The Still Speaking Initiative: 'Helping people find a spiritual home'
In March, the UCC's first 30-second television advertisement hit the airwaves in six test markets. Now, the "God is Still Speaking" campaign is going national.
Already, the sight of the comma—the emblematic representation of Gracie Allen's words, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma"—is becoming synonymous with the UCC and its local churches. More than 2,000 UCC churches have "opted-in" to the campaign, meaning that they have agreed to take an active role in the national effort.
"These churches have committed to attend training, put up banners and other visible signs for people outside the church to let them know they are part of a welcoming presence described in the TV commercials," says Ron Buford, manager of the national campaign. "This is truly a Pentecost moment."
The Still Speaking Initiative is getting the word out about the UCC.
"Churches across the nation are listening and responding," Buford says. "Large and small, progressive and conservative—all are uniting in a single purpose and passion: helping people find a spiritual home."
Find out how you can support the campaign and be a part of it. Visit online at stillspeaking.com/campaign.
Members of Evangelical UCC in Webster Groves, Mo., carry their church's banner this summer in the St. Louis Pridefest Parade. Photo furnished.
"We love the comma!" proclaims the Rev. Katie Hawker, pastor of Evangelical UCC in Webster Groves, Mo.
After attending training offered by the UCC's Still Speaking Initiative, she helped her congregation's evangelism committee to take a second look at how they were making their presence known in the community.
For the past two years, Evangelical UCC, along with other UCC congregations, had taken part in the St. Louis Pridefest, a celebration for the city's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
This year, however, they wanted their presence in the festival's parade to be notably visible. Sporting comma T-shirts and signs—along with a bright, colorful banner touting the phrase, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma"—church members said they were gratified by the crowd's response.
"When they came around the corner," Hawker says, "the community cheered for them. It was just that meaningful to have a church that was willing to be in the pride parade. The people who were marching were so honored."
The comma is predominant inside the church walls, too, says Hawker—on placemats, bulletins and newsletters.
Finally, Hawker says, the comma campaign allows the denomination to get the word out. "We offer a theological perspective as well as a stance on issues that is simply more progressive than many other places in our community Before now, we've had trouble getting the word out because we haven't had any resources."
ÔWe're free to do individual things, yet we're connected'
Plymouth Congregational UCC in Des Moines, Iowa, is utilizing the Still Speaking campaign as its gateway to invite members of groups that already utilize the church's building.
Carol Long, coordinator of lay ministries, says 10,000 business card-sized invitations use the "God is Still Speaking" language to be used by members to invite others. Posters are being given to council members for posting around the community. In the spring, Plymouth Congregational UCC will unveil a four-week newspaper advertising campaign, culminating in an "Invite a Friend to Worship Sunday."
Visitors to the church will see a "God is Still Speaking" banner above the chancel, Long says, and be greeted by a congregation that practices what it preaches.
"People tell me, ÔI didn't know a church like this existed,'" Long says. "ÔYou really are what you say you are!'"
"That is so inspiring," Long says. "To have our national church reach out and send that message is more than any one congregation can do. This is the most exciting thing that's ever come along. I feel like we're supported by this national campaign. We're free to do individual things, yet we're connected."
New York City's Riverside Church (UCC/American Baptist) is tailoring the Still Speaking materials to fit their unique dual-denominational identity.
"We're lifting up the best of both traditions," says Susan Switzer, who heads the church's stewardship initiatives. During its stewardship campaign this year, Riverside Church is employing the look and the language of the Still Speaking campaign.
"Be generous!" its pledge card reads. "God is Still Speaking."
Pennsylvania church ready to ratchet up the hospitality
Officially, says the Rev. Candi Cain-Borgman of St. Paul's UCC in Fleetwood, Pa., her church hasn't begun training for the Still Speaking Initiative. But Bordman, who just graduated from seminary in May, is making sure her congregation is ready to "click in" to the campaign's emphasis on hospitality.
Recently, during a sermon on hospitality, Cain-Borgman asked how many parishioners were sitting within a row of where they sat the previous Sunday. Half of the hands went up. Cain-Borgman told the congregation that those with mobility issues could stay put, but everyone else had to get up and move.
Cain-Borgman says her request was met with hesitation, but to the congregation's credit, everyone moved. Even the ushers flipped sides.
"I saw people I haven't seen in years!" one usher later told Cain- Borgman.
It reminded the pastor of a time years ago when she was sitting in the pews of a church for the first time. A woman came in, and instead of welcoming Cain-Borgman, was visibly agitated. "She huffed and snorted," she remembers.
Later, the pastor pulled Cain- Borgman aside to explain why the woman appeared so upset. "I know you didn't mean to," he said, "but you sat in her pew! She's been sitting there for 35 years!"
Borgman laughs. She knows people are creatures of habit. "But it's a good lesson," she says. "We're going to take part in the ÔGod is Still Speaking' campaign and make ourselves welcoming. We need to lean over and help somebody with a hymnal or a Bible if they're not sure what's going on. It's important not to give anyone a reason to walk out of the door saying, ÔChurch is full of hypocrites.'"
ÔIt doesn't attempt to make us all cookie-cutter congregations'
In January, the Rev. Janelle Mahoney of First Congregational UCC of Bakersfield, Calif., was one of almost 100 clergy who visited the UCC's Church House in Cleveland, just as the Still Speaking Initiative was starting to take shape. Mahoney admits that initially, she had significant questions about the purpose of the campaign.
"It is very difficult with the United Church of Christ to assert that we have a unified, one, single identity," Mahoney says. "Obviously, that's not the case. But I do think there are unique qualities to the United Church of Christ that can be lifted up."
That, believes Mahoney, is one of the reasons why so many churches are participating in the Still Speaking campaign.
"It doesn't attempt to make us all cookie-cutter congregations," she says. "We have a common theological tradition that lies behind us that includes autonomy, independence of thought, and some courageous social stances."
Mahoney believes the timing of the campaign is right, at least in her own congregation. "I think of how many people have, in a sense, been born and raised here. They knew it well, knew its history well. Many of them are gone now."
Today, says Mahoney, the church population is a mixture of both old and new, and the need to embrace a sense of identity is crucial if the church wants to continue growing. First Congregational UCC is in the midst of a 10-week class on the UCC's history, theology and polity leading up to the church's Pilgrim Sunday on Nov. 21.
"The church can only be strengthened by knowing more clearly who we are," Mahoney says.
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