Decades-long decline in mainline Protestant churches not a deterrent
The Rev. Liz Myer was wearing her clerical collar on the street in Roslindale, Mass., in January when she met a promising potential new church member.
The woman was Hispanic, and not far in age from Myer's own 28 years. Those factors made her a prime candidate for membership in the freshly planted Hope Church, where a young, multicultural congregation is being born from the ranks of the unchurched, the disillusioned and the unsure.
But after brief conversation, it became clear how the ground here can sometimes be rocky for mainline Protestant evangelists, to say the least.
"What are people supposed to call you?" the woman asked. "Mother?"
"Actually, Liz would be fine," she explained, and left without expecting to see her on Sunday.
Such is a routine rebuff in the life of this church planter, who graduated from the University of Chicago Divinity School and was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2002. With her professor husband, the Rev. Matthew Boulton, Myer is growing accustomed to the bruises that come with nurturing a new Disciples/UCC congregation in a Boston neighborhood where most are Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Jewish.
Although another small UCC congregation, Stratford Street United Church, straddles the Roslindale-West Roxbury border only a couple of miles away, Hope is the UCC's first new-church start in Massachusetts in nine years.
The situation's manifold challenges run the gamut—from finding free choir rehearsal space in a top-dollar rental market, to spray-painting unfinished children's furniture, to explaining who the Disciples are and the UCC are and why they bless gay relationships.
Yet Hope Church has had as many as 65 attend its 6 p.m. worship service in the basement of the Boston School of Modern Languages. This, leaders say, is a sign of hunger that needs feeding.
"Church is not capturing the imagination of my generation," Myer says over hot drinks at Emack & Bolio's, a cafZ across commuter train tracks from her worship space. "People think it's boring, it's not critical. They think you can't have doubts and be a Christian.... People are aching for something outside themselves, aching to serve and to be mobilized, but they aren't going to church because it's so deadly. It's not vibrant or alive.
"I want to build a church that people want not only to come to, but also to invite people to."
Hope Church, for all its pioneering on this East Coast frontier, is far from alone in its quest for revival. The UCC has planted 76 new congregations nationwide since Jan. 2000, while the Disciples have started 110 toward a goal of 2,000 new ones by 2020.
With mainline membership in steady decline—the UCC, for instance, has suffered a net loss of members every year since 1965—new church starts seem a necessity for denominational survival.
"Mainline churches are still trying to service a market that existed 80 or 100 years ago," says Neal Seaborn, former chairman of the Evangelism and Church Renewal Task Force for the Massachusetts Conference and a member of Wellesley Congregational UCC, which gave $110,000 to get Hope Church started. "We have 429 churches in Massachusetts. In 10 years, if we don't change our ways, we'll be down to 329."
Myer is determined not to let that happen. On a snowy January weeknight, she and four others set up for first-time choir practice on the Oriental rugs at the Sophia Snow House nursing home. Managers offered free rehearsal space in exchange for free musical entertainment for residents. Three took a seat in the hallway after dinner to hear the voices and bongo beat, one said, because "we were just anxious to find out what it was all about."
During a break from "I'm Gonna Fly," an original hymn Boulton wrote, Myer resumed recruiting.
"You ought to come to church sometime," she told a kitchen worker from Haiti.
"But I don't even know where the church is," the woman said.
Myer offered directions. Then within minutes she had extracted a business card from her husband's wallet and left it in the kitchen worker's hand.
For all its honor and rewards, hard work for the sake of gospel still brings its own set of temptations. Myer gives a calling card to a kitchen worker who already has a church home, even though recruiting from other congregations is taboo. And when the congregation collected its Christmas Eve offering for a women's shelter in Boston, Myer didn't entirely want to part with it.
"It was hard to do," she says. "It was sort of an original sin moment for me."
Grace for one and all
But rejoicing in grace for sinners one and all is the centerpiece of Sunday evening services, which will be bi-weekly until Easter or Pentecost, when the church has a critical mass of attendees. Worshipers confess sins, receive assurance of forgiveness and take communion every time they gather. One week features a jazz quartet, another week the theme is "bring a friend," yet the core message remains the same: all are welcome at the table.
"It's a very open, welcoming atmosphere where people don't ask too many questions about why you're there or what you want," says David Hutto, a 45-year-old veterinarian who sings in the choir.
"There are no traditions to run up against," says Laura Ruth Jarrett, a lesbian who sought ordination in the Episcopal Church but "kept running up against class and culture" resistance. "I long to be simple. I long to be as God made me. If coming to church turns me toward a life of justice and a life of spirit, then it's succeeding."
With a budget of $225,000 to stretch over four years, Hope Church is relying more on word of mouth than on occasional advertising to hone its niche. What that niche will be remains to be seen.
Some elements are certain: it will be Open & Affirming, which means it will welcome gays and lesbians into the full life of the church. But will it attract mostly liberal white professionals as they have children and relocate from the heart of the city? Or will it draw young Catholics, disillusioned by a local sex abuse scandal? Will grow to a "sustainable" level of 130 in weekly attendance?
"Most of our new seminary graduates would never attempt to tackle something like this," says the Rev. Rick Morse, Director of New Church Ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "But I don't think [Myer-Boulton] will have any trouble reaching that goal."
"I told them they should do something else," says Rev. Holly McKissick, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kan.
Myer Boulton served as an intern at St. Andrew, a 12-year-old congregation that donated $100,000 for Hope Church to get started."
Anything else you do is going to be easier... But if there are 1,000 people in a neighborhood and 900 go to a Jewish synagogue, she's going to get the other 100."
The Rev. Jeffrey MacDonald, a frequent contributor to Religion News Service, is pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass.