Wednesday, January 31, 2007

More incarnational heads-up resources from here at Camp Allen in Texas

Taking a break from the break. I am on a so-called retreat with other ministers, which is more and more of a conference and not a retreat but that is a post for another day---before I get into the new Paul perspective and Crossan insights for church planting, another diversion.

I have brought with me the two latest books by the folks that brought us that great work The Shaping of Things To Come: Innovation and Mission in the 21st century church, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. They have separately recently written more indepth and closer examination of the points they laid out in the earlier work about the move from attractional and extractional church to incarnational mission church. Hirsch's is called The Forgotten Ways, and Frost's is Exiles: mission in a post christian culture (hope I got that right). Google them. Go to amazon and find them. Get them. Two new contributions that will give you ways of talking and presenting this foundational move to other folks.

I have also brought two books just barely got into but that are good too and hold lessons. I will explore these further coming up: Wright's book A short history of progress, and Burke and Taylor's book A Heretic's Guide to Eternity. Check them out too. Crossan recommended Wright's work.

More soon if this next round of snow everyone is getting back home in Oklahoma doesnt shut us off and down again.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Growing Church Lessons from Rodney Stark's Work

Okay, Sociologist of Religion Professor and best selling author Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity, One True God, For the Glory of God, The Victory of Reason, Cities of God, The Churching of America, 1776-2005) may at times be hard to take for religious progressives--especially process theologians. But I love his work and approach, if often not his delivery, especially as his work progresses it seems to take on a beleaugered, me against the world of academia spirit. Theologians and biblical scholars may find things to wince at from time to time (I do), but when he sticks to sociology and the lens of market forces applied to religious committment, he strikes me as dead-on. And his look at the world of the early church movement is particularly helpful for anyone planting churches in this century.

1. First, a general comment. In the Churching of America, he shows how America went not from a very church-going world in the colonial era to a non-church-going world today, but the reverse; what happened was that the main churches of the colonial era, namely congregationalism, and other "mainline" have shown a steady decline of market share throughout the history of the U.S., but "newer" churches and sects have more than made up for that decline. Now, put this up next to Barna's research that shows an ever-growing gulf between Christian church connection and attendance and especially committment and our U.S. society today. Are Stark and Barna mutually exclusive? No. Stark is looking with a broad brush stroke, and Barna is increasingly looking at how there is a difference between people who say they go to church, who go to church, who are committed to their faith, and eventually are dedicated to their faith, and he is interested in drawing distinctions between born-again evangelicals and other evangelicals for example. So yes more people in the market share are expressing a "connection" to church than were doing so in the colonial era and afterwards (Stark); but yes, ala Barna, that means less and less these days. And it is clear that the colonial era and its aftermath was at least a dominant church culture per se, compared to the dominance of secular and competitive choice culture today.

But for planters and those interested in growing their churches, Stark's works point to these factors.
You have to have a focus that provides "here and now" rewards, of community, of belief, that cannot be obtained elsewhere. This is not to dismiss the "otherworldliness of focus on a life hereafter" for in Rise of Christianity he shows how that core belief sustained the early followers of Jesus, but it was enacted in the here and now of caring for one another. So how do you focus on forming relationships that will be like fictive families, places of healing and mission?
Those that grow have a focused theological exclusiveness. Monotheism grows; polytheism won't. The more pluralism there is within a plant the more difficulty there will be in obtaining the committment needed. There seems to be a reverse dynamic at work. Stark shows how a church needs a high-tension with the surrounding culture in order to grow, but not too high tension that makes it too hard and turns people away (why else would people come and expend their personal capital if they could easily get same thing elsewhere?); but if there is internal high-tension it leads to watering down the focus and mission in order to accomodate everyone. Also, high demands on membership, coupled with great rewards, will equal growth. Question: how are people being rewarded, what are they being offered, for their transaction of capital and committment? If they are able to connect with an active God who will be on their side in times of need they are more likely to commit to the church of that God than with a God who is not active in lives and the world (remember what I said about the process theologians and church?). I think you can turn this into a positive but you have to acknowledge it exists.

About high tension with surrounding culture; here is one place Stark missteps. He says that mainline theologies, ala new understandings of doctrines, show a low tension with surrounding culture, and those that keep to the old doctrinal ways in the midst of the changing culture result in having high-tension churches. But at least in the minds of many, even in highly unchurched areas, and certainly in places where evangelical churches have been rising in stature in the past decades, the culture equates Christianity with the old doctrine and dogma; that's why the post-evangelicals and emergents are finding success as they respond in a different way, especially among the young. So to be high-tension with one's surrounding community may in fact be to hold to the new understandings of theological questions, and it is this progressive tension with a conservative culture that can create high committment. Now, is there something inherent in progressive theology that prevents it from engendering committment--that is, in short, if you do away with hell is there any reason for people to expend their religious capital? especially if you also do away with heaven?--that is a better question. In the short run, I think the answer is unfortunately yes. Can we get people to re-see hell in a new light, very much true in a here-and-now way, as a motivator? The rise of twelve step groups point to the possibility, but then we would have to see our mission in something of a similar healing fashion that would break through the walls of our healthy-mindedness.
The biggie: churches grow by forming and using social networks, extended fields of family and friends. Know these, track these, connect with these.
Show discontinuity and continuity with their religious background and surrounding churches. How does the church plant offer something different but not too different?
You can grow organically, exponentially. 3.4 percent annual took the early Christians from marginal to dominant status over 300 years. Help people have a 300 year focus; our three and five year strategic plans just build in anxiety and short-sightedness and do more harm than good.
Emotionalism over rationalism.
Importance of focusing on urban areas, places of great stress and great change.
Are there receptive groups waiting for your plant and what you have to offer? What has gone before? In Cities of God, he talks about how both Judaism's strands and various Pagan strands left a receptive culture for the message of the early church.
Diversified leaders are crucial. Latest work shows how Paul by himself wasn't that influential; he reveals a lens on the work of so many others. Also being multicultural, including women as leaders. Broader look: who has been cast out by your culture and area, and how can your plant community offer them ministry and leadership opportunities? as Paul and early leaders did with women and others.
11. Stark talks about how rise of Christian communities came about through connecting with people who weren't the poorest, but who had standing and some wealth, and who could put their resources to use and connect with the ones without power in the society. See Neil Cole for how church plants thrive most in poorest, hardest areas where it is very visible who is desperate for life change--find ways to connect those with health and wealth with those who don't. Plants that focus on one or the other may limit themselves.
People who have lots of religous capital are less likely to be drawn to a new plant or movement than those with little religious capital. So focus on those de-churched, unchurched. Even moreso than I am thinking of the boomer seeker who may actually have his or her religous capital bound up in their very seeking self.
Stark talks about the importance of the "port cities" and the highly Hellenized cities as places where growth happened the most. What is our corrolary today? Where are the portals? The web? the fall through the crack places of a city? The coffeehouses? The apartment complexes? You can't go everywhere; you have to pick where you focus planting efforts. Where are the places of spiritual weakness that will offer an opening to your spiritual strength?
Focus on the family. Recent studies have show that birth rate factors are key in which religious communities grow and have more market share and which ones don't; mainlines don't have big families; others do. There is even focus on having bigger families in more conservative evangelical families and in the newer movements within those worlds--home school, home church, home business, etc. Maybe progressive families won't be able to look at having bigger families, through biological means, concerned about population growth and quality of life issues, but the issues of sacrifice are key here. What are we willing to commit to in terms beyond our own individualism? Adoption? Building bigger fictive families and more intentional connections with others? Even more home-religious schooling or families connecting beyond sending kids to one hour a week at "church"? Even focusing on the health of families. making this key to the being of the church. And with recent studies out from the Hartford Institute, you might narrow it down by putting a more concentrated effort into focusing on men and their spiritual needs and connecting with them. They say the more men are involved in a church, the more it grows. I think that is because men then provide a full family link, which brings more health into the system, than with the church being home to a split family, with only part of the family being involved. Committment would then go up, and so would growth, as well as a pool of resource and additional field of family and friends.

I would urge all folks interested in growth to be familiar with Stark's works. Unpleasant truths sometimes. And I think Martin Marty is right (Stark quotes him in his latest book Cities of God as opposing him on these grounds) that Stark's work is more geared to usefulness than to truth, but then he is a sociologist and not a theologian or biblical scholar or historian for that matter, though his work helps shed light in all these areas. I don't have to agree with the kind of image of God he shows leads to church growth to understand that what he has shown is valid; it just shows the work ahead to be done.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Update on The Living Room Church "Re-Incarnation"

A momentary break to bring you some news about our recent moving away from the "attractional" church plant model to a "missional/incarnational" model.

Faith Wherever Life Happens

The Introduction:

Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19

“The missional church is incarnational, not attractional…By incarnational we mean it does not create sanctified spaces into which unbelievers must come to encounter the gospel. Rather, the missional church disassembles itself and steps into the cracks and crevices of a society in order to be Christ to those who don’t yet know him.”
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, “The Shape of Things To Come: Innovation and Mission For the 21st Century Church”

“Here is the simple and abbreviated historical shorthand for all that follows, for why we are doing what we are doing now through what we call The Living Room Church. Before the year 325 c.e., the free movement or “church” of Jesus-followers grew and thrived by organically living in and among and between and at times against the intersecting and overlapping “worlds” of ancient Greek values, Roman Empire values, and the traditions of “Israel.” This was in keeping with Jesus’ “contagious healing spirit” of breaking boundaries set up by the world to keep people apart from one another and God.

“Then in 325 with the Empire and Church intertwining, the official connection began between “Church” and “World” which grew over the centuries until the “world’ became a subset or sphere of the “Church.” This started the “churched culture” which has lasted until recently. With the Printing Press Revolution and Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and the Age of Enlightenment and Modernity, the separation process began and continued to grow between the spheres of churches, one from another, between them and the World, and also between individuals and all their groups.

“By the time of the mid-to-late 20th century, the sphere of the separate church had receded, but churches continue to operate as they had when they were the dominant sphere, as a primary place for “believers” to congregate and only then, after that fact, to “go out to change the world.” People were seen as lost individuals caught between the two spheres, to be “battled over” and ‘won over’ with the right message or fear tactics.

“But in the 21st century, with the continuing ebb of church influence in society, especially in an era of mega-churches, it has become clear to many that the “church-as-usual” mission, where the world is still seen as “other” and the goal of changing it is to build up the church organization as big as possible, no longer is an effective carrier of the original organic contagious spirit of Jesus. So now the ancient-future model, a 180 degree different, inverted model of the Empire-Church, is to once again plant the seeds of the “church” within the pluralistic world itself, to grow the soul of the world, and in doing so the church itself is born anew.”Rev. Ron Robinson, The Living Room Church

The Vision
As one of the final steps in the creation of our new missional church-planting church (the final step is to replicate ourselves), we are moving into a new space that will be dedicated primarily for the wider community’s use. This will enable us to incarnate ourselves in service and partnership to others first, to be guests within our own hosting space, and only then to find our sacred worshipping space within space given to others.

We are with your help creating a place and meeting the needs of an underserved area of the northern Tulsa region. We will create:

A public library of books, tapes, and movies
An internet café providing computers and wireless connections to those many in our area who are without their own as well as the transportation means to get to existing access; a TV and game tables for socializing
A sustainability center of a free giveaway swap center for reusing items, clothes, tools, etc.
A community recycling center
A community agency and community organizations clearinghouse of information and resources
An art gallery
A free musical venue for concerts
A place for community support groups to meet, for public presentations and speakers in an area accessible and in the vicinity of those in need. A way for agencies to come to the people they serve.
A children’s reading and playing corner
An outdoor garden meditation and reading and eating space
A place for classes such as yoga; exercize area
A restored place of beauty and new life in a decaying area
A place for dreams not yet dreamed

The Details of the Vision: We are moving into 4,000 square feet at 6514 N. Peoria as the largest central use in the Highlander Center. Our neighbors will be the U.S. Post Office and a Laundramat. We will be across from a bank. We will be close to the Osage bike and walking Trail. We are within walking distance of north Tulsa and Turley and are on a main highway connecting Tulsa with Sperry and Skiatook. We will continue to house and rent to the national offices of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. We will continue to gather for spiritual meetings on Sunday and Wednesday evenings and at other times as often as possible using the new multi-purpose space. The Living Room Church information tables will be one of the community groups with tables in the new space.

The Opportunity and Wish List

We hope you and those you serve and those you know will find this an important and needed mission in our world, and for the church itself, and an opportunity for people to make a big difference in lives. Please pass on to others.

We are seeking:
Apostles who will spread the word of what we are doing
Direct Financial Donations from individuals and churches and groups
A one-time plate collection for us during your worship offering, or other type of donation
Donations of:
Computers, wireless remotes, equipment, expertise
Tables—long or round
Living Room furniture
Office furniture
Coffeemakers, expresso makers
Books and periodicals and movies and music for all ages for the library
Connect us with Musicians for concerts, artists, craftspeople
Portable Electric Sign and/or help with New Signage on the building for this community center
Volunteer Workers to have a party and help us with set up of the new space
Regular volunteers who would like to serve a few hours a week or month to be hosts.
Items of All Kinds for our Giveaway Center, including business and professional clothes for a kind of “Dress For Success” style center.
Dreamers with New and More Ideas

Make checks payable to The Living Room Church, 6514 N. Peoria Ave, Turley, OK 74126. For more information, contact Rev. Ron Robinson, 918-691-3223.

Places to Start in 2007

Before I begin to post on church and...the recent work of John Dominic Crossan...and the New Paul Perspective...and the insights from Rodney Stark's recent work, I thought I would point to some of the pivotal posts on the blog from the previous months. A good place to start as we begin to look at what is coming in 2007.

If I could point you to the most important blog posts here it would be these. If you want to read them in chronological order go to bottom and work your way up: