When I was asked to write this little piece, the editor explained that I could say whatever I wanted. So in this article I want to offer some thoughts for conversation.
It is a conversation that has been happening in some parts of the church's life, but I think needs to be broadened. I share here both my experience and my opinion, nether of which is universal or necessarily predictive of the future.
In meetings with colleagues in other denominations I hear a similar report on what is happening. The flow of mission dollars is changing, the organizational structure is in flux, indeed, the very mission and essence of the denomination is changing.
Surprisingly, this is a conversation that bridges theological and ecclesiological difference.
I suppose this is evidence that we really are moving into what has been called the "post denominational age." At the moment there is considerable uncertainty about what that means, but I think there are some elements of that which are clear enough to articulate with some degree of certainty.
I am often asked if the United Church of Christ has a future as a denomination. Of course it does! As long as there are local congregations embodying the mission and values of the UCC, there will be a UCC. I think that will be the case for a very long time.
As long as there are settings of mission beyond the local church that carry the values of the UCC, there will be a UCC. I think that will be the case for a very long time. But I also believe that the role of the denomination, perhaps even the definition of denomination, will be shifting. Indeed the shift has been ongoing for quite some time.
There are multiple factors in causing the shift. They include, but are not limited to, the increasing engagement in direct mission of local faith communities, the availability of resources from a wide range of church and para-church organizations, a movement to a value based identity more than a history based identity, and a changing view of the nature of organizations.
Each of these impacts the role of the denomination in the life of the local church and the way the denomination engages in mission. Each also calls into question the structure of the church at every setting.
Much as local congregations have often found it wise to reduce their governance structure in order to increase their capacity for mission, so too the wider church structures are open to review.
I want to make it clear that I believe much of what denominations have been doing will continue into the foreseeable future. However I believe that the shifts inherent in the changing reality of the world will reshape the nature of denomination. The rapidity of the change will be determined by our willingness to address it, or by the crises that force it.
I am extremely hopeful about the future of the UCC, especially as we are able to make the shifts required without loosing the integrity of our commitment to the Gospel or the "God is still speaking", "evangelical welcome", and "transforming lives" values we claim. This is an exciting time to be the church.
The Rev. Stephen Sterner is the UCC's executive minister for Local Church Ministries and a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers.