Monday, October 28, 2013

Life On Fire

Presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville OK
Oct. 27, 2013 Rev. Ron Robinson

Reading: from Exiles, by Michael Frost

Let me tell you a story from the book Exiles by Michael Frost, a book of stories of people being church in different ways. There was a young man who had grown up having a hard time, as a sufferer of ADD, sitting still in worship every Sunday in the spectator-manner of his church, and so when he became a young adult he decided that he didn’t have to keep “going to church” and so one Sunday he followed the invitation of a friend to join others who had being going out on the lake in a boat; while out there, in a lull from swimming, his old habits reared up and he felt guilty for not “being in church” and so he asked his friends if he could say part of a psalm and then say a short prayer, and his friend said sure, and he asked his friends if there was anything he could include in his prayer for them, and he did so. And he went back swimming and partying. Next Sunday the same thing happened, but this time he had also brought a Bible with him, and after a short time with him reading and saying a prayer they kept on partying. Gradually more and more friends were joining them. Gradually the prayers had more things mentioned. Soon they were spending time at the lake helping tow boats that had broken down, and were cleaning the park, looking for other ways to do random acts of kindness. They began to take time out for communion set up on some picnic tables, and they kept partying before and during and after. And all the while his worried family kept bugging him to “come back to church.” They thought church is something you attend; but it is something you become.

Sermon: Life on Fire

 It is good to be back in the pulpit here more than a decade after serving as student minister with you; a decade of a lot of change for me, for you, and for the larger culture and religious landscape of which we are a part. I could not have guessed when I left you in 2000 near the end of my seminary years that 11 years later I would end up on the cover of the Unitarian Universalist World Magazine for being involved with a new, but really rather ancient, approach to being church, and that what seemed like being a lonely voice in the missional wilderness just those couple of years ago would now be tapping into a wellspring of passion and risk that is one of the emerging ways of living out faith.

 I remember a time when some of the leaders from Boston came to Tulsa about five years ago and were listening to me try to describe how we were doing church on the northside and I could tell from their blank gazes that none of it was sinking in, but to their credit they kept listening from afar, and in the past few years I have been privileged to be a frequent preacher and lecturer and workshop leader of what is called the missional movement catching fire among us, a movement that is really more about changing the wider community, and changing the church in order to do that.   

Before I talk much about it this morning, I just want to say that looking back I can credit some of this to my time with you here, to seeing what a small group with a large vision could accomplish, and to the power of mere presence not only IN the wider community, but FOR the wider community. Those are some of the main hallmarks of the missional church, the word missional coming from the Greek word missio meaning Sent.  

 The title of the sermon comes from the gatherings some of us Unitarian Universalists have started to share and explore together of the church that is radically focused outward to and with others, so radical that it is even for and with some of those who want to live lives of service beyond any congregational or organizational structures.  But it is also for those who are remaining part of established churches and just want to help turn them more toward counting people served than people in pews.  After a few years of workshop gatherings and online communities we had our first Life on Fire meeting in September at the UU church of OakRidge Tennessee and we will have our second one Feb. 28-Mar. 2 at our place, The Welcome Table in Turley and far north Tulsa neighborhoods. In good UU fashion, even though mostly we UUs have started the Life on Fire events, we have been enriched by the presence of those in other churches and faith communities and welcome and need them.  

 When we planted our faith community ten years ago, as I was winding up my time as hospice chaplain in Bartlesville, we began in the fast growing suburb of Owasso north of Tulsa. The intent was not to become what we have become, but to be an established church that would look and feel pretty much like other churches and like what churches both UU and otherwise have looked and felt like since the 1950s and even the 1850s and before. Pretty much like what the church I started in 1991 in Tahlequah looked like. One focused on gathering people together around a message of religious freedom, one focused on how people relate to one another and support one another in the gathered community, one  where communal worship is the primary and central act of and for the gathered community.

 Now here is where I say that there is nothing wrong with any of that; it is just that it is only one way, one manifestation possible of the church and that we don’t any longer live in a one-size-fits-all world, and that includes church; and we certainly are moving, even here in our churched neck of the world, into a climate where we need a bigger bandwidth of church in order to meet people where they are in their new diverse expectations of community and faith. That modern model of what is called the Attractional Church, focused on getting people to “come to us and be like us” is one that takes more and more resources in this competitive culture; it is why the large are able to pull it off and are getting larger, and yet are still losing their overall market share, shall we say, at the same time.

Church researcher and consultant George Barna in his 2005 book Revolution has captured well the post-modern, post-denominational, post-Christian, and 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 the then 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).  

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 younger 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—But it is also why the small and very small groups, 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.

 That is what we started doing about six years ago. We had failed at trying to be an attractional church in Owasso and had relocated to the lowest income lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa area. There it became clear over the first few years that our mission was not to become the best church In the community but the best church For the community, that churches should not get healthier and wealthier while the communities around them become poorer and sicker, and that as one leader of the new monastic movement has called it (Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution) we in fact become smaller to do bigger things. We learned that the numbers we needed to be concerned about were not the numbers in worship or that might join as members or even any of those numbers I just mentioned about our percentage compared to the population at large, but the numbers we became concerned with are the numbers of the poor and sick and oppressed in our area where people die 14 years sooner than they do just six miles south of us. (Levin study, OU). We were located now in an area of great abandonment and decline with few to none nonprofits or churches or government present and working on renewal. But there is no place where there is not deep disconnection and great suffering, though the resources to meet those varies greatly from place to place, and is why even though there is much to be done anywhere, there is a particular moral imperative to be among what society creates and considers the least of these.
So In January 2007, with a core group of just six to eight people and about a dozen in worship on a good day, 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. We had talked among ourselves, particularly with the growing percentage of people who lived right around our space and who 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.
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 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 of our own, and we also worshipped during the week and travelled to other churches to worship with them on Sundays, UU churches and others.  Lately we have been more of a roaming worship group to build relationships with others around us.
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. First place is your home; second place is where you are paid to be or where you gather with people in shared affinity; third place is the common ground where differences meet.
In doing this We were shifting from church as a What to church as a Who. Church in the new and ancient way that didn’t require it to be a 501c3 organization, with a building of its own, bylaws,boards, budgets.
One of my take-aways of our many radical changes as a group is that 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 now have the beginnings of 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 the nonprofit 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 that had started as Epiphany Church then became The Living Room Church then Church at A Third Place became also just The Welcome Table. Four location changes and four name changes in 8 years, not mentioning how we started in living rooms, in a hotel meeting space, in the back room of a Panera Restaurant, and how we still look for ways to worship in the garden or at service sites.
The impetus is to keep turning inside out, keep responding to the needs of others and letting those shape what the church becomes. It is the first axiom of the movement that The Church Doesn’t Have A Mission; The Mission Has A Church. And our reason for being, what calls us together, is to be sent out to make visible in the world that Sacredness of Life that compels us, as we say, to love the hell out of this world. To discern who our heart breaks for, and let that guide us into becoming church.

In our new space, we have been expanding our food pantry that started in a closet space then one room and now into what we call The Welcome Table Corner Store, and we have a community art space, and crafts space, and free clothing and more space; we hold community events and community organizing meetings and put on free holiday parties; we are now leading the way in getting a new seniors group organized, and we have the lofty dream of trying to put together a coalition to buy and use for the community the recently closed school across from us. Meanwhile the community garden park and orchard is growing and becoming a site for events itself. It has won an award from both state and regional park and recreation societies and we are a finalist this year for a statewide Keep Oklahoma Beautiful environmental excellence award for our blight to beauty, despair to hope projects.
Of course we do this all on a volunteer basis, and we do it living like our neighbors, going from cut-off notice to cut-off notice juggling bills, and knowing that it could be cut back, curtailed or especially if we don’t get some more regular $5 and $10 or more a month donations from online and face to face supporters to offset those who have died or moved from our community, one of these days we could close just like so much else in our neighborhood. (One of the things I say when I am often asked, especially  by our  partners, the graduate social work students at OU, about what is the most successful thing we have done, is to say, “Just still being here” because so much else comes and goes and people don’t expect a good thing to be able to last in our neighborhoods.) We face that abyss with each break-in, each vandalism, each broken heart or hurt feeling, as people and finances come and go, and we have to grow deeper in radical trust and the faith to keep making leaps into the abyss.
That is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned out, so we can be a spark for others. It is why mission to others is always mirrored with refreshing the spirit—why I hope you are here this morning. It is why we say we aren’t really giving out food or information as much as giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us. Partnering with people of peace, and promoting a sense of abundance instead of anxiety, is more important than all the programs I have mentioned or that we might begin.
My faith and particular theology undergirds and guides all that I have done and seek to do, but 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 it is in shared mission loving the hell out of this world, something I can do with practically anyone. As a Christian, then I don’t ultimately need more Christians. As a Unitarian Universalists, then I don’t ultimately need more Unitarian Universalists. Those are not my missions. What I need and I think we need and the world needs more of are neighborhoods and lives of an abundant and serving spirit. If that results in more people adopting my specific faith perspective, great; but if not, if the specific communities and organizations I am connected with were to die away as the world changed from adopting their ways, then that is a legacy of radical love for the ages I will embrace.
I would rather have more serving community with us than worshipping with us (and that’s been a difficult concept for a preacher to grasp).
What I believe is that whatever happens in my community or in our wider church movement, the life and legacy of what we have done 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.  
That is what sets my Life on Fire.