Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Basics

I will be speaking about organic, incarnational, missional faith communities in a few places and mediums coming up soon so I have been revisiting the basics, at least through the prism of The Living Room Church/A Third Place Center/Turley, OK. Click down below on read more to see how I offer a kind of FAQs.

How different are you from other churches?

Quick think of a mental image that comes to mind when you hear the word church. If, like me, you were raised in a churched culture in the 50s, 60s, what I see in my mind's eye is 1.) a building with a steeple, bricks, stained glass, a sign on the building etched or out front that tells the name of the church and prominent in the name is the denominational affiliation; 2.) a worship service, with printed orders of service, a performance by leaders and musicians, a 20 minute or longer sermon by one person in a robe who is paid and part of a staff, always at the same time of the week, usually for just one hour; 3.) people going to meetings to plan how to keep the "church" going; 4.) various classes and programs inside the church building designed for members and for people to become members; 5.) lots of people, in fact there is a weekly toting up on a board in the sanctuary or in the church newsletter of how many people are members, attending, baptized, etc. Statistics become sacred, especially bigger and bigger ones.; 6.) the church is placed in and kind of defines the area it is in as a "good, respectable, decent, perhaps most lately also a growing, neighborhood, where people feel safe to come and connect with others like them."

There will for foreseeable future still need to be churches like this, and they can do a lot of good for people's lives and the communities. But they are designed for people looking for a church; people looking for spiritual experience might try them out, and might be successful in "fitting in" and growing spiritually, but they also might be a part of an inevitable revolving door. These churches are clearly in the "attractional" model where their efforts are aimed at trying to attract people to themselves as an institution or tradition unto themselves. They are emblems of a churched culture that goes back to Constantine and the wedding of the Empire/World and the Church and fine-honed in Protestantism Modernism "geared" to knowledge, identity, order.

But in an unchurched and dechurched culture, people aren't looking for a church, but often running away from them for their own emotional and faith's sake; in a postmodern, quantum age, people aren't looking for knowledge and brandname loyalty and order, but for the almost chaotic hyper experience of breaking down boundaries of definition and feeling connected to mission and a movement. So churches designed with a DNA for a different time will feel increasingly under stress and anxiety, and so will the people who go to them but yearn for something more, and as time goes by more and more people coming up with their own different DNA for things spiritual will find other connections.

Since we are moving into a kind of "photographic negative reverse image" culture from where we were, at TLR/ATP we try to have a church culture that is also a reverse image of church.

1.) no separate building of our own, in fact we rent between the post office and a now defunct laundramat, and though we meet there we could just as easily not; we could and have and might meet outdoors, in restaurants, other churches, homes; we mostly meet in the rented building in order to help keep it open for the community more. We present our space as public space, not our own space, and put it in mission to our community, meeting its needs, as a library, free internet center, meeting space, relaxing, coffeehouse space, donation giveaway space, place for people to come and serve one another and their community regardless of their religious affiliation.

2.) no or little name and denominational promotion. No sign out front that says The Living Room Church, as before when we were Epiphany or even TLR we had big signs, no easy telling of when we meet as a specific church gathering (we have modified some to have a flier posted on the door just so people who do hear about us,usually from outside our area, as TLRC will know they are in the right place and when they can catch us, but this flier is part of the mix of community based fliers and notices posted, and occasionally we will put up on our portable sign out front some spiritual movie or discussion we are having, but again the same as other community program promotions). We have changed our name once and might do so again. We have been thinking, because of our area and its dominant auto repair and salvage businesses, that we might be something like TheSalvageChurch, or SalvagePeople. We may feel free to rename ourselves in how we call ourselves and present to public and still keep all the legal name stuff the same as it isn't as important as the story about ourselves.

3.) we feel we worship God whenever we gather two or more of us together, be it for a party we are throwing for the community, for working at the center, planting gardens, removing grafitti, holding meetings, etc. We need to do a better job of instituting this by praying together more before and after all these events to ground them in our spiritual expression, but we do talk about being the church at all these times. In weekly gatherings now moved to Wednesday evenings at ATP (and now Sunday is our time of worshipping with others in other places), our worship consists of common meal, conversation, sometimes around a set topic like a video or book, lighting candles to share prayers, communion, and closing with singing Shalom Havyreem. We do this at the same time the Center is open for business, with people coming in to be on the internet or use the library or donation room or volunteering all around us, sometimes joining with us in our gathering, sometimes not. Breaking down divides between sacred and secular.

4.) the mission to others is the most important way we see ourselves doing church; it is more important that we have the connections being made through the community center, and more important that we have partnerships that bring in the health clinic, and all the other services through us to our neighbors, more important than what we do on those Wednesday evenings or when we go out on Sunday mornings. Not that those in number three above aren't important. They are. They are our in-breathing, refreshing to be able to serve. But if you never exhale out into the world you die too. Too often in the old churched culture mission was seen as secondary to worship and membership; it was a way to draw people in to become one of you, to get them to be with you on Sunday; and so it becomes hard to sustain mission; this reverses it. You only "do worship" so you can better be in mission. Outside of yourself is where you meet God deepest, and so "traditional worship" is often a way of reinforcing the "our" of "ourselves." Again, important, but not ultimate. Purpose of the ekklesia is not to build itself up but to build up others, most unlike ourselves, with spirit and service and hope, faith, and love.

5.) Numbers. In one nod to our congregational roots, we find our "members" are those who are members of our "parish." Our neighborhood. How many of them we meet with in any week, on any given day, is the statistic we are interested in. Through the Center alone, still in its formative year, on a good day this number might be 100; more on average, around 25-50 a day, plus the people they connect with and spread our service too, take our donations to, tell about us, etc., which is many more. And this doesn't count what we might do when we are on mission outside the Center itself, such as in our neighborhood clean-ups, gardening, etc. In Proverbs, it says that a people without a vision will perish; my colleague and church planter Brent Smith in Grand Rapids says also that a people who don't "parish" will perish, and we take that to mean not just creating a church but embedding that church, like leaven, in the being of the parish. We are truly a community church to the extent that we are finalizing creating ATP as a community organization itself, carrying our DNA, still with our leaders leading it for foreseeable future, but where it can go and grow and be an even more seamless part of the fabric of the community. Other numbers related to this are money; already we get more funds from people in our community for what we do through the center than we get from those of us in the church fueling the center. This has gradually shifted over the past year and will continue to do so. The heart of our church is the community and we have put our funds not into staff or programs for ourselves as a church, but 100 percent into mission beyond ourselves; what has happened is that this has generated community people giving back to the center and thus helping us sustain ourselves, and will continue to grow as we move into the world of grants. The key factor is that we have done all that we have done in and for the community with between 5-8 core church leaders. We'd like that to about double, but that's all; more than that and we will begin another mission group elsewhere, or in the same area but with a different focus, which is the ultimate aim. Not to start a church, but to start a mission movement that reproduces itself.

6.) Visitors/members/bylaws. We love to connect with more and more people and let them know about TLR/ATP and hope they will become with us radical free followers of Jesus working as part of us. It has to be in the DNA we are creating. But we do it not through focusing on inviting them to our worship gatherings, our secondary events, but to our mission events, meeting them there, letting them see our sense of church that way, and those that get it and are drawn to our spiritual sustenance for what we do, who become friends in mission first, have the invite and openness to join us at our smaller church gatherings for meal, study, communion. Because we are not interested in growing members, but in growing leaders, disciples. We don't obsess over being 5-8 people and buying into the cultural scarcity default model; we strive to be the most vibrant dynamic faithfulness active missional 5-8 people and trust the Spirit will move, as it has so massively in how we are able to connect with so many in so many ways. Oh bylaws. We have them, somewhere; we follow them, sometimes. We may revisit them as needed, or let the community center bylaws handle that aspect, and we will move more away from organizational and more into organic church, more away from institution and more toward house/community church.

7.) Minister. I am the planting minister, unpaid, so far uncalled in the congregational way. We have a collaborative consensus building permission giving culture of our leaders. Any day now as we keep moving and growing in mission and if the numbers jump as they could of our leaders, the current leaders could take what I have started and make it even better, while I help another group plant and grow in mission. We are all volunteers as I say often. We have paid for religious education teaching at times in the past and might for child care, but we are all volunteers, all missionaries. We could call me and establish my relationship in a formal way this way, especially once we multiply in the future or I start another group in another area, or not. This is the area we will need to focus on in the near future as part of our DNA so no one single person becomes the focus. See Easum's article below about the path of the main visionary leader creating other visionary leaders who then create others through story and not the presence of the original visionary leader. My task is to do better at making it a "God" vision and not a "Ron' vision, and this will happen. Also, on a side note, but related, I might actually in the community, at the center and out and about around it, but not at our church gatherings, start wearing my clerical collar more than I do--this isn't to accentuate me as the minister, but it is a way to show this particular "depressed by so many standards" area, where no one wears a collar and most of the other churches are closed during the week and only open on Sundays and then for a short time, that someone on an ongoing basis is interested in their spiritual life and the life of the spirit of the community; this happens without the collar, of course, already, but in one of those ironic twists, it might happen more with it. We will see. Could be another of our grand experiments that work out differently than originally planned...Connected with the issue of minister is the issue of affiliations. As progressive Christians, we are open as we need to be to affiliating with other churches through different associations. Already we are a part of relationships with the UU churches in Tulsa, not yet really with the district or nationald association though that might come, or not; a part of relationships with other Christian churches already in the UUA; listed with both The Center for Progressive Christianity, and with The American Unitarian Conference and the Christian Universalist Association, and need to do more with the wider Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries association. So far our partnerships with agencies and with educational institutions, be they elementary school adopting or working with the university, is more crucial and important to our mission; I see us developing up both sacred and secular associations as further ways to break that divide and see God present everywhere.

8.) the place you live. We are purposefully in an area that has the lowest life expectancy in our greater region, with the most poverty, struggle, racial and ethnic diversity, where people are so caught up by the stereotypes and the statistics of our area, in which all of our core leaders including myself live, that it is hard for people to see the deeper truth of life in our area as a story and as spirit, of survival and strengths. The recent Turley Talks mission has helped to make this clearer (see posts below for ATP news and more). This is an abandoned place of the American Empire, as was Nazareth in the Roman Empire. It is not a place where the 50s and 60s style churches do well; in fact they are aging quickly, all those who were large and thriving when I was a youth here; and it is definitely not a place where any of the fast growing mega churches would want to be located (it is where they might send their huge bus fleet out to get people and whisk them away from their community into the fortress consumer mentality of a created artificial sacred community, and then dump them back into their neighborhood again, but that's a different post...). But people seeking to experience God, to follow Jesus, it's a no-brainer where we would be, and there are so many more places for us to be too.

9.) Final difference may be in the values of free Christianity. We don't fit easily into any theological holes. We are Christian, but pluralists, universalists, and free of even this creedal test; we say we don't test you, but you can test us. We don't fit UU model many hold; nor do we fit Christian model many hold; on top of not fitting church model many hold. We don't see ourselves as doing something new, as much as rediscovering the ancient early church way and meshing it with our emerging cultures. We have Jesus in our center, but we are open at the edges, and life at both the center and the edges is all the richer for it.

Why do we do it this way? Church is too important as a counter cultural way of living to be written off by so many, to being pigeon-holed into extinction, too important not to risk new manifestations. And not only the unchurched and dechurched, but those struggling to maintain their faith and not be burned out from within existing churches need more and more alternative communities of faith. I again like the Disciples of Christ theme of 1,000 new churches in 1,000 new ways. Again, faithful churches come in many ways. In ways, our small micro-church movement has the same DNA as some very large ones that are engaged in massive planting efforts, or the same as the organic house and "homeless" church movements that you can never find out much about and their reality is always shifting as soon as you think you have them in your sights. Why do we do it? Because it is the way we find ourselves in our time and in our place and with our finite and blessed resources and lives seeking to be, failing and seeking again to be, better followers of Jesus. That's the basics.