Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

A Missionary Faith

Last night, I attended a gathering of Micah’s Porch, a Unitarian Universalist missionary David Owen and a Lutheran Minister at Micah's Porchoutreach in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was perhaps not what most people would conceive of as being mission… and I’m sure that there are more than a few people who might have an adverse reaction to it. But it works from what I think is one of the basic premises of missionary work.  (www.dare2seek.com)

Before you can bring the people to the “Gospel”, you have to take the “Gospel” to the people. You have to meet them where they are.

Now, this is in part geographical…but in many ways, “going to the people” is an attitudinal shift. It is about gaining an understanding of the people you are hoping to reach, and crafting your message in such a way that it connects with the culture that they are a part of. It is not about changing that culture, at least not immediately… but about showing how the “Gospel” you want to present can be a part of that already existing culture.

The missionary in this case is (to use the titles he does not in his missionary work) Dr. the Rev. David Owen-O’Quill (or Dave when he’s on mission). The “Gospel” he is on mission for is that God’s love is big enough, boundless enough for us all, even if you can’t really conceive of going to “church”. “The People” are young people in their 20’s and 30’s who have never gone to church, more likely to listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers than NPR, may not have college degrees, and are put to sleep by choir music. He is reaching out to the young and unchurched. The goal is not to have them join an existing UU congregation, but to reach them with a message of God’s love and grace that is not exclusive. The goal is to inspire them to the faith of Unitarian Universalism, but in their own way.

Flyer for Feb Micah's PorchHis setting and his mission is crafted with that demographic in mind. They meet in a bar. They have a rock/punk band. His sermon/message is short. He uses cultural references they can connect with. The service is interactive. There is an interview of someone on a topic brought up at the last month’s meeting (last night I was the interview). They advertise with flyers on telephone poles.

It is a radical enough idea that people who would never walk in the doors of a Unitarian Universalist Church come and hear a message of liberal faith. Some just stop in the bar to have a drink, and hear a message of liberal faith. That message may transform lives, just because they came to a bar one night to hear a crazy preacher who sometimes slips and says the f-word… and who tells them they are not going to hell, that they are of value just as they are, that it is ok to question things, and that they can still find ways to be deeper spiritually without becoming “Holy”.

Whether he intends to or not, I think David Owen-O’Quill is asking a radical question of our Unitarian Universalist Faith… and that is this: Is our Gospel important enough to us and to the world that we are willing to support efforts to get out of our comfort zone… out of our highly educated, rather successful, rather activist/political comfort zone and find ways to spread the message of Universal Love, Human Goodness, Interdependence, and Inherent Worth to those who have never heard it… and desperately need it?

I am not saying, nor do I think David Owen-O’Quill is, that there is anything wrong with our David Owen-O'Quillcongregations, or that we should lessen our efforts to reach out to our most commonly conceived of core demographics. Though I am also on mission, I love our UU congregations. That we have a growing movement of people who join our more traditional congregations is what allows us to support missionary efforts such as David Owen’s. Or mine.

Yes, I said mine… because I realized that what David Owen-O’Quill is doing with Micah’s Porch is the same kind of missionary work that we are doing with the Great Lakes Military Ministry Project… and even with what I hope to do as a side effect of serving as a Military Chaplain. Not necessarily to convince more people to attend a Unitarian Universalist Church, but to go to where “the people” are, understand their culture, and then reach them with a message of Universal love, human goodness, and interdependence.

Speaking in the culture that David Owen-O’Quill is missionizing might sometimes call him to use a “bad” word or two, and have a rock or punk band. At Great Lakes it calls us to provide a time when they are not being yelled at, or ordered to do anything, but can be open and honest with someone about what they are feeling. As a military chaplain, it will call me to be with them in the Armored Personnel Carrier, or jumping out of the plane with them, or to speak to them about the grief we are all feeling about the loss of a friend, and to do so using the stories from the Bible, because those are the stories they know.

What changes is not the “Gospel” of Unitarian Universalism, but how that Gospel is delivered. That is the key to becoming a missionary faith. And our world desperately needs missions of liberal faith.

“Go out into the Highways and Byways… Give them not Hell, but Hope…” — John Murray

Yours in Faith,

David

11 Thoughts on “A Missionary Faith

  1. This is similar work that is being done by Christians in most cities. The difference is the UU slant… there is lot of god talk in your post… is that the UU message?

  2. David, this is a fantastic post. I’ve been checking in with Micah’s Porch from afar, ever since I first heard Dave preach at 2U, and I think his approach is a brilliant way to break through the proverbial walls of our churches to reach more people, yes, right where they are rather than where we might wish they could be. There is a shift that needs to happen in Unitarian Universalism, away from the insular nature of most of our congregations and towards the actual mission that most claim to profess: to get the message out into the world. It is a saving message, I am convinced, worthy of a much greater audience.

    Thank you for writing this. May I post it on Best of UU sometime in the future?

  3. This is great, David. Thanks for posting on Micah’s Porch – and your Great Lakes work – and how the message remains the same, regardless of where or how it’s delivered. I’m still not sure about some of the more radical forms of worship our younger colleagues are advocating – but I remind myself that they’re not creating them *for me,* but for a generation that is not comfortable with traditional forms. Change. It’s not easy, but it’s inevitable…

  4. Yes, by all means, yes. Spread the good news to places where it is never heard, (which is almost everywhere.)

    Thank you for doing UU ministry in the Military!

    I think the whole creation of “Community Ministry” in recent decades is an attempt to get UUs to not only be safe in cloistered congregations but also to serve the rest of the people where ever they are found. My ministry is deeply congregationally based, but even still I get out into the community and am known for social justice work by those who may never be members of my congregation, but who now know the name and associate a friendly face with UU.

  5. Thank you all….

    I wanted to answer a specific question…

    This is similar work that is being done by Christians in most cities. The difference is the UU slant… there is lot of god talk in your post… is that the UU message?

    This gets at two core aspects of what I was saying in the article, Jacqueline. The first is that the message of liberal faith is more important than the language and culture set that it is expressed in. The second is that we as UU’s have to learn to be “multi-lingual” if we expect to reach a larger base than currently attends our congregations.

    You perceived my post as being full of “God Talk”. In actuality, I only used the word “God” twice, both times describing to the best of my ability the basic message that David Owen was presenting… not myself. I did use the word “Gospel” (which means Good News) several times, and the word “mission” was at the heart of my thesis.

    The language seemed to bring you to question whether the message was even Unitarian Universalist. You did not see through the language to see that the core message David Owen presented was one of Universalism, deeply rooted in our faith tradition.

    This is what I mean by an attitudinal shift. I used that language intentionally… the same kind of language I might use when discussing my UU faith with my Southern Baptist Chaplain colleagues. They are able to understand the ideas of our faith better, because it is presented in language and metaphor they understand. When I go off on Adams and Schleiermacher their eyes glaze over. When I talk about a faith that believes we are called to create the Kingdom of God here and now, not in some afterlife, they get it.

    Though I will freely admit, I use the word “Gospel” in services in UU churches as well… it is a word I think we need to reclaim. Just like I think we need to reclaim a concept of mission.

    The other point you raise is that, if that language was a distraction for you, because it is not a part of your culture, imagine how many of the unchurched feel about attending our very protestant style UU Church worship. This is why it is important, if we are to reach them with our “Good News” (if you don’t like the word Gospel) that we have to learn to present it in their cultural language and metaphor.

    Thank you so much for your post, you gave me the opportunity to go deeper in explaining my thesis.

    Yours in Faith,

    David

  6. Hi David,

    Great reflection, and thanks again for being the interview-ee at our gathering.

    Micah’s Porch is almost less of a church and more of a nomadic tribe. Our quest is a new exodus except the wilderness we are lost in is an urban, postmodern, individualist, consumerist environment. The empire is no longer Rome, but a global corporate kingdom that promises salvation and delivers emptyness and destruction.

    Our hope is in what the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams called the “radicalized” covenant. This is the covenant that not only binds the tribe (community, church, etc…) in mercy and justice, but transcends it as well. It is the covenant of a God whose grace is universal, and embraces all people regardless of creed, color, nation, language, or status.

    How that covenant is embodied is going to be very dependent on the cultural context. Right now many of our churches have grown so used to a certain liberal, academic, npr-listening, Mary Oliver-reading, religion-from-childhood-rejecting sub-culture that the culture itself is often confused with Unitarianism, Universalism, and the ever ambiguous Unitarian Universalism. For many it is very hard to see our faith outside of this context because the culture has become the faith.

    There is an old joke that the Unitarians believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston. Don’t get me wrong,I love Boston, but I find the first two causes of God and man (humanity) much more compelling and feel called to take them into other neighborhoods.

    I’ll end by saying that my experience is that there are many others in our movement that are feeling compelled to recover the dynamic of mission in their faith. Our world is facing cataclysmic problems and sitting on the Unitarian franchise is a luxury we cannot afford.

    Remember to give the not hell but hope, and don’t forget to K.A.T.N.

    Dave
    founding pastor, Micah’s Porch

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  9. David,
    I’m writing on behalf of the Women’s Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale. One of our members, Velaine Carnall, heard you speak at the Spring Conference of the UU Women’s Connection, and suggested that we invite you to speak at our Alliance’s November 12 meeting. This is an afternoon meeting, 1:00 p.m. at the Hinsdale Church, 17 West Maple Ave., Hinsdale, IL 60521.
    As a group, we are pretty well mired in the culture you describe. Perhaps you can inspire a new sense of mission among us.
    Joan Prims
    630-323-5257

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