Another model for churches, pt. 4

Part 4 in a series. Read Part 1.

Different kinds of liberal churches for different kinds of people

If you think about it, there are several different kinds of liberal church. Let me try to enumerate some of them: (1) churches which offer programs — a music program, a children’s program, a support group, opportunities for leadership development, etc. — these are churches whose participants tend to be like consumers; (2) churches which are centered around a person — as in the 19th C., the 28th Congregational Society in Boston was so focused on the person of Theodore Parker that when he died the congregation did too; (3) churches which convey social status — “That’s the church where all the best people in town go”; (4) churches which offer spiritual activities, typically Sunday morning worship services, where such spiritual activities are limited in time to Sunday mornings and in space to the church building; (5) churches which are well-intentioned social clubs, not much different from Rotary Club or the Masons. Each of these is a perfectly valid kind of church.

However, there is at least one more kind of liberal church. These are the liberal churches which function as a kind of non-residential intentional community. In the Emerging Church movement, the parallel to this kind of liberal church would be the missional church; that is, a church in which the people lives out God’s mission for them. The Emerging Church conversations thus describe this kind of church in theological terms, where I have been approaching my description from an organizational perspective. (Of course the theological perspective is inherent in my organizational perspective, for I am describing an organization which incarnates religious visions.)

I prefer to take the organizational perspective, at least to start with, because I think that perspective helps us to understand that I am trying to describe a continuum that stretches from an intentional residential community at one extreme, to an intentional community that functions non-residentially. In the middle are those intentional church communities which sometimes gather together (or at least significant portions of the church gather together) in a residential setting, perhaps an overnight retreat. And in between the two extremes, we can find a wide range of temporary residencies: from churches where the entire core membership of the church lives together in a residential setting for a period of time; and from there we get ever closer to completely non-residential communities, as the various subgroups living together in residential settings decrease in size, decrease in time spent together, and increase in homogeneity. “More residential” does not imply “better”; in fact, a completely non-residential intentional community may be better than an intentional community which tends to exclude persons because of the residential requirements.

And this leads us to consider that intentional church communities do not always incarnate religion in useful ways. I have been critical of some Unitarian Universalist youth conferences which may have appeared as temporary intentional religious communities, but which were actually inward-directed, and which therefore were not self-transcending. Most church retreats are similarly not self-transcending. Mission trips, where subgroups of the church live together doing social justice work of some kind, are more likely to be self-transcending, but if these subgroups do not have a good understanding of the religious reasons why they are doing social justice, then they are not incarnating religious visions, but instead are simply liberal do-gooders who happen to spend the night together while they’re doing good.

For some of us, the ideal kind of liberal church is somewhere on this continuum of intentional community, where the church embodies most or all of the characteristics in the list above. Many of us who prefer this kind of church do not feel the need to live together, although we do need to share meals together and do self-transcending work together; we need to spend enough time together that we become a true community, which implies knowing each other reasonably well.

I think it makes sense to call such churches “missional churches”; not that we share the theology of the Emerging Church people who originated that term; but the term does express our desire to live out our religious mission in the world. In my case, that means lives out the Universalist vision of God’s love extended to all persons (and indeed to all beings). Will Shetterly has expressed a related (but slightly different) approach, saying, “The church should be the place to keep the coals of justice warm and ready to be fanned at an instant’s notice.” You may have yet another formulation — the essential point being the same, that the local church exists to live out a religious mission in the world.

The liberal missional church can serve as a kind of postmodern monastery. In this postmodern era, many of us consider retreating from the world problematic at best, escapist at worst — e.g., we are not going to solve ecological disaster by forming little self-contained communities, because we know that that it is impossible to be “self-contained” and somehow separate from ecosystem-wide disaster — so we are not going to be very sympathetic to Alisdair MacIntyre’s call for new Benedictine monasteries. We are going to be much more sympathetic towards James Luther Adams’s understanding of ecclesiola in ecclesia, with the theological and justice implications in that term — although it seems to me that eventually our understanding of what we’re doing is going to have to evolve beyond what Adams said decades ago.

And those of us who are invested in the missional liberal church are going to be impatient with some of the people who prefer the other kinds of liberal churches. I know that I am most impatient with those who prefer churches which offer programs, and those who prefer churches which are social clubs. When I hear things like “My needs don’t seem to matter much at church,” and “The times of day sucks for me,” I have very little patience because the person who says this kind of thing obviously believes that church is about meeting his or her needs. By contrast, I believe that the church represents an intersection between what I have to offer to the world, and what the world needs for healing.

I recognize that mine is not a popular viewpoint in a postmodern society that is so heavily dominated by consumerism, so that we are constantly brainwashed into believing that our lives should be focussed around having our needs catered to. Therefore, I know that the missional liberal church will never be particularly popular. I also know that I will have to tolerate the majority of people in liberal churches who have been brainwashed by the consumer culture — which means that trying to have an actual missional liberal church seems almost like an impossible fantasy. What keeps me going is contact with the few people who understand church the same way I do.

Next: Metaphorical and physical turf

4 thoughts on “Another model for churches, pt. 4

  1. will shetterly

    I hear you on, “the church represents an intersection between what I have to offer to the world, and what the world needs for healing,” but I also think it’s fair to say the hours suck for you if they do. Work has changed enormously since I was born, yet churches and schools are still structured for 1955. I think the solution for schools is easy: make schools 8 to 5. (Okay, easy except for the expense.)

    But how do you make church more practical in a time when Sunday is just another work day for many, and Sunday morning is impossible for those with Saturday night shifts, and Sunday morning is the only time for many families to be together privately?

    Huh. Didn’t mean to wander so far from the mission-based church, but, well, I agree with you there.

    Okay, a bit on that: If I had more of a sense that the UUA was driving a mission-based program, I would be very, very happy. The great thing about preachers like King was that they didn’t quietly suggest it was good to do good. They demanded it, and expected no less from their congregations. And their congregations loved them for it.

    It may be that the mission-based church should be a shared movement for many denominations. But I’ve always thought the UU commitment to social justice made UUs stand out in the ’60s, and then the church lost that as the society did. But the church should be the place to keep the coals of justice warm and ready to be fanned at an instant’s notice.

    Okay, I’ll stop before I go into full rabble-rousing mode.

  2. Dan

    Will @ 1 — You write: “I also think it’s fair to say the hours suck for you if they do. Work has changed enormously since I was born, yet churches and schools are still structured for 1955.”

    Exactly!! We do need to get away from the Sunday-Morning-Only approach to doing church. So-called cell groups and small group ministries do some of that. But we also need to have alternate times for worship. I spent a year in the Geneva, Illinois, Unitarian Universalist church, and they had a Saturday evening worship service, which was fantastic — some people would come to church and then go out to dinner in some nearby restaurants afterwards; some people came who had to work Sunday mornings; one couple came because one of them was suffering from dementia and they just couldn’t get out of the house before noon (common with dementia sufferers, as we saw when my mom was dying). Sunday evenings might work better in other parts of the country. But really, it seems to me that any church that wants to stay viable these days simply must have two alternate worship times — and two services on Sunday morning just doesn’t cut it. At the same time, using the time as an excuse (“Sunday morning is when I like to sleep in” or go to the farmer’s market or whatever) doesn’t cut it for me — that’s an excuse, not a reason.

    You also write: “If I had more of a sense that the UUA was driving a mission-based program, I would be very, very happy.”

    My basic theory is that the UUA is a bureaucracy, and we should not expect creativity or excitement from them. However, it would be equally true if you said, “If I had more of a sense that there were any Unitarian Universalist churches doing mission-based program, I would be very, very happy.” — That is still pretty much a true statement, and it is pretty sad…. That’s the problem I’m trying to address, by offering the beginnings of an alternative to what a church could be. (And yes, I’m stealing liberally from Christian emergent churches, some of which are already going in this direction — and some of which also offer more reasonable times for worship.)

    You also write: “The church should be the place to keep the coals of justice warm and ready to be fanned at an instant’s notice.” Great quote. Moved up into the body of the post, with attribution…

  3. kim

    Hi — Interesting post. For a while I was trying to get a UU monastery, called a Chalistry, started. Oh well. It’s still my dream.
    On the subject of consumerism, have you read Doug Muder’s wonderful piece on that? It’s called Right and Left Together, and was dated Nov. 14, 2006.

  4. will shetterly

    Aw. Glad you liked that!

    I wrote a longer response with meditations on top-down and bottom-up missions, but it became a mess, so I didn’t post it. But I’ll ponder it.

    I wish every UU group would try Saturday night services for a few months.

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