In one of Flannery O'Connor's stories, "Wise Blood," the young protagonist, Hazel Mote, returns from the army with his faith gone awry. Hazel buys an old Essex automobile, and proclaims, "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified."
Hazel's attitude is typical of many American members of mainstream denominations. Based upon the just-released "The UCC Statistical Handbook 2001," the same may be true for many UCC members.
"In order to overcome this malaise, UCC churches must have a passionate desire to create disciples," says the Rev. David Schoen. "An increasing number of UCC churches are unabashedly awakening both old and new members to the ethos of our theology—a theology that is true to the social, evangelical and justice witness of the United Church of Christ." Schoen is Minister and Team Leader for Evangelism Ministry in Local Church Ministries.
Hopeful growth signs
UCC Conferences and the Evangelism Ministry Team are working collaboratively to help turn around UCC membership loss figures. The results:
Net church loss stopped increasing and held steady at 41 congregations in 2000;
New church development efforts resulted in 13 new churches;
Seven pre-existing churches joined;
Five former churches were reinstated.
This is the highest number of new churches started since 1990 and is more than half the number of new churches created annually during the golden age of the late 1950s. Even more important, the 2001 report shows that one-third (33.7 percent) of churches founded during the last 20 years are growing at a rate of 10 percent or more over a five-year period.
"We are seeing the first signs that the momentum of new church starts and churches wanting to join the UCC is increasing," Schoen says. "These new churches are growing."
If this trend continues, it may positively impact the UCC growth/plateau/decline picture as presented in the report. "Just wait until next year," says Schoen. There are more than 100 new church starts in Evangelism's pipeline. Many of them will meet the requirements to be officially received into the UCC.
The UCC's financial story is mostly good news. "A declining membership is giving more money," the report says. "Indeed, inflation adjusted per capita current local expenses has increased from $54 in 1967 to $94 in 2000." At the same time national Basic Support declined slightly in 2000 after two years of consecutive increases.
According to Wade Clark Roof in his book, "Spiritual Marketplace—Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion," the UCC's experience is not unique among mainstream religious groups.
"Mainstream believers on the whole have weak ties to religious institutions," Roof writes. "Relationships with local churches, synagogues, and temples are in fact ambivalent: an overwhelming majority—84 percent—insists that one can be a ‘good Christian or Jew' without regularly attending church or synagogue. At the same time, even greater numbers of them say they would like to have a congregation nearby to meet whatever needs may arise, especially for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. This combination implies a need for some degree of religious belonging."
Some of this weakness is shown in the levels of worship attendance throughout the UCC. Note the two graphs to the right. One shows the percent of UCC churches by size of church. The other shows the percent of UCC Churches by size of average worship attendance. The graphs show a large difference between the size of a congregation and the number of members who actually come to worship.
More research needed
Ongoing research will continue to monitor results to see if this is indeed the beginning of a sea change. "One thing is clear," says Schoen. "UCC churches that are reaching out to spiritual seekers are experiencing renewal. They are finding those physically, emotionally and spiritually hungry and they are feeding them."
It appears that there are people out there with good cars who need to be justified, after all. Increasing the number of congregations that have a passion for finding these people and investing in them may be an important key to UCC member, mission and financial growth.
Go to the evangelism pages on the UCC website: www.ucc.org then click on Ministries, Evangelism Pages, then any of the sub-directories.
Ron Buford, the UCC's public relations and marketing manager, takes a keen interest in statistics.
Copies of "The UCC Statistical Handbook 2001" were sent to UCC churches, Conference offices and seminaries. Individuals may receive a copy by sending $5 to UCC Research Services, 700 Prospect Ave., 6th floor, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100.