Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Welcome Table, a sermon preached at Pathways Church, in the DFW area, June 9, 2013, on our 10 Years of Church in northern Tulsa

The Welcome Table
sermon at Pathways Church, June 9, 2013, Rev. Ron Robinson

Thanks for the privilege to be with you today. I have been an admirer and supporter of Pathways from the early conversations in the district and it is particularly wonderful to be with you for the first time this month as you lift up and look at some of the multiple ways church is becoming visible in the world. Your learning and your leadership from this is going to be more needed than ever because of our changing world.
I am a little out of my element preaching like this. Once in our church life a few years ago before we went missional I preached, sermonically,  like this I think 20 some times in a row, but now the preaching and teaching is more fused into the community ministry itself, and we do as much worshipping with others in their spaces as we do just by ourselves, and when we were holding our own weekly worship services we used pretty much a common liturgy, but sometimes not  one at all, focusing on sharing stories of what was happening in our lives and in our community, prayers for all, and eating together, usually with a hymn or two, but sometimes when the Spirit led we might sing 16 hymns all acapella, and then serving together often during the week, sometimes gathering for meal and study or meal and service together three or more times a week. Like a small group ministry, on its own, on stereoids.  
But I am going to be preaching today about church and the religious community I planted and have been a part of in the northern Tulsa area for the past ten years. It has been ten years of radical change, as you will see (flexibility of forms in order to sustain the relationships in order to serve the mission has been one of our core values, all as a response to the fluidity of our culture). I have to confess, though, that we have succeeded so well in that regard that anything I say about us today might not be true about us even by the end of summer. We have already changed so much from the time two years ago when we were on the cover of the UU World magazine. Now we are going through another wormhole, another re-boot, another examination to see if our default settings, so to speak, are still capable of keeping us oriented toward our reason for being---
And that is, helping God’s loving liberating mission to heal our hurting neighborhood. See the double focus is then on healing our neighborhood, something few if any groups of any kind in our area of abandonment are committed to, but also on doing so in the image of the loving and liberating community forming God. So we need to both live in and with our neighbors in service, and in and with the life of God, getting to know both better, letting that guide us.
In our own particular local culture of change this past decade, we are a microcosm of the experiences underway around us. Why we do church as we do is a result not only of the place we are rooted and its realities of poverty, and our own finite resources and yet vision of the Infinite, but also because of the realities of the broader religious landscape affecting us all.
A year ago this month I laid out some of these in a lecture for North Texas Unitarian Universalists. And let me say that your bringing in of different ways church is manifesting itself these days is a good response to one of the realities I sought to depict last June, that we need a broader bandwidth of how we become the church in order to meet people where they are, meet them physically and spiritually, as they themselves are more diverse in the kinds of spiritual relationships they seek and they need in this new culture that has moved, even in our neck of the woods, first into being post-modern, then post-Christian, then post-denominational, and now post-congregational. And yet so much of church manifests itself still in modern, attractional, denominational, and congregational culture that was the dominant default for some 500 years.
By “post” I don’t mean, Lord knows, the absence of any of those, just that they are not as they were, and will not be to an even greater degree, so privileged and dominant in the culture. Church researcher and consultant George Barna in his 2005 book Revolution has captured well the post-congregational world coming at us quickly. Based on his research of what is already happening, he predicts that in 2025, in just a dozen years, that Americans will get their primary spiritual experience and expression in these following venues: 30-35 percent of us will still be in local institutional or organized churches, whereas in 2000 it was 70 percent; 30-35 percent will be in alternative faith-based communities of a wide variety from house churches to marketplace gatherings to new monastic communities to missional communities to recovery groups to pilgrimages to places and major events, just to name a few, compared to just 5 percent who were in 2000; 5 percent will get their spiritual community through family, which is the same percent as in 2000; and 30-35 percent will connect spiritually primarily through the arts and media and culture compared to 20 percent who did so in 2000.  
How will Unitarian Universalism match up in those categories by then? Will we still be limited to congregations in a post-congregational world? If we don’t create a bigger bandwidth of what church is, we will be appealing to a much smaller segment than even we do now. In 1776 our churches as part of what we call Congregationalism were the most prominent religious body in the thirteen colonies, with 668 congregations out of 3228; that amounts to some 20 percent amid 17 different religious groups. I am not sure what our percentage of individuals were then compared to the total of the population then, but it is safe to say it was the most sizeable of any church groups. The impact of our values then upon the culture around us was even greater.
 In 1960 around the time of the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists we were down to 1 member per 1000 Americans,; by 2007 that number had dropped by another 30 percent, down to 0.7 members per 1000 Americans. I believe in the past five years it has continued to drop. In 1960 we were double the numbers of the Foursquare Gospel church in the U.S.; by 2007 they had grown by 80 percent and are now double our size in the U.S. I remember sitting on a plane to Boston with the leader of their house church networks back about 7 or 8 years ago who was flying into Boston to help organize their networks there as they had been for a while branching out beyond their traditional congregations. In 1960, Jehovah’s Witnesses were only three-tenths of one percent more numerous than we were in the U.S.; since then they have increased their share of the U.S. population by 177 percent and are some ten times our size. One group in American religious society, the Church of God in Christ, increased by more than 700 percent during that time period of 1960 to 2007.  (Rodney Stark, in The Triumph of Christianity).  Unitarian Universalism has its years when it does grow overall compared to a previous year, with usually that growth coming in the largest getting larger, but after years of decline beginning in the Sixties, we are now I believe basically back to the numbers we had at the time of merger.  
But in just comparing religious bodies from 1960 to now, we miss out on a lot because by far the fastest growing groups in terms of percentage of members to the population were groups not around in 1960. They have not had to have the kind of radical discontinuity with the past that is necessary to grow in the new cultural and competitive context (See Lyle Schaller’s book on Discontinuity and Hope). A world where in a given week now 65 percent of people in their 70s and above are in a congregation; but for baby boomers the number is 35 percent; and for Gen Xers it is 15 percent and for Millenials, some of whom are already at 30 years old, it is just 4 percent. (see Mike Breen’s Launching Missional Communiities). And the numbers aren’t changing as people get older.

The take-away is that no matter how good we get at what we have been doing we won’t change those numbers much at all, especially without the massive resources required to be competitive in trying to attract and keep people—that’s why the large can keep getting larger. But it is also why the small, with a big vision, and large risk-taking, can thrive by changing the competition, changing the scorecard as missional church author Reggie McNeal describes it. And it is why the middle-sized will probably have the hardest most anxious time, depending on which way, toward which vision, they seek to grow, up or down, often being pulled in both directions.
I think these numbers tell us we have to get good at two things: we have to get good at breaking out of our ruts that develop so quickly, our dominant molds, our prevailing modes; and we have to get good at not caring ultimately about all those numbers I just detailed, numbers about us and other churches. For living in a world where the concerns of our church and other churches or faiths or beliefs are our major environment and focus is like living in the Holodeck of the Enterprise, like living in The Matrix, like living in the American Dream’s Consumer World Entertainment Marketplace Empire that shapes our sense of self and reality, like Narcissus of old focusing on his image in the pool—it is a false world that will use us up. Those church numbers do reflect a reality calling us to face new challenges, but the answer to that challenge does not lie in seeking to change the numbers about us, but about our commitment to changing the numbers of the suffering around us, which is the way we also, by the way, heal the suffering within us.
Which brings me to the number we at The Welcome Table spend most of our time thinking about and working on…..a 14 year life expectancy gap between our zipcode and others in our area. In light of those numbers we do not seek to become the best, biggest, brightest church in our community, but the best church for our community, building it up, brightening it.  If we have to change in order to change the lives of our neighbors, we do it. This reality also guides why we believe church exists—not ultimately to bring people of like minds or like values together, not because we have a message or principle about religious ideas to convince people of, not because thinking rightly necessarily changes the world.
For while my faith and theology undergirds and guides all that I have done and seek to do, in our new world it isn’t where I personally, or communally, seek to first connect with people. Not with shared ideas, not with thinking, not even with shared spiritual practices such as worship, but in shared mission. As a Christian, I don’t need more Christians. As a Unitarian Universalists, I don’t need more Unitarian Universalists. What I need more of are neighborhoods and lives of an abundant and serving spirit.
I was taught that the common worship service on Sunday was “for company”, it was a way of attracting people by publicly broadcasting our message, week after week, and then we had to work to get them to stay and get involved. Adding church worship to their busy lives was hard enough that it was almost impossible to get the majority to then get involved with running the church, and then especially to add in serving the world outside. Now I look at putting the world outside first, meeting people for the first time in service there, and inviting them to then enter worship and study as a way to grow in the spirit in order to serve others more deeply, or to find out from them how their worship and study was energizing and shaping their service. I would rather have more serving community with us than worshipping with us.
 While Churches used to be places for people’s believing then behaving then belonging,  now it is the reverse--people seek belonging, learning to behave, also in the sense of behavior, of common practices, of shared actions, which then end up opening up for growing and sharing beliefs. We seek first to be the church in relationship, in action, in mission with others for others, trusting that the space that creates is where belief can best be grown and shared.

That hasn’t, however, always been the case here. We started out, ten years ago, in a very different place and path.
In some ways we began in Weston, Mass. in 2002 during the annual convocation of the Christian Churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association when during worship and on my knees with hands laid on me by ministers and those in attendance I was commissioned as an evangelist; this coming just two months after I had been officially ordained by All Souls Church in Tulsa and was serving as a hospice chaplain, the first of my bi and tri vocational ministries as church planter. So the idea was to create another congregation in our UU Christian tradition, to be message-oriented primarily. Such a church, like many churches, could be placed practically anywhere you could attract enough people around the message to operate an organization to perpetuate that message. The goal and work then was to attract those people to achieve that purpose. Get more people to think like me, to value what I value, and the world would be a better place. Of course, in our world today, with the reputation church has, church is not only the only place to accomplish that goal; it might not even be the best place.
The concerns of any particular local piece of that world, especially a place where it needs to be better in the worst way, so to speak, was not the concern. Just creating an institutional expression of these religious values was mission enough; and the place I was in at first, a fast growing suburb without any progressive religious institutions, seemed the kind of vacuum where just enough folks could be found to accomplish that task.
We started as a group of nine, half of whom had not met one another and one whom was supportive but only came to lend moral support, on Jan. 6, 2003 on the Day of Epiphany in our living room, and each week after that one place or another or day or another. First we were named Epiphany Church and met in homes then motel banquet rooms and at Panera Bread meeting room, then in our own rented space in a small commercial strip; our first public worship was Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday 2003. We had 25 people on that first Easter;  it is probably the most we have ever had for worship in the past ten years. The Sunday after Easter we had three people.
We could have stopped then, like so many church plants dying of a premature birth and inadequate leadership and limited resources and in a culture that didn't fit with us. For we discovered soon that culture trumped theology and message in many ways and people in our area wanted and were getting new churches the way they were getting new box stores, fully stocked and operational and geared to them from the day they opened. As a grassroots non-funded parachute drop church plant in such an environment, we didn’t have the resources for the vision of church we sought. Being different theologically wasn’t enough.
But we continued to be open to where the Spirit would lead us, would need us, and so it was through many "deaths to what we had been", through many steep learning curves. We began with a change in that cultural environment, moving from a place of accumulating wealth and accumulating people, with demographics of people with college educations,  to a place of poverty and declining numbers of people, with few who had been to college.  
In September 2004 in a re-start we moved to the unincorporated area of Turley, OK and the far northside of Tulsa in the 74126 zipcode; it was mostly because of the cheap rent, was halfway point for some of our leaders at the time, who lived miles from one another,  and was the place where my wife and I grew up and were moving back to. Still at first we were promoting ourselves as Epiphany Church and meeting still on Sunday mornings, then on Sunday evenings, still primarily focused on offering worship and study, and food, and when we could doing things out in the neighborhood like planting flowers, and cleaning up streets; then because Epiphany was a word that few in our area seemed to know, and because we were becoming more informal, like a house church in public, we became called The Living Room.
In January 2007, with a core group of six to eight people and about a dozen in worship, we made our big missional transformative move; we had just lost our biggest financial contributor from our original group,  but we felt called to serve our community and its severe needs of abandonment. We had talked among ourselves, particularly with the growing percentage of people who lived right around our space and came for the community and food I think and then the worship, and we talked with others outside of us about what they felt the community around us needed. More People who believed like us was not on the list. Neighborhood Pride, spirit, safety, healthy food, cleaner environment, sense of a community, better animal control, better schools, these were tops.
So, with fewer people and less money, we took a leap of faith and paid more and rented a four times larger space across the street and  opened up not billed as a church, but as a community center soon with library computer center clothing room food pantry health clinic and gathering space, in which we created space to worship amid the space we gave away for the service of others, rather than having a separate worship space, and we also worshipped during the week and travelled to other churches to worship with them on Sundays, UU churches and others.  
The center was called A Third Place Community Center and started embodying the concept of third spaces where people of great differences could come together for the common good, especially in an abandoned place of the Marketplace Empire, with people left behind and left out, in the lowest life expectancy zipcode in our greater area. We were still then known as either The Living Room Church or sometimes as just Church at A Third Place but we were shifting from church as a What to church as a Who. 
My take-away: As we failed at what we thought we wanted to be, we became what the world needed us to be.

In 2009 we completed the missional move by creating the separate non-profit A Third Place Community Foundation to connect with others and partner with them for renewal in our area, and to be the organizational wing of our mission, while as church we became organic, incarnational, even smaller so that we could keeping dreaming and doing bigger things. Which we did the very next year.
In summer 2010 through our nonprofit we bought the city block of abandoned homes and trash dump and transformed it into a community garden park and orchard, and called it The Welcome Table, named after the demonstration garden spot across the street we had put in as partners with the local United Methodist Church on their property loaned to us—where we have now a native wildflower plant preserve--and named after the hymn of that name which our children loved to sing when we worshipped, especially when we worshipped outside at our garden spots.
Then At the end of 2010 through the nonprofit we bought the original Methodist church building which had been the largest abandoned building in our community for several years. To tie in with the garden, we called the community center project also The Welcome Table. And so when we moved into it our church/missional community became also The Welcome Table.
In our new space, the oldest church building in our area, we have been expanding our food pantry and have a community art space, and crafts space, and more room for our community events we throw like our free holiday parties that have grown in leaps and bounds.  We are now leading the way in getting a new seniors group going in the area, and are trying to put together a coalition to buy and use for the community the Cherokee Elementary school that has been closed, another source of abandonment just as is our recently closed postal service, the closing of another of our civic groups, the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

When we moved to the old church building we worshipped on Sunday morning, though could also worship at the gardenpark or at our garden we had put in at the nearby school, since abandoned, or wherever our mission might take us. We had a main gathering that would start at 9:30 am with ingathering and sharing of lives and news, then move at no designated time into a study and sharing time often watching a progressive Christian video or discussing selections from books or bible study, then also at no designated time moving into worship time for communion and prayers, which might at times be interwoven into our common meal time which always follows. This gave people options to come into the group for any or all of the rhythms, including those who join us from other churches after their worship or who come for the meal time together only and may join us for worship or study if we are still engaged in it. Our motto was worship is more party than program. Pretty much everything was multi-generational.
By this time we had developed a series of ways to describe the vision  we sought to live into, failing, but seeking.
Church is something we become, not something we attend. And Church has four pathways of becoming: the first is growing mission, serving the least of these as neighbors; the second is growing in community relationship with one another in order to better serve others; the third is growing in discipleship, or personal growth, in order to better offer our gifts to our community so it can offer itself better in service to the world; and the fourth is worshipping, where we refresh our souls for the service of the world. We also seek to follow and promote the 3Rs of community development outlined by civil rights and missional church leader John Perkins: calling us to Relocation to abandoned places, Reconciliation work, especially ethnic reconciliation in our two mile service area which is predominantly African-American,   and in the Redistribution of goods and The Common Good. To do this work in community we look for Re-locaters, Returners, and Remainders, those who have stayed; each has particular gifts need by the group.
For covenantal practices we have held out the vision of daily prayer, weekly worship, monthly spiritual accountability, annual retreat, lifetime pilgrimage, and daily acts of random kindness beauty and justice---small acts of justice, as Mother Teresa said, done with great love. As a church we don’t have a board, bylaws, budget or our own building space, and we ask people to donate to the non-profit foundation whose board has both our members and others.

Still, with so much accomplished for our community and much to be done for our community by so few, still now at the 10 year turning point we are going to be discerning again how to incarnate our vision of God's movement in and for and with those in our neck of the world; what kind of spiritual community does our community need that we can meet? How grow in covenant and shared leadership and still stay small enough to make big change in the world. How live in that tension of being “a church” or being a part of “the church/the movement”?  Can we still offer the permeable boundaries of community worship and service and study that welcome in folks who are either in other communities or are content with their involvement with us, who might only want to be with us either during the week or only at a more traditional Sunday worship time? Can we embody multiple communities, our own broader bandwidth of being, connected together in a radical way, and grow leaders for each of them? Can we in the next 10 years start or inspire whole new missional communities in other places and ways?  
What I believe is that whatever happens, the life and legacy of The Welcome Table will like all of us ultimately live deepest in the relationships we make, regardless of what form they take or how long they last. Our goal is not self-perpetuation, but giving ourselves away and giving ourselves back to that Great Love, in which we live and move and have our being and share with others for others, especially those most in its need.  

Welcome tables, where the theology of enough and the ministry of mere presence are the meals that sustain us, are both the easiest tables to set, to set up, and the riskiest to set at. But I believe they are also a blessing, one we in our tradition are gifted and called to offer. 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Church Planting/Growth Redux

To pull together a potpourri of older posts on this blog related to church planting and growth issues, here is a link that will take you to a good assortment.

Gems from planting guru Bill Easum and his ministry leaders.
Anti planting attitudes among churches.
The Church Planting 101 link of links from around the time of the Minneapolis GA workshop in 2011
Book Reviews
The Why of Planting: The Inside Out Church and new ways of neo-evangelism
The Questions To Begin Asking
The intersection, or not, of progressive seminaries and planting, of progressive theology and planting.
The basics of Missional: The church not A Church
Tensiion Points around Class and Theology, Children, Jesus, The Importance of Place
And more