Rethinking church: UCC leaders wrestle with framing a future
Written by Rebecca Bowman Woods
June 15, 2010

(Part two in a two-part series on the future of the UCC. Click here for part one.)

Although the United Church of Christ is declining at a slower rate than in years past, the denomination's leaders are not complacent about numbers. Fostering growth and vitality at a time when mainline denominations are shrinking means taking risks, reaching out to young adults and youth, and rethinking what it means to be church.

But it doesn't mean shying away from taking a stand on public policy matters, says the Rev. Geoffrey Black, UCC general minister and president.

Historically, the UCC has deep roots in this area. "When the people advocated to defend the Amistad captives in the nineteenth century, they were harshly ridiculed. They were social pariahs, but they were doing it out of Christian conviction," Black says.

Being willing to speak out sometimes puts the denomination in the media spotlight. While the attention may work to the UCC's advantage, the future hinges on its ability to spread the gospel, says the Rev. Stephen Sterner, executive minister for Local Church Ministries.

Part of the UCC's efforts to broaden the reach of its "God Is Still Speaking" message is the Language of God video released on the web in April. The video has been watched and shared by hundreds of thousands of people in more than 100 countries. It builds on the success of previous television ads. The viral approach has helped the denomination reach a younger audience — one with whom leaders believe the UCC's theology will resonate.

The UCC is also committed to spreading the gospel by starting new churches. According to the Rev. George Bullard, a founder of the Columbia Partnership — a consulting firm that works with denominations, middle judicatories, and congregations — every mainline denomination should be adding new churches at the rate of at least three percent of its total number of churches, per year. Otherwise, denominations are not likely to survive, Bullard predicts.

Right now, the UCC receives a new or affiliating church about every ten days, says the Rev. David Schoen, team leader for Congregational Vitality and Discipleship. But by the year 2021, its goal is to receive three percent of the total number of congregations, per year.


Revitalization and 'birthing'

Does the denomination's emphasis on new churches come at the expense of revitalizing existing ones? No, say church leaders. In fact, the most successful model for starting new congregations, Schoen says, is churches birthing churches. "That was probably the DNA of our churches in the beginning," Schoen says.

Birthing a new church can bring energy and renewal, even for a declining congregation. "People want to be part of a wider movement, a bigger outreach," says Schoen. And having the fundamental backing, prayers and support of a vital congregation creates a context in which a new church can thrive. Clusters of churches are also birthing congregations. Some lend members, others give financial support, prayers or leaders.

Church multiplication models have changed over the last 10-20 years. In the past, a UCC association would determine where to build a new church. That's the least likely model to work today, says Schoen. The biggest concern used to be location. Now, it's leadership.

To that end, the UCC launched the Center for Progressive Renewal in January 2010. Its main purpose is to train leaders who can renew and start new churches, says the Rev. Cameron Trimble, executive director.

The center is located in Marietta, Ga. It's an ecumenical venture that will soon include leadership coaching programs for new and renewing leaders, executive pastors who want to grow their churches, female and Hispanic pastors, and clergy in their 20s and 30s.

The center is launching an online learning center and a lay theology program, in partnership with the UCC's Southeast Conference and Lancaster Theological Seminary. The center's annual New Church Leadership Institute, August 9-13, will explore "The Seven Secrets" of vital church leadership.


Growing in diversity

The South might seem like a difficult place for a progressive denomination to plant churches, but the UCC has had successes there, Trimble says. After the launch of the God Is Still Speaking campaign, many who visited the UCC's website looking for a nearby congregation came from southern states, she says. And in 2009, all UCC conferences posted declines, except the Southeast and Southern conferences, which saw modest membership gains.

New churches also bring diversity — a value that liberal and progressive denominations affirm. Yet, in Bullard's experience, "existing congregations don't diversify well." Diversity is more readily achieved by starting new congregations, rather than trying to make existing ones more multi-cultural, he says.

According to Schoen, in the past 10 years, 78 percent of new or affiliating congregations are made up predominantly of people of color, or are multi-racial and multi-cultural. During the first decade of the UCC's existence, 92 percent of new churches were European-American.

Schoen also sees the UCC becoming more diverse theologically. New churches, especially those affiliating with the denomination, are "Pentamethobapticolist," Schoen says. Many members come from an evangelical background, but were not welcomed there, often because of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another key to revitalizing both congregations and the denomination itself, according to Sterner, of Local Church Ministries, is moving from the "membership model" to a discipleship and mission focus. Worrying about declining numbers becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and diverts attention from opportunities "to engage mission, and form and transform people around being disciples and mission agents in the world," he says.


Controversy and expectations

The denomination's stance on controversial issues, including marriage equality, contributed to a higher number of churches and members leaving the UCC in the past few years.

While taking an unpopular stand will cause denominations to get smaller, says Bullard, the real difficulties come when there's no agreed-upon process for addressing a controversial issue. "If you have a healthy process that fully respects the viewpoints of others, your losses will be a lot less."

Bullard, who in addition to consulting, is the general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance, says the UCC can be proud of its solid position at the liberal end of Protestantism, its theology of "progressive revelation" expressed by the Still Speaking campaign, and "helping individuals be on their own journey and not judging others' spirituality."

One area where liberal/progressive churches can improve, Bullard says, is in expecting more of members. The idea goes back to the Rev. Dean M. Kelley's book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1972). The basic premise, Bullard explains, is that high commitment churches — those that have higher expectations of members — tend to grow, while low commitment churches don't. Historically speaking, fewer liberal churches have called members to a higher commitment, he says.

Bullard and the Columbia Partnership have worked with UCC judicatories and congregations, including Federated Church UCC in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton, senior pastor, says Federated Church's new member classes now include in-depth discussion about the church's expectations of commitment, including stewardship and the use of one's gifts to serve God and others, as a way to respond to receiving God's love. "My sense is that a richer faith entails a deeper commitment," Throckmorton says.

Growing or not, it's an exciting time to be the church, say Black and Sterner.

"People are looking for religious grounding, and transcendent encounters, and to be connected in ways that make a difference in their lives and in the communities in which they live. That's what the gospel is about, and that's what we've been saying for a long time," says Sterner.


The Rev. Rebecca Bowman Woods is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, former news editor of DisciplesWorld Magazine, and a regular contributor to United Church News and StillSpeaking Magazine.

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