Could a new 'southern strategy' serve to unite, excite us?
"I keep saying it - give us 10 more years, I think we can shift this around," the Rev. Timothy C. Downs told me last year, speaking about his hunch that the UCC's numerically small presence in the conservative South is on the verge of taking a turn for the better.
Downs, the UCC's Southeast Conference Minister, has been arguing for years that changing demographics all-but-require that the UCC look south - to focus more intently on a burgeoning region where the UCC's numbers have been the weakest, but where many would-be members are crying out for a refreshing, authentic Christian alternative to religious fundamentalism.
"The UCC provides a dimension that is distinctive and has the power to connect with people here," Downs told me. "I think we have that potential."
Downs has good stats to back up his assumptions. The Southeast Conference has more that doubled its membership during the past six years, the result of both new members and new churches. The UCC's Stillspeaking Initiative has sparked big-time interest from many who live in southern communities - places where, for the most part, no UCC church yet exists.
Ya'll should be saddened by our present state of invisibility, especially since our church was a leader in the abolitionist and civil rights movements and we helped found numerous schools and colleges throughout the South.
But the frustrating fact remains: there are more Southern Baptist churches in Georgia alone than there are UCC churches nationally. Yet some are actively promoting a plan to boost our southern exposure.
The UCC's Local Church Ministries has announced its intent to raise at least $200,000 in 2006 to assist new church development in the Southeast. The hope of this so-called "southern strategy" is to plant at least 10 new churches by 2010 in places where the UCC's presence has been sparse.
In December, a year-end fundraising letter from the Rev. José A. Malayang, LCM's executive minister, called on potential contributors to seize the moment.
"We have arrived at a time of opportunity in the South for church growth and to start churches that are truly open and affirming, fully accessible, multi-racial and multi-cultural, boldly proclaiming the liberating gospel of Christ," Malayang wrote.
As a native southerner myself, and one who found a home in the UCC (after feeling as if I'd been orphaned by the less-welcoming church tradition of my childhood), the prospect of a "southern strategy" encourages me. It's high time we take our message of extravagant welcome and evangelical courage into communities where, for the most part, we've abdicated the Christian faith to other, narrower perspectives.
Not long ago, I was semi-astonished to hear that Radio Shack - your neighborhood electronics retailer - has about 6,000 stores nationally, or about the same number of "outlets" we've got. How is it then, I found myself wondering, that everybody's heard of Radio Shack but so few have heard of us?
For starters, they've got a huge advertising budget - that helps. But, more importantly, each individual store operates under the same shared, corporate identity - that helps, too. But most importantly, they've seen the need - and devoted the resources - to opening countless new outlets over the years, something we haven't done well during the past 50 years. They, unlike we, have located (and relocated) to where the people are.
Since General Synod, and perhaps even before it, I've been feeling the need for a new missional emphasis, something energizing that draws us together - not apart - as we prepare to celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2007 and make our way beyond.
So I wonder, could the dawning of dozens or even hundreds of new churches in the South be a way to honor our evangelical forebears? Could that be the legacy that we leave to our descendants 100 years from now?