"Evangelism in our state used to be waiting for the next boatload of Germans to arrive," said the Rev. Dale Parson of Kansas City, Mo., during a session at the UCC's national evangelism event held July 8-10 in Minneapolis.
"Of course, we treasure the German ethnic heritage in our Conference," said Parson, who is Missouri Mid-South Associate Conference Minister. "But now the growth curve is in diversity." Of the five new congregations in western Missouri, he said, two were founded by Pacific Islanders, one by sexual minorities, one is African American, and one is Hispanic.
The event — "It's All About Evangelism" — was a gathering of new and renewing congregations in the UCC. Organized by the Evangelism Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries, it drew several hundred lay leaders, church planters and pastors.
"You live at the edge," the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, told participants. "The 'growing edge' where the church meets a culture at once indifferent, resistant, and curious. The 'cutting edge' where theology and worship are shaped in new and daring ways for engaging persons who have never met Jesus or who have only known a version of the Gospel that has damaged them. And also at times 'on the edge' — institutionally, financially, personally.
"The edge is exciting, but it is also a place of deep vulnerability, and many of you know this intimately."
The UCC's "growing edge" is Bible-believing, Christ-centered and generous in its embrace. It has the energy of traditional evangelicalism but is wide open to communities — including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender minority — not wanted by other churches. It experiments with the latest technology but knows that building personal relationships is the key to church growth. It gathers in homes, shopping malls, schools, borrowed church buildings and sprawling new sanctuaries.
At General Synod 24 in Minneapolis, which followed the evangelism gathering, the UCC celebrated 74 new or existing congregations that have been welcomed into the denomination in the past two years. One of them grew in six years from two to 250 members. Another, Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga., can accommodate half of its 6,000 members in one service.
Culture of spiritual freedom
Some are older congregations that joined the UCC because here they discovered a culture of spiritual freedom. Glade Baptist UCC in Blacksburg, Va., joined other moderate and liberal evangelical congregations in an exodus from the Southern Baptist Convention after the denomination's fundamentalist leadership began to purge moderates from positions in seminaries and mission agencies. "We reached the conclusion that the church's leadership had abandoned fundamental Baptist principles — local church autonomy, religious liberty and the priesthood of all believers," says Judy Sewell, a lay leader in the congregation. "But we found these values in the UCC. It was a good fit."
Glade is now affiliated with both the UCC and the 60,000-member Alliance of Baptists — a growing movement of progressive evangelicals in the Southern Baptist tradition. At General Synod 24, UCC delegates approved a resolution calling for closer ecumenical cooperation with the Alliance.
"At its best, the Baptist tradition teaches that we are closest to Christ when we can invite everyone to the table," said Glade's pastor, the Rev. Kelly Sisson. "We found that commitment to inclusivity in the UCC."
Inclusivity also means that Association and Conference staff are ready to respond quickly when a new congregation approaches the UCC with questions about affiliation. One of the inquiring pastors visiting Minneapolis was the Rev. Newman Artcher from Ghana, who leads a growing congregation in Washington, D.C., for immigrants who speak the Ewe language of Ghana, Togo and Benin.
He said he approached another Protestant denomination but was told they couldn't begin to work with his church for two or three years. "We turned to the UCC's Potomac Association because we are an independent church, and the UCC respects independent churches," he said. "The Association is willing to give us the guidance and help with leadership development that we need."
The Rev. David Schoen, evangelism team leader and organizer of the event, said, "It's great to see that many of today's spiritual seekers and new congregations seek out the welcome and the values of the United Church of Christ."
Andy Lang is the UCC's web manager.