What did we witness when University Christian Church, Congregational Church of Austin and UBC gathered for Youth Sunday in May? A remarkable sermon full of wisdom; enthusiastic congregational singing that reverberated throughout the sanctuary; and palpable joy as the youth led us who were strangers to be in communion, which is our deepest desire as human beings.
People left worship that day marveling at the beauty – and wondering about the possibility for more.
One week later our three churches gathered in UBC’s Fellowship Hall to explore the prospects of greater collaboration: How to build on the experience of shared youth ministry, shared college ministry through Labyrinth, joint choir performances, and the cooperative social ministry of Micah 6?
All three churches are in liminal space, that in-between where the future is uncertain, where fears reside, frustration rises, and conflict is inevitable. Yet the energy in the Fellowship Hall was positive. Indeed, it was electric as strangers connected around practical ideas: more combined worship, joint social gatherings, and collaborative projects with the university to address systemic injustice.
Feeling these opportunities within reach, people offered even bolder ideas: shared staff for outreach, shared staff for facilities management, and a combined membership that preserves denominational affiliations.
In the midst of death, the three churches pointed to new life. Paul Taylor summed up the meeting this way: “There was no discouragement, no desperation about the future of our churches – only excitement about what we can do together.”
This Sunday afternoon representatives of the three churches will continue the conversation, which is a critical part of UBC’s own season of discernment of identity, vision and leadership, discernment that has actually been underway for years. The three churches began formal conversations in the past decade in a process called “Convergence.” Other churches participated at the outset until the process came down to the three congregations that hung together around a provocative vision: “the unification of one or more likeminded congregations into larger, stronger church embodying a progressive gospel in Austin.” And then these three churches backed away for various reasons: issues to work out in their own congregations, leadership transition, a vision perhaps too provocative.
Nevertheless, that provocation, captured in a document titled “Vision Statement for a Conversation on a New Creation,” still resonates, because, again, it touches the deepest desire for communion. The statement is sacred, and I commend it to you. (View it online here.)
The statement is honest about the challenges faced by UBC in a changing religious landscape. The statement is honest about the opportunity: “While we have resources to continue at the same level of ministry for several years, we believe it is important to move in a new direction now out of intentional strength, rather than desperate weakness.” The statement is honest about the difficulties inherent in a move toward communion: “We recognize that letting go of what has been holy and precious to us in the past will be painful in each congregation …”
And the statement is genuinely hopeful, as only the prophetic witness is: “Our mission to proclaim a Christian gospel that is positive, loving, inclusive, and true to scripture is more important than making an idol of the ways of the past. Faithfulness to God and the saints who have gone before us means that we take from the altars of the past not the ashes, but the fire.”
Beginning July 21 and for the remainder of my time with you, I will preach on the future of the church. As you have heard me proclaim, the future requires the death of the church as it has been. There’s no way around this. The future requires leadership steeped in the prophetic tradition, summed up in two scriptures that start this “Convergence” vision statement: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19); and “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In my sermons I will draw upon the historic witness of UBC, for it carries the seeds of new life. The messages will point to the theological work the church has done and must continue to do; the personal work that is evidence of maturing people; and the structural work that is essential for the church to be wounded healers of the systems that encompass UBC, the neighborhood, the city, and the world.
Pray for me as I prepare to preach. Pray for the congregation as we reengage the three-church conversation.
Finally, pray for each other that courage will overcome fear, that curiosity will loosen the grip of certainty and control, that communion will evoke again our deepest desire. May we all take “from the altars of the past not the ashes, but the fire.”
Blessings on the work ahead,