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Ugly Church

Kevin Burgess has been kind enough to let me repost one of his articles - "Ugly Church." This one wasn't published at Hampton but originally at Kevin's blog marginally free. Here goes:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man--not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
For the last year or so I have been discussing the subject of starting a church with a few friends. In my area there simply aren't any expressions of 'church' that we can join in on with any real passion.

Partly this is due to the area in which we live. It is a bastion of conservative churches, which on many a Sunday promote some weird Americanism that wraps Jesus in a flag. On the other hand there are a smattering of liberal churches that have their own problems, with their reliance on academia to the point of fear of straying too far from their intellectual corrals.
Neither options are interesting to me. I have no real interest in the State or its benefactors, and where they cross paths with the church too often the church chooses dilution over resistance. Nor am I interested in a faith that holds up any kind of exceptionalism, nor a faith that is reticent to be critiqued, or God forbid, critique itself. I have been involved in churches that believe they reflect the 'salt and light' that Jesus referred to, unfortunately the salt is too often served on the whitest bread one can imagine, and the light tended to shine most brightly on whatever clique had access to the lightswitch.
So, my friends and I decided to do something that has been done a million times: start a church, or perhaps better said by a friend, "identifying a reality that has already started through the spirit's guidance and now inviting others to participate". I tried to find a local community that seemed hospitable to my notions of what an embodied faith might look like. Certainly there are good folks within any community, but the struggle to be faithful to the way of Jesus within an established community that spends much of its time espousing the status quo becomes a struggle that can be exhausting.
I admire folks who have chosen to work from the inside out, but as a person who has no real denominational ties, I felt no reason to attempt the uphill climb. Instead, we started where we are: feeding folks at a park.
It isn't exactly a pretty expression of church. We have no building except for the pavilion that keeps the cold wind/rain/snow off of us in the winter. We have no altar except for the table where we share food (which it could be effectively argued, is the best example of an altar there is). We have no priests, as our simple liturgies serve only to remind us of who we are following, and why, and also who we are to each other. We also have no debt, no bills, and no allegiance to any governing body except that of God, of whom we so often fall short. Thankfully, God is more forgiving than the State and its benefactors.
We are, despite our lack of what is usually understood as necessary for a church, beginning to look more like one. We're starting to engage in liturgies, having simple communion with wine and bread. We're starting to share with each other our prayers and concerns. We're getting to know each other. And yes, we're an ugly church, beginning together to learn how to place ourselves outside of the fences of religion and into the thin place where the two worlds of sacred and profane are realized as illusory.
Though we have met regularly for quite a while, it is just now that some form is beginning to take place. I am finding myself in the interesting situation of helping to create places that fruition might come about, the kind of fruition that seems to happen on its own with only a minimal involvement from those taking part. I am still doing all the things that we have always done: buying and preparing food for table fellowship, organizing who will bring what, making connections to get the help we and our homeless friends need, and now I am beginning to write liturgies and find creative ways to bring all of this together in a way that reflects our focus as christians, and not as people who are doing good for the sake of doing good.
We are, after all, gathering in the name of Jesus. I have no illusions about where we fall short of that ideal, but we are trying to be something truly alternative to what is offered up as 'church'. We are trying to create something that is enfleshed, and in our own imperfect way placing ourselves in the place where God is suffering with his people.


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Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

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Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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