Written by J. Bennett Guess
A UCC television spot, which ran in six national test markets March 1-April 11, parodied two 'church bouncers' who chose which people were 'worthy' to come inside. Randy Varcho | United Church News graphic.
Energized UCC members responding to UCC's 'Still Speaking Initiative'
Despite being a confirmed Roman Catholic, Lori Nolen of Colorado Springs, Colo., says she's grown increasingly wary of professing Christians in recent years and, along the way, she's accumulated a lot of anger and frustration toward the institutional church.
But when she saw the UCC's new television commercial, Nolen was so moved by its inclusive message that she decided to support the UCC financially with an unsolicited contribution.
"To me, the UCC is presenting Christ's message as it should be presented," she says. "My partner and I have been considering sending a monthly contribution to the UCC just to say 'thanks for being there.'"
Nolan feels like Colorado Springs "is a very polarized community, with Focus on the Family [which is headquartered there] having prominent influence over the inner-workings of business and city government."
Her irritation with exclusive religion drove her to the phone book, where she began exploring the possible existence of more-welcoming Christian traditions. That's when an advertisement by Colorado Spring's First Congregational UCC—"an open and affirming historic downtown church"—caught her attention.
"I love to research theology and the differences between denominations, so I did a search for 'United Church of Christ' [on the internet]. Of course, that took me to ucc.org," she says.
Nolen started visiting the UCC's national website regularly, she says, "just to see what was happening." And that's where she first saw the denomination's new television commercial, which underscores the UCC's hope of reaching out to increasingly-alienated churchgoers like Nolan.
"When I found the 'God is still speaking,' campaign, I was totally inspired," Nolan says. "I am absolutely thrilled and amazed that there is a Christian denomination out there that isn't afraid to invite everyone in, regardless of his or her status in life or in society. Because of that, I felt that my money would be better spent by the UCC."
Nolan's contribution is one of several spontaneous gifts to the Still Speaking Initiative received by the UCC's national offices in recent weeks.
In fact, since last summer, 77 enthusiastic donors have contributed about $56,000 in impromptu gifts in hopes of seeing the new identity effort grow and succeed, says Don Hill of the UCC's financial development ministry.
It's a long way from the newly-set goal of raising $8.5 million from individuals in the next year in order to fund the next phase of a truly comprehensive, national, multi-media campaign, Hill says. But initial, spontaneous reactions by a few—in addition to conversations with current financial supporters—have raised hopes that many more UCC members will be willing to contribute to support the initiative.
The Rev. Kelly A. Gallagher, pastor of Christ's Community UCC in Chicopee, Mass., and an associate pastor at the First Church of Christ UCC of Northampton, Mass., says several parishioners have asked her how they could best respond in support of the campaign. "They would be happy to donate if they knew how," she says.
So, for several weeks, Gallagher took advantage of the members' excitement and placed information in the Sunday bulletin telling members how they could make a contribution. "I think it would be helpful to have some sort of 'campaign for the campaign,' making it easier to send money, or take up a collection, or whatever," Gallagher says. "So many people here, both in the church and out, feel supported and impressed by the commercial. ...My congregation is very excited to be a part of the UCC."
The Rev. Robert Chase of the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry, says a spirit of contagious enthusiasm is being experienced across the church. Recently, after speaking to a UCC audience in Wisconsin about the Still Speaking Initiative, Chase returned to his Cleveland office with nearly $4,000 in unsolicited checks and pledges.
"The identity effort has captivated our members' energy and imagination," Chase says. "They are excited about the impact this initiative is having on the UCC and its future."
Survey: widespread support
A random survey completed to date by 223 UCC laypersons representing 33 congregations from those in the six test markets indicates widespread support for the "Still Speaking" campaign, in general, and the first television commercial, in particular.
Ninety-two percent of respondents said their overall feeling about the 30-second television commercial was "great" or "good," with only three percent registering disapproval. Eighty-nine percent said the commercial rightly expressed UCC identity with only four percent registering negative reactions.
Although ad-inspired visitors would have had only a three-Sunday window of opportunity to attend services before the survey was conducted, about 12 percent of survey respondents said they knew of firsttime attenders who were prompted by the advertising. Also, 22 percent said they knew or believed that persons outside the UCC were experiencing the commercial positively.
Nearly one-fourth of respondents said their congregations had initiated new outreach or hospitality initiatives in order to build locally on the increased exposure for the UCC in general.
"Needed!" wrote one respondent. "Helps our congregation do what we have identified that needs to be done—interpreting ourselves in the community." Others expressed relief that the national church was helping to promote local congregations. "Long overdue," one person said. "Very well presented. It shows people who we actually are and who may come out and worship with us."
A few negative comments centered on respondents' personal beliefs that homosexual behavior should not be condoned, as interpreted by the commercial. Some felt the ad's emphasis on individuals' alienation from the institutional church was unnecessarily negative and that a positive, more heart-warming message would have been more appropriate.
Vital, engaged congregations
The Rev. David Schoen of the UCC's Evangelism Ministry reminds local churches that they must be vitally engaged in their communities if the UCC's identity campaign has any real chance at succeeding.
"Passionate, motivated, outreaching local congregations will determine the real success of the Still Speaking Initiative," Schoen says. "My real fear is that local congregations will think that their vitality depends on the public's response to the commercials, but just the opposite is true. The public's response to the commercial depends on the vitality of the outreach, welcome and hospitality of each local congregation."
Schoen says many churches have acted boldly in response to the national campaign. Several congregations placed large "God is still speaking," banners on their buildings, and some have added the commercial's prominent phrase—"No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here"—to church answering machines and as part of opening worship litanies. Faith UCC in Clearwater, Fla., published an eight-page, color supplement distributed through the local newspaper.
Chapel on the Hill UCC in Seminole, Fla., tried to boost its intentional welcome by holding a Saturday morning training session for parking lot attendants, greeters and ushers—and just in time. The congregation's Easter Sunday attendance was 600, the largest anyone there can remember.
"Just as important as the outreach of each local congregation is the witness of each member," Schoen says. "My hope is that our members will become fluent in speaking and sharing with others how the still-speaking God is at work in their lives."
|'Where do we send the checks?'
"Where do we send the checks?" asked the Rev. Kelly A. Gallagher in the subject line of her e-mail to the Rev. Nancy Taylor, Massachusetts Conference Minister.
Gallagher was inquiring about how she and others could financially support the UCC's television ads that aired March 1-April 11 in central Massachusetts and five other U.S. test markets. By year's end, the campaign's reach is expected to grow significantly when plans call for the commercials to begin airing nationally after the presidential election in November and continuing through Christmas. The catch is—as always—financial.
So here's the answer to Gallagher's question about how you can contribute to the national roll-out of the Still Speaking Initiative:
A. Send checks payable to the "United Church of Christ" and mail to the UCC Financial Development Ministry, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. Note "identity campaign" in the check's memo line.
B. Credit card gifts can be made online at stillspeaking.com by clicking on the "show support" icon. Donations can also be made by credit card, electronic funds transfer or stock transfer by calling the UCC's Financial Development Ministry at 800/846-6822. Automatic payment options for monthly, quarterly, semi-annual or annual giving are available.
C. Congregations can show their support for the Still Speaking Initiative by maintaining or increasing their participation in Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM), the UCC's collective mission fund that supports collective ministries at the Association, Conference and national church settings, says the Rev. William Green of the UCC's Stewardship Ministry. "Increase your congregation's giving to OCWM for the sake of what we have in common in care and concern about the world," Green says. "What we have in common is more important than what we have in conflict."