Here I am at the Southwest Unitarian Univervsalist Summer Institute. I’m spending mornings with Rev. Ron Robinson of The Living Room Church in Turley, OK in his workshop on Organic Church and the New Monasticism. Right up my alley – Emergent Church communities with a liberal, even Unitarian/Universalist theology, mission focussed, walking the talk. Let’s get to some highlights to give y’all some food for thought as well upset the apple cart of UU culture and the usual approach to “church growth.”
Many UU congregations interested in growing (a presumption I’ll get to in a minute) assume they must be invitational and do many and varied things to attract people to their congregations (and on a larger scale to the association – the ridiculous Time magazine ad comes to my mind). Thus, marketing strategies are discussed and pursued and getting new members and new money in the church door literally becomes an end in itself. This is cart before the horse backwards, especially if a congregation hasn’t defined its values, vision and mission.
The shift is one of being invitational to being incarnational from asking people to join you to getting out in the world to be with people. What is it that draws you and your faith community out into the world? UU congregations are made up of many people who left other churches to find their faith, but it is also often the case that people leave UU congregations to find their faith or feed their spirit. I don’t think we like to admit this.
UU’s have many and obvious differences with Evangelical Christians – although less so with the Emergent Church movement – but we can learn much from their methodology and much from some of their folks who study how to start and grow healthy, vibrant church communities.
Reggie McNeal is one such Evangelical writer and Ron Robinson cites him for recommending the church (and it applies to any church or denomination) make three shifts from:
1. Internal to External – Even have your board meet off site at a restaurant. The dynamic shift of going to the world instead of having the world come to you.
2. Program to People – Ron noted that the faith community helps people “debrief their lives.” The Living Room church even stopped sermons and instead have Holy Conversations. The more opportunities people have for fellowship and connection the better, this doesn’t always require what we think of as traditional church “programming”.
3. Church to Beloved Community – think in large terms, not A church but THE church and not just your group, but as a part of the entire larger whole working to create the beloved community.
Ron told us about Leonard Sweet’s book Post-Modern Pilgrim and I agree that doing ministry and being church in the post modern world requires a different world view and approach than the modern model that came before it.
Sweet says Postmodern church and ministry is EPICC –
Participatory – sermon sandwiches don’t cut it.
Image – driven by images – don’t fill a worship service or a web site with text!
Connecting and Community – post modern church needs to be open source and socially networked.
Ron shared with us that the natural organic church recipe focuses on values, vision and mission. It lets the DNA do the work of creating. If conditions are right, growth will happen with food and water and sunlight, but you have to grow what’s right for your climate, and you can’t force a certain type of community in one place the way you can’t or shouldn’t force or introduce plants that are invasive into a foreign ecosystem.
Ron’s Natural Church Recipe:
1. Build relationships
2. Serve the Community
3. Celebrate those relationships and that service in worship
I think Rev. Ron is on to something. Too often I think we start churches because a number of UU’s live in the same area and want to get together each Sunday. But why? Just to get together each Sunday? It’s not there isn’t inherent value in that, but that’s the relationship building. When the service to the world comes in, not just the escaping the world together, then a mission can be found for the group’s existence because then there is an internal-external combination. Then there’s the both / and of the spiritual life. Then people will want to celebrate their relationships and service in worship and in lifting up what is valuable in who they are and in what they do. However, we usually do this backwards. We gather for Sunday services and wonder why our communities have no center and have trouble staying together and have certain dysfunctions – well, relationships weren’t build and service hasn’t been done and there’s no mission, no real reason for being there except we like Sunday morning.
So many UU’s like organic food, clothes made from organic materials, organic this and that, so why not organic church?