Written by Gregg Brekke
Five new or updated volumes from the UCC's publishing houses have recently been released with their focus on inspiring and informing congregations for growth, leadership and a prophetic justice witness.
Two revised books are well known titles in the United Church Press catalog often used by congregations to introduce new members to the UCC's history and theological tradition along with providing a guide to participation in the local church and beyond.
"So you are a Church Member" by Robert T. Fauth, is an accessible guide to church life. A presentation page earmarks this volume's use as a gift during member recognition services though beyond this application it "aims to strengthen members' faith, enlarge their knowledge of the work of the church, and prepare them to share their Christian experience with others."
Its 56 pages are packed with history, theology, governance and structure of the United Church of Christ in addition to a concise overview what are known as the benefits and obligations of church membership, especially as it relates to the care that comes from developing personal relationships.
"You Belong: A Handbook for Church Members" by Allen H. Marheine, picks up where "So you are a Church Member" leaves off – providing more detailed history, bibliographic resources and insights into what active participation in a UCC congregation involves.
Written in a narrative style, "You Belong" invites the reader to place themselves in the situations described – such as baptism, communion or listening to a sermon. It also delves into the less liturgical, and more day-to-day, work of the church including caring for the sick, arranging special events, church controversies and being invitational.
The back jacket says, "'You Belong' is for the new (or veteran) church member who wants to be more than just a name on a membership roster." It's an invitation to active participation in a local congregation and a denomination that considers each member a minister of the Gospel.
Continuing the active church involvement theme, Randy Hammer's "Practical Hospitality" is the first volume in the new "52 Ways to Ignite Your Congregation" series, offering an essential guide to creating an intentional spirit of welcome for visitors to your church.
Nothing turns new people away from a church faster than the perception that they need to know somebody to be welcomed or, worse yet, that they are completely ignored!
Study after study show how essential first impressions are – and that impression is even more important for church visitors. Most people searching for a church will give your congregation only one chance to show that you are hospitable and honestly interested in them. We all think our churches are friendly, but are they really welcoming?
"Practical Hospitality" condenses each of its suggestions for providing this atmosphere of welcome into a one or two page synopsis – advertising, coffee hour, greeters, facility maintenance, accessibility and worship themes are covered along with 46 other succinct and practical ideas.
Three sections – "Anticipating First-time Worshipers," "Making People Feel Welcome" and "Seeing People Return" – help congregations assess their strengths and grow in the areas where they are weakest.
If you have any questions as to your church's preparedness to invite, welcome and retain new members, you need to get "Practical Hospitality" and start implementing its no-nonsense suggestions.
"The sermon is a medium by which the preacher offers testimony and bears witness to the unending presence of the grace of God in scripture, in the world, and in the individual and corporate lives of preacher and congregation." So says the preface of "Good News Preaching: Offering the Gospel in Every Sermon" by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks.
But how many of us really have the experience of God's "unending presence" when we sit and listen to sermon after sermon? As one who has prepared and delivered a fair number of sermons, I am glaringly aware of the times I missed that mark.
Brooks' new title is an inspiration to pastor and congregant – acknowledging the main goal of preaching is to inspire God's people to be Good News to those around them, to share God's grace.
More than an academic study of homiletics (the art and science of preaching), "Good News Preaching" guides pastors in creating sermons with the foundations of scripture, prayer, research and context. It even ventures where other homiletic books fall short – the delivery of the sermon.
How preachers present themselves and "embody the sermon" is the subject of an entire section. Asking questions such as: Are you believable? Are you distracting? Has the sermon moved you? If not, how do you expect it to move the congregation?
Pastors looking to hone their preaching skills or those who need help getting out of a rut will appreciate Brooks' vitality and passion for preaching Good News. So will their congregants…
The final volume of this spring's titles is "Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability" by Mary Elizabeth Hobgood. The bestselling original edition was hailed as the standard text on the societal origins of race-, class- and gender-based discrimination.
Hobgood's primary challenge is to those who are considered, or consider themselves, elites in society. She asserts that value statements based on biological or social attributes (including race, gender, language, class) have been artificially attributed to certain groups as a means of elevating the status of one group over another. She further emphasizes that knowingly, or unknowingly, elites oppress and exploit those without power or political voice – creating a social ethical dilemma, especially for people of faith.
Hobgood lifts up a personal example in the introduction, of spending time with her grandmothers – one a sharecropper, the other a New Orleans socialite – both who employed black servants. Her (white) parents' inter-class marriage in the post-WWII era was considered quite unusual, but Hobgood learned valuable lessons about privilege by traversing these quite opposite social spheres.
Her experiences birthed the hope that a better society is possible through a "politics of accountability and solidarity." Rather than blame those who find themselves the elites of society, she encourages them to participate in the process of education and rebuilding trust with oppressed groups.
On a personal level, "Dismantling Privilege" invites the reader to consider how society assigns higher status to one group because of their race, class or gender – and subsequently how others are denied access to housing, education, jobs and relationship because of differing conditions.
The updated and revised edition contains a chapter on ecological factors of privilege, new statistics and a focus on political movements in Africa and Latin America where the power of privilege has been successfully challenged through actions of ordinary people.
Given the recent controversy over the nature and tone of Black Liberation Theology, I consider "Dismantling Privilege" a required text for anyone hoping to appreciate the genesis of theologies of liberation. Some colleges and seminaries already include it in their mandatory reading – for the good of the church and society, I can only hope many more do the same.