Saturday, June 21, 2014

What The World (and the Church) Needs Now...

Sermon, UU Church of Stillwater, OK Sunday June 22, 2014
“What The World (and the Church) Needs Now”
Rev. Ron Robinson

Readings: from Isaiah 58, and from Michael Durrall’s chapter Church as Activists not Spectators in Church Do’s and Don’ts, and a little from Apostle Paul in First Corinthians 13.

This week I am going to be presenting a workshop at the UUA General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island entitled “Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Reaching Out.” It will be about the lessons of our ministry at The Welcome Table in far north Tulsa as one example out of many of what is called these days the missional church. The missional church is different from simply a church with a mission or what is called sometimes a purpose-driven church; a church with a mission or purpose can be a church that decides taking care of its own current members is what is most important to it and to the world and is its mission or purpose. But The mission-al church is the opposite of that. A missional church doesn’t spend time trying to figure out or debate about a mission statement, either, or change it every few years, because Mission, being sent to serve others, is what brings it about, is what gives it the air for it to breathe and live and move and have its being in the first place. The missional church may change often, but not its language and core sense about itself; instead it will change its very external forms in order to better respond due to the changes around it, to keep living into its calling to be sent and to serve.

The theme of the General Assembly itself is Love Reaches Out. It is a good theme for the various re-orienting approaches to our purpose as congregations toward missional goals. That theme is capturing the movement within our wider movement toward what is called a focus on “Congregations AND Beyond”; both are needed, existing congregations and new forms beyond congregations, but we have historically, like most church bodies in the modern era, spent most of our resources and life focused on congregations only. In the past they were the primary place where spiritual community happened. Now that that is all changing, and they don’t have a privileged place in either the landscape of religion and certainly not anymore in the landscape of culture at large, we need to create some balance with more attention paid to the Beyond part, to the many new ways our faith and values are being incarnated in relationships in the world that don’t look or feel like congregations and organizations have up to now. We need to connect with, need to “go to” people who have little use or ability to access traditional models of “come to us” congregations and organizations--no matter how inviting and well run they are—people who are still hungry for connection for service to others in a meaningful ways and worship that refreshes the spirit for that service, and chances to reflect and learn from that service.
Congregations, even ones who haven’t changed much fundamentally in 60 years, will continue to have a strong potential for transforming lives and the world, but if we don’t also look and live beyond ourselves and our own organizational needs, sometimes in radical new ways, sometimes carried out even by existing congregations, then in the expanding spiritual universe that requires a “bigger bandwidth” of what church means, we will find ourselves with shrinking impact in the world.
            Churches are answers, or responses, to questions, to conditions that call them into being in the first place. We say that church does not have a mission; but Mission has a church. There is a felt need that church seeks to meet. Church is the response then to What The World Needs Now, and what the world needs now might not primarily be what the world needed when a particular congregation was begun. Especially in a time of rapid cultural change.

In the past 25 years, I have planted, started or re-started three churches, and helped others to start. Over that time, the questions asked in determining what church should be and do and where it should do it and who should be in it have changed. They are not anymore how many people like you can you gather together; how many have a college education, how many in an area believe like you do, or even have similar values that you do, much less, as sometimes guides our choices, who likes the same music or who listens to the same radio stations, all those old marketing questions that used to guide us in attracting people to start churches. It is particularly not how many people can we get to become members so we can more easily meet our budget to keep taking care of ourselves.
Now the questions are: Who in your community does your heart break for? Where are those most vulnerable and what are their felt needs? Why should you exist in the first place and for whom? To what forms are you willing to die in order that you might live more fully in a new land? If you ceased to exist, how many in the community beyond you would notice or be affected or care?
One of the many new radical expressions and experiences of church that I will be talking about in my workshop at General Assembly is that I no longer believe our goal as church is to create more Unitarian Universalists, or for me as a Christian I even say it is not to create more Christians. Becoming x, y, or z is not the end in itself we strive for, is not the Why for our existence, but is at best a means to a greater end. It is those greater ends we need to keep our eyes on, and our resources pointed toward; the greater end of helping to create lives and communities of generosity and boldness and compassion, and so they can then help create lives of abundance and commitment to the most vulnerable and endangered in our society who should be our ultimate concern.
Creating religious institutions is certainly one way toward that end, but only if they do not see themselves (and their beliefs) as the end in themselves; in fact, they may, in various ways through what they do and not do and what they might keep people from doing, work against making the world a better place, especially better for those beyond them (and maybe within them too) who are suffering the most. This is what happens when a church focuses on becoming the “best” church in a community instead of the best church for the community. It is what happens when a church seeks to thrive while a community around it declines.  
Just becoming a church member, I believe, or even believing a certain way, does not make the world a better place for those who struggle the most. It is as scripture said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Are the best fruits those of “right ideas” about the Ultimate, or is it those who form “right relationships” with the most vulnerable, shamed, and outcast? Which fruit is deemed the “most religious”? This is especially true in areas where there is a lack of resources and of groups living in and with and for the poor and marginalized, where it is not a case of “other groups” being available doing this mission. Especially with the cutting back of public support and a sense of a commonwealth, there are fewer and fewer others stepping into the increasing gaps of society.
 In our area, for example, the landscape is dotted with churches only opened on Sundays while buildings continue to be abandoned around them, or buses that come in from the big churches in other area who pick people up and bring them back and ignore the neighborhoods they live in, all to focus on creating a pseudo-community feel-good experience weekly; like a spiritual hit. Like creating another realm of consumerism.

It is important to put all this church and culture change into a wider context. If nothing else it should help alleviate anxiety, blame, shame, and conspiracy theories. This shift in the ultimate focus for church is an aspect of living in the wake of the cultural move in the West from the churched to dechurched/unchurched culture. Of going toward a post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational, now post-congregational world. By post I mean not that those elements and institutions aren’t important and a current factor, but that they do not hold the central privileged places in society the once did.
In the churched culture (that began to really lose its privileged place throughout the USA by 1963) the point of church life was, mistakenly I believe but still the dominant point, to continue the existence and power of the institution of the church in a world populated by the institutions of other churches, faiths. Church was a given so your mission was to differentiate yourself from other churches. The church was primary, was the center, and the mission field was secondary, was a resource for the church. (Was often seen as far away in other lands. This is another way the new missional-church is the opposite of the old mission-ary church; in that old culture, the church went to the world in order to convert it to being more like the church; in the new mission-al culture, the church goes to the world in order to serve it, be converted by its deep needs, changed by it first so it can then truly change the world.)
In the churched world, People tended to become or return to becoming the church-goers of their families and neighborhoods; brand loyalty was high and clearly defined culturally and there was little stress of competitiveness between the churches, and littler still between the churches and the culture and its various opportunities outside the church. In this world making more Unitarian Universalists, or Methodists, or whatever, was the way the church realized its beingness in the churched-focused culture. 

Especially so I might add if you were in a church that also grew more and more percentage of its own coming in from other churches, then making more UUs became increasingly important, it would be seen, for its survival. In the dialectic of the age, the more the external community became less focused and dependent upon the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. “The mission” used to be to perpetuate churches in a world where the “missional field” flowed toward the church; in a world where the church as institution has been marginalized, the missional field has shifted and it has become primary, and so too then should “the mission.” In response the church today either flows toward the missional field, or it dies, gradually or quickly depending on circumstances. (There are admittedly many ways the church can flow, can empty itself, toward the missional field; our manifestation at The Welcome Table which is always changing itself is just one; there are exciting varied ways of being the church happening all over the UU world. You can check out some of them and support them on the new website that goes live this Wednesday at 4 pm. By the way, we have two projects seeking support in the all or nothing crowdsourcing site: one for a Kitchen Greenhouse at our gardenpark and orchard where the abandoned houses used to be, so we can grow more and grow year round and teach cooking and preserving and grow more healthy lives in our area where we die 14 years sooner than others in Tulsa, and the other is for our Community Room so we can use it all year, for seniors, for youth, for service learning projects with universities, and for hospitality for those who come from around the country to work with us and learn with us.
When you see the variety of new expressions underway among us, and there are more even than are reflected in this inaugural funding web project, you will see that what is happening is a kind of New Fellowship Movement focused not on creating small organizations of “us”, but on new ways of relating with “them”, those who may never join an organization or call themselves UU or this or that but who will walk with one another in the spirit of love in order to share that love with those experiencing it the least.
Now, Is making more Unitarian Universalists (Christian, etc.) a bad thing then, or an unnecessary thing? Only I think if we make more Unitarian Universalists who think that the purpose of their faith is themselves and what they believe, and that it is more important to have and promote the right religious beliefs instead of the right religious relationships, and those are ones made with those different from us, and those others abandon and treat unjustly, unmercifully.
And yet, aren’t ideas, beliefs, important and have consequences? Yes. For example, I say that what I try to do as a leader of a missional community among the vulnerable has all to do with how I understand and experience my particular faith of freely following Jesus, and comes from a theological commitment to a God of liberation and radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed. But in reality what has been manifested at The Welcome Table has been enriched and deepened not so much by thinking about these things, the missional life, and holding the right ideas about it, but from living in it and growing in response to the needs of ourselves and our neighbors. It has come more from failing at our very own visions and endeavors and ideas, but then being able to respond to the new openings and relationships that happen as a result. I say often that when we have failed to be what we wanted to be or thought we needed to be that we then grew to become what the world needed us to be.
It has been freeing to make not being right about theological matters the main reason for being, but instead making the creation of more compassion and justice in the world the reason for being, and to imagine churches who embody it. Yes, all the old theological commitments and positions that have shaped our UU history are important to engage with (when I was in seminary I took a third of my courses in theology; it was a kind of graduate subspecialty of mine; and I had been studying Process theology for almost twenty years before going to seminary, and I love church history and teach UU history and polity at the seminary), but these positions which had delineated us in the old decades were always just a part of a deeper holistic religious tradition; they weren’t the be all and end all of our faith; that also has always included spiritual practices, community life, and service to and with others, and those three things can still  move us toward being with others deeply, spiritually, despite theological stances; all because the hurts of the world demand it.
Now I say I am more concerned with and am more urgent about keeping alive those in my zipcode who are dying at faster rates that the wealthier in our area are, more concerned about them than I am keeping alive theological differences or keeping worship services filled, or churches afloat financially. Nor do I want to grow the numbers of Unitarian Universalists so that the democratic process in religion will flourish. Or, for that matter, so the Seven Principles will be adopted by more people. They can be and are being championed by any number of faith communities and more secular groups, and that is all good. Our calling is still higher than these, and even the seven principles are also means themselves to put to use toward the ultimate ends of making life just a little bit easier, safer, more hopeful, more sacred for those without those things.
Again, I believe we are experiencing a shift from the old churched culture of people seeking and coming into, or staying in, a church because of what they have come to believe and think already and are entering the new unchurched culture where people are seeking and coming into or staying in a church because it is open and nurturing to what their beliefs might still yet become as they grow and deepen as persons through the primary religious act of healing engagement in the world beyond themselves.
Unitarian Universalism is not the end, it is the means; I say the same thing for myself about Christianity. And that makes a world of difference in how to impact the world now. Yes, We matter. But Not because there is a difference and uniqueness we must preserve in order to be ourselves (that goes for my brother and sister Christians as well as my brother and sister UUs). And Not so people of like minds have a place to call home and celebrate their like minds (or like values). We matter to the extent that we offer, or can offer what we have always offered throughout our history, a way of radical loving covenantal freedom for people to connect with and grow with others, others of all kinds of ideas and situations, into a more abundant generous hope-filled justice-seeking humbled people,
A people Whose mission is to create beyond itself more of what the world needs now: love, sweet love. It’s the only thing there’s just too little of.
 The Apostle Paul was right; faith hope and love these three; yes, faith is important; yes, hope is important, but the greatest of these, more important than what you believe to be true, or how you happen to be feeling, is love. Love made real in our commitments to others--not just for some, but for everyone. Lord we don’t need another church feeling good or bad about itself and the future; there are enough of those; what the world needs now is love, bold love, for the least the last the losers of the American Dream. What the world needs now, more than more church members, is church with the faith, the hope, the love, to take leaps, leaps into the lives of those who are struggling for any faith, some hope, and love. And the wonderful surprise, as the prophet Isaiah knew, is that when that is the primary quest or main mission before us, then we ourselves and our churches, our connections, our communities by whatever shape, we will grow as well in mutual faith, hope, and love in order to be able to share what we have in abundance.

What the world needs becomes what the church needs; we just have to put the world’s needs first.