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Focused On Love; Meet David Arthur Auten

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices editor

     Meet David Arthur Auten, 33-year-old Senior Pastor of 1st Congregational Church, Ramona, CA (UCC).  His hero is Spiderman (“with great power comes great responsibility”) and he believes with philosopher Francis Schaeffer that ideas have legs, that what we believe has a powerful and direct influence on how we live and influence, for better or worse, the world around us.  His first book, published in 2009, invites the reader to embrace strangeness, mediocrity and the Living God;   the second, which he hopes to see in print next year, celebrates eccentricity.  He’ll tell you he doesn’t know what he’s talking about…and never has, then lead you gently into realizing the fallacy of being content with what you think you know.

     Walk with him as he recounts his weird and wonderful journey from a “great childhood” through drugs and aimlessness to the ministry.  Listen as he speaks of love – his parents’ “tough love,” his wife’s enduring faith in him, his encounter with God.

     Born in Erie, Pennsylvania to Arthur, a history professor, and Patricia, a biofeedback therapist, he has one brother Dan (2 years younger) and early on was exposed to the power of ideas – and of love.  His parents were Universalist Unitarians who tried to interest their sons in church…to little avail.  “We resisted mightily and, eventually they admitted defeat, except at Easter and Christmas.”

     Resistance for David took on a new face as he traversed his teens.  Starting with cigarettes and “experimental” clothes, he progressed through alcohol, pot and acid – and, for a while, dealt drugs.  “I had dreadlocks and was expelled for sending a bomb threat to my high school.”   He “held on” long enough to graduate (“barely”) then slipped further.  “During this time I arrived home one night around 2:30am and shut myself into the bathroom to roll a joint.  Moments later, her eyes breathing fire, my mother slammed through the door and I was ‘out.’  Fortunately, I had a job at a florist shop and my boss gave me space to live in an apartment he owned.  Unfortunately, my two roommates were into cocaine.  Soon, with only a backpack, $200 and a bag of weed (a big bag), I hooked a ride to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I found a job bussing tables, holed up in a motel and in the loneliness of my nights found myself – and God – while sitting on the beach, reflecting on where my life was headed.  A friend, who had experienced a religious conversion, introduced me to the Bible.   John 3:30 (‘He must become greater, I must become less”) led me home, a prodigal seeking forgiveness.  Throughout this time my girlfriend Erin, now my wife, continued to love me and to have faith in me.” 

     David speaks of this not as being born again but as “my awakening in Christ” and of “no longer sleepwalking through life.”  A great believer in cyclic-soteriology, he speaks movingly of the grace-filled possibility we all have in Christ of awakening again and again to the reality of God and God’s mission.

     College was next on the agenda, first at the University of Hartford, where his dad taught.  There being no religious studies major, he became the first student to take advantage of a little-know clause in the school bylaws permitting the creation of individualized interdisciplinary programs.  Taking basic courses at University of Hartford, he tackled religion classes at Hartford Seminary, Trinity College and St. Joseph College.  Next came a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale and acceptance into the Ph.D. program at Drew University.  A combination of financial  considerations and a growing determination to substitute active involvement for further forays into academia changed his plans.  With Erin’s support, he opted out. 

     His new life started with a job as Christian Education Director at a UCC church in North Guilford, Connecticut.  This was followed by service as Associate Pastor of a Methodist church in Albuquerque, New Mexico and three years as Senior Pastor of a NACCC congregation in Taunton, Massachusetts (a beautiful church with seating for over 500 and an average attendance of 60.  It soon grew to 120).  When an economic slowdown left the church unable to afford its pastor, the next step in David’s journey began, the journey which led to First Congregational, a church whose unstated but clear wish was for a pastor who would walk lovingly with them and be unafraid to “do things outside the box.”

     David spent his first six months (he’s now in month 9) there “as PlayDough, molding myself around the needs of the congregation” – a congregation he describes as “so together.  Its people are focused, committed to mission (building homes for the poor, feeding the hungry), working with and for others with minimal conflict and great joy.”  The largest congregation in the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC (just under 500 members with just under 300 in attendance weekly), they’re still growing.  The word is out; this is a happening place to be.

     They’re not resting on their laurels, however.  “We’ve just started a visioning process in small group home gatherings to discern where we’re headed – and thoroughly enjoying it.  At present we’re examining our Mission Statement, paring it to its core – the Great Commandment.  We’re also searching for a Christian Education Director and developing small group adult education programs.  By next year we plan to have new projects in place which will help us evaluate and apply our goals.  We’re also working on starting a 3rd service.”

     Asked what someone in the congregation sees when watching him during worship, David says, “that I’m having fun” (a quality clearly revealed in the 2011 Lenten series messages based on faith as seen through the eyes of Spiderman and other superheroes).  “They recognize, too, that I care and that I’m thoughtful and focused – and they appreciate my belief in simplicity, in doing fewer things with excellence.”

     His dreams for his church and THE church revolve around a renaissance of 1st Century Christianity – “as an organism, not an organization” – paired with post-modern evolution attractive to and meeting the needs of those still to find God.  This he sees as the core of the Emergent Church movement, his “candidate” as the most important thing happening in the church today. “Worship should be more connectional.  This isn’t being hip or culturally relevant:  it is meeting people where they are.”  As an example, he cites five year old daughter Bella’s frequent desire to “‘play My Little Pony’ – not my favorite thing to do but it’s where she is right now, so that’s where we meet.”

     Speaking of Bella, she and three-year-old brother Joshua and wife Erin are the heart, soul and love of David’s life.  He is fond of quoting Mother Theresa who, asked what the most important thing a person could do to change the world, responded, “Go home and love your family.”

     What about non-involved church-goers, the pew sitters?   How to involve them?

     “Naturally, organically, with friendship, by uncovering their passions – and by decreasing involvement in committees and increasing involvement in small groups.  Keep it simple.  Remember, if church is perceived as just one more item on a long list of things to do, it won’t be done well.  If, however, it is small-group oriented and focused on mission, the opportunities to serve become more attractive and the church becomes their oasis.  People want to be excited, want to communicate.  Help them do so.”

     David Auten is doing exactly that.

     What does his ministry offer him? 

     “A sense of fulfilling my calling, which is to be there for others.  I’m satisfied and filled with joy.”

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