Evangelical courage. It isn't a term we use a lot in the United Church of Christ.
But in many ways it is, or must become, a driving principle of churches, ministries and individual members if the UCC is to thrive or, at the least, merely survive.
This isn't a casual observation of mainline denominational decline — there are plenty of consultants and critics who have rendered the same prognosis. As a reality check, the UCC statistically led all other reporting denominations in 2008 with a six percent drop in membership. We need to develop a sense of evangelical courage, and we need it now!
But these numbers may be somewhat misleading. Twenty-first century faith communities and their people don't place the same value on counting membership as did churches in previous centuries. Until the UCC finds ways to tally active participants it will not account for the current generation that is often leery of "joining."
I began ordained ministry as a new church planter — one who, like so many others, poured their training, talent and love for the Good News of Jesus into finding new communities and people to share the journey of Christian discipleship. It wasn't always easy or fun, but it was the most rewarding experience of my life.
It took the courage of an Association to assemble a church planting working group and to invest in a year of research and discernment. It took the courage of a Conference to accompany the Association in their financial commitment. It took the dedication of an incredibly talented group of lay leaders and spiritual pioneers who believed in the vision that had been cast.
All of us — through hours of prayer, planning, laughter (and a few tears), financial sacrifice and intense flexibility — built a new faith community. We experimented with worship formats and musical styles. The sound equipment or computer projector didn't always work right. We struggled to create meaningful fellowship, education and mission opportunities. We built lasting friendships and grew in faith. People came — and people went.
Fortunately, more came than went and the church continues to grow and minister.
But the organizational factors that led to the existence of Nexus UCC don't explain its staying power. No, that success can only be attributed to the evangelical courage of each person who came through our virtual doors (we met in homes, briefly in a dance studio and then a YMCA.)
Still, even with good planning, leadership and courage, many new church efforts fail to develop into sustained worshiping communities. One such story is found on page 13. The experience of Prairie Sky UCC is a reminder that each community has a unique character.
It is also an admonition to the UCC at large: New church planting is the mission of all its churches. The experiences of indifference, isolation and, in some cases, open hostility displayed toward Prairie Sky UCC by nearby established UCC churches are all too common.
Denominations with successful new church programs have, at their core, an evangelical vision for seeking, serving and converting new peoples. If the UCC is going to halt its rapid membership decline, it needs to catch that vision. New churches aren't marginal members of the UCC's mission and purpose, they are central to its future as a denomination.
Existing churches must welcome and support new churches just as they would a new member. It's true that new churches need your people and money — but that isn't enough. They need your enthusiastic nurture as well.
The encouraging news is that, according to the UCC's Local Church Ministries, 165 new churches have started since 2006. This number includes congregations that have affiliated with the UCC in the same period which is another exciting trend.
The UCC needs the vitality and creativity of new churches and those committing to renewal. New churches need the prayers, encouragement and yes, resources, of existing churches. And we all need evangelical courage to invite new people into faith-filled relationships so we can be Good News in our communities and around the world.