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Church Founders Thrive On Different Challenges

A different kind of church is being founded in Turley, OK, a semi-rural area next to Tulsa, where the Rev. Ron Robinson has opened “a progressive Christian-style UU [Unitarian Universalist] center” in a storefront called “A Third Place.” Open most days, the building has free internet service, cable TV, computers, a library and videos, and a bargain room with used clothing and household items. A health clinic comes twice a week. Many people who come to A Third Place don’t have cars, says Robinson, and find its services convenient.

This kind of nontraditional congregation is now referred to as an emergent congregation. “What Ron is doing is a lot like the very first gatherings of Christians,” says the Rev. Thom Belote, of Shawnee Mission, KS, who is leading a discussion on emergent congregations at Ministry Days before General Assembly this year. “They met in homes, shared meals and prayers, did service together, and grew in community. It’s a new way of envisioning what a church can be.”

Robinson’s ministry itself is called the Living Room Church. On Wednesday night whoever is in the building is invited to participate in a potluck meal, an educational session (a recent series was on world religions), and then a 20-minute worship. There is no Sunday worship. Some Sundays people might go to either All Souls Unitarian Church or Church of the Restoration, UU congregations in Tulsa.

Robinson describes Turley, where he and his wife grew up, as “an edge place, with high diversity, a high rate of poverty, and low life expectancy.” His group is working with students at the University of Oklahoma on urban improvement projects. “We grow people’s faith doing ministry in the world, not on church committees and at spectator worship events,” he says.

Most of those who participate in the Wednesday night sessions are non-UUs and most have been unchurched. Robinson says there are about eight regulars on Wednesday nights. On any given day 15 to 25 people come through the building. Robinson says he’d like to create many small micro-churches in places such as Turley.

The Living Room is supported by donations. Robinson has a second ministry as executive director of the UU Christian Fellowship. Costs for the center are about $1,500 a month. “We pretty much get down to zero in our bank account every month,” he says.

In Chicago, the Rev. David Owen O’Quill is also gathering people who are unchurched. He started a year ago inviting mostly young people to occasional sessions in a bar, where they would get acquainted and he would share “little parables” about life. “It’s Unitarianism 101, like Theodore Parker was teaching—one God, the humanity of Jesus, everybody is saved,” he says.

In August he will begin regular Sunday services in a theater. “We’ll use local bands. I’ll do a Jon Stewart kind of presentation where I talk and then interview someone. It’ll be high on sarcasm and humor with some religious content. And there will be an initiation to a small group ministry.”

The name of his ministry is Micah’s Porch, drawn from Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord your God require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

O’Quill has raised $30,000 to do this and needs about $70,000 more to keep it going for a year and a half, long enough to determine if it will be successful, he says. “I feel called to do this. I don’t have a choice.” He adds, “So many seekers of religion only find fundamentalist options. As UUs we need to elevate our game. There are people who need us.”

Other UU congregations can help ministries like his, he says, with money, letting him know of unchurched people he can invite to his services, and volunteering to help at the services.

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About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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