Written by G. Jeffrey MacDonald
As delegates were still unpacking from a high-profile General Synod 24 that emphasized the importance of evangelism, a handful of reformers were gathering quietly in a church basement in Candia, N.H., to discuss their own approaches to bringing new life to old churches.
What emerged from the Biblical Witness Fellowship's (BWF) first-ever Summer Institute, July 21-25, was a strategy quite different than the one talked about in Minneapolis.
Instead of discussing the need for a coordinated national advertising campaign or passing a resolution emphasizing the need for more multicultural worship, both of which were agenda items at Synod, the 10 participants in the five-day BWF conference focused instead on removing institutional barriers in order to foster a more old-fashioned evangelical revival among UCC congregations.
BWF is a 25-year-old movement of pastors and laypeople who want to keep the UCC committed to orthodox Christian doctrines and practices, especially as defined in the historic creeds and the Dubuque Declaration of 1983. "If you're going to recruit evangelical pastors to take the historic churches, you have to tell them how to do it," said the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, BWF executive director and pastor of Candia Congregational UCC in New Hampshire.
The conference, called "Renewing the Historic Church," was the first of what organizers hope will become periodic training sessions for UCC pastors who feel called to grow congregations by leading them back to more traditional roots, Runnion-Bareford said.
Participants, in some cases, appeared to have attended with a sense of risk. One couple insisted their names be struck from the official roster in order to guarantee they would not be mentioned in this article. Yet despite some fears of reprisal, participants came from as far away as Lena, Ill., and Bryan, Texas, to launch what could become an annual tradition.
"Renewal" has more than one meaning in the UCC, but most at this gathering seemed to share the understanding of the Rev. Melvin D. Miller, pastor of Congregational UCC in Spearfish, S.D. After three years in ministry, he had a "born-again experience" in 2000 and has since become increasingly concerned with "moral breakdown" in his community, which he identified as increasing prevalence of gambling and adultery, and greater public acceptance of homosexuality.
For Miller, renewal means "helping bring the church back to its biblical foundations." Today in many church settings, he said, "Jesus is not the Lord of life and not the source of salvation. [The church] no longer looks to God as the guide."
Some hurdles to renewal might be theological, but others are purely a matter of organizational structure, and those are far easier to overcome, said the Rev. David Midwood, interim president of an evangelical network called Vision New England.
"The committee structure is just about a sure way to get incompetent people into power where they will never give up their territories," Midwood said. Renewal projects come together more quickly and smoothly, he said, when short-term teams are appointed by the pastor and given freedom to pursue a particular goal. To get there, he said, make sure people are "invited to be involved in the decision-making process" and be prepared "for a great moment in terms of turnaround."
At the institute, participants studied together Moses' call to ministry in Exodus 3 and 4, then reflected on the text as it relates to their situation.
Participants took turns sharing responses and brainstorming strategies for renewal in their particular situations. Karl Schroder, for instance, described his 50-year-old congregation at Faith UCC in Bryan, Texas, as one that has in the past three years lost younger members and stopped giving time to missions at a local food pantry and at nearby Texas A&M University.
Schroder said he has laid the groundwork for renewal by adding praise music to traditional hymns and by inviting worshipers occasionally during services to come forward and give themselves to Christ. Peers urged him to revive activism in the missions already familiar to the congregation and encouraged him to use the church's unique culture to his advantage.
"You want to take what you've been given and go with it," Runnion- Bareford said. "Your congregation will not pray more than you pray and will not study their Bibles more than you study your Bible ... but you've got a window of opportunity and a tremendous asset: people will listen to you."
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass. and a freelance journalist.
More at biblicalwitness.org.