, and that if you are being fed stones instead of bread, or if you are feeding others stones instead of bread, you better change. There’s more to life than your ruts; there are your roots and how you are nourishing them.
Or maybe, probably, the guests were simply (simply?) taking care of their own worth in the world’s eyes, worrying about maintaining their success in the world’s eyes—tending to their property—instead of looking for opportunities to be in right relationship with others.
And so Jesus says the boundaries of the dinner/the church, the invitations, must be expanded. A whole new world of people will become the church. Or so we hope—in truth, the parable leaves us with only the invitation, as Brandon Scott points out, not the arrival. We do know that the people who would be coming to the dinner from the new invitations would not be the ones that would bring honor to the host in that culture’s worldview, but instead they would likely cause his friends and neighbors to think he should be shamed.

And so with that the whole nature and purpose of the dinner is transformed, seen with a new perspective.
In fact the organic church revolution now might go this parable one further and say we need to take the meal, the church, make the meal, the church, outside of the house and into the streets and other places where we will find our company and where in what follows there will no longer be differences between guest and host.
The welcoming table becomes a truly moveable feast. And that’s the spirit of the organic church. May it also be the spirit of our lives.
Type rest of the post here


Comrade Kevin said...

I urge you to research the Fellowship Movement, which was the means by which Unitarian Fellowships were set up by the AUA (pre-merger).

Lots of micro-churches were set up by design and through the hard work of a man named Munroe Husbands.

The question that remains of course is whether UU churches need to restrict their size or swell in membership.

Certainly UU churches have got to better network with other fellowships, congregations, and churches in their same district. That's where community is lost.

Ron said...

Yes I think somewhere on the blog here I have written before about Fellowship Movement II, ways to take the best of what was intended in the fellowship movement but update it as much as possible to prevent the other problems with it. As the Rev. John Wolf wrote about the fellowship movement back in the 1970s, one of its problems was that the fellowships never became churches. What I think is important about what he wrote is primarily, as I would put it, that they did not have a "doctrine of the church", i.e. the only "doctrine" the free church ever clung too (see more via Alice Blair Wesley, James Luther Adams, Burton Carley, the Free Church movement of the past ten years.

Networks of small communities still need to have a sense of themselves as part of "the church" and to understand themselves theologically and not just, as the fellowships often exhibited, a sociological reason for being. What happens when you don't call a minister, as so many didn't and don't, is that the congregation doesn't do the necessary theological work about who it is; you don't have to do that only in calling leadership, of course, but generally that is when it happens; without it, the sociological triumphs.

But, the core idea of the fellowship movement is something to build upon, if we can do it in a more connective way without being controlling. Many such "fellowships' acting like small group ministry within a church but seeing themselves as the church, and with some kind of leadership to help them keep multiplying. Lots of possibilities.

Ron said...

p.s. about restricting size or swelling in membership: there will be all kinds of sizes and shapes of UU churches in the century to come, one hopes; but it isn't a simple dichotomy. Small groups of organic churches may restrict themselves to 12 to 20 or even less, and yet have as a core DNA princple that they are to expand the numbers of these groups and grow that way. As Shane Claiborne says in his new book "The Irresistible Revolution" (to be blogged on soon)--we need to get smaller and smaller in order to take over the world.

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