Who will this church reach, primarily?

As I worked on my vision, I realized the that the core constituencies (others may come, but these are who the work of the church are directed towards; dubbed “ministry focus group”) have one thing in common: these are people who have given up on Christian faith because they feel (often with good reason) that Christians have given up on them.

Rather than “pre-Christians” – a precious and often presumptuously insular term – as often seen in church planning resources, I suspect that the people I ought to reach are really “re-Christians.” For the moment, I’ve identified three sets of them.

  • Twenty- and thirty-somethings who dropped out of mainline churches in their teens. These adults (no cloying “young adult” speak, please) were bored to tears by their mainline upbringings. Even today, their parents’ church is dying because it has failed to make the generational transition effectively. Still, they have the consciousness that “rock n’ roll” Evangelicalism and “hands-up, eyes-closed, brain-stopped” charismatic Protestantism and Pentecostalism isn’t for them. They want Christianity something like they think they remember: participatory with cultivating narcissism, current without being “corporate” (think “suits” not “common prayer”), and deep without being moldy.
  • Gay and lesbian persons who have gotten on with their lives: are out, may have a successful spousal relationship and children, and aren’t “into the scene.” At least, not anymore. (Who has the time? The patience? The abs?) Yes: there’s a lot of anger about the church and none of the options seem worth the bother of returning. They don’t want the be drowned in rainbow flags (how gays could be associated with such a tacky color scheme remains a mystery) and be pigeon-holed accordingly, forced to be closeted, thrown into a church-as-meat-market, or go to the most peculiar house of worship because it is the only one that would take them. No “you’re depraved and sick” from the Right; no kid gloves “you’re O.K.” and infantalizing pandering from the Left will do. (For the latter, yes, lesbians and gay men have some real and nagging issues as a community. There’s no use in whitewashing them.) This church will have to deal with some righteous anger with grace (in both meanings of the word) and dignity, and at the same time get past “Gay Bible 101.”
  • Family members, and especially spouses, of active Unitarian Universalists who are Christian, and though they want to support their kin, find “garden variety UU-ism” to be shallow, weird, or pointless. They may have been insulted or snubbed because of their faith by Unitarian Universalists who don’t believe they really belong in their congregation. They’re also not keen on becoming Episcopalians or some other mainline Protestant, in part because (at least on paper) the Unitarian Universalists look like they ought to be the right choice, or because the worship is way too high or way too low.

would love your commentary.

Naming the church

Something I have to work on is a name for this church, and I welcome your suggestions in the comments section. This is where being too close to the material can be limiting. A theological name will almost certainly send a misfired message. There are the twin risks of being too cute (an alliterating name?) or too severe (St. Anything, perhaps). I like names of the Church of the MediatorChurch of the AdvocateChurch of the Messiah school. But I might be alone there, and unchurched people may vote with the feet.

Ideally (according to Robert E. Logan again) the name should best exemplify to unchurched people the church’s key descriptor. Thus if the church values friendliness very highly, the name alone should radiate friendliness. Also, it should have an available none-too-long Internet domain, since that will help deliver the outreach message, and in no way should its acronym spell out something embarrassing.

Universalist (in the name) could scarcely have more meanings than it has, and for the last two generations, its “advocates” have deliberately de-Christianized it. On the other hand, people are attracted to the name, and it does say something. I know I’m usually suspicious of “no name” churches, including anything with the word community in it, the latter having been hijacked as a feel-good buzzword by church planters of all denominations.

Since I intend to plant this church on the parish-church model (over which I have written much) I should note that the parish can either be numbered (that is, the Second Universalist Parish in the City of Washington) or simple be the Parish of x, where x is the name of the church.

First ten good things

One of the things I’m doing preparing for the new start church is coming up with fifty affirmative statements someone might make to describe this church, as is it were already up and running. If you can’t do this, then you probably don’t have a good enough idea of what the implementation will be like.

Some of you out there will recognize this from Robert E. Logan and Steven L. Ogne’s Church Planter’s Toolkit. Which I would recommend, by the way. It may be the fastest, most direct immersions into another philosophy of ministry I’ve ever seen.

Here are the first ten:

  1. Worship isn’t wishy-washy.
  2. I can meet with other church members in my neighborhood.
  3. (Other) gay people don’t have to second guess being out.
  4. The parenting classes help me anticipate my child’s developing faith.
  5. I’ve can learn many different kinds of prayer here.
  6. Women and men share in leadership decisions on an equal and open basis.
  7. The lessons learned here apply directly to my life.
  8. The church doesn’t pander to (other) young people, but treats them (us) as interested persons.
  9. I can try on new ways to be spiritual without judgment.
  10. We take trips together to enriching destinations.

Thoughts on Christian identity

I tend to work by fits and starts, and so putting together identity and vision statements for this new church is going to be especially hard work. I thought it might be better to write some, add it to the blog, ask for comments, and repeat. Better to do that than get discouraged. Here’s part one:

Christian faith is transmitted through communities; every Christian alive today is thus an heir, even though the inheritance is a mixture of the Gospel, those traditions that explain and explore it, and miserable additions that have hurt the faithful and others in the world. Missionary despoiling of American peoples and church-harbored violence against Jews are two obvious examples. The work of a reformer, in faithfulness to the Gospel, is to make the best of a decidedly mixed situation.

Many people have tried to overcome the miseries and the divisions among Christians by attempting to restore the church to a New Testament state. We tend to think of storefront churches here with grand names, but Unitarianism shared in this pursuit, though this later morphed into a quest for “pure religion.” Universalism’s chief proponant for a “restored Christianity” – Adin Ballou – saw his plans fall in his own lifetime. Religion, we have learned, is not pure or ideal; to be real, it must mingle in the messiness of real human experience, and must express itself in those experiences, not remembered ones. Still, human beings don’t change much from generation to generation, and so long as we are careful, the rich treasure of Christian tradition remains open to us.

Thus, the vocation of a Christian is not to vacate everything that happened after Good Friday, after Pentecost, or after the last word written in the received library of the New Testament. Looking for Jesus’ faith without the church’s faith is a futile quest. It misunderstands his mission and ours. It allows romantic falsehood to flourish and tramples our consciousness of history and culture. Though well-meaning, the church cannot be “first century” because we are in the twenty-first century.

The identity of this new church has to be faithful to the Gospel, compassionate to those who feel estranged from it (especially to those whose estrangement comes from prior experience with Christianity), receptive to the full range of Christian tradition, and selective in its application to this time and place. With some of the task marked out, we can proceed.

before, please comment.

Gathering a prayer team

I know that I am going to need the prayerful support of many people, and this is something I will need particularly of those people who care about this project but do not live in the area.

Please pray for the success of this new church start, and for the people whose lives it will touch.

Vineyard

I like Vineyard websites. Simple, full of positive expression of who they are, and riddled with practical, ready-to-download resources.

Look at these sites: don’t you get a sense of warmth and vitality? There’s a lesson in all that.

Vineyard USA
They stay on message. You find the sentences “Our Web site can connect you to these churches as well as helpful on-line resources that advance the Kingdom of God.” all over their site. You know where you stand.

Vineyard UK and Eire

Vineyard Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Background on space: The post-reformation English chancel

What do Quaker pews and Elizabethan chancels have in common? Certainly not that big altar-table, but there’s something about “church in the square” that makes me thing that these two English-born communions have in common.

But first, go and look at two pictures, and come back.

  1. Deerhurst Parish chancel (not set up for communion)
  2. Hailes Parish chancel (set up for communion, but lacking linen and communion ware

Both and more are at the Ecclesiological Society’s website feature, Communion arrangements in the century after the Reformation, 1560-1640

The object lesson from the Episcopal church these days is that the Puritans were bad, bad, bad for destroying those graven images, and the Oxford fathers were good, good, good for re-establishing catholic standards and practices in the Church of England. Now that it is harder and harder to find low-church Morning Prayer Episcopalianism, the conversion is about complete. But is there something to recover from those now-lost days?

What the Oxfordites did was reconfigure the churches in the Victorian era to eradicate architectural evidence of how churches were used in earlier ages. Indeed, church buildings adapt to the needs of the day. A medieval English church would have had almost perfectly distinct chancels – the realm of the clergy, making the Mass in the virtual privacy – with the nave reserved for the laity to observe the Mass and their private devotions. Grandma Ermengard, in the thirteenth century, might have gone to St. Ninian’s, said the rosary, and when the chancel bell rang, would have looked up to see the elevation of the Host, crossed herself and gone back to her prayers. That’s a rather overstated simplification, but the point holds. (Please put your corrections, amendments, brickbats, etc. in the comments.)

The reformers (and this really is a crass oversimplification) opened out the churches, made preaching and singing (and paying attention) central, and at the height of Puritan power maximized the pulput and minimized the table and baptistry to near-vestiges. But I’m interested in the Elizabethan church. Typically, it moderated between the two extremes. The off-limits chancel was opened, “salon-style,” but not universally. (But then again, you can measure a church by what it does, and so there’s something distinct about the church-in-communion. Read that in both senses.) It was the place for those who communicated: the clergy and laity who came to meet their Lord at the table. To this end, the table (the old stone altars have been smashed) was against the east/back wall when not in use (Deerhurst Parish photo) and brought out when in use (Hailes Parish photo). The Hailes parish chancel appears to be in the place of what we would consider a chapel (indeed, I wonder if it was a chantry chapel before the Reformation) but in a “typical church” it would be “up front” like churches with chancels today. Just partitioned off.

I imagine if you went outside the door, you would find the reading desk and pulpit facing the nave.

Now imagine a substantial, single-tier but movable reading desk/pulpit flipped back inside the chancel. And make the wall behind this reading desk a pair of large doors. Behind the doors put a multipurpose room twice the size of the chancel. Now I think you can see the direction I’m going.

A “chancel” seating thirty-five or so, with communion centered worship would hold services there most of the time, but for larger celebrations – Christmas, Easter, conferences – the doors could be opened, the reading desk turned around, and more space used. Most of the time, it could be safely rented or used for other, secular purposes.

Small can be beautiful (and not even as small as you think)

You know that the Unitarian Universalist Association is a fellowship of small churches by its large number of small churches and what it considers large: churches with memberships over 550. That ain’t huge.

Part of what troubles me about Unitarian Universalism is (a) it adopts one model to accomplish something and (b) that model is usually dated.

So we want big churches now? Hmm. Would we know a really big one if it bit us? Who would minister to it? And would professional jealousies and a fear of the unknown undermine it? And why is it the only option for supported new congregations on the table?

In any case, I’d rather work with our strength: smaller churches. (And there are a number of strategies that can be applied here.) These smaller churches (which range into the mid-sized by UU accounting) are re-gaining some currency. It also covers (in terms of size) every new UU church but one founded in the last decade.

The article is three years old, but worth reading. It could work for us:
Make Way for the Micro-church (Nicki Reno)

Polity quandries and the UUA Bylaws

Disclosure #1: In my hypothetical church planting exercises, I believe that UUA membership would be desirable, but not essential, to the welfare of the church.

Disclosure #2: Rules — in this case the UUA bylaws — are not made to be broken, but imagination must be applied to them, so as the negative parts of the culture behind the rules do not taint the new work and mission. In other words, there is more than one way to read the UUA bylaws and still stay true to them and Universalist Christian church planting.

Disclosure #3: I believe that any new Universalist Christian church needs to rest on the Winchester Profession, even if there is a local profession built on top of it.

Now, to the UUA Bylaws.

Section C-1.1. Name. The name of this Association shall be Unitarian Universalist Association. It is the successor to the American Unitarian Association, which was founded in 1825 and incorporated in 1847, and the Universalist Church of America, which was founded in 1793 and incorporated in 1866.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief. Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

Section C-3.1. Member Congregations. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships, referred to herein as member congregations, which have freely chosen to pursue common goals together.

Section C-3.2. Congregational Polity. Nothing in these Bylaws shall be construed as infringing upon the congregational polity or internal self-government of member congregations, including the exclusive right of each such congregation to call and ordain its own minister or ministers, and to control its own property and funds. Any action by a member congregation called for by these Bylaws shall be deemed to have been taken if certified by an authorized officer of the congregation as having been duly and regularly taken in accordance with its own procedures and the laws which govern it.

*Section C-3.3. Admission to Membership. A church or fellowship may become a member congregation upon acceptance by the Board of Trustees of the Association of its written application for membership in which it subscribes to the principles of and pledges to support the Association. The Board of Trustees shall adopt rules to carry out the intent of this Section.

See also


Rule 3.3.5. Rules and Regulations for New Congregations. It is essential that Unitarian Universalist congregations be affirmative in spirit, inclusive in fellowship, and mutually supportive in their relationships with other congregations. The following statements represent the Association’s best judgment as to the meaning of this general statement and shall be used by staff and the Board in determining action upon applications for membership.

. . .

(b) The Association interprets its statements of purpose to mean that no congregation can be accepted into membership if its bylaws exclude from its local membership any person because of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin.

(c) All member congregations must be congregational in polity; the final authority to make decisions must be vested in the legal membership of the congregation.
. . .

My questions are

  1. What constitutes a creedal test? Do organic polity documents of a UUA predecessor have special status? Is the Principles and Purposes, if individual acceptance is made a qualification for congregational membership, a creedal test?
  2. In what ways do the highly centralized habits of Unitarian congregationalism and de facto congregationalism of Universalist semi-presbyterianism influence the current practice of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism? And more, what does it mean to have congregational polity without an understanding of the “headship of Christ”? Does the UUA secretariat assume some of the spiritual character of unifying the congregational churches in its fellowship?
  3. Unitarian Universalists today use terms that have different meanings –congregation, church, parish, society — as synonyms, and apply a specific meaning to one term — fellowship — for adminstrative, but not ecclesiastic, reasons. What kind of polity, befitting a Universalist Christian church, would come from a clearer understanding of these distinct ecclesiastic terms?
  4. Likewise, what if we made clearer distinctions between language of theological identity, like creed, affirmation, profession, confession, and the like?

[Spelling corrections made. SW.]