LinK event sets foundation for UCC web-based congregation, Extravagance UCC
Written by Connie N. Larkman November 8, 2013
A diverse group of 30 people from across the life of the United Church of Christ came together to create something new this week at the denomination's national headquarters in Cleveland. A different way of being church in the 21st century. A spiritual experience that links a community of faith virtually. A web-based congregation that knows no geographic boundaries. Those gathered at the Leaders in Koinonia (LinK) Event Nov. 6 - 8 in Cleveland spent three days in conversation and prayer, wrestling with a way to live differently in times of radical change, to set the foundation for Extravagance UCC.
"What excites me about Extravagance UCC is the ability to reach people regardless of where they are in the world," said Harold Sloan-Marrero, the media director of Coral Gables United Church of Christ, and one of the event's enthusiastic participants. "It has the potential of become the go to place for not only the message of the UCC, but a resource tool for all people wanting to learn more about Progressive Christianity, the emergent American Church, and LGBT inclusiveness."
Extravagance UCC, announced at General Synod 2013, is being created under the leadership of gathering pastor the Rev. Jo Hudson, former pastor of Cathedral of Hope, one of the UCC's largest congregations. She and the national officers of the church, UCC ministers, lay leaders and interested guests came together in community, to wrestle with issues of identity and mission, covenant and community.
On Wednesday, the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries, laid the groundwork for the discussion with the opening devotional when he talked of Jesus calling the disciples to follow new ways to live. Then, speaking of one of his favorite passages from Acts, about one who is not like the others finding the courage to persevere in the face of being different, Guess suggested, "What is to prevent us from creating a geographically dispersed congregation? Invoke the spirit of Jesus, and consider why not? Find compelling reasons we can, with great grace."
The group heard how congregations without walls can thrive from Meg Riley, senior minister of the 3,500 member Church of the Larger Fellowship, a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community. In a thought provoking conversation on Thursday, Riley shared some of the stumbling blocks and surprises she has encountered in the three years she has pastored an online sanctuary. One of the biggest gifts, she said, is the gathered community. "The kindness and generosity of spirit transforms what we do. They take an okay service, and make it holy." One of the biggest surprises? "The depth of sharing and intimacy that develops astonished me at first," said Riley.
Another plus of an online spiritual community is the ability to be present in the moment when disasters strike. Riley talked about service of mourning the Church of the Larger Fellowship pulled together after the Newtown school shooting, and the high level of interest and participation from other ministers. When the Boston Marathon bombing happened, it was "Okay, this is something we do. This is what we are here for."
Sloan-Marrero sees that potential for Extravagance UCC. "I am a huge advocate of the online church community, he said. "The church is all of us who seek to bring peace, justice and mercy to the world around us. The church is a community that seeks to establish the kingdom of God here on earth so that the marginalized, the weak, and the poor would be first. An online community has the potential, if done right, to break all kinds of barriers. It can reach any one that is seeking and hungry for a different message."
Hudson, as gathering pastor, is determined that Extravagance UCC "will try to be a really strong voice for liberal Christianity out in the universe." And on Friday, she was very open to acknowledging the fears and concerns about how this online spiritual community will function going forward. "We don't know – it's an experiment," she said. "The virtual world is like a river. We're going to step into it and be a part of it – we're going here to see where God is taking us."
As the meeting wrapped up, the group laid out steps to take Extravagance UCC forward, to begin to shape the congregation, start a process to find financial resources to support it, and recruit volunteers to help staff it. Hudson said she hopes that by July 2014, "we want to have tangible things happening."
"This can be a community that shows people the diversity of views and opinions among Christians," Sloan-Marrero added. "The religious right does not own the word Christian, and it is very important for people to hear our message of extravagant hospitality and inclusiveness."