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Occupy Trilogy for the spiritually curious

Occupy Trilogy for the spiritually curious

Fresh Expressions

Ben Collins has a unique approach to preparing his weekly sermon—crowdsourcing.

As the director of The Collective in DeLand, Collins has a unique approach to a lot of things.

The Collective is a Fresh Expressions experimental church started four years ago by First United Methodist Church of DeLand. It’s right across the street from First Methodist, but in many ways, Collins said, it couldn’t be further away. “We’re the R&D branch, out on the edge, testing things, failing, regrouping,” he said.

Ben Collins, shown here, is director of The Collective. Every Tuesday afternoon, he meets with a group at a local coffee house to openly discuss topics for the next Sunday's sermon. He calls it an opportunity to crowdsource and interact.

Services, held in the round, “are a mix of a TED talk and the best of bar music with a bit of liturgy.” The sermon is “story driven, thematically driven, driven by a question we’re asking that night.”

And the material for the sermon comes from the conversation around the table Tuesday afternoons at Trilogy Coffee Roasting Co. The weekly event is tagged Occupy Trilogy because the group all but takes over the small coffee shop.

It’s a diverse group of between 10 and 15 people—college students, young professionals, retirees. The Collective was initially an outreach to millennials but it quickly became apparent that “psychographics,” not demographics would be the organizing principle.

Collins describes the people who come to the table on Tuesdays as spiritually curious, who like a critical approach to religion and spirituality. Some of them have a Christian background; others haven’t darkened the door. “People who are self-aware enough to know that the dominant Christian thing isn’t working for them but aren’t done looking, that’s our bread and butter.”

The regulars include a couple of Quakers, several recovering addicts, two semi-retired clergy, students from nearby Stetson University and a man who is physically disabled and cared for by his wife.

Collins poses a question or shares a text or story he plans to preach about the following Sunday and lets the group have at it.

“It’s an opportunity to crowdsource, to have people interact,” Collins said. “It helps me know where to focus my preaching. It gives me a lot of material.

“Some of the best work we’ve done is breaking down our community statement line by line. The first line is ‘We value highly the metaphor of journey.’”

The conversation began with looking at biblical journeys—the story of Abraham, Moses and the Israelites, Jesus in the desert and finding common threads—God calling someone out of their comfort zone. People started looking at the statement in the light of their personal experiences. One of the recovering addicts, for instance, shared his journey through the 12 Steps.

“I often quote things that are said on Tuesday, so I get to preach the voice of the congregation instead of my own,” Collins said.

And then the conversation that began Tuesday continues in a larger context on Sunday. Collins poses a question and lets the congregation discuss it for a few minutes. He finds it primes his audience for his message.

While the mission of The Collective is traditional Methodist—“to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Collins said the language used to convey it is untraditional, “especially for those who are new to the Bible or still tender from negative experiences with the church.

“For a lot of pastors, the goal is to make disciples,” he said. “There’s not a lot of conversation about how that translates into the transformation of the world. They see global transformation as nice collateral.

“Here at The Collective we have people streaming through the door who don’t know much about the Bible or Jesus, but they’re here because they know the world is in need of change and they want to be part of the transformation, and they’re willing to learn about the Christian tradition to help make that happen. Discipleship is the means, not the end.”

As The Collective has grown—it now has about 80 on Sundays—it is discussing how to deal with its growing pains. “How do we maintain the intimacy and integrity, the vulnerability and trust in the room? We started asking those questions when we hit 40 or 50 and we have managed to keep it conversational, to speak our stories,” Collins said.

“I think Occupy Trilogy is a big part of that. If it was me sitting in an office trying to come up with a sermon, I’m not sure people would connect in the same way.”

--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville