Where Were You Hiding When the (Missional) Storm Broke?

Over the last couple of weeks, Unitarian Universalist Association staff from the department of Congregational Life have been blogging about Missional Church in general and a group that I helped to found, The Red Pill Brethren, in particular on their Growing Vital Leaders blog.

Their first post in this series, “The Red Pill-Mental Models – part 1”, referenced our Red Pill Brethren group by name and introduced the metaphor we Red Pillars (yes, that’s an intentional play on words, being we are Red Pill-ers, who are pillars of a new way of being and doing Unitarian Universalism) use to describe waking up from the deadening world of attractional church and going missional. Rev. Dr. Mike Slaughter explains the difference between attractional and missional:

Personally, I felt it was nice of them to take notice and I hope the fact that they have taken notice allows more people to wake up and break free of the prison our current liberal Protestant way of “doing church” keeps us in. I have thought about their initial post and those that followed. I finally felt inspired to respond or perhaps more accurately to share my thoughts.

The fact that UUA denominational staff have taken notice of the Red Pill Brethren and our missional approach to life (it’s important to note that making a missional shift is a shift in how you live, not just how you “do church.”) has clarified something of great, almost immeasurable importance for me. My clarification is this: I have no desire to reform or improve Unitarian Universalism. I have no desire to grow vital leaders for Unitarian Universalism. I’m not seeking to reform Unitarian Universalism or to make it or its leaders more vital. I am not a reformer. I am a revolutionary. There I said it. Now I can officially burn what few bridges remain between me and institutional Unitarian Universalism. Not because I like burning bridges or mucking up relationships or making things harder on myself, but because I no longer find any value whatsoever in putting focus on the church. The fact that our missional shift has been put forth as tool for growth and leadership development only makes glaring the reality of how badly so many are missing the point. Here’s the point – Improving your church and its programs and its leaders is a complete and total waste of your time and mine. Improving your community, its resources and its leaders is where all the time and effort need to go. Insofar as your church, its programs and its leaders serve the community in a meaningful way, then and only then are they included in the community.

We can’t make church better by focusing on church. Doing so is to endlessly focus on self-important “How?” questions that neglect the world around us for the sake of a few dozen people trying to better serve the needs of a few dozen people. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

The church and the world are in the process of a revolution. Sociologically, it is the most revolutionary time period for religious life in the last 500 years. Just to get a grounded understanding of what’s happening with congregations and religions I think anyone interested in such things needs to read and thoroughly digest Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence.

There comes a time, and the time is labeled revolutionary, when what exists no longer works. The point of diminishing returns is reached and it’s time for the dead to bury their dead. There comes a time when the most constructive thing to do is tear it all down and start over. Unitarian Universalism and the rest of liberal Protestantism have reached that point and crossed that line. There’s no going back.. It is no longer worth my time and energy to try and fix Unitarian Universalism or its congregations. I have way too much offer the world, a world that is in desperate need, to waste time and energy fixing something that can’t admit it’s broken. Yes, I understand that some people in positions of national or district leadership realize that a major overhaul is needed, but this I’ve learned from living missionally – Change and transformation can only happen from within a community. You can’t transform a community of which you are not a part. You need to be physically as well as spiritually and philosophically located in a community in order to affect any substantive change. The reality is the overwhelming majority of UU congregations don’t want to change. The over-riding mission of the overwhelming majority of UU congregations is to provide a place for like minded people to hang out on Sunday morning and then have lunch together.

My brother David Owen-O’Quill has given us one of the most powerful and most simple ways to explain the missional life. He asks “Who does your heart break for?” When you have an answer, go serve them and transform their lives. Your life will be transformed int he process. The unpleasant reality of contemporary Untarian Universalism (and we’re not alone because the same is true for all liberal Protestantism, including the United Church of Christ, the Methodists, the ELCA, the Christian Church, the American Baptists, the Presbyterians) is that the only people our hearts break for is ourselves. When the person your heart most breaks for is someone just like you – white, graduate school educated, financially stable, living in a suburb – you have no reason to engage the world outside yourself.

This may sound like too harsh a critique, but I can only write what I see. Time after time I have seen congregations offered the missional shift way to “revitalize” and “grow” but it’s too scary, too different, and just thinking about it raises the specter that “my” needs will no longer be met.

The only way forward is to leave behind those who insist on dying. If you can’t make a starving person eat or a dehydrating person drink, you are not killing them to go and eat and drink. The same food and drink is available to everyone. Let the dead bury their dead.

There’s a part of me that wants to jump up and down at seeing the missional approach of the Red Pill Brethren not only mentioned but discussed with seriousness on the Growing Vital Leaders blog of the UUA, but I can’t. The discussion misses too much. One writer on the blog mentions that seeing “the next big thing” in church leadership and growth strategies come and go is part of job, and wonders if this mission thing is just the next thing or the next phase we’re all going through. This is perhaps the best comment in any of the recent posts on the Growing Vital Leaders blog. What’ I’ve seen so far is that the UUA leadership and staff treats the missional shift as the next technical fix. The next “big thing” in congregational growth and vitality and leadership. Treating the missional shift as a technical solution misses the mark entirely. In fact, making the missional shift is not even an adaptive solution to an adaptive problem. Making the missional shift is approaching the religious life from an entirely different perspective, altogether. Once you make the missional shift, all the”how” questions take a back seat. How to get bigger, how to have more members, how to raise more money, how to have better programs, how to run better meetings, how to have better religious education. – all these questions become secondary or even tertiary. The only important question is “why?” and UU congregations along with many UU’s stopped asking that one decades ago. Why do we even have a congregation? Why do we bother to gather with this group of people? Why is it important to our community that we are here? If you can’t answer the “why?” questions, solving all the “how?” problems in the universe is not going to make a congregation more vital, more energized, more financially secure or lead to more members. Once you do answer the “why?” question things like number of members and how much money is in the budget are not as important because they all get answered with the why?

Once you answer the why, everything must change. Once you answer the why your answer governs everything from getting up in the morning, to how to spend the budget, to when and how to have Sunday services (or to not have them at all).

Why is a spiritual question. This is the chief reason why is so difficult, especially for UU’s. If you don’t know why immediately, without hesitation, if you don’t know now, off the top of your head who your heart breaks for, it will require some intense and possibly lengthy discernment to figure out. This may call for meditation, prayer, a spiritual director, a Circle of Trust or all of them. Debating what prayer is, or what spiritual means or why one needs to be directed just pushes off the wrestling match with “Why?”. It’s an avoidance strategy that gets you no closer to the why, but rather props up another whole level of how questions. How can UU’s pray? How can we best develop spiritual practices? How can we incorporate spiritual direction or covenant groups without alienating people? And presto, even the search for why has been co-opted into how.

The Growing Vital Leaders blog also clarified for me that as much as I can no longer muster the energy to minister to those left behind in the blue pill world of attractional church, I am glad that others, such as the authors of the Growing Vital Leaders blog can. Real, not rhetorical, revolutionary times, require hospice care. Having been a hospice chaplain at one point in my career, I can say that the hospice philosophy of living until you die is important. The hospice approach is not about making death easier, but about helping people live fully and as pain free as possible until they die.

Our current historical situation leaves no doubt: the old way of church, congregational life and denominationalism is dying. It is in hospice care. And the people who remain steadfastly committed to this type of religious life also need hospice care. While we give birth to the new Emergent church, there must also be hospice care for the dying church. We now need our hospice chaplains. These chaplains can minister to the small, decaying congregations and advise them on the hows of congregational life so as to enable them to live their religious life as fully as possible for as long as they have a religious life to live. But make no mistake, it is hospice care. The vital religious life has moved on to third places, abandoned places, even secular places, where transformation of the world into the beloved community is the never-ending why.