Minister’s Mind: Cabaret Church

About a year and a half ago, several things came together that started me thinking about what “church” might look like in the future.  I was seeing article after article and study after study asking the same question:  Is the church, as we know it, dying?

It’s a tough but important question based on the numbers: almost every mainline denomination is shrinking and shrinking fast.  A majority of people in our country, when asked about religious affiliation, answer “none.”  Because I’m a minister, this both terrified and fascinated me. The terror, of course, is because my livelihood is at risk. What’s fascinating is thinking about possibilities. After all, in theological circles, death is not necessarily the end. There is always room for resurrection.  What would “church” look like if it was reborn as something more relevant, interesting, and life-giving for the future?

At the same time I was thinking about all that, I was being reminded that for many years I considered myself a poet and an artist.  Even during seminary, I made a point to take at least one art class each semester to nurture my creativity.  But ever since I entered full-time ministry, I’ve struggled to hang on to even a little of that part of my life. When people asked about my poetry, I say, “I feel like I use up all my words in sermons.” And when they asked about art in general, I answer, “I just can’t find the time…”

As I’ve gotten to know the people who make up Tree of Life, I’ve found I’m certainly not alone.  Our congregation is full of artists. Look around on a Sunday morning and you will see and hear our passion for the arts all around the building. Think about the congregation’s history and you’ll no doubt think of Dille’s Follies, the Choir’s amazing Concerts, Our Haystacks Coffee House and Jam Nights, Diversity Day, Art shows… This is a congregation that values creativity, beauty, art, and artists.

Then I discovered artist and musician Amanda Palmer, formerly of The Dresden Dolls, and now a prolific solo artist. Amanda’s music, art, poetry, and openness and community with her fans has become a big inspiration. Her TED talk on The Art of Asking amazed me with its relevance to my life as a minister.  Amanda has long called her musical style “Punk Cabaret” which also got me thinking about—and studying—the history and culture of the Cabaret—which was both an artistic movement and a response to increasingly oppressive, even fascist, politics in Europe and beyond.

I began imagining what would happen if “church” was infused with art, with the passion and humor and daring of the Cabaret?  I wrote an article called “Why Amanda Palmer Makes Me Think About Church” and published it on my personal blog.  The response was overwhelming, especially (but not only!) from young people. In comment after comment I read, “I would go to a church like that!”

That inspired me to create some online spaces where I could share information about this crazy new concept of “Cabaret Church” with people who were excited about the idea. I created a tumblr blog, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account where I share ideas and art that inspire me. I also began to write about what I call the three core commitments of Cabaret Church: art, compassion, and resistance.  These ideas seemed to catch on among a lot of people, both Amanda Palmer fans and Unitarian Universalists. I started dreaming of bringing these people together, face-to-face for something that would a combination of cabaret, tent revival, and art festival.

Last August, when the Board met on retreat, I timidly shared my idea.  The Board surprised me with their unequivocal support and enthusiasm.  In February, when I decided to apply for grant money to fund a gathering, they voted unanimously to support the idea and act as “fiscal agent” for Cabaret Church.  At our recent congregational meeting (June 1), I let the congregation know that we had received the grant.

You may be asking, “Why didn’t we know about this before now?” The most important reason is that I didn’t want Cabaret Church to be a distraction. Tree of Life is growing and maturing as a congregation and that work is incredibly important. Cabaret Church is not meant to be a replacement for all that we do so well, but an addition to it. Since the soonest we could gather is Spring 2015, I didn’t want to interrupt the good work we’ve been doing.  I also didn’t want to draw attention away from the many amazing events already happening: the Monstrously Good Auction, the weekly worship services which just get better and better, our time with our Intern Minister, the Rummage Sale, and our amazing Wedding on June 8.

But now is the time. We’ve received grant money from the Unitarian Universalist Funding Panel and gifts from gracious donors. On June 25th the next phase of fundraising begins: We’ll be a launch project for Faithify—the UUA’s new crowdfunding platform—where we hope to raise the final bit of money we need to make a Cabaret Church gathering happen. When the campaign begins, we will send you an email with a link to it. We hope you’ll share it with all your Unitarian Universalist and artist friends who could help support this re-envisioning of what church can be.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about Cabaret Church as we get the details worked out. Right now, I think of it as a big, joyful experiment that has the potential to reveal to us that church is not dying at all. It is being transformed.

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