I've heard pastors and church leaders tell stories about the days when the worship services were packed, the Sunday School did not have enough classrooms for all of the kids, and the fellowship hall was filled with people two times over with the famous corned beef, spaghetti or turkey dinner the women's group prepared.
I've heard the stories, but in fact, I've never seen it for myself. I wonder what it would be like to be part of that kind of church. I wonder what it would be like to live in a time when, supposedly, everyone went to church.
I have lived my entire life in a church that celebrates its heyday in a time before I was born. I feel like a stranger in this story. History and tradition are important and help to shape our common sacred story. But my own personal experience is that church has been full of struggle, financial instability, and conflict. All of these dynamics have been the direct result of the stress and anxiety over church decline. And I have to say that sometimes I get a little worried.
My point is not for us to feel bad (or worse) about the state of things in the church. My point is that for more than a generation, the UCC has been wandering in the wilderness of decline without an exit strategy.
It is time for an exit strategy. Those of us with a vested interest in the future need to tell a new story. We need to tell a story of renewal, transformation, rising up out of despair, and turn-around. That is the story I want to tell.
I am one-half of a clergy couple/co-pastor team with my husband, the Rev. Todd Grant Yonkman. The Grant Yonkman Adventure Team has made church renewal and redevelopment its mission and we believe in a bright future for those churches who are willing to do the hard work of deepening their relationship with God and reaching out into their community.
Our latest project is at Beneficent Congregational UCC in Providence, R.I., a small urban congregation born 266 years ago. Like many downtown churches, Beneficent used to be a large and vibrant church, and could easily fill its 750-seat worship space. Now, we worship around 80 people and struggle with taking care of our large historic properties. I have no doubt this church, along with most other UCC churches, can grow. One tool of growth and renewal is partnership.
Six months ago, a fledgling theater company approached Beneficent UCC to rent space for an upcoming production of Amadeus, a play about Mozart and Salieri.
But we are not a theater or a performing arts center. We are a church and a place where the good news is proclaimed and peoples' lives are changed. We declined to be landlords, but we said yes to a partnership.
The Amadeus Project could offer us access into a performing arts community, the opportunity to be part of the success of a new entrepreneurial endeavor, and a way to serve the community. The church could offer inexpensive (not free!) rehearsal and performance space - partners in promoting the arts in Providence, and a new model of Christian discipleship.
While I am writing this piece, Amadeus is being performed at Beneficent UCC and here are a few things that this partnership has helped our church achieve.
The pastors, staff and church leaders have been invited to a number of fundraising and publicity events and parties. As a result of the networking and relationship-building we have done, we have built new partnerships in the community. These contacts have resulted in a formal relationship between Johnson and Wales University and Beneficent UCC.
The church is now a site for student community service and the workplace for 3 work-study students. Our church choir and the Amadeus musicians put on a joint concert for of music of Mozart and Salieri. I am part of a panel discussion about the play in a "Talk Back" event. A number of participants in the production have attended worship and other church programs. Some have experienced church for the first time.
By working together, relationships have been built, friendships have developed, and we have come together in mutual support and genuine care for one another.
This has been an amazing experience for me personally and for several others who have put themselves out there to try something new. As wonderful as Amadeus has been, it is only the beginning; we still have a long way to go.
But I am telling this story as a witness to the incredible potential God has laid before us in this place; previously untapped potential just waiting to be recognized and cultivated. My faith tells me there is way more out there yet.
You can read more about the Grant Yonkman Adventure Team at <grantyonkmanteam.com>.