Testimony! – a gala luncheon held Saturday, June 29, at General Synod 29, raised the first $185,000 toward an ambitious goal of $1 million to fund new and renewing churches in the UCC.
Noting that 220 new UCC churches have been started since 2006—more than in any comparable period since the 1960's - the Rev. Ben Guess, executive minister for Local Church Ministries, told the gathering of over 600 people that "Now is the time to start new churches in the United Church of Christ."
"No other denomination is seeing what we're seeing new church development," Guess said, adding that many of the new congregations are located in the South and the West, "where we are poised to grow."
Nearly $1 million is already included annually in the UCC's budget for new and renewing church efforts. "But that is not sufficient," Guess told the crowd. In addition to allowing us to "plant, water, and grow new UCC congregations," one million more will allow the first geographically dispersed UCC congregation - Extravagance UCC. The gathering pastor of this first virtual UCC congregation will be the Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson.
Forty-seven new and renewing churches since the last General Synod were recognized on Saturday as well, among them Open Table UCC in Mobile, Ala; Anew Church in Calumet City, Ill.; and Phoenix Christian Church UCC in Wildersville, Tenn. - "a small-town, formerly Southern Baptist congregation and a delightful and improbable addition to our fellowship," according to former Southern Conference conference minister, Tim Downs.
Funds raised in the campaign will also assist the renewal of existing UCC congregations. Molly Baskette, pastor of First Church Somerville, UCC, a renewing church, commented at the luncheon: "Help came to our church in the form of a grant from the national church during three critical years as we pulled out of a numerical and financial nosedive. That money was a free-gift—it let us take risks that paid great dividends.
"Today our church is thriving and happy, an oasis for many who were formerly spiritually homeless. I pray that many of my siblings in the UCC might experience the heart-swelling pride of having contributed to the Testimony! Campaign—of knowing they have saved and changed the lives of newcomers who have found our churches."
Fifty percent of the UCC's new congregations are affiliating churches, churches of other denominations or non-denominational, who become UCC churches. "No other mainline denomination has the welcome and number of affiliating congregations that the UCC has," says David Schoen, Congregational Vitality and Discipleship team leader. "This is a unique gift the UCC offers to the wider religious landscape. Truly we are continuing to live in to the vision of our founding forebears that the UCC be a united and uniting church."
The Testimony! luncheon opened with a prayer from UCC general minister and president Geoffrey Black, who called the gathering and its purpose "a dream come true" for the future of the United Church of Christ. The luncheon featured a musical-dramatic presentation on the past, present, and future of the denomination called, "The Now, The Known, The Next." Produced by Dwight Andrews, pastor of First Congregational UCC, Atlanta, and Patdro Harris, member of the church, the presentation featured musicians and actors also from First Congregational, all of whom donated their time and talents.
The cost of the gathering was underwritten by Don and Ellen Clark so that the contributions of the guests could go fully toward new and renewing church efforts.