Our public ministry has shifted
On Dec. 3, as I checked out of a hotel that I frequently use in Washington, D.C., I noticed a problem with my bill. Since I stay there often, the hotel has our church's tax exempt certificate on file, yet I noticed they had charged me for tax. The unfamiliar clerk at the registration desk eyed me suspiciously, wanting to know why I should claim this exemption. "I'm from the United Church of Christ." I began to explain.
Bam! In a flash, I had a new bill, no more questions asked. After all, I was from the "UCC." Major television networks were on the defensive because of us. Even this hotel clerk, I choose to believe, had now heard of us.
It was probably my imagination. Those were heady days, that fi rst week of December. The UCC was all over the news. Talk show pundits debated the controversy surrounding us; editorial writers defended our cause. Countless e-mails poured in from individuals proudly identifying with the UCC or joyfully discovering our congregations in their midst.
The learnings of the past two months are multi-layered and complex, humbling and exhilarating. One thing, however, is clear: the UCC is different today than it was at Thanksgiving.
It is a kairos moment for our church. People now have a reference point for who we are and what we believe. Phrases like inclusive embrace and extravagant welcome—our phrases—are part of the public lexicon. Columnists in The New York Times, commentators on National Public Radio, even a cartoonist in The Village Voice now cite the UCC, confident their audiences will recognize the reference. A reporter from BBC radio's popular program, The World, calls our office to inquire about efforts regarding Tsunami relief.
Every day brings new stories: a Pennsylvania church's worship attendance jumped from 50 to 90 the week after the commercial ran and has "settled back" at 75-80 in January. That's a 50 percent increase! A church in Iowa counted 40 new families in December. A church in Florida recorded 200 more at Christmas Eve than in the previous year. And about that Tsunami relief? Online giving is currently more than ten fold any previous disaster; 70 percent of online gifts are from non-UCC members.
The Rev. Larry Hollon, my counterpart in the United Methodist Church, proclaims that in a media saturated culture, if you are not on the air, you do not exist. Sad, but true.
Through a controversy not of our choosing, we have been given a gift—the gift of recognition. It is incumbent upon us to be good stewards of this gift: to proclaim the Gospel in all its fullness, to help re-cast the national debate on moral values, to stand for Jesus' message of justice, to practice the discipline of hospitality, to engage the public in a nuanced theological conversation about what it means to be a Christian in our time, to break barriers that divide us.
My hotel clerk's reaction may have been just my imagination. Perhaps, more accurately, it was a newfound confidence in my own demeanor. Regardless, the UCC's posture shift is significant and noticeable.
The Lenten season reminds us how Jesus' public ministry took that inexorable turn toward Jerusalem. Our public ministry has also shifted. We need to discern how God is speaking to us in ways that differ from a few short months ago. The insights we uncover will guide us anew as we continue to proclaim the Gospel in our time.
The Rev. Robert Chase is publisher of United Church News.