Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Inside-Out Upside-Down Large-Small Church-World

Here is an unedited essay on what we do here and why, and how, in a full version. A shorter edited version in two parts will be published soon elsewhere and I will have those details for you then. It was fun to take a step back and do this, especially geared for those in "small" churches. It is kind of like a summary overview or first chapter. Hmmm. Click below to read it.

The Inside-Out, Upside-Down, Large-Small, Church-World

Here are the facts: The Living Room Church is an emerging Unitarian Universalist church. We have no paid staff. We have six leaders who all work full time, or near it, at other jobs. We have about ten to twelve at our most, usually, when we meet weekly for our spiritual gatherings. We have now two children who have a weekly classtime. We all live in the poorest zip code, Turley and area, in the Tulsa, OK metropolitan area, where our life expectancy is fourteen years lower than that of the wealthiest zipcode where a high percentage of UUs live. Within a two mile radius of our rented space, our primary service area, the population is 66 percent African-American and the largest growing population is Hispanic. We have no pizza delivery for thousands around us; no movie houses for miles and miles, or any entertainment venues though we are only six miles from downtown Tulsa. Most of our schools have for years been suffering and are on the list of most in need of improvement. We have no hymnals and occasionally no printed orders of service and we have no name tags, and don’t want any. And here is maybe the most important fact of all: If you drive down the major street that runs by our rented space, sandwiched between the local post office which is struggling to stay open and a closed laundramat, you will purposefully not see the name of The Living Room Church out front, or the hour of worship. Many many people in our community still have no idea the Living Room Church exists.


So why should you bother to read about us? Why was I asked to write about us?

Here are more facts: We have two hundred or more different people a month coming into our space, on an average basis not counting when we held the community Halloween party and had 125 new people that night alone. In the past year since we have been in our new 4,000 square foot space, we have started a community library, a free internet center with six computers and wifi access for those around us who have none at home, especially the youth who come be with us, a free giveaway room of clothes and goods and whatever people wish to donate, a place to watch cable television and to read, a health clinic that meets twice or more a week, a community resource center with a graduate social work student twice a week, and we offer free sandwich meals anytime someone wants one and we are open, which is usually seven days a week at least half a day and often a full day and late into the night. We host a 12-step program. We have started an animal welfare group and helped create another one that in the past two months has helped spay and neuter more than two hundred dogs and taken them to no-kill shelters out-of-state. We have started flower beds to beautify our area at the Turley welcome signs and at the local elementary school and at local businesses and the recreation center, and we have supported and continue to grow interest in community gardens and local food projects. We have gone out on graffiti-removal missions several times and most recently worked to make safe two abandoned houses and properties right across from the school playground. We have started weekly nutrition classes. We have held an appreciation reception for local businesses. We coordinate community anti-litter drives two or three times a year. We offer our area a free music coffeehouse experience monthly. We have been the hub for the first ever community planning and envisioning talks from the grassroots up here in our unincorporated fall through the cracks of the sidewalk area, and we have been the hub for local petition drives, voter registration especially for ex-felons, and more. Nearly everyday we have people coming in and talking about a project to start. If it fits our vision for the world, we try to help turn them loose through us, whether or not they ever give us a cent; it is part of the permission-giving culture of an “open church.” And each Wednesday evening we meet for our common meal, open to any who wish to join with us since our community center stays open during our time of worship in the center of the Center, and then have a time of spiritual conversation, followed by a brief time of small group worship of lighting candles for joys and concerns, offering individual prayers, saying the Lord’s Prayer, having a free and open communion for any who drop by, and holding hands (leaving one space open for the stranger we will meet) and singing Shalom Havyreem and Go Now In Peace.

I want to talk about connecting those two sets of facts. I want to talk about how we moved from being a “small” church with a vision of being “bigger” to a church that was intentionally fewer in number so we could do more, becoming an “enough” church. We always have “enough” in numbers and in spirit to become the church in the world and to be a living message, in a community full of scarcity thinking, that abundance is all around us, and out of a generosity of vision comes “enough” to always meet the hurts of the world and of our own lives and community. I want to talk about how we moved from being an “attractional” church to an “incarnational” church.

In Alan Hirsch's terms, An "attractional" church is one with a "come to us" mentality; it primarily puts out a message and hopes to "extract" people from the world to be a part of the church which is seen as a distinctly different organization and identity. It focuses its resources on trying to offer its own appealling and attractive building, programs, worship, and opportunities to go help others. It seeks to grow by addition, bringing in one person or one family at a time into itself. It is rooted in the centuries of Churched Culture when people more normatively sought out churches to join or found their way to the church of their inheritance, when the "mission field" for new members was mostly in other cultures and not in the neighborhoods around a church community, when churches could put up their sign and advertise their services and people would be attracted to them. The church might then have programs and services offered back to their community and to the world, but there is always a kind of division between the church and the world, between members and visitors and others. Church shopping is the norm as people look for different churches the way they might try to choose between a Lowe's or Home Depot, and with the end of brand loyalty they might just as easily move between churches the way they do between big box shopping centers.

An "incarnational" church is one with a "go to them" mentality; it primarily looks for ways to break down barriers between what is considered sacred space and secular space, blurring the lines between church and society; it looks for ways to live amongst others in the world as the church; it looks to reproduce itself and multiply itself rather than adding people to itself and gradually growing bigger and bigger in one space and organization. In some ways it hopes of course to "attract" others, but to do so by dispersing itself in small groups throughout an environment and living in such a way as others are drawn to be a part of the relationship. It roots itself more in a spiritual communal and tribal identity and experience than in individual consumer identity and experience; it is a church metaphor as more community gardening, as a mission trip, as a camp experience, than as big box store.

In the twenty-first century, there will still be churches which are healthy, i.e. mission-focused not maintenance-focused, organic not organizational, and which find ways to work in incarnational approaches, but are overall still using the attractional-extractional model. (It is just that in today's competitive and marketplace world, it requires more and more resources of money and people power to keep up with the accelerating requirements of the attractional model and so it will be experienced in ever larger churches rather than by small or mid size churches, which will burn themselves out by trying to play by the "big church' rules). Just as there will be, according to Bill Easum and Tom Bandy (in Leonard Sweet's "The Church of the Perfect Storm" page 92) thriving churches of many different forms, particularly very large mega churches and very small micro churches, house churches networking together and marketplace churches that have very little institutional form, and some remaining traditional mainline churches who have found ways to be "islands of strength." Churches that are considered small need to play to their new cultural strengths, but that might mean making radical changes.

Theologically, incarnational church is much akin to the liberationist base community, or communitas, models of being the church (communitas is simply community that turns not inwardly but outwardly for its life), finding solidarity with and among the poor; church as houses of hospitality akin to Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement. The scriptural basis often used by incarnational church leaders is from Paul's letter to the Phillipians, chapter 2, where he includes a hymn considered to be probably one of the oldest parts of the Christian scripture, coming from the earliest gatherings of Jesus followers. In the hymn God is seen to have refused to have taken a hierarchical "top-down" power-over separate from the world role in relationship to the world and humans, and instead through the faithful life and mission and ministry of Jesus Christ to have become a humble servant to others, becoming incarnated, or a part of the flesh and body of the world, to the extent of having been brutally killed by oppressive forces of Empire for challenging the values of the Empire, and who was then was raised in faithfulness to eternity with God. This theology is also described as "kenotic Christianity", kenosis is the Greek word for "emptying out", and it is a kind of theology and way of being church that seems needed in our world today, and in our particular Unitarian Universalist and even UU Christian world.

If I talk about numbers I want to talk about how we don’t think in terms of three and five year plans, but live month to month with a three hundred year vision, a seventh generation vision, that we are sowing seeds so that when the time comes we might be the most numerous church in Tulsa though we still might not have more than twelve people gathering in any one place together at one time and without a building with our name on it. I want to talk about how we moved from being an “organizational” church where the church is seen as a religious non-profit and its holy writ is bylaws, holy space is its own named building and its holy mission is its own budget and endowment, to being an “organic church” that is able to transform lives and the world by transforming itself. When we were in our other space even here in Turley, we seldom had people of color come inside to our events or programs; we were another small “white church” just like all the other small “white churches” except we were new and all of them had been here for decades; the other new churches around us in our area are all African-American. Now in our new space, in our new way of being church, we have pretty much a fifty-fifty racial balance of people coming inside and even joining with us at times in mission, partnering as volunteers, and sometimes joining us for our spiritual gatherings; we have much still to do to create the space to be “a third place” for all but we have seen a major difference by simply turning ourselves inside out and becoming missional. The same is true for issues of class and economic factors and political leanings. When we were in our “small church space” with our language of free and universalist faith outside our buildings, and even messages of our UU principles and the principles of The Center for Progressive Christianity on our doors, we weren’t nearly as effective at building relationships with the neighbors around us, partnering with them, and in some cases having them become leaders of our church, as we have since we have gradually put away our messages (in an area of high illiteracy and with only 7 percent who have had any higher education) and again simply lived and worked and dealt with issues affecting all.
Any and every small struggling church in our movement has the capacity to change to do this. But only if they stop struggling. Only if they move from anxiety to abundance in how they see themselves and those they are trying to serve. One year ago in Turley, in the historically neglected north side of Tulsa, people would say: “They need to do this for us; why won’t they do that for us?” Now, at our recent community volunteer appreciation dinner sponsored by our church and our partners, that was never heard, and people instead were constantly saying “we could do this, or that, or why don’t we try this or that?” A guide we created during our community grassroots meetings, with the help of the University of Oklahoma Social Work Department, was to create a culture where people looked not at ourselves as other people in other areas looked at us—through the lens of stereotypes and statistics and scarcity—but through the lens of stories, and strengths, and spirit. This is a guide that all ‘small” churches can use because like us, such churches also can find themselves being self-defined by stereotypes, statistics, and scarcity. It is a default-mode changing way of communicating for many of us, but it can be learned, and it has an amazing ability to transform conversation and the culture at large.

Church consultants Bill Easum and Tom Bandy stake it pretty clearly when they write, in the foreword to Robin Trebilcock’s “Small Church At-Large” (Abingdon, 2003): “The competition that challenges the future of the small church is not the influence of other major religions; nor is it the influence of deified cultural forms of sports, success, profit, or politics. The real competition comes from within the small church itself. It is the smallness of its vision, the smallness of its inclusivity, and the smallness of its heart.” Or as Trebilcock puts it, from his experience transforming small congregations, “The small church at large is free from fear of the future and released from any sense of inadequacy.”

When that book was published, I hadn’t quite got it as a church leader and church planter. My learning curve was fast and steep from the time of our first gathering in 2003. At first we tried to be a smallish (125 or so member) niche church in a very conservative fast growing suburb of Tulsa, hoping that renting a space, putting up our church sign and information about us on the outside, and advertising our message of a progressive free church and holding programs a couple of times a week in our space would draw in the numbers of people to help us keep steadily growing toward that “magical” number 125 that seemed to be what it would take to have a full-time pastor. It had worked for me before, back in the early 1990s when I started the UU Congregation of Tahlequah OK which has been a model of a small church, with the help of extension monies and building monies, and in an area with demographics that were not promising for a UU church. But that was in the early 1990s and the culture has undergone an earthquake cultural shift since then with changing generations, more competition, and the move from a modernist individualist Enlightenment focus on messages to a postmodern experiential more tribal focus on community and relationships and mission. In an era that has gone from being Churched to not only Unchurched but De-churched, we fail often when we seek to embody church as it looked and felt like in the time of the childhood of most of us.

Between 2003 and 2007 we failed to sustain our seed growth in that first soil (for lots of reasons that you can read on my blog history of our time at Planting God Communities, or www.progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com search for church plant killers). We moved from suburban to an urban-rural-small town mix, or “edge” area, one of the spots described as “an abandoned place of Empire” (to use language by the new monasticism; see Shane Claiborne’s work such as The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical). In other words, we moved to a place where coolness, money, and the usual investments of Empire, would not and do not go. It happened also to be home to my wife and I who met here when we were five years old in the kindegarden room of the local urban school where we now help.

We began as a Sunday morning meeting, order of service sermon and music driven, class and program oriented church. In other words our motto was the old one of “acting bigger so you can grow bigger.” Which is a surer path to burnout and to a treadmill of anxiety. We were trying to attract people to come in and become like us so we could go back out and do more in the community. I guess you can think of it as the standard operating manual for church in North America, especially among the descendents of Western Protestantism. You can go anywhere on Sunday morning and in different guises experience the same thing. And it is working for many people. But there are vastly more people whom will never walk inside the doors of anything called church, or fellowship, or congregation, or society, or anything else that has the look and feel of every other church be it a small storefront like many here, or the big mega-churches in the suburbs or downtown. And there are many people who go to those churches and always will but are hungry to be in mission, in community, in deepening relationships and they don’t care what the brand name of the religious identity is of the person or people they join up with when they aren’t worshipping with their own kind on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening.
You know the scene. On Sunday morning buildings all over our community would come to life for anywhere from an hour to maybe three or four and with some communities maybe all day. But everything in and with those churches happens inside those buildings, and most of them here have boarded up windows because the old stained glass has been broken over the years and not replaced and so you can’t even see what goes on inside them if you wanted to. Then the other six days of the week the buildings and the rented spaces remain empty or virtually so. They have little connect with the community immediately around them; they offer no corridors or open community spaces. They perpetuate an “us” and “them” world. For all our efforts to be missional, to start community groups that met in our small rented church space, and for all our efforts to hold events and projects outside, we weren’t much different from them. Oh, The Living Room Church, another “small church.”

(We also during that time changed our name from the sacred-sounding Epiphany Church, but which few if any in our immediate area could define; we changed it to The Living Room when we were still in our small rented space, 1800 square feet, to reflect our change from Sunday morning formal to Sunday afternoon worship and gradually more informal, more conversation than sermon oriented; and now in our new incarnation, we have moved some away from that name too as it seems too safe for the edgy spiritual adventure we are on and in the place we are; we have talked about becoming The Salvage Church because we have salvage yards nearby and we are all about salvaging lives and our community; or something even more striking and reflective of our DNA. We admire the name of a church community in downtown Denver called Scum of the Earth, also the name of their goth band, taking the name from a passage in one of Paul’s letters to Corinthians where he said they were seen as the scum of the earth in the world and Empire’s eyes, but were glory in God’s eyes; or maybe like the Waco, Texas outdoors church with the homeless called The Church Under The Bridge. The point is that we might change the name often, as we might change where and how we gather, in response to our changing environment and not to the authority of “we can’t change that.” Everything is up for changing except the DNA that we become the church when we become a people of God who make Jesus visible in the world, and we are free to make that happen in diverse ways, times, places, and with diverse people without being stymied by organizational bylaws, structure, budget or people who seek to control turf and mission.)

So one of the storefront churches a couple of blocks from our building moved into another bigger building next to where they had been. It was between two busy, at the time, places—post office and laundramat, across from the local bank. It happened at the same time I was envisioning a new way of being church in the world. Away from attractional, churched model, to what is called an organic, incarnational, emerging church. I envisioned turning the empty bigger space into a space not for those of us in the church but for our community (in all the ways mentioned earlier) and then we would meet within it, as a guest in our own place given away to the community. It meant living out the truth that the church was not the worship service, not the building, not the identity, not the programs we put on for other people. And so we did. We made the move. And we are still moving, still incarnating, and even now imagining ways to take all that we do inside the community center itself and taking it even beyond these walls and into other public spaces. We have formed a local community foundation to run the A Third Place Community Center and its activities (with church members as the starting members of the Board but with others as well) and this will allow it to continue to take on a life of its own while the church is free to become more underground, to seed more, to become more the “leaven” in the world. (A pivotal scriptural passage for us is Jesus’ parable of the leaven; see biblical scholar Bernard Brandon Scott’s “Reimagining the World: an introduction to the parables of Jesus). The leaven is identified with everything that the world says has no value or a negative value, but which God favors. He says it shows God changing sides from the recognized powerful to the most vulnerable. It shows religion being turned inside out and upside down. That is the kind of church we seek to be.

After five years, and new folks and in a new place and with a new identity and focused mission, and all that, we might become still a wholly different church. We talk about being a kind of urban monastery; we might meet more in homes and in abandoned lots and in old burned out shells that were often used or could be used as meth labs (we recently did a survey and found that there are some 70 such places just within a mile radius of our community center, not to mention the two mile primary service radius). We are looking at moving the Center into an old church building (the church building where I grew up) which is more than ten thousand square feet and abandoned and decaying, or into another bigger space. We might find ways to be more communal, more sustainable, helping us to live more freely. We are becoming less organized as a church so we can become more organic and missional and, to use another catchword, viral. We hope to connect with and spur on the start of other A Third Places all over our Tulsa area, Oklahoma, the U.S. and the world wherever the Empire has abandoned people. We seek to learn from the communities such as ours especially in the places of more poverty and crime and suffering than ours.

Much of this new but ancient way of being church comes, as mine have come, in the form of new plants; there is a reason why growing denominatons invest higher and higher percentages of their resources into new and diverse church plants (especially those which have in their DNA that they will be church-planting churches instead of just a new church, so that their new church is not considered a success unless it plants another with the same DNA). But what of the existing “small” church that has been around for fifty or more years, either maintaining a status quo of place, style, numbers throughout most of those years or which once was a “larger” church now decreased in numbers attending worship? How can these congregations, perhaps your congregation, become incarnational missions where their current resources are yielding so much more transformational results, to the point where if they closed their doors their immediate community would not only notice but be drastically affected, the same as if a school, store, or other secular institution closed?

First a look at a few other facts, financial resources, about our church in Turley. Those six leaders contribute average monthly pledges that don’t quite pay for even the monthly rent of our space, let alone utilities and supplies and to fund our many projects outlined earlier such as the internet center and cable TV for the community. We get no rent from the University of Oklahoma for the clinic space we offer to them for the people in our community especially those without health insurance, and we even donated medical exam equipment to them to set up the clinic in our space when their mobile unit became unusable. In the past year we have lost two of our largest monthly donors as one shifted to another church and another left to focus on family and school. We have two other monthly community-related donors who are committed to our mission and Turley community but who go to another church in our community or have family here, and we rent office space to the UU Christian Fellowship national offices, and this all helps us meet the rent but not extra. We also have received a grant that amounts to about a month’s expenses from the Massachusetts Evangelical and Missionary Society connected to our support of the Council of Christian Churches within the UUA. But, here’s the most radical and important point, most of our funding comes from the people we partner with and serve who are not, or not yet or never will be, part of our church. Just recently a community leader who attends the Seventh Day Adventist church began giving us a monthly donation; and when people use our services and when they become volunteers they often help us with donations when they can. Like the people we live amidst, we live from paycheck to paycheck, month to month, and do so intentionally because we want to end each month at zero, knowing we have spent all on mission. We are not afraid of the future and uncertainty and of failure. When we ask, we receive, because we have created relationships.

The lesson here is that if existing churches of whatever size and resources can see themselves differently, everything changes. We in Turley Oklahoma hearken back to an old Unitarian congregational model where the “church” is at the faithful center of the “parish” and sees itself as serving the parish, and the parish in turn supports it. Just that back then the parish support was with taxes and for only the one church in the Town Center. Here the unofficial parish supports us voluntarily because of what we do. As we move further into creating a spin-off non-profit community foundation to run the Center, we will have memberships and grants coming in that may hopefully pay for all this and more growth in service. This will free up the monthly pledges of the few church leaders to go toward other “plants” or ways to make the radically inclusive and healing spirit of Jesus visible in their lives and in the community.

What do we expect from those who join with us as leaders and engage with us in our weekly leadership worship still open to all? Speaking of financial resources, we hold out the healthy vision of ultimately reaching the point where we give 80 percent of our own money away to the church, Center, causes local and global and however we can find ways to change a life, and give 10 percent to our savings, and live on a remaining 10 percent. It is a vision we may not all achieve or even come close to, but it is a part of the way we live incarnationally with our values and embody a God that turns the world upside down. Trying to get people to achieve ‘the impossible dream” at their best of the “liberal tithe” to the church and their causes and then spend the other 90 percent of their resources on themselves and their own kind seems at odds with the spirit of the one who said to “render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s and to God what is God’s” with the meaning that nothing ultimately was Caeser’s and everything was God’s. This goal also becomes more doable when people make the leap to live in the “abandoned places of Empire.” And also when relationships are created and communities within the community are formed for sustainable living, tool-sharing, food gardens, free clothes, sharing services, etc. At our Church/Center we say we are a “giveaway/giveback” place. People often come to get something and find here ways to give back.

We also in our church seek to develop the spiritual life that sets us apart from any other service-oriented non-profit group of people. Following a model I fell in love with at a spiritual retreat led by the Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of King’s Chapel in Boston, we hold out a covenant that we will 1.) pray and/or meditate daily; 2.) worship weekly; 3.) have monthly spiritual check-in; 4.) go on spiritual retreat annually; 5.) aim toward a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual pilgrimage; and 6.) constantly be open to opportunities to do random acts of kindness and beauty. Notice there is nothing about serving on a committee.

It is true that we have been able to do much of this, both in our parish and in our church sphere, because I am a minister; but I also believe that is one of our own personal drawbacks too; many emergent churches are finding that pastors can create, whether intentionally or not, an atmosphere that you have to be ordained and seminary-trained to lead church. This might be true of the way most church is done. When you move, though, as we have in the past few years, away from a sermon-centered small group worship approach to a liturgy-based small group worship approach with conversation, then it is easier to exist and thrive as a small group and not always be trying to just survive and get and “keep” a minister. This is a growing edge for us, and we still have much to experiment with and learn, but as we seek to multiply and reproduce ourselves, especially having spiritual gatherings at different times and places to reach out to others, we will need to grow the priesthood of all believers along with the prophethood of all believers, to use a phrase from our radical reformation UU church tradition.

Speaking of worship, we have tried and will try again offering spiritual gatherings and different kinds of worship as a kind of new service for the community even if no church leaders or regular participants, as we have on Wednesday evening or when we travel to other churches together on Sunday morning, are present. We might offer soon again mid-week morning prayer and meditation. I dream of being able to have the Center open and develop new spiritual leaders that might meet weekly at midnight, as we do on Christmas Eve, especially for the many night-owls and those who work a shift that gets out at 3 a.m. We look for spiritual gatherings of ‘two or three together” as being enough. This opens up new gates for us with others. This also means none of it can happen if people and myself become “clergy-focused” instead of “mission-focused.”
And what of visitors? Doesn’t this all seem exclusive to attracting visitors? Yes and no. Though our Wednesday gathering is open to all, and we hold it right now right in the middle of the community center while it is open, it isn’t geared to attracting visitors, but to feeding the Spirit of our leaders so we can better serve others. Our focus is in attracting visitors first to us in mission, working with us in one of our many community projects, getting to know our DNA of mission being ultimate and of worship helping us to sustain and shape our mission. This is why we did the topsy-turvy thing of creating a Center for others, in which we would be like a guest. In today’s culture churches are also finding that trying to use Sunday worship as a way to propel people into mission throughout the week is harder to do and see results from than focusing first on missional opportunities which then naturally prompts and leads to worship itself as a response of gratitude and sustenance for the mission. It keeps church from being a one or two hour a week, at best, part of people’s lives.

And what will happen if and when we grow in numbers of those leaders? We hope it happens. Right now we don’t focus on “members” but on growing three areas of relationships with people: 1. Participants in mission with us; 2. Partners who become leaders of different missions with us, at the Center or out in the community; 3. Leaders in the church. These first two groups will include people who never become a part of the third group, church leaders, and that is as it should be, and those groups will always be the larger in numbers. But those in the third group will, especially over time, come from the circles of the first two groups as people who need and desire a particular faith community like who we are and what we represent and gravitate to go deeper with us. And simultaneously we may also have people who do identify with us the “traditional” way of joining with us first in worship and study, but they will become members of the third group only over time and as they take on leadership of a certain mission. In our world today, and particularly but not exclusively among younger generations, people are not looking to be “members” of “institutions” but “missionaries” of “movements.” Churches will thrive to the degree they are able to make such moves.

Now, what do I think existing “small” congregations can do to live more fully in this way, the way of a new plant? Well, we went for three years without any bylaws or a budget (actually we have gone almost the whole time without a budget; just the knowledge that everything goes into mission and being broke helps that). So suspend your bylaws for a specified time, at least a year and preferably more because it takes sometimes three to five years to create culture change, get rid of all positions, so often the ‘protected turf’ of self-selected leaders who control the church, and see yourself as starting anew. Create “discontinuity with the past.” Your minister, area consultants, others can help you do this, and there are lots of ways to walk with one another through this. You can create a curriculum of change that includes study of culture, of what new church plants and social ministries and even entrepenurial businesses are doing, of turning communities inside out, and also of using the time to rediscover your roots of your faith tradition so you can branch off in new ways. Do a demographic/ethnographic study of your own church community and of the area within two miles of where you are located, and also become acquainted with the “abandoned places of Empire” and consider ways to relocate there, either wholly or in part with new partnerships and new missions (though nothing is the same as becoming a part of a place where you already have enough resources to make a huge impact). As part of that study, learn about the multiple generational cultures perhaps within your own group and especially of the area around you. Discern ways that your folks in their sixties and older can see themselves as helping create a “legacy” of change for the future beyond themselves instead of lamenting being a part of “loss” for church not being what it used to be for them.

You can also look at ways you can turn over your existing space to your community; perhaps following our approach of seeing what your community needs and using your bulding for those purposes, and then figuring out how you can do worship or education for your own “members.” Also consider how you can take events that have been primarily for just church members and to meet a church budget and make them outward-focused to help meet a community need and to bring in community folks as planners and leaders of the events. Speaking of budgets, do away with annual budgets and move toward monthly or quarterly at most budgeting, enabling you to live closer to the edge and to be more responsive to the chaotic forces of a changing culture. If you have inherited the curse of an endowment, look for ways to channel it into mission and not into maintenance; that might be hard to do, but inspiration will come and I would love to hear the stories of how it is working; perhaps as you expand your sense of yourself as church, how an endowment is used will change too. And consider ways to partner with others to enlarge your sense of your self and your mission; maybe it with some non-profits of varying kinds; maybe it is being a part of a new multi-site congregation where you become a particular missional wing of a larger church; mergers out of weakness often create more weakness, but if you approach it from sources of strength and spirit and innovation and radical discontinuity with the past, it can grow; so maybe another small church can be the worship center and your small church can be the mission center, or vice versa, two poles creating energy back and forth between them like a Jacob’s Ladder.

Maybe there’s no way you can imagine doing any of this and are feeling a bit despairing (after all, studies have shown that in nine out of ten cases people will choose to die rather than to change). So instead find hope as you just look for one way to begin some one new missional activity outside of your usual parameters of time and space and people; seed it, nurture it, protect it from those who wish to call it a weed and kill it, let it grow, and watch it self-sow some place else; in time it will change the Sower as well as the world. Stories of this abound.

Risk death. Risk failure. Risk people leaving. Risk healthy conflict. In fact, cultivate all of that.(Besides, they are going to happen regardless anyway). It is a good thing. Many church planters aren’t concerned if their group is around in ten or one hundred years or more; what keeps us up at night is whether we are sowing enough seeds of change now and trusting enough that our faithfulness to our mission is all we need worry about.

Which begs the question that you know and feel what your mission and purpose is, in your own life and in the life of your church—don’t do a long process to figure that out, and don’t waste your time coming up with a long paragraph to describe it, something that not long from now no one will be able to recite or remember. But, in sharing, listen to the stirrings of the prophets and the poets and theologians among you and learn from those outside your group, and you will find the words of a phrase no longer than a dozen words that will mark you and guide you and set you free to act. For us, again, it is being “a body of people making Jesus visible in the world.” For you it may be ”a body of people making Freedom/ Love/Justice visible in the world” or something else all together.

Several books, besides my own spiritual yearnings and experiences, have helped to shape my understanding of the “small’ church. One important one has been mentioned, Trebilcocks’ “The Small Church At Large.” The church that thinks of itself as being “at large” in the world will grow in all the ways that matter. Lyle Schaller’s “Small Congregation, Big Potential” is another. And almost all of the new books on the emergent and organic church movement have been vital—see my blog mentioned above for reviews and reflections on many many of these, most importantly “The Shaping of Things To Come” and “The Forgotten ways” and “Exiles” by authors Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost about moving from “attractional” to “incarnational” church, Neil Cole’s “Organic Church” and “Search and Rescue” about life transformation groups approach to church and multiplying church rather than trying to grow by addition. Many of these come from people with theologies way more reactionary and conservative than my own as a UU, but they have much to teach. From a more progressive approach, great experiences of transforming churches and what it means to be a church can be found in the works of Shane Claiborne already mentioned, and by Brian Mclaren (especially the practical appendix on small gatherings in his book “The Secret Message of Jesus”) and in “Emerging Churches” by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger. “Small” churches when they are healthy can be “swift” churches and can respond quickly to changes and be experimenters and innovators in ways churches with more people cannot. New books like “The New Friars; the emerging movement serving the world’s poor” by Scott Bessenecker and “The New Conspirators: creating the future one mustard seed at a time” by Tom Sine are inspiring for how small groups are making a huge impact in simple, though radical, ways.

Being “small’ or ‘micro” or ‘tribal” or ‘relational” or “communal” are all terms for something that is happening not only within religious spheres but across our cultures. It is being on the cutting edge of new ways of being church in the 21st century and echo back to the ways of the early church in the first millennium after Jesus (see Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashimi Brock’s new book, Saving Paradise, from Beacon Press, for more about that first thousand years and its lesson for the third milleinnium). It is exciting to be here and to have such an opportunity now right within our grasp—if we will let go of our fears, and, in the words of one of our beloved hymns, let the “Life that maketh all things new” grasp us.

The End…For Now…Type rest of the post here