The UCC may be a tiny spec on the South’s religious radar screen, but don’t count it out quite yet, some are insisting.
"I keep saying it — give us 10 more years. I think we can shift this around," says the Rev. Timothy C. Downs, Southeast Conference Minister. "I think we can become known."
Downs’ hunch is buoyed by a recent surge of interest in the UCC by persons living in southern states. Seven months ago, when the UCC launched its national advertising campaign, online visits to the UCC’s "find-a-church" feature skyrocketed — with nearly 200,000 inquiries in a matter of weeks. Disproportionately, most looking for a UCC church were located in the traditional Bible Belt, quite often in areas where the UCC is weakest numerically.
The UCC’s evangelism office in Cleveland regularly fields phone calls and emails from persons looking for a UCC church in places where none currently exists. Most inquiries, says the Rev. David Schoen, are coming from those living in the Southeast, South Central and Southern Conferences — in that order.
It’s encouraging news, even though the current stats are daunting.
Compared to Massachusetts’ 416 UCC churches, for example, the Southeast Conference has only 60 congregations that dot a wide geographic region that covers Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle. There are more Southern Baptists in Georgia than the UCC has members nationally.
According to the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a church historian, "The UCC has never been strong in the South, except in some historical pockets."
After the Civil War, schools and colleges founded by the American Missionary Association led to the creation of a handful of still-prominent UCC congregations in the South.
In more recent years, however, the UCC’s justice-oriented Christian voice has piqued the interest not only of individuals but entire congregations, such as Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., which joined the UCC about four years ago. With nearly 5,500 members, it’s now the denomination’s second-largest congregation.
Atlanta’s progressive Virginia-Highland Church became part of the UCC in 2002 after being "disfellowshiped" by Georgia’s Southern Baptist Convention. Several other existing congregations are in conversation about joining the UCC, Downs says.
Moreover, new church starts — such as Atlanta’s Sankofa UCC and Birmingham’s Beloved Community UCC have positioned themselves as alternative Christian communities in a region known for its plethora of more-conservative churches.
Downs also points to several congregations that are thriving, such as Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Chattanooga, Tenn., Church of the Savior UCC in Knoxville, Tenn., First Congregational UCC in Atlanta, and Community Congregational UCC in Montgomery, Ala.
"There is great potential for growth in part because the South remains a highly churched culture … and there typically is a very narrow range of theological diversity," Downs explains. "The UCC provides a dimension that is distinctive and has the power to connect with people here."
Atlanta’s hosting of General Synod marked only the third time in 48 years that the biennial gathering has ventured south (Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1989 and Norfolk, Va., in 1991) and arguably was the first time it has met in the so-called "Deep South."