EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an abridged excerpt from a pastoral letter, released by the Rev. John H. Thomas on Jan. 6, concerning the much-publicized launch of the UCC's national advertising campaign. Read the entire letter at ucc.org.
The attention the commercial controversy drew to our church provided a unique opportunity to speak the Gospel in an accent not often heard in our culture.
Hundreds of letters and e-mails received in response to the ad suggest that such a message was a source of profound and unexpected encouragement and hope to persons who have believed themselves to be outside the reach of Christ's outstretched arms and for whom the cross is experienced only as judgment, never as embrace.
Many who saw the ad took the further step of seeking out a UCC congregation. Over 137,000 people used the "find a church" feature at ucc.org or stillspeaking.com in December, compared with 5,700 in November.
I believe we have been given a unique opportunity to help recast the public debate over values in this country and to reshape the public perception of the nature and purpose of Christian faith and Christian community. Seizing this opportunity will take courage, for resistance to our message is formidable, cutting against the prevailing grain of a society frightened by the stranger, suspicious of difference, and easily seduced by appeals to a future secured with narrowly defined theological boundaries and well defended national borders.
Living out the welcome promised in our ad will take commitment to continued growth in congregational cultures of hospitality. Taking advantage of this moment will require a level of generosity unprecedented in the UCC, for if the ad controversy taught us anything, it was the power of the media to thrust heretofore quiet voices and perspectives into amazing, almost unnerving prominence.
The giddy experience of seeing our church featured on television, in newspaper reports, on editorial pages and even in the daily political cartoon lends itself to two dangers. One is a self-righteousness that tempts us to "think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think." The other is a complacency that forgets the short attention span of our culture and assumes our point has been made, and is remembered. Will we be courageous enough, committed enough and generous enough to seize this unique moment with humility and confidence?
The deeper danger is that we will grow content with a message of inclusion and welcome. An invitation to a community of amiable tolerance is certainly to be preferred to the mean-spirited exclusion around us, but the hands we reach forth are to be an embodiment of the outstretched arms of Christ in his passion.
The invitation we give at the Table is not an offer of friendly dinner conversation, but an encounter with Jesus, crucified and risen, and with a vision of the realm of God that contends with the violence and injustices of our day. The Jesus who never turns anyone away is the same Jesus who asks us to take up the cross.
Thus, "God is still speaking" invites us and those who may join us to an identity that at the deepest level is a "putting on Christ," and therefore a process of repentance for those things in our lives that separate us from Christ.
The Rev. John H. Thomas is the UCC's general minister and president.