While today is being celebrated worldwide by many as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday – a day of decadence prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent – some are taking a new approach to the traditional 40 days of self-denial, prayer and personal reflection in the post-modern era.
The Lenten season, which a recent Religion News Service article article notes “hasn't always drawn strong interest” among some Protestant denominations, has taken on new meaning by linking fasting, abstention and prayer to social causes. The article, “Age-old Lent gets a 21st-century makeover,” highlights various ways the concept of “fasting” is being lived out among Christians in the new millennium.
Over 4,000 people have joined in the 2011 Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast in an effort to reduce energy consumption and fight global warming. Of the carbon fast, Janis Galvin, an Episcopalian who lives in Everett, Mass., said, "It's exciting because it's not just suffering for its own sake … It's doing good."
Fasting from anything is never an easy sell in a culture that values convenience, according to Jim Antal, who heads the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.
But as a spiritual practice, he said, personal sacrifice can be a key driver in advancing larger movements.
"We're trying to deal with the mingling of individual Lenten disciplines with social change," said Antal, whose conference is spearheading the carbon fast. "And that is precisely what will save the Earth - if individuals who begin to get it... begin to say, `Gosh, I need to change my life, and I need to become an activist.' "
Along with this initiative, the United Methodist Church is urging its 7.8 million U.S. members to refrain from drinking alcohol during Lent. Teetotaling is familiar turf in United Methodism, and now Lent provides a framework to consider the role alcohol plays in individual lives, families and society, according to Cynthia Abrams of the UMC's General Board of Church & Society.
"To ask United Methodists to give up alcohol for Lent is provocative because we like to think United Methodists don't drink," said Abrams, who works on alcohol and other health issues. "We decided ... to confront the elephant in the room by doing something provocative and engaging in conversation about it throughout Lent."
In the United Kingdom, the Christian Vegetarian Association is aiming to revive the ancient Christian practice of foregoing meat during Lent. (Many Orthodox Christians still eat a vegan diet in Lent). It's self-denial for a purpose, organizers say, noting how vegetarian diets improve health, enhance animal welfare and reduce strain on the environment.
Some observers of evolving Lenten practices see them as steps – albeit small ones – in the right direction for a culture that tends to bristle at the idea of voluntary self-denial.
"In a culture as consumer-oriented and materialistic as ours, it is not surprising that churches are seeking in small ways to remind us of those obsessions," said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University. "These are welcome developments, even though they may be rather feeble."
Conventional ways of fasting and abstaining at Lent haven't disappeared. Sixty percent of American Catholics – even those who seldom attend church – abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, according to Mark Gray, senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
And for others, where Lent has taken on a more reflective or study-oriented nature, new resources are available to assist individual groups and individuals in their spiritual pursuits. Identification with Jesus, specifically his earthly ministry and events that led to his crucifixion (and resurrection,) is also part of the Lenten tradition.
To that end, the Living the Questions franchise has released a two-DVD set - "Saving Jesus: Redux" - that, while not specifically intended as a curriculum for Lent, would be a welcome addition to a church or small group Lenten series.
Divided into 12 segments, “Saving Jesus” offers a 20-minute video introduction to a topic, scripture readings and suggested discussion topics aimed at helping participants develop a greater understanding of Jesus.
The United Church of Christ Stillspeaking Writers' Group has also released a new resource, "The Jesus Diaries: Who Jesus is to Me." Again, while not meant exclusively as a Lenten guide, this booklet contains nine reflections that provoke the question, as the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver recalls in the introduction, “How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?”
Whether Lenten practices of self-denial and reflection take modern or historic forms, rooted in spiritual development or concerns for global justice, there's no dispute that the party of Mardi Gras, for many, will be met tomorrow by the challenging reality of Christian discipleship.
Portions of this article were provided by Religion News Service and G. Jeffrey MacDonald.
A group of UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) officials recently returned from visiting more than a dozen mission partners in India. Establishing relationships between mission partners in India and denominational officials, the group toured partner sites Feb. 2-12, and met with Indian church officials. The visit was led by led by the Rev. James Vijayakumar, UCC/Disciples Global Ministries Southern Asia area executive.
Accompanying Vijayakumar was the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, the Rev. Sharon Watkins, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) general minister and president, the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, executive minister for the UCC's Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of Global Ministries, and their spouses.
The group arrived in Raipur from Calcutta on Feb. 4 and was honored at the re-dedication of Emmanuel Church in Bisrahmpur. Along with area bishop and local church pastors, the UCC and Disciples executives presided over the service. The church is a historic vestige of the Rev. Oscar T. Lohr, a German missionary there from 1868 to 1907.
Joining the Global Ministries executives for the dedication were Dr. Anil and Dr. Teresa Henry from Christian Hospital in Mungeli, along with a recently-arrived contingent of visitors from Avon Lake (Ohio) UCC and a group of Disciples members from Atlanta. The local church groups were in India to visit Christian Hospital.
In remarks to the hundreds gathered in the village of Bishrampur for the church re-dedication, Black said, “Jesus spoke of places like this as places of prayer … my prayer for you is that as you continue to worship together and serve together in Jesus' name, you will always extend a very extravagant welcome to the people of all nations who will come to worship and serve with you in this place.”
Watkins also delivered a dedication blessing saying, “I come here today to say I thank God for you in my prayers because I have heard of your faith … and here at this church today we have found a place where the people come in to worship God together. This place becomes holy ground.”
Following the church the delegation and the local church groups traveled to Christian Hospital, where Dr. Anil Henry and his wife, Dr. Theresa Henry, serve as Global Ministries missionaries. The hospital and associated Rambo English School have been under the care of the Henrys since 2004.
The group spent Feb. 5 touring Christian Hospital, beginning with chapel service with staff and visitors. The Rev. Rick Lowery, professor of church history at Lexington Theological Seminary and the husband of Watkins, delivered the sermon. Using Genesis 1 as his text, Lowery encouraged the congregation to appreciate the value in each person as those created in the image of God.
Anil Henry escorted the delegation through his routine of morning rounds, introducing them to the variety of patients seen and explaining hospital operations. A visit to the nearby Rambo English School, a primary and secondary educational institution, included a tour of the construction site of a new facility that will serve the nearly 500 students enrolled at the school.
Subsequent stops for the Global Ministries-led delegation included the Church of South India headquarters, Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, the dedication of a tsunami rehabilitation project in Kanyakumari, and the Marathi Mission institutions, among other partner sites.
Global Ministries is the common witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ responsible for nurturing relationships with international partners on behalf of Disciples and the UCC.
The Rev. Gregg Brekke, UCC news director and editor, accompanied the Avon Lake UCC contingent to India and has been Journaling the group’s experiences and posting pictures on his blog.
The list of recent titles extolling the virtues of daily/common/hourly/liturgical prayer could fill at least one tier of my bookshelf. Well, they nearly do.
The Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Phyllis Tickle's Divine Hours (all editions), A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, Praying with the Psalms, Streams in the Desert, Praying with the Desert Mothers, and a dozen more - are all available to me day and night.
A new arrival on this ever-updating scene is not necessarily big news, but in many ways it is a refreshing surprise. The release of "Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals" by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro, is so unique in the list of liturgically oriented devotional books that it needs mention.
What Claiborne and crew have assembled is something of a postmodern Christian marvel. Ably weaving ancient and modern sources of prayer and liturgy along with a sensibility to current-day spiritual concerns, "Common Prayer" transcends denominational (or non-denominational) structures to present a useful – and relevant – guide to prayer.
And relevant is a key word to the entire work. Above all, its authors – respected leaders in the the emergent church and new monastic movements – have tirelessly promoted the need for Christianity to maintain and/or regain its relevancy. The question, "How can we live authentic Christian lives in our times and within our community?" is a primary concern of this ethos.
A little background on the new monastic movement may be helpful. While shrugging off a strict definition, a basic understanding is that these groups are intentional communities of Christians who follow a common rule and work together for the good of their communities. Emerging over the last several decades, the movement takes a cue from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's admonition that a new monasticism would restore the church and differentiate itself from older forms of monasticism by its "complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ."
The uniqueness of "Common Prayer" comes through when all these factors are considered. Postmodern Christians with a concern for community and sensibilities for justice and personal piety are driven together to hold a common rule that includes regular prayer and global responsibility. A tall order.
And for Evangelical Christians – the primary audience of this prayer book – it would seem an especially tall order given its penchant for individualistic "Jesus is my personal savior" brand of faith. Even for mainline Christians, the concept of communal prayer or liturgy outside the confines of Sunday morning worship, has become a foreign concept.
Co-author Shane Claiborne says he grew up in a church culture that didn't really grasp the concept that prayer was conducted in the context of the Church universal. "That created a lopsided prayer life," he says. " 'Common Prayer' is a correction to that – that there is a sense of praying with the whole Church and with the Church throughout history."
"Common Prayer" is not unique in its call for a new ordering of community by a rule and prayer – even in modern times. There are similarities to be found in lay monastic movements of "oblates" among Catholic and Anglican orders. It can be said that Ireland's Iona Community and the Northumbria Community of northern England have the same purpose, along with their associated prayer books.
But it can be said that "Common Prayer" is unique in its origins and within the context of the new monastic movement's spread in the United States and beyond. The authors readily acknowledges the many streams of new monastic thought and prayer guides that formed the book while allowing "Common Prayer" to take on its own form for the service-based communities and partners who will use it.
Gone is the King James English present in many previous prayer books; retained is the liturgical flow that these guides produced. Gone are prayers written hundreds of years ago; retained are celebrations of saints' feast days along with contemporary refections like remembering the passage of Roe vs. Wade (January 22) and the detention of Japanese American during World War II (February 19).
I appreciate that these reflections don't draw their own conclusions or make an overt moral pronouncement. You, the prayer, or better yet the community in prayer, is left to meditate on the event or remembrance – in the same way you are invited to consider the many biographical portraits drawn of spiritual saints during the morning prayer liturgies.
"Prayer isn't just about getting God to do what we want God to do," says Claiborne. "It's how we listen to and discern what God is saying to us, and how we act on it - that is important.
The book is organized in a readable fashion – the introduction describes the book's formation along with guidelines for its use, seven days of evening prayer, a year's worth of evening prayers, a midday prayer, prayers for special occasions and a songbook containing over 50 selections with piano and guitar chords.
Each month of morning prayers opens with a reflection on one of the twelve "Marks of New Monasticism." Interspersed throughout the book are sidebars that introduce the liturgical neophyte to concepts like Advent, Lent, Eucharist, Smells and Bells, Confession and Passing the Peace – an entirely beneficial use of ink given the intended audience of primarily young Evangelicals, to whom these concepts might sound foreign.
In its accessibility and content, "Common Prayer" delivers a useable and useful guide to daily prayer. For some it may be old hat, introducing concepts they have had ingrained in them since birth. For others it is an introduction to a type of Christianity that seeks to share a historic and communal understanding of liturgy – literally, "the work of the people."
"We tried to present a fusion of belief and practice – without cheapening the importance of theology – marrying theology with concrete practice," says Claiborne. He says the idea was to present a guide that would be seen as "radically orthodox and radically orthopraxic" at the same time.
"The idea of formation is really critical [in "Common Prayer"] and has been missing in the last few decades of Evangelical Christianity," he says. "We've been really good at making believers, but not so good at raising followers … who are transformed into different ways of living in the world."
And that is a sentiment to which we can all say "Amen."
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals
by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro
Online content available at <commonprayer.net>.
Culminating nearly seven years of study and discourse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted Nov. 16 during its fall general assembly in Baltimore to approve the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism."
By a 204-11 vote, the agreement – among the USCCB, the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church-USA, Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church – is being hailed as a "milestone on the ecumenical journey," says Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
"Together with our Reformed brothers and sisters, we Catholic bishops can affirm baptism as the basis of the real, even if incomplete, unity we share in Christ," says Gregory. "Our conference looks forward to seeing all four of the authoritative bodies of the Reformed communities approve the common agreement as we have today."
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, says the church will discuss the USCCB's landmark vote with the entire denomination.
"My expectation is that we the issue will be placed before the Executive Council or the General Synod for official action," says Black, referring to the UCC's biennial conference, to be held next July in Tampa, Fla. "At this point, my preference would be to place it before the General Synod in order to give it maximum visibility in the life of the UCC."
The agreement has been ratified by the Presbyterian Church. The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church are expected to consider the agreement at their national meetings.
"It was quite the journey – seven years," says the Rev. Sidney F. Fowler, Interim Senior Minister of Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md. "I think it offers an opportunity for an amazing conversation among UCC folks who have deep ecumenical commitments."
"There were some rather tough moments," says Fowler, who has worked for the national settings of both the UCC in worship and spiritual formation, and has extensive experience developing lectionary-based and international ecumenical resources.
The two primary roadblocks to the agreement centered on language used during the baptismal rite and the manner in which water is used.
"At a moment of significant impasse, Geoffrey brought fresh eyes and asked crucial questions that helped the process move forward so all parties could sign off on the common agreement," says Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life and assistant to the UCC's five-member Collegium. "Our general minister and president looks forward to charging us as a denomination toward continued groundbreaking and visionary connections – both interfaith and ecumenical – that are ahead of us."
Research found that nearly 20 percent of UCC churches were using alternative language for "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" for baptismal formula, says Fowler. "Catholics don't recognize baptism other than 'in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.' "
Gregory says the agreement, after approval by the four Reformed denominations, will "allow Catholic ministers to presume that baptisms performed in these communities are 'true baptism' as understood in Catholic doctrine and law."
"The presentation of a baptismal certificate by Reformed Christians who wish to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or to marry a Catholic, assures Catholic ministers that the baptism performed by a Reformed minister involved the use of flowing water and the biblical invocation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit," says Gregory.
The agreement encourages local Christian communities to keep baptismal records, a practice already held in the Catholic Church.
The press release stated that other bishops' conferences worldwide have entered into similar agreements with local Protestant communities, but this document is "unprecedented" for the Catholic Church in the United States.
Producing and presenting the "Kids to Kids" online curriculum has taken a bit more work than the simplicity of its concept might imply.
But now that it has launched, it is carrying Kay Edwards' hopes along with it.
"This is a place for adult leaders of youth groups and Sunday school classes to sit down with their kids, look at it together, and support the kids in their deciding what they are to do," says Edwards, director of Family and Children's Ministries for Disciples Home Missions with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "The web site was launched just a couple of weeks ago, but it's been in the works for a couple of years."
The goal of Kids-to-Kids VBS Curriculum is for adult church members to engage youth groups to play games, ponder projects and study fund-raising pages – then discern what God is calling them to do.
"Too often, adults make decisions for children; they think that the children can't do that for themselves," says Edwards. "This is about kids of means being called to help children who are not as fortunate as they are. It's giving the kids some vehicles they can use to make choices on their own".
Designed to involve elementary age children in mission work, Kids to Kids was formed 17 years ago by the Disciples of Christ. It is now a joint effort involving the UCC through Global Ministries. The site suggests that group leaders employ a 10-point outline: Explore. Dream. Pray. Talk. Plan. Take a Deep Breath. Dive in! Evaluate and celebrate. Share your ideas. Don't Stop!
"We tried to make it really broad so that there would be something in it that appealed to lower-age elementary students to upper age," says Edwards. Games, puzzles and coloring are just a few of the exercises involved. And no matter where you turn, beginning with the web site's home page, Raja the Friendly Cobra is there to greet you – in multiple languages.
"Raja is from India, she travels all over the world," says Edwards, noting the wide variety of headgear the international star sports throughout the site. "She will visit the Disciples' General Assembly as well as the UCC's General Synod next July in Tampa. Raja has different hats to wear for all the places she goes."
Edwards is primed to grow the project both within and outside the United States.
"'Shake It Baby' is a good example of the type of project we'd like to keep adding, something that the local church is doing," says Edwards. Aimed at helping newborns in need around the world, "Shake It Baby" helps provide supplies such as diapers, cribs and car seats to those in need.
UCC projects include Helping Hands, which gives children the opportunity to help the staff of Charles Hall Youth Services provide creative, fun activities for troubled teenagers; "Welcome!," a basket-filling project providing warm-welcome offerings to children coming to live at Brooklawn Child and Family Services in Louisville, Ky.; and "Go Climb A Tree," which raises money for scholarships at the Illinois DuBois Camp and Conference Center.
In addition, the UCC and Disciples both participate in "Ready, Set, Go," designed to raise money and donate to One Great Hour of Sharing (UCC) and Week of Compassion (Disciples), ensuring that help is available when disaster strikes throughout the world.
"We know a passion for mission is most often planted at a very young age," says Jan Aerie, executive for Mission Education and Interpretation for the UCC's Wider Church and Global Minstries. "The seeds sown by this curriculum and website will nurture a faith and lifelong commitment for children of our churches.
"Our collaborative effort as two denominations has made a costly and time-consuming project not only worthwhile, but far better than we could have created on our own."
The next big step for Edwards is to develop and go live with Vacation Bible School resources for youth about Colombia and Venezuela. VBS curricula focusing on the Congo and India are already on the web site.
Edwards encourages congregations that have developed VBS materials to share them with her for distribution to others.
To contact Edwards, call 434-832-1119 or send an email to email@example.com
Vernon J. Baker, an African American who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic service in Italy during World War II, died this past July. His picture is displayed in the Pentagon. Beneath the picture are his eloquent and deeply moving words about war and war's impact on the lives of those who serve. Baker wrote: "War is the most regrettable proving ground. Those who launch it, and those who seek to create heroes from it, should remember war's legacy. You have to be there to appreciate its horrors — and die to forget them."
There are many veterans in our country today who know first-hand the truth of Baker's words. Veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are living their war's legacy. For many, the legacy is one of pride for having served and helped to preserve freedom for ourselves and win it for others. For some, the legacy includes unhealed wounds of the body, mind or spirit; living with addictions, broken relationships, dreams that haunt their nights, feelings of shame or guilt because of what they did, or deep grief because of what and whom they have lost.
Though we hate war and may disagree about the justification for particular wars, we are morally obligated to recognize the sacrifices of those who have served on our behalf, and to care for them in return. We also have a moral obligation as Christians and citizens to demand of our leaders that no wars be entered into unless the cause is clearly just.
Today we hear words that were not often uttered a generation ago: "Thank you for your service." Though these words will never go far enough to bring healing for some wounds, it is at least a way to acknowledge what veterans have given to us and to our nation.
So, this Veterans Day we say to our veterans, "Thank you for your service — and may the peace of God be with you."
Veterans' Day Prayer
God, we give you thanks today for our nation's veterans. We honor them for their faithful service to our country, and for what they have done to defend and preserve our freedom. Generation after generation, young men and women have answered our country's call. And as a result, their lives have been changed forever.
We are grateful to all who have served, whether in peacetime or in periods of conflict. But today we especially remember those who have been tempered by fire, those who continue to bear wounds of the body or the spirit as a result of what they endured. They lie in our veterans' hospitals or struggle for recovery in rehabilitation centers; they suffer from post-traumatic stress and survivor' guilt; they yearn for peace in their souls.
Dear God, we ask you to heal their wounds, to banish whatever inner demons may haunt them, and to give them peace within so they may return fully to their families and to society.
We thank you, God, for all of our country's veterans—those of past generations, and those who continue to earn this title today. May we never forget what our country has asked of them and what they have given in return. Help us to care enough to give them the respect and honor they are due. And strengthen our resolve to build a world modeled on your realm, where war will be pursued no more.
This we ask in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Amen.
The Rev. John Gundlach is the UCC's minister for government chaplancies and a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years.
When Drew Willard's family moved into its South Plainfield, N.J., home the same week in 1958 as their Jewish neighbors, the two families hit it off immediately. Each wanted a fenced-in yard – so they put up one fence around both properties with a gate that led to the open fields behind them.
More than 50 years later, the Rev. Drew Willard has led the UCC at The Villages (Fla.) in a celebration devoid of division and fulfilling in faith. Worshiping the past seven years at various sites – including the past three at the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom a mile up the road – the UCC at The Villages took root in its new building Aug. 15.
"No more talk about 'when we get to the new building,' " says Willard joyously. "We had a mountaintop experience on Sunday."
Sumter County inspectors issued the church's certificate of occupancy just two days prior, which "turned out to be one of the luckiest Friday the 13ths you could imagine," says Willard. "We said amongst ourselves that if we couldn't get permission to do this, we were going to make the walk anyway. We still would have done an exchange of the cross, the chalice and the Bible in the narthex – like planting the flag on Mt. Everest," says Willard with a laugh.
The "walk" was a mile-long kadimah (kuh-DEE-muh), a pilgrimage of about 100 people from the temple to The Villages' new building. It followed a brief service at the temple where members of both congregations exchanged gifts. "We were singing songs like "Kumbaya" that first half-mile," says Willard of the march.
Once inside the new sanctuary, the sounding of the shofar (a ram horn used as a wind instrument) signaled a new era.
"Confirmed members and choir members lined up first," says Willard. "I presented the cross, Bible and chalice to the diaconate, and everyone had a chance to hold the elements." Jerry Fabian, building committee chair, presented the key to church moderator Phil Pierkowski, and the Rev. Dr. Bill Wealand, the church's founding pastor, offered the invocation.
"It was a wonderful way for my wife and I to visit with so many people with whom we shared five years of building the congregation, much less the building," says Wealand.
Willard's sermon included a recounting of the Sermon on the Mount. "We're neighbors and there's no fence between us now," he told worshipers. Reflecting on that moment two days later, he adds, "As I learn more about the Jewish religion, it helps me become a better Christian. The same holds true for learning about Muslims."
Members of the Jewish community sang a song of blessing, and communion was offered. Sheldon Skurow, spiritual leader of the temple, and Nancy Bell, a Villages member, read a verse from Exodus, alternating in Hebrew and English. Holding hands in song, celebrants closed the service by singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
"Sunday was terrific, it was just … fantastic," says Skurow. "We were almost sorry to see them go." Skurow recalled his congregants' own journey from a temporary space to their new synagogue with a 4-mile kadimah that went past the site where The Villages church now stands. At that time, members of The Villages stood and cheered the synagogue's congregation.
On July 20, 2003, the Rev. Ben New planted the seeds for UCC at The Villages by calling a meeting. Thirty people attended and four years later – after holding worship in a Villages conference room, a storefront office, a Seventh Day Adventist church and the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom – the church rented the temple and purchased land for its own building. Ground was broken in August 2009.
The physical space of the new building reminds Willard of the temple. "The design of the sanctuary and narthex, with the fellowship hall off to the side, is actually the type of layout we have at our church building."
Willard, senior pastor at The Villages since May, traces the inspiration for the farewell event and the kadimah to his candidating service Feb. 21. "After that service, I met with the temple's music director, Rose Eberle. She invited me into their narthex for a demonstration of their acoustics." Eberle and Villages choir member MaryAnn Neder sang – and really struck a chord with Willard.
The opening of The Villages' new space does not mean a close to its relationship with Temple Shalom, says Skurow. "We've had an interfaith Thanksgiving service with them on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving the past few years, and a Methodist church and several others have joined us. In fact, Drew has suggested we have it at their church this year. "
The Rev. David Schoen, UCC's minister and team leader for Congregational Vitality and Discipleship, hails the UCC at The Villages as a rarity. "You just don't see a whole lot of this kind of thing anymore. They are to be congratulated on moving with such focus and intent to achieve a really beautiful facility within seven years. And the Florida Conference should be congratulated for having the foresight to purchase the land."
The UCC's Church Building Loan Fund provided UCC at The Villages with a $1.65 million construction loan.
A modern-day David-meets-Goliath is playing out in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and, to date, David – in the form of a UCC church known for its compassionate outreach among poor and homeless persons – is holding his own.
Although city officials are trying to close down Hope Outreach Ministries United Church of Christ's Men's Overnight Ministry – an overnight homeless shelter – church members are finding ways, with legal help from the ACLU, to keep the shelter open.
The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection ordered the shelter shut down Aug. 10, citing building, zoning and fire code violations. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, local zoning laws allow the church to operate 24 hours a day, but do not allow sleeping inside its walls.
The church responded to the order by holding an all-night prayer vigil in the sanctuary where 15-to-25 men have slept each night since September 2009. When inspectors arrived Wednesday, Aug. 11, the sleeping mats were gone, so the church was given the OK to continue operating its shelter. The city told reporters that the inspectors will continue to make unannounced checks to insure that homeless men in the shelter are not asleep.
The Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU is representing the church as it negotiates with the city.
Hope's pastor, the Rev. Deborah Savage, told reporters that the church would continue to hold the overnight prayer vigils through the end of the month.
"The commitment and tenacity of Hope Outreach Ministries to serve the needs of its homeless neighbors is evidence of Christ's presence among them," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president. "I know that many of Hope's sister congregations across the United Church of Christ are offering prayers of support and encouragement as the congregation works with the ACLU and the city to resolve the legal matters at hand so that Hope's ministries of compassion among the poor in their neighborhood will continue uninterrupted."
Hope UCC began in May 2009 with 12 members and today has an average Sunday worship attendance of 80. It began its outreach homeless ministry in September 2009.
According to the Rev. Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, a UCC/United Methodist congregation in Philadelphia, Hope's ministries extend well beyond the men's shelter:
- Hope's Wednesday morning program has served more than 1,700 people with emergency food and clothing
- It's Mother's Soup Kitchen, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has served more than 1,800 meals.
- More then 2,900 people have been fed at Hope's Sunday Morning Overcomers Breakfast Program.
- Area senior citizens receive monthly food boxes
- A clinic is available twice a month for medical assessment, resources and workshops.
In 2009, Hope also provided 4,800 lunches and snacks to neighborhood children, and 65 children received book bags and school supplies.
The church –– with the support of local UCC clergy from the Philadelphia Association, Pennsylvania Southeast Conference, UCC and ecumenical partners across the region and the newly-formed Philadelphia Chapter of UCC Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice –– has begun building safety improvements, continued their vital ministries and moved to holding all-night prayer vigils at the church led by local UCC congregations as a way of continuing the worship life and ministry of the church.
Church website: http://hopeministriesucc.org/
It started out as a loving favor for her Navy chaplain husband. But now it has turned into an inspiring symbol of affirmation and connection for a growing number of UCC military chaplains serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2008, as Chaplain (CMD) Peter St. Martin was about to be deployed to Iraq, he asked his wife, Judy, if she would do him a favor.
When they were newly married and he was a young parish minister in Iowa and Maine, she used to sew practically all of their two daughters' clothing, as well as pillow cases, curtains, slip covers and other household materials.
Now, he asked, would she please make him a stole of camouflage material that he could wear when serving in the Middle East?
Of course she would.
Different branches of the military wear different color camouflage. Since her husband is in the Navy, his camouflage material is blue. If he was in the Army or Air Force, it would be green, or in the Marines, dark green.
Would she make more?
When he returned stateside, St. Martin attended the UCC General Synod in 2009 in Grand Rapids, Mich. There he took his turn staffing the UCC chaplains' booth in the exhibit hall.
Prominent on the display table was his camouflage stole, with its UCC symbol on one side and a God-Is-Still-Speaking comma on the other.
Among those who admired it was Chaplain John Gundlach, UCC Minister for Government Chaplaincies.
He had an idea. Did St. Martin think his wife would be willing to make a camouflage stole for every UCC chaplain deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan? The UCC, he said, would be willing to underwrite the cost of the materials if Judy St. Martin would provide the labor.
Gundlach saw the stoles as being a symbol of a denomination that supports the ministry of its chaplains.
"It's a very tangible thing to the chaplains," he says, "a continuing reminder that they are a part of the United Church of Christ and that their church stands behind them."
Again, Judy complied.
She has created about four dozen stoles to date. Two dozen have been for UCC chaplains and another 20 or so for chaplains of other denominations who have seen them and asked if they, too, could have one made.
"It's the least I can do," she says. "I'm happy to make them because I know that stoles mean a lot to chaplains and ministers."
Caroling in the desert
U.S. Air Force Chaplain (CPT) Heather Bodwell agrees.
"Receiving mine was very special," she says. "It was the second stole presented to me by the denomination, after the one I received when I was ordained, and I thought about the thought and care that went into the ministry of making these for deploying chaplains."
Once, in the Middle East, she even loaned her stole to an Episcopal priest chaplain for a Christmas service.
"We decorated a conference room in the base chapel, laid out baked goodies from home and wrapped little presents for people to open," she says. "Then those left on base, mostly 'wounded warriors,' went Christmas caroling in the desert."
'A wonderful reminder'
U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain (CPT) Deris Rice received his stole as "a pleasant surprise."
"It was a nice reminder of my covenant with the UCC," he says, "a reminder that I was connected to a group that cared about me and was praying for me."
"Towards the end of my first deployment I was having a difficult time," he remembers. "I was working in a mental health unit, and the stories were beginning to get to me. I wanted to go home.
"Then one day, as I was putting on my stole, I noticed the comma for the first time. It was a wonderful reminder that I was not alone, that God is still speaking to me. It reminded me of my continuing relationship to the UCC."
When Rice returned to his local church after his deployment, he developed a liturgy for changing his ministry from a military chaplaincy back to local church ministry in Sparta, Wis.
The liturgy included representatives from the Association, the congregation and the military and involved changing his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.
Returning to parish ministry
St. Martin will retire from the Navy this fall, after serving 21 years as a military chaplain.
In the meantime, while he is serving with the 24th Marine Expeditionary unit (the Two-Four) on a ship in the middle of an ocean, his UCC profile (resume) is circulating among churches seeking a pastor.
Upon receiving a call to a local church, then he will exchange his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.
"My stole has been in Afghanistan and on the high seas," he says. "It has been 'present' in memorials to those killed in action as well as in Sunday worship, both in the dirt and on a rocking deck.
"I will wear it occasionally in the parish that will call me," he adds, "not to mark the uniqueness of my experience as much as to identify a continuance of my call to ministry, connecting one chapter to the next."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.
(Part one in a two-part series on the future of the UCC)
While the United Church of Christ continues to lose both members and congregations, the decline may be slowing. Denominational leaders are eyeing these numbers while staying focused on vitality and considering ways to connect with an up-and-coming generation for whom the traditional model of church membership may be obsolete.
Recently-released Yearbook figures for 2009 show a net loss of 33 UCC congregations and 31,492 members. Total membership as of December 31 stood at 1,080,199, with 5,287 congregations.
In 2008, the UCC saw a net loss of 57 congregations and 33,590 members. In 2007, the denomination declined by 141 congregations and 51,193 members — its biggest loss since 1961. The 2005 General Synod affirmation of marriage equality fueled losses in 2007 and 2006, but also led to some new affiliations, church leaders say.
How is the UCC faring compared to other mainline denominations? According to the 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches published by the National Council of Churches, no mainline denomination saw a net gain in members in 2008 (the year for which the NCCs 2010 Yearbook data was collected). The UCC lost 2.93 percent of its membership; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 3.28 percent; the Episcopal Church, 2 percent; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1.92 percent. The United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination at 7,774,420 members, lost 1.01 percent in 2008, according to its own figures.
During the same year, the Catholic Church, the Latter-day Saints, the Assemblies of God, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) gained between 1 and 2 percent. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Church, lost 0.24 percent of its members.
Denominational leaders in the UCC are paying attention to the decline, but are interested in other factors besides the number of people in the pews. "We're not looking at membership as much as we used to as an indicator of church vitality," says the Rev. Stephen Sterner, executive minister for Local Church Ministries.
One sign of vitality is a diversity that increasingly reflects the changing U.S. population, says Sterner. Within local churches, worship attendance, the number of adult baptisms, and members' involvement in mission or service are also key indicators, he says. A small church that looks like its community and is engaged in ministry there may actually be healthier than a larger church that does not reflect its community's racial mix and is located where people must drive some distance to attend, Sterner added.
One trend impacting churches is the religious habits of young adults. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research, says young adults are marrying and starting families later. They live with roommates or partners and juggle busy schedules, but appreciate opportunities to get involved with groups and issues they care about, Jones says.
Jones and others who study religious engagement patterns among Millenials (ages 18 to early 30s) say young adults don't have strong denominational loyalties. Those who claim any religious involvement are likely to connect with a number of different faith groups and organizations for service, mission, study and worship.
"This is different than a membership model, where you're at services or Sunday School on a weekly basis," says Jones. While Millenials' affiliations may be less regular or institutionalized, "those connections are important to them," he says.
The UCC's progressive stances on issues such as marriage equality have led some members and congregations to leave. These stances may attract youth and young adults, says Jones, because the treatment of gays and lesbians is "a huge factor in how younger generations are evaluating religious institutions."
His findings are similar to The Barna Group's survey of 16 to 29 year-olds outside the Christian faith about their perceptions of contemporary Christianity. The results were the basis for the 2007 book unchristian, by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman. Barna's subjects described contemporary Christianity as "anti-gay" "judgmental" and "hypocritical" — qualities they saw as antithetical to Jesus' life and teachings.
The Rev. Geoffrey Black, general minister and president of the UCC, says the challenge of connecting with youth and young adults often comes up in his conversations with local churches, conferences and associations.
Black, Sterner and others are in the final stages of preparing a denomination-wide strategy for youth and young adult engagement. That strategy, Sterner insists, must go beyond trying to figure out how to get 18 to 30 year-olds into the church. "What we need to figure out is how do we get the church to youth and young adults," he says.
This could require "a rethinking of what it means to be church," he adds.
Black's travels around the country during his first year as general minister and president have given him much reason to be hope-filled about the denomination's future, he says.
"We're trying to work through some things, but the church, in its many configurations, is really alive and vibrant and poised to engage those questions and to do that reaching out."
[Part two in this series will explore the question: Can the UCC grow and stay true to its identity?]
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.