Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"A Cast Of Emancipated Characters" aka Church ala Brueggemann

In the latest issue of Sojourners biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann captures the great essence of what the church should be, as he brings the lectionary reflections for the first several weeks of the Pentecost Season. I liked his focus on "Pentecost is a time to re-enact the church as a movement unrestrained by fear of authorities." And how he summed up the church in this way:

"These texts, taken in sum, imagine the church. It is not an institution, but rather a community of folk who are propelled by God's own spirit, situated in Jesus' own narrative, and alive in the world in alternative ways."

There you have it all: a loose trinitarian allusion (God/Jesus/World), a shift from organization to organic movement, and a simplicity of Spirit and Story above all else. I like Shane Claiborne's shorter calling of the church as "a people of God making Jesus visible in the world", but Brueggemann's captures the importance of story, of mission movement, and the goal of living in alternative ways to the dominant cultural powers and values that be.

"Beyond Channing and Church" by Carl Scovel

I just love this lecture/essay by the Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of Kings Chapel in Boston, and receipient of the Distinguished Service Award by the UUA. The present theological state of UUism; The Historical Path to the Present; The UU Christian Misdirection; His response.

I. The Present Theological State of Unitarian Universalism
If I understand UU-ism correctly, it is institutionalized Transcendentalism.
Transcendentalism, you may recall, is the belief that each single person's intuition of the divine (the ultimate, the holy, truth itself) precedes all cultural, societal and institutional forms of religion. That is, the person alone, before and beyond all communities and institutions, knows the basic truth which he or she needs to live by, and that all traditions, teachings, doctrines and counsels of religious communities are important only as guides, supports and challenges, but not as final authorities.
The Transcendentalist theologian is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his great quote comes from the 1838 Divinity School Address: "Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Spirit, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men (and women) at first hand with Divinity."
The UUA embodies this sentiment. The first of its seven principles is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the first named source of authority in the seven principles is “direct experience.” Time and again our members tell us that they joined our churches because UUism affirmed their freedom to believe what they individually valued.
UU’s embody the American intuition that the person is the first order of reality, that community is a secondary order created by a social contract made between individuals. This is what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “ontological individualism.”
Even the new interest in spirituality in this country and in the UUA is an individual quest in which one chooses from a wide array of physical and mental practices and philosophies. Beneath this new interest is an aversion to community and tradition, evident in the oft-repeated phrase, "I want spirituality not religion." We see this also in the frequent hostility to Christianity, Judaism and any tradition which appears as if it might define the worship of a congregation. It's OK to sample, but next Sunday let's have something different.
Now if the UUA is institutionalized Transcendentalism, what holds local societies together in an association and what keeps members within a society? If I am correct, I think we supply a lack of theological consensus with the force of institutional forms — a name, a logo, district and continental meetings, a powerful ministers’ association, national licensing procedures, the seven principles, and subtle, but at times very strong, pressures toward conformity.
For supposedly-unique churches, there is a fairly predictable Sunday liturgy inherited from the Protestant preaching service. There are common worship practices, such as lighting the chalice, joys and concerns, flower communion, water communion, a common hymnal which serves as a de facto prayerbook, and "Spirit of Life," which has become a distinctive chant. UU sermons - to my ear - also have a surprising consistency in content, though considerable variety in expression. These forms hold UU’s together and define them.
UU’s have, I think, become that which Emerson left, Parker ignored and Channing dreaded - a denomination. They are institutionalized Transcendentalism.
This is clearly not a problem for the great majority of UU clergy and members. This is what supports them, what they enjoy, what they see as the fruition of their history. Others find something substantial missing. Many leave and some hang on. In either case, it behooves us to ask how UU-ism evolved into its current state.

II. The Historical Path to the Present
Unitarianism began as an unnamed and undefined reaction against the determinism, pessimism and judgmentalism of traditional New England theology. When Congregational ministers began to question these themes, their conservative colleagues refused to exchange pulpits with them or take part in their ordinations. Within local churches liberal and conservative members began to argue over the their pastor's beliefs. In 1819 the members of The First Parish of Dedham took their differences to a state court which awarded the building, grounds and monies to the more liberal parish organization, leaving the conservative members to found a new church.
In that same year (1819) William Ellery Channing defined and named the new movement in a sermon, entitled "Unitarian Christianity," which he preached at Jared Sparks's ordination in Baltimore. In this sermon he rejected four premises:
1. God's existence as Trinity (as defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD)
2. God's right to absolute judgment over human salvation.
3. The doctrine of Christ's two natures, human and divine (as defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD)
4. The doctrine of salvation by Christ's vicarious atonement as defined by Anselm.
In contrast, Channing affirmed five propositions which he said characterized the new movement among the Congregational churches:
1. The simple unity of God
2. The absolute morality of God
3. The simple unity, namely the humanity, of Jesus
4. The moral and spiritual leadership of Jesus
5. Human salvation by moral and spiritual character.
And how do we know these to be true? Because, said Channing: 1. We find them confirmed in scripture if we read scripture with the eyes of reason, and 2. We find them confirmed in our own God-given sense of morality.
For example, Channing described God as "infinitely good, kind, benevolent,” for "we respect nothing but excellence whether in heaven or on earth. We venerate not the loftiness of God's throne, but the equity and justice with which it is established." (p. 70) In other words, we believe in God because God represents the highest good which we can conceive. Again, Jesus "was sent to effect a moral and spiritual deliverance." (P. 74) "We regard him as Saviour, chiefly as he is the light, physician and guide of the dark, diseased and wandering mind." (p.79)
Now when I read Channing's indictments of the old theology, I heartily assent. And when I read his affirmations, I assent but less heartily. Why? Not because of what he says but because of what he does not say. I hear nothing of God's mystery, God's dynamism, God's judgment, God's creativity and our own distance from that all-perfect source and being.
I hear nothing of a Christ who was judge, rebel and embodiment of holiness. No, in his place Channing speaks of "the mild precepts" of Jesus. Mild, my eye! Are we reading the same Bible? I hear nothing from Channing of our human capacity for evil, indifference, greed, self-centeredness and corruption, which has destroyed the lives and happiness of millions throughout history and in this century, and which now threatens our existence as a species. My experience and observation is that it takes more than mild precepts, education and good will to correct the evil which threatens us from within as from without. In the words of a Trappist preacher, "Sins are not water soluble."
But furthermore I do not hear Channing telling us that we need the church as the imperfect bearer of God's revelation. I do not hear him telling us of tradition as the medium for God's disclosure, nor of the collective faith once given to the saints and renewed in us if we receive it. No, in Channing religion is essentially a matter between the reasonable individual and a benevolent deity with Jesus as teacher and guide.
I am saying that the seeds of the dissolution of Unitarian Christianity were sown in its initial definition and defense. For, when the conflict arose between the first Transcendentalists and the Unitarian Christians, the latter—Channing, Andrews Norton and Henry Ware—tried to defend Christianity on the basis of reason—reason, that is, as they understood it. Christianity, they claimed, was both true and unique because Christ had empirically proved his authority through his power to work miracles. But the Transcendentalists, armed with American pragmatism and Enlightenment skepticism, tore that argument to shreds, and Unitarian Christianity was left with only its dubious claims to a superior morality.
In 1838, less than twenty years after Channing's Baltimore sermon, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the senior class in the chapel of Harvard Divinity School and challenged the authority of Christian faith with these words: "The word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, ... is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain." Where then is truth, he asked? In the soul, the individual soul which, as the prophet Jesus taught, is the law to itself. Emerson concluded, "We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought."
Nowhere do we see this debate more clearly focused than in the differences over Holy Communion. Emerson left his ministry at Second Church because the congregation would not agree to drop communion. Theodore Parker never even held communion at the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society. Of the rite he said, "The Lord's Supper ... is a heathenish rite and means very little, I think. Let all who will come into a parlor and have a social and religious meeting, and eat bread (wine if you like), or curds and cream— baked apples if you will, and have a conversation, free and cheerful, on moral questions ... only let all be rational and real." (Atlantic Monthly October 1860, p.451)
You see, Parker and Emerson were challenging not just Christian ritual and teaching, but tradition itself in any form, and in time the later Transcendentalists, the Free Religious Association and the American humanists took up their cause. Indeed, by the 1930's generations of Unitarian Christians had already substituted intuition for revelation, reason for ritual and the individual soul for the church. When I entered seminary almost fifty years ago, the crosses had come down in most New England meetinghouses, Holy Communion was a sparsely-attended annual event in the few churches that still held it, the Lord's Prayer and the reading of the Bible had been dropped, and many assumed that in time most Christians and theists would simply disappear.
At the time of merger in 1961 we stepped out of our Unitarian and Universalist heritages to create institutionalized Transcendentalism. The Unitarians set aside the unity of God for the free and responsible search for truth. The Universalists set aside God's all-embracing love for inclusivism, an ideal which one can live with insofar as one does not see how one has failed to live it.
For the UUA’s first few years the UU logo was two intersecting circles, representing the two traditions. Then that unitive symbol was set aside for the flaming chalice, taken from the UU Service Committee, as one more act of Unitarian exclusion of the Universalist component.
We rebaptized Channing, Emerson, Parker, Hosea Ballou, Henry Whitney Bellows, James Freeman Clarke and all the fathers and mothers of our faith as "Unitarian Universalists" —in a vain attempt, I think, to show that we are their fulfillment. Anyone who knows history, and thus Emerson’s anti-institutionalism, Parker's solo career, Channing's refusal of the first AUA presidency and his disappointment at its founding, will also know that we are not what they had in mind. For, we have almost lost our institutional interest in history. Our whole understanding of how we evolved into what we are was defined by Earl Morse Wilbur, who wrote a detailed, minutely-documented and, I believe, flawed, account of Unitarianism as essentially anti-Trinitarianism. Wilbur told our story as the familiar pilgrimage from Trinitarian dogma to enlightenment, concluding with (and in the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up) a new trinity, namely: freedom, reason and tolerance. These were the Unitarian watchwords when I entered seminary in 1954. At least Wilbur had a passion for history. Now we have to require our seminarians to read Unitarian and Universalist history, and that means we have essentially lost our sense of its importance. That too is part of our legacy from Emerson.

III. The UU Christian Misdirection
When I began to attend meetings of the Unitarian Christian Fellowship in Boston (and they were only in Boston in those days), it was clear that the founding members felt they'd been betrayed and that humanists had "taken over" the denomination with the connivance or consent of the AUA president Frederick May Eliot, himself an ardent theist. But I found their own form of Christianity ambiguous.
The early members of the Christian Fellowship believed that they believed in the teachings of Jesus, not the teachings about Jesus, but while they were good people, good citizens, good church members, I wasn't sure that their lives reflected the teachings of Jesus any more than other Christians, or even non-Christians.
In seminary as I learned more about the transition into Transcendentalism, I was struck with three things:
1. First, the Unitarian Christians were really preaching an Emersonian version of Christianity, that is that they too believed that religion was first of all a transaction between God and the person. Jesus, the Bible and the church were all invaluable guides in this transaction but when push came to shove it was God and the soul, as the bard of Concord had proclaimed in 1838.
2. The transition from Emersonian Christianity to institutionalized Transcendentalism was relatively easy. A few theists and Christians objected, and some even left for other churches, but even supposedly-conservative New England churches dropped Christian symbols, texts and practices without losing many members. Indeed, most congregations embraced with enthusiasm the Beacon church school curriculum, the new hymnal, Sunday readings from science and philosophy, and young ministers preached a tradition-less religion. Most Unitarians found the change not only painless, but positive.
3. History has shown that the liberal Christianity of William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton was no match for the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Parker and the Free Religious Association. Indeed, Unitarian Christianity had already given away the essentials and thus prepared the way.
Let me put my point this way:
If Jesus is a human teacher of divine truths, why should we not listen to others whom we deem to be teachers of divine truth?
If the scriptures are a book of divine wisdom, why should we not study other books of divine wisdom?
If Christianity is only one religion among others, whose only superiority lies in the reports of Christ's miracles, then why should we not learn from other religions?
Indeed, fifty years ago the proponents of the new Unitarianism, later to become Unitarian Universalism, were not so much denying Christian truth as to claim that they were "more than Christian." They believed their thinking included more truth than Christianity, indeed, that it included all the essentials in all religions. Donald Harrington at the UUA merger ceremony held in Symphony Hall proclaimed that we were a new faith, and the world was waiting to hear our gospel.
These reflections have led me to reconsider two doctrines which Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have long since set aside: 1. the Trinity and 2. the two-fold nature of Christ.
I realize that you may scarcely believe your ears, as I say this. These doctrines have lain for centuries beyond the pale of acceptable discourse within our ranks, but I too am searching for the truth in, I hope, “a free and responsible” way, so I hope you will hear me out. I'll take the Trinity first. I said that Earl Morse Wilbur defined Unitarianism as anti-Trinitarianism. (We are incidentally not the only Unitarians. Doukhabors, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, United Pentecostals, Quakers and not a few Baptists worship God undivided as to person.)
An understanding of God, such as Channing's, as a pure moral spirit with the best qualities of a humane, dedicated citizen is in the long run a limited class-based view of God. Channing's biographer, David Edgell, says, "His function was to translate and make available to a dominant middle class culture a synthesis of ideas ... which helped to solidify and express American social and religious liberalism." (Page 229, William Ellery Channing, Beacon Press, 1955) (Again, "He reflected the intellectual cross-currents that swirled about him." (p.233)
This God, who had to earn the respect of Channing's generation in order to be credible, was kindly and benevolent to a generation on its way up the socio-economic ladder. Although I prefer such a God to the capricious deity of late Congregationalism, such a God does not meet me in the world where I live—a world of genocide, a world where one generation of victims become oppressors of the next, a world of power and privilege run amok, conflicting isms, danger at every turn, unforgivable wealth and abject poverty, death and affluence living side by side. I do not find in Channing's God the righteous word of the prophets or the voice of the Nazarene who claims God's kingdom was coming - ready or not. I find in this God no mystery, no judgment, and therefore - for me - no hope. And yet I do not blame Channing. He was a child of his time, as I am of mine, and if I am ever noticed, I will probably be judged more wanting in my time than he in his.
Although I cannot accept the Nicean definition of God as tri-personed, I believe that God defined primarily as spirit, eventually floats into the upper stratosphere, that if God is not somehow incarnate in this world and in our lives in all His, or Her, or Its, inherent power, many-facedness and mystery, then God becomes an abstraction and inevitably lesser gods take up His place.
Let me put it this way. Trinitarian thinking is necessary to counter a monistic definition of God as unmoved and unmoving. Trinitarian thinking says that there are distinctions and dynamism within God, and without this kind of understanding we lose relationship to and interest in God. Small wonder that humanism became more attractive than Unitarian Christianity. I recall a formidable threat from a humanist colleague early in my ministry: “If you Christians don’t come up with something more interesting, we’ll just yawn you out of the denomination.”
Alright. Let's look at the second point: the two natures of Christ. This was defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, namely that in the one person of Christ there were two natures: unconfused, indivisible, unchangeable and inseparable.
Now what does this mean for us? Why should we even be discussing matters like this, long since dismissed by our colleagues? Why is the teaching about the two natures of Christ important?
Let's try to understand what those bishops at Chalcedon were trying to do. I think they were trying to preserve an understanding of Jesus as God's presence to humanity and God's power for humanity, who were caught in a swamp of personal and collective sins and evil. Christ, in order to save us, had to be both part of us and more than us. To be savior, Christ had to be both of God and of humanity, both without compromising either, thus the delicate and essential balance between his humanity and divinity.
If we emphasizes Christ’s divinity to the exclusion of his humanity, we get a divine being who has nothing to do with us, as Channing so aptly said. But if we emphasize his humanity to the exclusion of his divinity, we get another great teacher or prophet.
This I think was the Unitarian error. Eventually Jesus became a great teacher and prophet; but in time we discovered other teachers and prophets, some of whom seemed more relevant, accessible, contemporary than Jesus. And then even Jesus the teacher and prophet became irrelevant.
To be a Christian is to trust that Christ is and has what we need in order to live God’s will and find our way through this world. There is no substitute for this act of faith, as Paul, Augustine, Luther, Theresa of Avila and Dorothy Day knew. Without this risk, one ends up following one’s own preferences, and that is a life without chart or direction.
We see how hard it is to trust in the popular search for what is called the historical Jesus. Robert Funk and the members of the Jesus seminar, Marcus Borg, John Crossan and others, are attempting to construct a model of a historical Jesus based on archaeological and historical findings, contemporaneous documents and critical analysis of the gospels. The aim of this enterprise is to discover a Jesus whom seeking Christians can intellectually believe in. Some of you have read and studied their writing.
I believe that this effort fails on two counts.
First, on the historical. From my reading of 19th century and current literature of this sort, including works by Funk, Borg and Crossan, and from my understanding of the gospels, I simply do not see how the historical data we have on Jesus can yield what a critical historian would call even a likely guess. The gospel writers were writing a proclamation, not history or biography, and I don't see how massaging the existing texts can produce even historical probability. Schweitzer in his doctoral thesis in theology, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, laid this effort to rest when he said, "The Jesus of history emerges from his own time and advances toward us, but then he passes us by and returns to his own time there to remain." We can never find enough evidence to give us even a semi-credible picture of the historical Jesus. When a jury after watching a video of the Los Angeles police arresting Rodney King split on whether or not the police were brutal in their treatment of him, I wonder what kind of data will give us certainty?
Secondly, history is not the issue. Certainty does not lie in historical data, even if we had the data. Empirical evidence does not increase our faith. In fact, the quest for historical certainty distracts us from the essential task of trusting Jesus. The earthly life of Jesus, the fact and facts of his existence, is the seed dropped into the earth of human experience, but it is not the full flowering plant, nor is it the church, the weathering of history, the fertilization given by saints, martyrs, scholars and servants — these all together create the plant of religion and the harvest of faith.
But to receive the harvest, to know the meaning of Jesus requires a giving of one's mind, one's heart, one's will in an act of surrender, always without sufficient evidence and data. This leap of faith, as Kierkegaard knew so well, is the essential act of becoming a Christian. There simply is no substitute.

IV. My Own Response
Given this situation, what are the Christian and the theist to do? I find that I cannot prescribe for another, since my own path has been so often and remains unclear. After 42 years in parish ministry, reflecting on my own experience and observing churches today as I see them, realizing the variety of viewpoints and experiences among my UU friends, parishioners and colleagues, I find the parish church both essential and inadequate. That is why I titled this "Beyond Channing and Church."
As a Christian, I live out of the church. If God is my source, the church is my conduit. I must worship with my fellows. I must read and reflect on the wisdom of my predecessors and contemporaries. I must be upheld by their faith. The Christ in my heart is often weaker than the Christ in the heart of my brother and sister; I need their Christ to strengthen mine. Indeed, I am a Christian because I believe that what we believe is greater and more true than what I believe.
But while I believe that the church is essential, it cannot do my work for me. In his last talk, Thomas Merton told his audience of monks and nuns that their orders, their monastic houses, and even their traditions were not sufficient. "From now on," said Merton, "it's every man (and woman) for himself." I think I know what that means. Being a dedicated, loyal church member is not enough. Having the right opinions about Jesus is not enough. Being a UU or Methodist or Catholic or Orthodox, is not enough because, although the church is the essential conduit and celebrant of faith, it is not the agent for completing God's work. That is our work.
In a godless culture and in a dangerous world, it's every one for themself, and the work of achieving our own salvation is also the act of working for the salvation of others. There is no distinction between self-interest and altruism at this point.
Therefore, as a Christian my task is to try to live as a disciple and live in fellowship with other would-be disciples. This is primarily not a matter of thinking right things about Jesus, or believing certain doctrines, or celebrating certain liturgies, and not celebrating others, or obeying certain authorities without question. It means knowing that if the rest of my life, however long it may be, is to have any significance for me or others, any validity, any integrity, I must live as one who is trying to be a disciple of Jesus, that is, as best I can, trying to live his teachings, love my fellows, learn from and help my fellow disciples, but above all trusting this one who in the words of Paul reflects to us God's glory — trusting his promises, trusting his pardon, trusting his power, trusting his peace, trusting his judgment, trusting his teachings and trusting the one who is uniquely both human and divine.
For me, Christ's command to love my fellows is also a command to stay in communication with and in relationship with the men, women and children of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship. It seems that God has called me to be here. As long as I am sustained and nourished by Christian thought, worship and experience that I need, I must attend to those who befriended me when I was a nonbeliever and who have been the context for my ministry for over four decades.
I would gain nothing by trotting off to another denomination where I could doubtless find a place, but it would not be my place with my people. And even though the UU world at times drives me nuts, I'm sure at times I dismay my fellows.
In other words, I choose to stand within both the community of Christian revelation and the community of Unitarian Universalist seekers and individualists.
What does this mean for my non-Christian confreres and consoeurs? For those who are happy with mainline UU-ism, who believe in the enlightenment myth of our progress toward a more universal faith, in ontological individualism and in our being the fulfillment of our mothers and fathers in faith, I doubt that I have much to say. For those who feel that we have lost something, that our present stasis in membership and funding reflects some fundamental fault, that we lack depth and direction, I can only say that one must search indeed, but at some point one must make a non-rational commitment to some one, some faith, some revelation and ultimately some faith community, if one is to grow in depth. One must choose at some point to move beyond the limits of one's own choice and stand within a community which is an arena of both instruction and exploration.
For me to live, not in, but out of Christian community is to know the one of whom Schweitzer spoke in the last paragraph of his Quest for the Historical Jesus. He said (and I have added a few phrases to the last sentence): "He comes to us as one unknown as of old, by the lakeside he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, 'Follow thou me,' and sets us to work at tasks which he must complete in our times. He commands, and those who obey, whether they be rich or poor, wise or simple, shall find his peace, and as an ineffable mystery they shall know in their own lives who he is." And I would add, "Who they are, where they are and where they are going." That at least is our partial experience and our hope as Christians.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Missional Basics again link of links

Another reprise above of a blog from out of the archives to help others with discernment. And a two parter reprise below of some FAQs of the basics.

And the big post with links to other posts below in differnt subject areas
And a post with summaries of key issues and learnings:

So those are my favorite former posts of the past four years. Put them together with the recent and still ongoing ones about Church Growth growing out of the Denver conference, with the series of posts called The Church of Others, and there's some summer reading to go along with your summer missional planting.

Retreat. Revival. Return: The post of the idea I'd most like to revisit and implement

Here is an old post that has still been kicking around with me, but hasn't taken shape yet. Maybe this summer we can revisit, especially with Revival coming up in October, a new way of shaking loose and recreating the time of the church.

If I were forming new community for the first time, this like the post on plant killers below, is one I would spend some time with.

How To Kill Church Plants: Four Years Later

I can't believe it has been almost four years since I wrote the blog post here.

We hadn't yet begun our fast transformation into a missional community and inside out church we have become in the past four years, and which started a few months later, but you could see some of the seeds in this blog as I was debriefing from the previous three years.

It still seems like a good place for any to start. Elsewhere over the years I have blogged on it being reduced to three aspects: Leadership. Context. Resources. And the ways they need to find alignment.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

On Being A "Pentecost Progressive"

For The Week of May 23: Pentecost Sunday

Scripture Reading: Act 2:-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

This is the celebration Sunday for the "birthday of the church." It is ripe with core values and images of progressive liberal faith. It is a calling into community story. It is a celebration of diversity. It is a story of healing and hope.

Looking at the story from a textual lens, Acts is part of the narrative arc that begins with the Gospel of Luke, a continuation and expansion of the themes engendered in Luke. The focus is on the Spirit of God as a power, the power, in the world, a topsy-turvy power that comes to the least of those in their most vulnerable times. The story of God's spirit moves from John the Baptist to Jesus in Luke, and then God's Spirit comes back into the world in Acts at the Day of Pentecost and moves from Peter and Jerusalem on to Paul and eventually headed toward Rome. This is the day, the time, when The Story moves from Christ into the world and through it, through us.

Looking at the story from a historical-critical lens, it taps into the experiences and memories of the early followers of Jesus. They were adrift and caught in limbo. So recently they had been in his presence, once being in the hope of the stories and gossip and gospel of his being an anointed Resurrected One, and yet now it was fading. They were breaking up but holding on. The past was still with them but the future hadn't pulled them into mission. They were together; they were a community; but they were not what the liberation theologians call a communitas, a people with a purpose. And then the world broke open again and the Spirit that had been mainly in the One was now in The Many too.

Looking at it from a progressive liberal lens, it is all about the truth of ongoing revelation and the power of covenant rather than creed, of presence rather than principle. First of all, they are together, simply together. They have, in all their despair and loneliness and fear, continued to come together...because when people come together in the spirit of Jesus, you never know what will happen, but you can trust, based on what had gone before, that something good would happen, healing would take place, abundance would be overflowing. Gather together just to be together in groups of two (with just one other person) or two or more, and the Spirit of God will break out. And it does. In a particular, peculiar way in keeping with the ministry and example set by Jesus. The power of God comes not just to one only but to all, and it doesn't come through just one culture and one language but through many as they begin speaking in different languages (remembering that language meant culture meant religion back then especially), and yet the power of God, of love and justice, allowed them each to understand the other. What a foreshadowing of the non-creedal church where what we believe together doesn't have to unite us as a people but how we share alike our different truths and visions in the free spirit that helped to bring them forth in the first place. This unity in diversity comes to all regardless of station in life or condition of being.

That the scriptures are quoted in this letter which was not yet scripture itself shows that even in the midst of the new spirit, there is a place, a necessity, for that which has gone before. Being connected to the prophets, to that Great Story, was a ground for what new would emerge in the church that was forming. This is something liberals and progressives need to reclaim today: the ancient ways, all of the warts and bad history of the church, can and should be incorporated into who we are today, for it is a part of who we are today, and we neglect it at our peril. Traditionalism, as it is said, kills the Spirit, but Tradition gives it birth.

One of the joys of being a Christian in Unitarian Universalism, or even being a progressive Christian period of any tradition or association, amidst all the challenges it brings (and we do know fully the experience of how others see us, think we must be drunk or crazy to be in community as we are, like they saw the Pentecost community, so much room for difference and yet so much common understanding among us), is that we have such an ancient tradition that is ours as Christians and followers of Jesus; we don't just go back to the founding of a particular denomination or association of congregations such as the American Unitarian Association in 1825 or the Universalist gatherings in 1790 and 1793 or, for that matter, to the Plymouth founders of 1620, or even to the Radical or Magesterial Reformation movement of a hundred years before that, but we are the recipients of the Spirit of it all, community bequeathing to community, even through all the changes, back to those events and experiences that came to be chronicled and called Pentecost.

And what is true of the community can be true for us in our community today, and in our personal lives. First, it tells us to be in community with one another. Just show up. That first principle of covenant living. Find some community to be a part of, to start. That the Spirit of God showed up where they were and not in the Temple, not in a sacred in itself gathering such as at a synagogue, and not coming, at least at first, through the wisdom of a chosen and set aside pastor and teacher and prophet but came all at once and to all of them, means that the community you can be a part of and experience God doesn't have to go by the name church, or even small group, even ours in the UUCF; it means it can come at any time through any kind of people, so you have to live lives of openness so that, like the strangers on the road to Emmaues, you will know it when it happens.

This Sunday tells us that Easter is over but Easter will never be over. And knowing that we can be a part of it. And that we have a mission now that calls us into being in the first place, a mission that creates the church rather than the church struggling to find its mission. Pentecost lays out our mission, one that soon we will take into the world through the longest season of the church year, the season of Ordinary Time also known as Pentecost Season. Our mission that makes us a church is that we are to be an Easter people even after Easter, and we are to share Easter with others, sharing it in a diversity of ways too, that hope and purpose and community will never be over, will be forever renewed, in those that come together faithfully.

Spirit of God, renew us again, come into our midst again, create us once again as a people of God whose mission is the make visible in our world the presence of Jesus which was not killed by the powers of the world, but is here with us today, here with all of us, young and old, male and female, regardless of status or condition, here bringing us alive, as if on fire, with the truth of everlasting love and justice for all. Spirit of God, which is not always felt, which can seem as if absent in our lives, just a shadow of what once was or a glimmer of what might yet be in the far off future, may we experience you today in all your fullness and wholeness, mending our fragmented lives and world. Spirit of God, we know not to look for you in the designated places and recognized and expected spaces, or people, but to look for you in the ruins and remnants and forgotten and neglected places, the dangerous spaces, and people. May this day given over to this truth be a day when we dedicate ourselves to being a part of your church's renaissance, rebirth, as a people and not a place, and may the people we seek to become be sharers of your Spirit with others, so in need of a healing community with a purpose, and even more than that, may we be seekers of your Spirit from others.

Going Deeper. Take a sentence from the scripture and use it as both a text for sacred reading, lectio divina, as well as a breath prayer. Isolate one word from the scripture and meditate on that word. Journal or share with another your responses, what comes to you. Pray your own prayer inspired by a sentence or word in the prayer above. Attend a church worship service in a community different from yours where you have never been. Form a new community where you are, a UUCF inspired small group of two or more people. Study the Hebrew origins of Pentecost in the celebration of Shauvot, the Festival of Weeks, the giving of the Torah to Moses forming them together as a people. Read the Book of Ruth in keeping with Shauvot and about how the story of that people is to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, as the very way itself the people show they are a people of such a God of Love, who keeps providing harvest and welcome tables for that harvest.

Rev. Ron Robinson
Executive Director, UUCF

Poverty, Communities, Change (or Not): The Haiti Lesson of 10,000 Brainiacs

If you are interested in changing poverty, renewing communities, a must listen is today's This American Life program on Haiti, especially the piece on 10,000 Brainiacs. Lessons for churches interested in helping communities; have to face this abyss of reality and then step into it; shows the power of relocation first and foremost then redistribution and reconciliation.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Church Growth Part Four

This is a continuation of the growth and Unitarian Universalism topic started over on It comes out of the recent conference on UU growth held in Denver by various UU ministers of growing churches. I have also posted the earlier three posts below and added reflections from an edgier, radical place or perspective on all this (maybe if nothing else, it will make such growth leaders look like moderates when to many UUs they might look like revolutionaries lol).

I will post the latest here now from the Rev. Thom Belote's blog, interspersed with reflections:

"At the UUA Growth Consultation held from May 5 to May 7, one of the most interesting documents that the participants developed was a list that we wound up calling "The Seven Principles for UU Vitality." This document was produced using a process of brainstorming, the grouping of emerging themes, and reflection on our own experiences. These seven principles would inform the growth initiatives that we developed later on in the meeting.

The Seven Principles for UU Congregational Vitality

1) The Congregation has a clear and powerful Purpose and Mission
• The congregation posesses a compelling narrative that connects past, present, and future.
• The congregation's story is constantly embodied and rehearsed.
[Thom's commentary: Even though my chapter in the book The Growing Church is on "mission," I was not the leading brainstormer of this principle.]

[Ron's commentary: The first question from a missional perspective, and the first question I learned and keep learning the hard way, and the first question I toss back to potential church planters, is "what is your image of the church, a church, or of the congregation?" What is it you are trying to start or grow? And is that what the soil you are planting it in will support, and what it needs? So before any principle about the congregation, we need to delve deeper into the nature and manifestation of the congregation, because everything, everything that comes after that depends on the responses to that first question and set of questions. I think it is clear, see posts below, that the congregational growth being explored is about growing churches as we currently primarily embody them in UUism, and so we are looking for ways to keep continuity with the past in many of the substantial structural ways, which is not the culture we need to be cultivating for survival and thriving; we need to be figuring out how we can, to use Lyle Schaller's terminology, have discontinuity with the past. That said, I will point out as below that there is so much room to grow in the usual established status quo ways in UUism that of course this first principle is a healthy one, except for.....

The Church Doesn't Have A Mission...The Mission Has A Church. The Mission Creates the need for and growth of the church. If we don't start changing the default mode language around that we will keep perpetuating the growth of an organization vs. the growth of an organic movement, and that will ultimately be to the detriment of UUism.]

2) The Congregation is aware of & responsive to the world around it
• Another way of saying this is to say that the congregation has a "sense of place" that is theologically informed.
• The public mission is owned and embodied by the congregation.
• There is strong leadership and high levels of participation in living out the public mission. [It is not just the minister doing it or a committee or a group of people who are marginal in the life of the congregation.]

[Ron: Yes. It reconceives itself, to use Michael Durall's language, as a "public" being. It also looks to see how it can become more local. How is it changing the world in a two mile radius around its central location? becomes a key measure of its success.
I would also push on that sense of place that is theologically informed and say that it shoudn't be afraid, in fact should embrace, a theological specific orientation in its worship and culture, even while of course being non-creedal, as a way to become more of the "scandal of the particular" and allow people to become "more local" theologically and culturally, especially if it can do this in places with a multitude of theological and cultural specific "mission groups, i.e. congregations" Imagine the church being small group ministry becoming the main emphasis and ministry of the church, allowing it to break up and be present in more locales, offering more UUstyle theological and cultural options (I will have to post later about issues where we may miss the boat in multiculturalism by not allowing for particular -centric congregations or mission groups like other growing associations), and network these once a month to work and celebrate together at times, without having to be a continuous one size fits nearly all congregation. It sets up a culture where people can go more in depth along that one spoke of the hub of the church, and yet still be in relationship with those on the other spokes; it allows for the homogeneity unified principle with 20-30 people in a group or tribe, and at the same time embrace diversity on something more than a least common denominator level. So that is a radical vision, of course, but one we might have tried if starting fresh, and I suspect a majority of current UUs would opt to remain in a one-style-fits-all heterogenous unit (though you might be surprised by the kinds of cultural diversity that might inform a specific theological-centric group or age-centric group, for example, as people chose which group to be drawn to most); still it is a way to turn loose some entrepreneurial groups on the edges, or to look at intentional new separate congregational plants (which have been tried in some places before, as people will be quick to point out, but they weren't tried in the new soil of missional church but were started in the old default model of church).]

3) There is vital worship and a vital Sunday experience for all ages
• "It's gotta sing": vitality and energy are felt throughout the congregation on Sundays.
• There is coherence in the church's programming. Sunday morning is an aesthetic whole.
• The worship service is relevant and meaningful in people's lives.
• Music inspires and moves the congregation.

[Ron's commentary: I was just exploring with my UU History and Polity students last night the changes in church focus from once upon a time pinning everything on the "how many members do you have?" question where the focus is on joining a church to be able to vote and run the church, in large part, to the focus and question on "how many did you have in worship this past Sunday?" as the measure of success. This is good on one level because it switches church membership from entitlement to mission, or something else. People may now say and believe they are members of a church because their primary contact and identity is through the worship service. The church's focus shifts then from taking care of its own to creating a worship event that will, it is hoped, inspire people to go change the world. Worship Event becomes primary, and the tendency or idolatry is that it becomes a de facto destination point for a person's spiritual life; they will give up any other aspect of church but not worship. And I am thinking here even of worship in the most Theistic and Christian sense as well. We don't challenge people with the question: can you conceive of being a part of this church without the worship service? It is like asking the question of Christians, can you imagine being a Christian without going to a worship service? Here is the rub. Worship is vital, but for growth and transformation, it should be a secondary gathering to serving others together with love and justice, out of which the worship grows and in response to which worship grows, not the other way around. Is the purpose to create a worshipful people, first and foremost, or is it to produce agents of change for transformation in the world with love and justice, i.e. produce disciples who produce disciples of this kind of transformation? Something to think about. Worship can also be dynamic and vital in small group settings too, especially for those who are not being fed over time by spectator-oriented worship, and especially if there is a reliance on a common liturgy as a container for spontaneity and the personal. And Bad music sung spiritedly by a small group beats the paid performers in worship; in part because a small group can over time grow in music as a spiritual growth itself. Remember, great points here above but for perpetuating growth along the lines of what has been, in and of itself of course a good thing, but not all of the conversation for the long haul]

4) Church is done well [this principle is in reference to administration and leadership.]
• This principle has to do with Policies, Practices, and Places.
• The above are clear, adaptable, and responsive to the evolving needs of the congregation.
• There is a sense that we must be willing to change ourselves in order to "do church well."
[Ron's commentary: Amen. Once this happens, no telling what else might happen.]

5) The Congegation cultivates religious community
• The community participates in shared practices and rituals.
• The congregation provides connections where there is disconnection. [This is another way to describe the building of the beloved community: It encompasses multiculturalism, multigenerationalism, and other forms of diversity.]
• The congregation provides a safe atmosphere and environment where healthy relationships can be built.
• The congregation recognizes and overcomes its own idolatries in how it envisions community.

[Ron: Good. See above for radical ways to conceive of this.]

6) The Congregation builds skills to lead and nurtures gifts to serve
• People who come to a church discern a call in community.
• The community nurtures, trains, honors, and trusts leaders.

[Ron: Yes, and turns them loose in the world, and provides a place for them to debrief from their adventures]

7) Strong ministerial leadership supports the fulfillment of the previous six principles.
[Thom's commentary: Originally we developed a list of six items. Following a break we looked at the list and asked ourselves, "Does this feel right?" "What is missing?" Members of the UUA staff quickly spoke up and said that the parish ministers had tremendously devalued their own role in promoting congregational vitality. The seventh principle is intended to signify the role of the minister in promoting the previous six principles.]

[Ron: Yes, so true, but let us look at how our tie to seminary-trained paid ministerial leadership binds our ability to be responsive, and to nurture gifts from within us. So the minister becomes a theological coach to the teams of five to six entrepenuers and planters who then become that for those they grow and serve with. This coaching can be done virtually, too. Especially for small to mid churches struggling with anxiety in systems over supporting or growing staff and ministry to re-envision the role of the minister. The old style Puritan forebears of ours who grew pastors and teachers from within themselves, in connection with others, provide a model, as does the early early church. (We will have spectacular failures if we do things like create leadership efforts and church efforts like above, and that often scares us more than anything else in UUism it seems). Often the very strengths we cultivate in seminary trained ministerial leadership will work against what is needed in being leaders who create leaders. It takes a strong leader to be able to begin moving a church to do all the above mentioned alternative ways of being church, that is for sure. Implicit in this principle, too, is the learning about "apostolic" leadership that has been proven most effective in growing groups and, as Durall points out in The Almost Church Revitalized: envisioning the future of UUism, there must be challenges and redefinitions of the "democratic process" as it has been lived out and checked and balanced leadership to the point of paralysis. We need a new progressive understanding of both terms "apostolic" or "hierarchical" and "democratic."]

I have reflected more in depth at this blog over the years on many of these points. Enjoy blog exploring :) I will try to pull them together at some point.

Dilbert and Leadership Visions et al

Don't know why that struck me as funny and right on and convicted me :)

Pentecost, Rebirth of The Church (Among The Ruins)

Hi all. Join us weather permitting this Sunday May 23 at 10 am at the hilltop overlooking downtown Tulsa at 60th and N. Johnstown as we hold worship on the abandoned rundown property site we are seeking to buy to put in The Welcome Table Kitchen Garden Park project, right across from where we have some demonstration community gardening started and where we will work on the beds as part of our church time after communion and before our common meal.If weather doesn't permit we will celebrate at A Third Place Center, and plan future Sundays as we take our spirit on the road to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and to places right around us.

It is Pentecost Sunday this Sunday, and no better or apt time for our worship at the site as we celebrate the ongoing "re-birth" of the church universal and missional. Come find out what missional communities of faith are all about. As church becomes more like the worst aspects of dominant Entertainment/Marketplace culture, it is more important than ever to be midwives for small groups with large visions working to subvert the divisive fearful scarcity-driven characteristics of that culture.

Go here and click on our newly released video of the plans for the garden and read all about it. We would be glad to schedule special tour times and visits to help us with our fundraising in order to make it happen. We still need some 90 people to give an average of $100 by July 2 our closing date. More or less both are appreciated. You can donate easily and securely online at the link above. We hope the release of the video produced by the OU Graduate Design Studio will help move us toward our goal. Please share this link with a recommendation to others and other groups and anyone in the media you might know.

We think it is a newsworthy and novel and inspiring story of what a few people here and around the world wherever you are can do especially in a time like now and at a place such as ours where so little new and inspiring has happened in such a visible way in a long time. Help us show our neighbors here that there is more to life and abundance in our area besides a shooting every day, as a recent presentation by the local 100 Black Men group pointed out; even though there is not a murder or injury that makes news, there is a shooting in our area everyday. Bonnie and I can attest to that from what we hear nearly every night just in or near our neighborhood.

For a video shot last summer by OU graduate social work students as we had just begun to dream of the vision, and showing some of the area but not nearly all of the abandoned run down homes nearby to this site, go to

And to put the work in perspective that we are engaged in here with our neighbors, to get the bigger picture of community renewal, to see some of the small acts of justice done with great love here, the seeds literally we are planting, and the programs and initiatives and how they tie together, go read about our Four Directions Initiative, a TNT (TulsaNorthTurley) dream of a 20-20 vision to complete by the year 2020. And even it will be added on to as more voices and hands are included.

We will kick it off as part of our Annual Turley and Area Free Festival as part of Juneteenth, Friday June 18 and Saturday June 19 at A Third Place Community Center, 6514 N. Peoria. Plan to come and have fun and support the Center and our vision. We are looking for bands and musicians to book. We will have a community health project going on with OU Graduate Social Work students. Tye Dye art projects and games for all. Community info and exhibits. Add your group to the event. And free meals. O'Brien Park nearby will be offering free swimming for any who bring food donations to our Food Pantry.
For more on the specific schedule go to
We will have a planning meeting at noon on Wednesday May 26 at the Center so come find a way to lend a hand. Also come hear more on this and other community projects at the Turley Community Association meeting at O'Brien Park near 61st and N. Lewis on Tuesday May 25 at 7 pm.

You can donate to help the Festival at the site above as well.

This Sunday at 3 pm plan also to attend and support the Interfaith Diversity Worship Service at Diversity Christian Fellowship 637 S. 131st E. Ave. sponsored by Oklahomans for Equality as part of Tulsa Pride activities. For more go to I will be giving the benediction at the worship service also aptly held on Pentecost Sunday.

Thanks for being a part of all we do here no matter where you live and what your own religious beliefs and communities might be. We don't call it The Welcome Table for nothing. All are welcome here, and no fancy style here, as the hymn says, halleluia, one of these days. Thanks for sharing with others as we have been inspired by so much hope and stories of transformation by you all and others.

Wherever you are this Sunday when the church celebrates Pentecost, or Whitsunday in the story from the second chapter of Acts ( , may you feel the sudden winds of change and renewal and community blowing in your lives and families and your own communities. May you experience the power of understanding of others and being understood by others. May tongues of fire and passion and dreams of a new community come hover over you whether you are old or young male or female or known by others in whatever way so that your visions may find a home.

And remember there is more to the second chapter of Acts as well, for the times after the time of sudden vision and hope renewed. For how the new church is to actually be a church. Where in that chapter it also states:

"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people."

Nuff said...

Thanks and blessings and more soon,

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What a small group of UU Christians Have Done, Are Doing, Will Do To Save Their Community

Here below is a post about the Big Picture of our Missional Work here, an overview connecting the dots, called The Four Directions Initiative: A TNT (TulsaNorthTurley) 20-20 Vision Project.
At the core of this work, which includes much on a daily basis beyond the projects ongoing or planned listed below, is our church, our community of free faithfulness, striving to make visible Jesus in our world.

For several months, our A Third Place Community has been engaging in projects and initiatives small and big throughout our service area of Greater, or historic, Turley area from 46th to 86th St and Highway 75 to Osage County Drive...The Welcome Table Kitchen Garden Park project, see below for this transformative and much needed Miracle Among The Ruins event, has only been the most visible. Our partnerships are deepening with others within this area, and we are beginning or planning projects for community health, community beautification, community education, and community redesign, all of which will lead to a better sustainable environment for our children and businesses and associations to thrive.

For several months, the overall big picture has been emerging which will connect the dots of our past, current, and emerging projects, visions and dreams.

The Four Directions Initiative: a "TNT" (TulsaNorthTurley) 20-20 Project is the result.

Working with the OU Graduate Design Studio and others we will produce graphic designs to help show the project which will allow us to present it to community residents who will help us shape its final forms.

In the meantime, here is a look: Imagine and come help us bring it to reality.

The Four Directions Initiative is a renewal vision that refers to projects ongoing and planned in our service region between now and the Year 2020 that creates "corridors of community" between these end or destination points along our boundaries:

West (Northgate addition, Vining Park, Horace Greeley school) to
East (O'Brien Park, new soccer and sports complex, Highway 75 wildflower plots),
with the following projects and points in a corridor between these two destination areas:

1. current Greeley School Gardening and Beautification project spinning out to include Northgate addition
2. Turley Residential (Correctional) Center, future partner, 61st and N. Cincinnati
3. The Welcome Table Kitchen Garden Park Project, 60th and N. Johnstown,
4. Turley United Methodist Church, 61st and N. Johnstown, including community garden space and native plant trail and improved primitive trail on far south side where children and others walk now.
5. Osage Prairie Trail intersections beautification wildflower projects ongoing and emerging, just west of Peoria
6. Historic Church Renovation into A Third Place Community and Food Justice Center, OU Community Health Clinic, Urban Monastery Prayer and Meditation Space, Let Turley Bloom Center, at 59th and just west of N. Peoria.
7. Cherokee School Outdoor Classroom Garden Learning Spaces ongoing and emerging, possibility for community school designation for Cherokee and increased community space and events at 6001 N. Peoria.
8. A Third Place Audubon Bird Sanctuary GreenSpace, 61st Street east of Cherokee along current path school children walk. Project pending purchase of one acre for sale inexpensively.
9. Veterans Center Building and grounds and sign improvement at 61st and Utica where we worked to remove grafitti.
10. Vann Industrial Park, 61st and Lewis, future partners with emphasis on creating green jobs
11. Scottsdale Addition, near 61st and Lewis, future sign renovation beautification to finish grafitti removal.
12. Park Meadows Mobile Home Park, near 61st and N. Lewis, partners for safety, beautification, and community events
13. O'Brien Park, 61st and N. Lewis, current partners in gardening, beautification, and community and family sustaining events.
14. Extending corridor to the south along E. 56th St. North at Lewis to include beautification project and welcome project at old Allen's BBQ building, ongoing and emerging project
15. Extending to Highway 75 and 56th St. to include current and future partnerships with North Tulsa Farmers Market, new soccer and skateboarding complex under construction, to make community friendly and supporting of local residents and Turley businesses.
16. Highway 75 and 56th Street Exit Wildflower Beautification Plot currently sponsored by A Third Place and the State Dept. of Transportation
17. Extending to north to 66th St. and N. Lewis near O'Brien Park to include our new Welcome to Turley beautification, wildflowers, and signage at intersection project currently underway.
18. Back on the western edge extending south to include beautification and community projects at Gilcrease Middle School, the planned new City/County Health Department facility, both at 56th and N. Cincinnati, Houston Elementary School, Carriage Trails neighborhood, Chamberlain Center, and Louisa May Alcott gardening project.

South to North: along Peoria Ave. and immediate area from 46th St. to 76th St.

This would become the hub for a Far North Main Street Project, along North Peoria from the historic Turley area, 46th St. to either 66th or 76th St. for the Main Street Oklahoma grant project. The aim would be increased infrastructure of streetlights, sidewalks, bus stop improvements, beautification projects, plantings, cleanup, Redbud Avenue tree plantings, shopping centers revitalization, McLain High School initiative, and more.

Partners and projects along the Far North Main Street Project, current and future, include:
1. on the southern edge Generation of Destiny youth center at 46th St.,
2. McLain High School initiative and Greenhouse Project,
3. the PlanIt Tulsa envisioned corridor for part of this area by the old McLain Shopping Center, and shopping center just north of McLain.
4. new neighborhood association by the McLain shopping center,
5. New Beginnings Church sign beautification project near 54th and Peoria,
6. Northside YWCA, current and emerging partner, near 54th and Peoria, in the old Wiley Post School building,
7. the redeveloped and expanded to four lane 56th and Peoria intersection with signage directing people to parks, health department, and business districts,
8. the Welcome to Turley sign at 56th St. redeveloped and expanded by A Third Place with Keep Oklahoma Beautiful grant
9. wildflower beautification reclamation projects all along North Peoria with planters around abandoned signposts, some currently underway, and at businesses.
10. Cherokee School projects, with sidewalks and lights and other neighborhood safety issues and neighborhood watches
11. Old Turley Fire Department flower bed beautification project of rundown historic building.
12. Bus Stops with Shelters and beautification plots
13. Turley Post Office signage and visibility for promotion
14. transformation or destruction of long abandoned and rundown commercial buildings along this stretch of North Peoria.
15. 66th and N. Peoria intersection beautification where old Smith's grocery store was, and across the street in vacant land owned by the Freedom Bank, a future partner, and triangle median.
16. Extending beautification projects to 76th St. to include past and current ones at the northern limit where there is current renovation we are doing of the Welcome to Turley sign and at the nearby Donut store area beautification plot we put in.
17. Extending just west of Peoria along here for Osage Prairie Trail projects. The trail connects downtown Tulsa with northern Tulsa County Skiatook and beyond.
18. Extending behind McLain High School to include Penn Elementary gardening and beautification future, old Monroe Jr. High building where Tulsa Adult Learning and Margaret Hudson program are located, and Berry Park, 48th St. and Utica, as well as partnering with Sarah's Senior Living Center in the area.

Plus projects beyond these 36 to be included but unknown now at this stage; perhaps one you have.
We are currently already involved in several of these 36 projects, not waiting but acting, or we are about to start them. But putting them into the "big picture" and naming them helps to give focus to our energy, to recruit partners and helpers for these projects, and to shape our grants and fundraising for completion beyond our current capacities.

The "Four Directions" in the name also alludes to the importance of community spirit, ownership, and above all sense of place, to the original settlers of our area since we were and are a part of the Cherokee Nation.

The "Far North" designation for the Main Street Project is borrowed from the designation of our area by the Tulsa Community Services Council demographics research.

The "TNT" designation for TulsaNorthTurley alludes first to how we have "exploded" with community renewal energy these past three years and to the "vision explosion" to come through the initiative above; and secondly by linking TulsaNorthTurley we name our interconnection and destiny with one another despite any differences of ethnicity and history. For example, even as we may continue to work for incorporation of much of the currently unincorporated area of Turley in particular to get additional resources to help in this initiative, as well as for other reasons, we also know that because of Tulsa North and Turley's proximity and weaving together of where people go to school, shop, live, go to church, etc., that the two differently named areas are similar in many ways and share common issues and destiny.

Stay tuned for further developments as we work on visually presenting this project, in soliciting input about adding to it, and which parts of it should receive top priority, and how you can be a part of the adventure right now.

We hope you are inspired by our small acts, even moreso now that you can see how the dots connect into a bigger picture.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Carl Scovel's "A Church of Christian Simplicity"

This essay by Carl appeared in the summer 2002 issue of the newsletter of the Magi Network. It and some conversations I had with Carl around this time, of our first launching of the church plant here in its original incarnation, were like seeds planted in my emerging sense of the church. I didn't take it to heart and let it guide me right away, and had to unlearn my way into it, part of being a new minister too, but I kept returning to this essay again and again. I have used parts of it often.

The Magi Network was once an independent affiliate organization related to the UUA with a mission to grow new UU Christian churches. It came out of the experience, and the people, of Epiphany UU in Fenton, MI started in the mid 90s. The Magi Network first, and later Epiphany itself, folded. I hope through this post, as much as anything else, they still can sow their seeds. I have been thinking lately of working this summer on a new incarnation of something akin to the Magi Network but with a missional focus. Drop me a line or add a comment if you want to be a part of a growing list for this.

Carl Scovel is minister emeritus of Kings Chapel, and received the Distinguished Service Award from the UUA. His annual retreats at Glastonbury Abbey continue to feed my soul. Here is the essay:

"Since I've retired I've been looking at churches and I'm struck by how much time and energy the members spend in order to staff committees, raise money, send out mailings, keep up morale, heat, light and maintain the building--in short, to support an institution.

Often, it seems to me that church folk are so busy at the work of keeping the ship afloat that they don't have time for prayer, learning and pleasure, which they need in order to know God and grow as a religious people.

They are already working longer and harder at their jobs than did their parents. Sometimes they are caring for those parents or for their children. They have obligations as citizens. They are under stress. And the church itself makes demands and presses its concerns.

As one who now sits in a pew I often hear behind the appeal for funds, volunteers and new members, an anxiety about whether or not their church will survive. This anxiety about institutional survival does not attract people and it is not inspiring.

When I hear ministers and layfolk discuss this situation, they acknowledge it sadly but with a sense that it can't be changed. I can't believe this is true.

I can't believe it because I can't believe that a busyness which brings fatigue, resentment, and anxiety is God's will for the church. I can't believe that God intends these feelings or this structure for his (or her) people.

I believe that God wants first to refresh us and then use us.

But the initial change won't come with an Alban Institute program (good as they are) or with reading any of Lyle Schaller's or Loren Mead's excellent books.

The initial change comes in our response to God's intention.

First one must pray. Someone, maybe only one person, needs to pray, and in time another will, and another. In time half the congregation could be praying.

Praying means opening one's self to the intention of God, God's will that we take pleasure in the divine presence and enjoy that presence and in the light of that pleasure learn the specific plans and directions which will help our church become a less institutional and a more faithful community.

It is not dogma or inadequate fund drives or cultural secularism (or even pedophiles) that kills churches. It is exhaustion and overwork and preoccupation with inessentials, which have become the ad hoc essentials because the real essentials have been forgotten.

I speak not from the outside of this situation, but as one who has been immersed in it for all of my full-time ministry, and as one among the many others who have felt in their minds, hearts and bodies the consequences of this overwork and anxiety.

Most people (or am I wrong?) are looking for refreshment and maturation, not busyness. They are glad to give, but they fear burn-out and overcommittment. Thus it seems to me--and of course I could be dead wrong--that the first thing a congregation must know is the answer to "What is essential?" What nourishes, sustains, informs, inspires and directs a congregation? And how will this be real among us?

Before we hire a choir director, organize a church school, write bylaws, send out fliers, make up a list of committees--in short, plunge into the model of mainline Protestant and UU churches--we need to feed our hearts, minds and souls.

What is the good news? And how will this be good news among us--this congregation--in a way that will rejuvenate and not deplete us?

Perhaps this means a minimal church, a church of Christian simplicity, rather than an unsuccessful mini-version of the 400 member sister in the next town.

As Christians, we are asking how the presence of Christ will be real among us.

Perhaps we will study the Bible instead of hearing a sermon. Perhaps we will learn to sing well together, rather than isolating some singers in a choir. Perhaps we will learn to worship with our children, instead of apart from them. Perhaps we will share the prayers and readings among the congregation. Perhaps we will learn to fly by the seat of our pants rather than the top of our brain.

Even as I write this, I wonder if I am creating one more impossible ideal. Perhaps my readers will shake their heads and sadly say, "Wouldn't it be nice is this could work? But it won't. You can't get a church going this way."

Perhaps my readers are right. I'm not sure I have a plan for recreating a church.

But I do know that the presence of Christ in a person or a congregation brings power and surprising direction. And I believe that too many churches have become workhouses, often filled with exhaustion and anxiety about their survival. And I cannot believe that this must be so.

A church of Christian simplicity. Is it possible today?"

Growth: Part 3: continuing the conversation in Minneapolis

General Assembly 2010 Workshop
Friday June 25 1:00pm - 2:15pm
Minneapolis Convention Center - 101 J
#3014 Turning Congregations Inside Out: Growing Missional Communities
Sponsored by Living Room Church at A Third Place in Turley, OK
Learn from church planters how to challenge prevailing "UU culture" and grow missionally and transform your wider community; hear how the ground-breaking emerging LivingRoom Church is doing this in the lowest-income multi-ethnic area of the Tulsa region, and how to do it yourself your way.

There will also be a followup discussion to this program that will be held on Saturday, June 26 from 4 to 5 pm in Convention Center 101ABC. Hope to see you at both, or one, of these programs.

Myself and Joel Miller, both of whom have planted churches, will talk about what we have learned and about our passions for taking UUism into uncharted regions, and more. Hope can be joined by others interested in shifting us from private to public, personal to communal, institution to movement churches.

"Growth" Part Two

Some of my observations to the conversation on growth posted in the post below:

First to the principles guiding the development of a plan:
) Are congregationally based: The approach cannot be "top down" but rather must depend on congregations working together collaboratively to grow.

RR: Yes. A must. Just to be clear: congregations working together doesn't or shouldn't mean with neighboring UU congregations in a geographic proximity; that is an old model that assumes all congregations are or should be alike or have similar mission, etc. It might in some cases mean that, but I hope it means finding those to collaborate with such as by size, large congregations collaborating regardless of where they are located, or by emphasis, those for example who are going multi site or multi cultural or who, for example, might be going missional by splitting up into different tribes and going incarnational and relocating in places we don't normally locate, or maybe those who want to start a retreat center like a progressive monastery or those who want to collaborate to start an emergent worshipping center without the other aspects of church as we have known it. Congregations shouldn't think within the old box; there are lots of model for being church in lots of different ways; find the one you think you have resources and energy and vision for and the congregations who also can join with you in it. I would even urge UU congregations to collaborate with non-UU congregations in their local area who might have the same issues and interests for growth.

2) Have a low cost: Even if the money were there, growing Unitarian Universalism is not a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Money can be raised for specific initiatives, but we were instructed to develop plans with a modest cost.

RR: Yes. In fact, necessity is the mother of invention. Being broke, and intending to stay broke, is what helped us to transform here. Starting with what can happen without money is essential to shifting default modes on church. More needs to be developed along the lines of the role of money. Churches that are perpetually struggling to maintain their status quo, infusing anxiety into their system which keeps them from growing, can be financially energized by looking at ways to go missional, breaking up, starting over, selling buildings, ministry going bivocational, etc.

3) Produce results quickly: There was prevailing sense of urgency (in John Kotter's sense of the word) and an understanding that action needed to come quickly.

RR: Well....depends on what the results might be. If they mean "quick victories" that infuse hope that transformation can occur, then yes. But the motto of the missional church is key here: to get bigger go smaller, which means that to transform into the kind of movement that will grow in new cultures will most likely mean losing membership numbers in the interim, and the money that might be associated with it. Also, anything that sets an outcome based number and time frame such as we want to see x number of new members in uua churches by year x, especially within five years, will be counter-productive. Or rather it should be part of a separate initiative so the two don't get muddled together. This is aimed at trying to grow numbers within established churches with the least change and conflict. There is certainly room for that to happen and is a worthy goal, especially in a short time frame, but it is part of growth by addition not by multiplication and so will be limited. Again, worthy but don't let it take over the approach, or just be honest and say we don't think the association can foster the transformation and grow as needed in its present incarnation, but we can help some places grow by doing what they do better. For that you can get quick victories...And I think if the results intended are of a deeper nature, not tied to membership stats, such as we are going to have a tenth to a quarter of our congregations meeting criteria as Missional by the year 2020, then that is doable.

4) Focus on the attraction and retention of members in our congregations.

RR: See above comments related to quick victories and established churches growing vs. new plants of missions/churches. There is a big difference between growing by attraction vs. growing by incarnation, and attraction takes a lot of resources, and so does retention depending on what the basis of their attraction was in the first place; if they are attracted by programs then keeping them fed with new programs vs. attracted through mission to do mission.

A big yes to the factors being cultural and relational and not technical. Now to the participants in the conversation: Good that they are those who have experience growing established churches, good also that their personality traits exhibit dominance and influence. Just know that the strengths can also and will always be keys to the weaknesses; they will shape the conversation and planning toward growing established churches, which will be a good big step for the UUA, but will it be enough itself for the long term survival and thriving in the new context that calls for radical discontinuity with the past rather than better ways to perpetuate it?

Next step: convene a collaborative conversation that can look at growth from the fringes? What can community organizing ministers bring to the table of UU growth? What can entrepenuerial lay leaders? What can youth and young adults who are native and not immigrants to the cultures in which we must learn to live?

The list of why we didn't grow in the next five years: can't argue with those, except as you know if you have followed the blog over the years with the very first one about having a saving message; it is because we are a message-oriented people and theology, especially geared to attracting individuals as individuals (the strength and weakness of our historic polity, but that will be another blogtopic) that we have difficulty getting out of our heads and embodying and reproducing ourselves as a community. Especially liked the one that focus on growth would be seen as just another of the many focuses of the UUA. That will be one of the main killers and the one that will most likely happen because, as Edwin Friedman's important posthumous book puts it, it betrays a "Failure of Nerve".

What I would add: Why we haven't or won't grow in the next five years?
1. We didn't pray
2. Not doing number one means we didn't, at the least, have a core relationship with a sense of The Transcendent which calls us into being in the first place as missional people who live for others and not ourselves. With that we don't have to struggle for a lot of the rest; it will flow naturally from us.
3. We didn't identify natural leaders from a variety of sources within us and on our fringes to resource (connect, draw out their strenghts, provide training for their strenghts, coach, help them identify new leaders to reproduce. see one, do one, teach one) and turn loose.
4. We didn't build in and reward failure.

About external factors: All good and a good exercize. I agree with Thom that zipcode is crucial, and for established churches growing in established ways it is as he says probably vital. But it all of course begs the question of the nature and identity of what constitutes a congregation and what its aim is. In fact, contrary to much of what is assumed about population growth centers and growing churches, the organic church planting movement is based on the assumption that church multiplication happens best and most where people are the most desperate to be in and with community; when we locate our initiatives in places where safe peoples have plenty of options and resources and there is a lot of competition for their allegiances, then the church becomes a choice and not a necessity. If we dare to dream differently and located ourselves personally and communally.....

"Growth" Part One

Thanks to Thom Belote, again, at, and for all who were at the Denver conversation this month on UU growth. Here as part one I have copied over some of what you will also see at Thom's blog. Part Two will be some responses.

First from Thom:
From May 5 to May 7 I attended the UUA Growth Consultation held at a retreat center about 75 miles North of Denver, right at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Growth Consultation brought together 17 individuals and we were charged with developing a growth plan for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

More specifically we were charged with imagining initiatives that:
1) Are congregationally based: The approach cannot be "top down" but rather must depend on congregations working together collaboratively to grow.
2) Have a low cost: Even if the money were there, growing Unitarian Universalism is not a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Money can be raised for specific initiatives, but we were instructed to develop plans with a modest cost.
3) Produce results quickly: There was prevailing sense of urgency (in John Kotter's sense of the word) and an understanding that action needed to come quickly.
4) Focus on the attraction and retention of members in our congregations.
Above all, we shared a sense that the challenge of growing Unitarian Universalism could not be solved with "technical solutions." The challenges we face are cultural and relational.

The group of 17 included 9 parish ministers:
Kaaren Anderson, Co-Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church, Rochester, NY
Ken Beldon, Lead Minister, Wellsprings Congregation, Exton, PA
Thom Belote, Minister, Shawnee Mission UU Church, Overland Park, KS
Helen Carroll, Minister, UU Fellowship of San Luis Obispo County, CA
John Crestwell, Associate Minister, UU Church of Annapolis, MD
Howard Dana, Minister, Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, PA
Rob Hardies, Senior Minister, All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, DC
Christine Robinson, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque, NM
Michael Schuler, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI
UUA Staff attending included:
Peter Morales, UUA President
Harlan Limpert, Vice President of Ministries and Congregational Support
Taquiena Boston, UUA Director of Multicultural Growth & Witness
Terasa Cooley, UUA Director for Congregational Life (effective June, 2010)
Dea Brayden, Special Assistant to the President
Special Guests included:
Anne Bancroft, President of the Liberal Religious Educators Association
Jim Wind, President of the Alban Institute
Our meeting was facilitated by Jon Hassinger, President of CI International.

From Thom: Over a "break" during the UUA Growth Consultation, held from May 5 to May 7 near Denver, Colorado, a group of us put our heads together and chewed over the idea that the growth or lack of growth at any given Unitarian Universalist church might have more to do with external factors largely beyond the congregation's control than with what the congregation itself does.

Together we brainstormed a list of "external forces" that have been largely credited with helping a congregation to grow. Here is the list we came up with:

• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically conservative area.

• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically progressive area.

• We have grown because of our proximity to major higher education institutions.

• We have grown because the population of our metro area is transient.

• We have grown because of demographic and economic growth in our region (new buildings, new developments.)

• We have grown because of suburban sprawl.

• We have grown because of urban gentrification.

• We have grown because a local or national tragedy inspired people to go to church.

• We have grown because we attract people who hold a broad angst about politics and culture.

• We have grown because we have a fantastic location!

• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that promotes church going.

• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that does not promote church going.

• We have grown because we are the solitary UU congregation in a metro area.

• We have grown because there are many strong UU congregations in our metro area.

When we looked at this list and compared these statements with the congregations represented at the Growth Consultation and other growing congregations we knew about, we immediately recognized that these external factors are not causitive.

Some UU churches in major University towns have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches that are far away from major educational institutions have grown. Others have not.

Some UU churches in economically vibrant communities have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches in economically hard-hit areas have grown. Others have not.

For each item on the list above it is possible to point to congregations that have grown and congregations that have not grown. That some of the external factors that we came up with are contradictory indicates that external factors are just not as influential as internal factors.

We concluded that these external factors are not deterministic! What goes on within a congregation determines growth.

[My own opinion: Of all the items on the list above, the only one that I think needs to be carefully examined is the one about the economic vitality of the community in which the church is located. I heard somewhere that zip-code was the greatest predictor of whether a church would grow or not. At the outer limits, I think economic conditions can have the effect of constraining or supporting growth. However, I also believe that an adaptable congregation that is deeply in touch with its community can thrive in spite of external conditions.]

Also from Thom:
During the UUA Growth Consultation that I attended from May 5 to May 7, participants brainstormed ways to finish the sentence:

"It is 5 years from now and Unitarian Universalism has not grown because..."

Here are a few of the ways our group finished the sentence:

... We did not believe we had a message that saved lives.

... We were still scared of religion.

... We realized that by living our faith we might risk losing our place of privilege. Liberal religion requires that we live at the edge of what is comfortable. Rather than choosing to live on the edge we did nothing.

... We did not put religion first.

... Our ministers felt frustrated and demoralized.

... Preaching in our congregations was generic and predictable.

... Ministers hated being told what to do [to create growth in their congregations.]

... Our members lacked the ability to "go deep" and cultivate intimacy in our congregations.

... Our congregations did not want to grow.

... Our congregations were inward focused and acted like a "kept" social club.

... We equated Unitarian Universalism with white, middle-class values.

... We fought about governance.

... We failed to support growing churches.

... The focus on growth became just one of too many.

... The direction of the UUA failed to resonate at the local level.

... Our evaluation of growth programs was poor.

... We continued to neglect team leadership.

... We failed to create strong learning environments for congregational leaders.

... We did not feel that we had a moral imperative to heal disconnections in our communities and in the world.

And more from Thom:
In blogging about the UUA Growth Consulation held from May 5 to May 7, I thought you might be interested in the pre-work that the participants engaged in before we arrived in Denver.

Of course, much of the pre-work came from drawing on our own expertise and our experiences leading growth in congregations. Consultation participants were also asked to go beyond our own experiences and to confer with leaders in our congregations and colleagues.

In addition, we were assigned reference materials including:

1) The book that I edited, The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality.

2) UUA President Peter Morales' Monitoring Report of Global Ends, presented to the UUA Board in March, 2010.

3) A fascinating document entitled "Faith Formation 2020: Thirteen Trends and Forces Affecting the Future of Faith Formation in a Changing Church and World."

Finally, when we arrived for the Growth Consultation we all took a standard personality inventory known as the DISC Profile. The DISC involves answering 28 questions which reveals one of four personality tendencies. The four tendencies are:

Dominance: Emphasis is on shaping the environment by overcoming opposition to accomplish results.

Influence: Emphasis is on shaping the environment by influencing and persuading others.

Steadiness: Emphasis is on cooperating with others within existing circumstances to carry out a task.

Conscientiousness: Emphasis is on working conscientiously within existing circumstances to ensure quality and accuracy.

It is fascinating to note that one third of the gathered group tested as "dominant" and two thirds tested as "influencing." (Three members of the group also tested high on the "conscientiousness" scale.) But, it is worth noting that the group trended extremely highly towards the "dominance" and "influence" side of the spectrum and that our group lacked participants who most strongly embodied the traits associated with "steadiness" and "conscientiousness."

Question #1: Have you ever used the DiSC profile in a congregational leadership setting? What blend did you find among congregational leaders?

Question #2: Do you think the high tendency of our group towards "influence" and "dominance" says something about the nature of leading congregational grow