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.
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.
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.
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.
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.