Lessons Learned from a Progressive Church Start-Up
With a big smile, a bit of money raised, and enough naiveté to blind me, I showed up to the office of the Conference of the Northern California Nevada United Church of Christ. It was the fall of 2010, and I had left a beautiful village church in New England to follow the call to start a new progressive church for this place and this time.
There was enthusiasm from officials in my denomination, but not much in the way of guidance or practical support. I took classes and got a coach and read books and attended seminars. I interviewed lots of people, did as much research as I could, and then guided by searching prayers and Census data, our family moved to San Jose in 2012, following the energy and statistics to the Silicon Valley.
It was clear to me that the growth would be here, and that San Jose would be the place for a new radically inclusive, deeply spiritual, unapologetically progressive, theologically diverse church engaged in transformation!
As a life long church nerd in the United Church of Christ, I didn’t know all that I didn’t know. I didn’t know how much of a subculture Christianity has become in many parts of this country, and I didn’t understand fully how much damage has been done in the name of Jesus’ teachings. For many, the Gospel of Jesus of Christ has come to stand for “audience style religion” that excludes and judges, and cares more about being right than doing good.
It wasn’t until I sat at festivals, and hosted events, and attended conferences in the name of this new thing that I came to understand how much time it would take to make the case, and build enough trust, and show up for justice enough to show for real, that this new church is something different.
I thought I came to startup town, to the capital of innovation, to launch a new thing. I thought I could read the right books, and talk to the right people, and create the right checklist. As if following a plan perfectly were the path to salvation.
I learned later that we were doing something that is expected in innovation. It’s what Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, calls “achieving failure,” which turns out to be “successfully executing a plan that leads nowhere.”
I think that religious communities are genius at this. Religious leaders are wildly successful at generating plans that are adored and then later idolized, which means the community ends up worshiping the plan, instead of the lure of the Spirit behind it.
Over the course of this season of spiritual entrepreneurship, I have learned that churches, congregations, and communities that are inclusive, deep, intentional, spiritual, and diverse are not launched. They are planted. Kindness must be shown over time and space must be given to build connections. Love must be set forth, tended, and replanted over seasons. What will only slowly emerge, is too precious, too fragile, to happen quickly.
This spring, I left the thing I helped to create, and I must confess that I will never be the same as a pastor. Church planting has been an occasion to experience the Jesus trajectory with my body—struggling, letting go, losing, wandering, learning, birthing, dying, and rising. Yet, through all that, the thing I came to Silicon Valley to create became far more spectacular and more surprising than my little mind could have imagined when the vision first appeared in a dream in 2009.
With prayer, persistence and openness to wild ideas and experiments, what has emerged in downtown San Jose—what I leave in good hands when I move to Washington this week—is an ecumenical collaboration between a historical Disciples of Christ congregation and our new United Church of Christ church. It is called Urban Sanctuary San Jose, and I believe it is an example of one possible manifestation of the next iteration of Church. We are conventional Christians, as well as agnostics, spiritual independents, progressive Christians and other people of conscience, all engaged in healing the world and ourselves.
And as a spiritual community that strives to include all kinds of people, across economic and cultural divides, we are learning that many people need this because they are very few places left in our culture where belonging across divides can happen. Especially in this political climate, I believe established churches must heed the call to be bolder about looking outward and proclaiming who we are, what we do and why we matter.
Here are three things or more succinctly three sensibilities that I see as essential to being a faith community that is welcoming and growing in this time:
Welcome experimentation. In many settings, it takes time to build a tolerance for this, however it is important. An ethos of experimentation means that some of the things you do won’t work, but each moment is an occasion to learn what resonates, what can be done better, and what learning can be gained about what people need. Our new church needed all kinds of variations before we learned people needed silence, connection and/or shared reflection, stations, etc. We needed a bunch of event experiments to learn what was worthwhile, things like spiritual hikes, luncheons, a kid’s concert, egg hunts and more. What is our version of that? Congregations must create a culture that welcomes experimentation.
Identify Spiritual Tour Guides. We must be prepared to welcome wanderers and seekers of all kinds into a place and an experience they might have never before known or seen. Gone are the days of making references that just a few people know. Each event and each time our new church gathered, one of us would say, “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. We are progressive Christians, agnostics, spiritual independents, and other people of conscience and we welcome you to this place, as you are…we welcome you regardless of class or race or gender identity, or history, whoever you are, we welcome you here.” These words said to that first timer and to all of us, whoever you are, may you find a place here. We should expect guests at everything, be ready to be a tour guide!
Put the Welcome Mat Out Everywhere—Including Online. An updated website where people can learn what is happening and whether it matches what they are looking for, with a way to give easily online is vital. A regular presence is needed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Flickr, and the use of Meetup, Eventbrite, and Nextdoor to connect with people already looking for what the community is doing. Obviously we can’t be everywhere, but we need to be in some of these places because these platforms are like the phonebooks of our time and not being there is like not being listed as a faith community that is showing up in the world right now.
For nearly a decade, I’ve dreamt, planned, struggled, succeeded, and struggled some more as I’ve tried to listen to a call to make Church in the world as it is today. I’ve learned a lot through all that, not least that, in a time when being poor, or being an immigrant, or being sick is punished, faith communities still have an important role to play in civic life. We don’t need to be hip or popular with everyone in order to be faithful to our call for this time. I think maybe some of our congregations were made for just a time such as this. We can hold space for healing; we can be connectors and curators of essential conversations and connections across all kinds of categories of difference. I no longer think churches are launched. I have learned that love must be sent in and out, practiced and planted over seasons. And of course, I have learned that a good and growing, well-planted garden definitely can’t stay inside in a building. It must live where God’s people do: everywhere.