Across the UCC: Planting churches in the Garden of God

Across the UCC: Planting churches in the Garden of God

February 28, 2005
Written by Staff Reports
Carol L. Pavlik

If there's a passion for starting a new church, a new church will get started'

The Stillspeaking Initiative, the media campaign proclaiming the UCC's message of God's "extravagant welcome," is getting the word out. But for curious viewers who want to experience the UCC firsthand, finding a nearby place to worship might prove difficult in some regions, particularly from the Gulf Coast across the panhandle of Florida and up the Southern Atlantic Coast. So the current "Stillspeaking buzz" provides an opportunity for UCC churches to see it as "part of their DNA" to start new churches, says the Rev. David Schoen of the UCC's evangelism ministry team.

Schoen says the process of planting a new congregation involves three-way conversation between the national church, the Conference and a local church - or even just a core group of individuals who want to start a new congregation. He says the Conference and national setting can provide important resources such as training, financial assistance and logistical help, but it's the local church that lends most of the crucial impetus in the process of starting a new congregation.

"The starting place for help is our prayers, support, encouragement, giving leadership and, yes, money!" Schoen says. But, he adds, even churches with limited financial resources shouldn't feel discourage from starting the journey of planting a new church.

"The Holy Spirit will start a church whether there's money or not!" he says with a smile. "If there's a passion for starting a new church, a new church will get started."

Learn more @

Contact the Rev. Nancy Nelson Elsenheimer, 216/736-3817;
Booklet available from Local Church Ministries: "A Guidebook for Planting New Congregations in the United Church of Christ"

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The Holy Spirit will do 'more than you imagined'

First UCC in Bethlehem, Pa., is, in many ways, a typical church from the UCC's former German Reformed tradition.

Explains the Rev. Alan Miller, Penn Northeast Conference Minister, the members were hardworking folk, mainly working in the industries of the Lehigh Valley, particularly Bethlehem Steel.

In the church's heyday, Sunday morning worship was packed; but eventually, Bethlehem Steel shut down and other industries left the Valley or closed.

Two years ago, First UCC was, itself, in danger of closing. The congregation knew its European-American identity had little chance of flourishing in a neighborhood that had become predominantly Hispanic.

In a courageous move, the First UCC flock made a paramount decision: they did not want their church to die. The face of their church had to change if it wanted to remain relevant in its community.

So, in 2002, they called a new pastor, the Rev. Gilberto Garcia-Rodriguez, a UCC pastor from the Puerto Rico Conference.

Garcia-Rodriguez would lead the church, with the goal of building a new, Hispanic congregation by pulling in new members from the community. The old members would gradually transition out, leaving the church in the hands of the new Hispanic congregation.

Well, that was the plan, anyway.

In what Miller calls a "phenomenal journey," nothing has gone as planned. And that, says Miller, "makes it even better yet."

Garcia-Rodriguez reaches out to the Hispanic population with after-school programs and bilingual spiritual programs; he brings in speakers from the community to talk about various social agencies in the area. There is fellowship, praying together and eating together.

By August of last year, it was looking as if the "new" congregation had enough numbers to stand on its own. So Garcia-Rodriguez decided to discuss the plans of beginning the separation - an English service and a Spanish service.

As Garcia-Rodriguez discussed his plans with the European-American members, then the Hispanic members, he was met with a surprise: neither group wanted to separate from the whole. They had fallen in love with their UCC counterparts, and wanted to keep the new church family intact. Miller says the church continues to grow. African-American worshippers and others of various ethnic backgrounds are attending First UCC as well.

"What we thought at the beginning was going to be a European congregation handing its church over to a new Hispanic congregation," says Miller, "has really become a multicultural project."

Now, First UCC is becoming a model for other churches in the area. In nearby Allentown, Salem UCC voted to fl at-out give their building to an up-and-coming Hispanic congregation. Now that congregation is learning UCC history and polity with Garcia-Rodriguez in the hopes of becoming a UCC congregation soon.

"My idea was to have a Hispanic congregation," says Garcia-Rodriguez. Now he says he must adjust to the hard work ahead, learning the culture and traditions of the Euro-American congregation in his new multiracial, multicultural church.

"Look out," Miller laughs. "The Holy Spirit is going to take an idea and do even more than you imagined."

For 25-plus years, Filipino pastor has founded UCC congregations

The Rev. Erasto Arenas takes new church planting very seriously.

In 1979, he started his own church, First Filipino American UCC in San Bruno, Calif. Since then, Arenas and his flock have successfully planted Filipino UCC congregations in the Northern California-Nevada Conference.

Arenas says the passion for starting Filipino churches came from his own experience.

"I am not at home in other churches. I go, but I just sit down, and I probably will not get myself involved," he says.

When Filipinos come to this country, he says, they often concentrate on their jobs and education. "The church is put on the sideline," he says. "Even if they're very actively involved in church back in the Philippines, as soon as they come here, the church becomes secondary sometimes."

Arenas describes his recipe for success: Once a target area is chosen based on a densely populated Filipino demographic, Arenas says he'd finish up his own morning worship service, then enlist some of his parishioners to travel to the new location. Packed in two 16-seat vans, the segment of his congregation would help fill out worship services at the new church.

"The little group that is there," says Arenas, "they feel good about the presence of so many people from other places, and they become inspired. So they become determined to really make their church grow."

Each time Arenas has started a congregation, he says, "I had 100 percent support from the Conference and 100 percent support from the national church. They supported me not only morally, but logistically."

Following a series of heart attacks and strokes, Arenas admits he had to cut back on his responsibilities as a consultant for the national setting, and he says his church-planting work may soon come to a close. His retirement in April is imminent.

However, when speaking with Arenas, one gets the feeling that his calling to start churches remains a persistent tug at his heart. He's already eyeing two more areas in northern California with a growing Filipino population. And, he's noticing a movement of Filipinos moving more inland, even into Nevada.

But what about retirement?

"Basically," he says, "I still feel young."

Conference teams with local church to sprout new congregation

The UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference voted at their last annual meeting to become a new church planting Conference.

"We set the goal of 20 new church by 2020," explains the Rev. Carol Barth, Associate IKC Conference Minister.

When conversations began between the IKC and Chicago's Trinity UCC, an African-American congregation with nearly 10,000 members in the Illinois Conference, Barth and her colleagues realized they were in a no-lose situation.

The Conference long had intended to plant a much-needed church presence in Gary, Ind. Meanwhile, Trinity UCC already had a core group of members who traveled from Gary to worship in Chicago. A partnership was born.

This past October, Trinity UCC in Gary, Ind., opened its doors.

Barth says partnering with a church with bountiful resources has been a new experience. "[In the past] the pattern has sort of been doing it on our own as a Conference," she says. Trinity UCC in Chicago provided a veritable start-up package that included staff support, parishioners with real estate savvy, pastoral support and a generous monthly monetary gift to get the church off the ground. Combined with resources from the Conference and the national setting, Gary's new UCC church has a bright future."

"We decided that if we wanted to be intentional about evangelism and growing the church and spreading the good news of the gospel," says Barth, "the best way to do that is to start new churches."

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