Who do they say we are?

Who do they say we are?

November 30, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

While church leaders are working on creative ways to expand the UCC's name recognition among the general population, United Church News went looking for those outside our church who could offer some constructive criticism about our denomination's identity. What do non-UCC people actually think about us? What is the UCC's image? Do we even have one?

The UCC is a dynamic church, with a rich history and tremendous potential, but very few people know we're here.

That's the assessment of more than 20 non-UCC persons with strong ties to the larger religious community who offered their perceptions of the UCC—positive and negative, affirming and otherwise.

Almost all say the UCC has deep roots in U.S. history, offers bold leadership on justice issues and welcomes persons and communities that other churches do not. At the same time, our name is confusing, our congregations lack a cohesive identity and the average person on the street wouldn't have a clue about the UCC's often-courageous commitments.

"The UCC is an honest-to-God representation of the radical inclusion of the New Testament," says the Rev. John M. Buchanan, pastor of Chicago's Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church, a large, prominent congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA). "You uphold the liberal end of the Reformed tradition in ways that sometimes we [Presbyterians] can't. I sort of look at you with respect and a little bit of longing."

"But you, like us, don't have much of a national profile. No one is paying attention to us anymore. É If I was the marketing director for the UCC, I would say it outright, 'We are the mainline, open and inclusive community.' The UCC has a noble and wonderful theological and ecclesiastical tradition. I'd parade that out front."

Buchanan, who also is editor/publisher of Christian Century magazine, says his exposure to the UCC came from being educated at two UCC-related schools, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and Chicago Theological Seminary. "I love the UCC. They are responsible in part for my education, so I have a deep affection for this theological tradition that took me in," he says, describing the UCC as a combination of "generous liberalism and serious incarnational worldliness."

Buchanan says the UCC, like the Presbyterians, contributed significantly to the founding of this nation and its greatest institutions. However, that history has been largely forgotten. "The Puritan tradition gets trashed," he says. "You've got to find a way to share about the ways that our traditions shaped this Republic."

'Long on inclusivity'

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and a religion professor at UCC-related Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga., recalls how a UCC pastor once described the denomination as being "long on inclusivity and short on theology."

Taylor, however, was not troubled by the definition. "If I had to choose, then I'd choose that too," she says.

"Because I went to Yale Divinity School, I have known Congregationalists most of my adult life," Taylor says, "and I suppose that my impression of UCC people as liberal, intelligent, easy-going and unencumbered free-church types was formed there." She says her reading of U.S. church history confirms her impression of UCC members as "social activists second only to the Quakers."

"The bottom line for someone living in rural northeast Georgia is that the UCC has all of the Christian freedom and history that some other local churches have but without the burden of fundamentalism," Taylor says.

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), says the UCC's commitments to justice and ecumenism are historical and on-going.

"The UCC is a church that is not only 'united' but about a 'uniting' ministry both among the churches but also in its witness for reconciliation in the world," Kirkpatrick says, noting the UCC's strengths as "its faithful congregations, its ecumenical witness and its passion for justice."

The name game

Peter Wallace, an Episcopalian who is executive producer of the Protestant Hour Inc., a nationwide ecumenical multi-media ministry cosponsored by the UCC, says, "The UCC is just, to me, what the church should be—welcoming, open and inclusive. A lot of churches are reactive and wait until they are painted in a corner, but the UCC seems more proactive. É But being in the South, the name is an issue here. Everyone immediately assumes that we're talking about the Church of Christ."

The Rev. Stephen C. Razor, a United Methodist and associate professor of the sociology of religion at Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, says he has a long-held appreciation for the UCC's racial justice work, and says he is impressed by the caliber and commitments of UCC seminarians who attend ITC. But he agrees that the denomination's name is a source of confusion.

"With the Church of Christ being such a prominent group, it compounds the problem," he says, "but the Mormons have worked over time to reshape their name for the public. You'll have to build on the UCC's strong heritage and do the same."

Buchanan is more direct about the UCC's confusing identity. "I think it would be a great idea to rename yourselves," he says.

The Rev. Richard Schramm, deputy general secretary for communication in the American Baptist Church (ABC), based in Valley Forge, Pa., believes the UCC has a lot in common with his own denomination. Both churches, says Schramm, often are mistaken for other, drastically-different denominations with confusingly- similar names to our own—specifically, the Church of Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention.

While Schramm describes the UCC as a "progressive, socially-active, ecumenically-minded mainline denomination," he adds, "My guess would be that the name 'UCC' would not resonate too clearly with too many people. I would doubt very seriously that the average person on the street would be able to give you any specifics. Unfortunately, we feel the same way about ourselves."

'It's a blur'

When the Rev. Edmund Gibbs was asked about his perceptions of the UCC, he answered honestly, not masking his confusion.

"I don't have much first-hand contact. It's a blur as far as I'm concerned," says Gibbs, a professor of church growth at Fuller Seminary, an evangelical school in southern California. "My response obviously supports the very issue you are raising."

But when provided just a few details about the UCC's predecessor church bodies, including a mention of First Congregational UCC in Pasadena, Calif., a large church that sits on a corner of Fuller's campus, Gibbs, an Anglican who is a native of England, responds enthusiastically, "There's the a-ha!"

Gibbs says his own lack of instant recognition for such a prominent religious tradition raises a significant church-growth issue for the UCC. "What's in a name is very important," he says. "If your name blurs your identity, there's a problem there."

Research, Gibbs says, indicates that identity issues are commonplace for "united" churches, because when church mergers occur, important once-defining characteristics often get lost in the new.

Citing the Uniting Church in Australia, the United Church of Canada and the United Reformed Churches in England as examples, Gibbs says, "Wherever you get a uniting church conglomerate, the identity crisis is common place. I can't think of a single exception." Gibbs says. "For some reason, you tend to inherit the worst elements instead of the best, and drift towards the lowest common denominator instead of the highest, especially among churches of European descent."

But, Gibbs says, there is another approach.

"Jesus did not say, 'Stand at the church door and whistle at wandering sheep.' No, we've got to become the seeker church, not just the seeker-friendly church. We must become—not just the welcoming church—but the infiltrating church.

"Lutherans can't just go looking for lapsed Lutherans. We are no longer the gathered church in the same way. The mentality is that if we just open the doors they will come. So many churches operate on that basis, that we must be seeker sensitive and be as attractive as we can. But it begs the question, because the church is the seeker. The church must become a verb. It's a doing word."

Lacking a distinctive 'culture'

Maureen Hayden, religion writer for the Evansville (Ind.) Courier and Press, says her impression of the UCC has been formed by a string of positive first-hand experiences with UCC individuals and congregations, but her overall perception of the UCC—as a denomination—is vague. A lifelong Roman Catholic, she says her journalism work has introduced her to most, if not all, the congregations in the UCC's Evansville/Tri-State Association.

Unlike her own religious tradition, or even the experience of many conservative Protestants such as Southern Baptists, she says, the UCC lacks a distinctive "culture."

"My general impression is that they are wonderful and welcoming places," Hayden says. "But since it's a congregational-based church, I expect that every UCC church is going to be somewhat different."

Hayden says the United Methodist Church's multi-million dollar "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" identity campaign has successfully created an image for her of what it means to be a United Methodist. But when it comes to the UCC, she says, it's not as easy to conjure a mental picture. When asked for one, she responds, "I don't know. I just don't know."

"I do have a stronger view of what it means to be a [United] Methodist, and I do think they have been pretty successful in promoting that. And I don't see it in the same way for the UCC. I see it—either rightly or wrongly—as a wide array of experiences that differ from congregation to congregation," Hayden says. "I do sort of expect that when I go to [two local United Methodist churches], I'm going to find basically the same thing, and I don't have that same expectation [with the UCC]."

Still, Hayden says, UCC congregations have demonstrated a commitment to being engaged in community issues.

Hayden says she was impressed by how Evansville's Zoar UCC vigorously fought a coal company's strip-mining proposal. "Those people would have laid their bodies in front of bulldozers before they would have allowed some coal company to bring in strip mining and destroy their old church building. É It was more than just an effort to 'save our building.' It was a social justice issue."

Without a UCC presence in Evansville, Hayden says, the city would feel the absence. She names the homelessness ministry of UCC-related United Caring Shelters as significant, and recalls how UCC people were instrumental in founding the city's strong Habitat for Humanity affiliate.

"I have only good feelings for [UCC congregations], and I feel as if every time I step in that I am going to be welcomed," Hayden says. "And I don't always feel that way in other churches. If I was going to step into a more evangelical, fundamentalist church, I would be more concerned about what I wear or how I behave, or the need to watch my tongue. I don't feel that sort of apprehension with the UCC."

Once you know us

The Protestant Hour's Wallace says his image of the UCC has changed drastically over the years. In the 1970s, as a conservative student at an evangelical seminary in Texas, he says, "The UCC was, then, this liberal wacky denomination." But that's before he served a year-long ministerial internship at a small, storefront UCC congregation. "The people there were so accepting, so loving and supportive of our family," he says.

Now, Wallace sees within UCC members "a genuineness, a people who actually enjoy their faith and calling. There's more merriment, and they tend to be a little more courageous. It's very exciting, because it starts to rub off [on others]." He considers the UCC to be a haven for many who were once part of more-rigid, less-welcoming religious traditions. "When people find the UCC, they act as if they have found themselves and that they don't have to pretend anymore," he says. "It is just such a refreshing difference to see the directions [the UCC] is moving."

Wallace sees a plan to boost the UCC's overall public profile as a step in the right direction. "I think the UCC's identity campaign could really help, if enough money is put into it, so as to bring about a change in national identity. If people were more aware of who you are and what you're about, the church would grow. But I know that being part of a congregational system, it's more difficult to make the churches line-up."

Analia Penchaszadeh, who is Jewish and grew up in New York, says she first became familiar with the UCC through its significant contributions to the environmental justice movement, especially the work of Benjamin Chavis and the Commission for Racial Justice's landmark study, "Toxic Wastes and Race," published in 1987.

"My connection with the UCC has come from people and churches that are involved in social justice work, so that's the image that immediately comes to my mind," says Penchaszadeh, who is development coordinator for Jobs with Justice, a national workers' rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

That's why Penchaszadeh was a bit confused when she recently received an invitation to attend a fundamentalist Bible study hosted by a Church of Christ in Washington. She considered attending—thinking the congregation was UCC—but the harsh tone of the invitation baffled her. "I sort of guessed that it wasn't the same thing. I'm not that familiar with Christian churches and that was sort of confusing for me."

She believes the UCC emphasis on building communities of justice can help "demystify" false assumptions about what a church is. "People are all the time looking for spiritual community, for religious community. The UCC has these very solid values, and it is able to connect these values with the community, to offer a church that people want and need. É People need to know that."

The Rev. Meg Riley, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association's Washington, D.C., office, says the UCC has impacted her life and her denomination's ministries in favorable ways.

"When I began seminary at [UCC-related] United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in 1983, I figured I'd need to lay low. A Unitarian Universalist! A lesbian! I prepared for an onslaught of judgment," Riley says. "But over and over, as I took a risk and spoke up, I was greeted by friendly interest and welcome. In short, the UCC redeemed Christianity for me."

Riley says that, even though the UCC does laudable justice work, it seems reticent to engage in self-promotion. "It's my perception that the UCC is a little more timid about stepping out into the public eye," she says, indicating that the two churches stand together on nearly every issue but our positions are nuanced to fit our respective theological traditions.

"We at the UUA count on the UCC. We collaborate continuously," Riley says. "We joke that, in every town across America, one UU, one UCC person and one Jew collaborate in just the same ways to stir the pot, to make a little trouble, to lift up a vision—perhaps a bit raggedy but compelling none-the-less."


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Wading in

Alternate perspectives on the UCC

"The UCC is so 'inclusive' that one is hard pressed to imagine someone who would not be accepted for membership. As Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy comments, 'The most liberal of America's mainline denominations, the UCC marries gays, or ordains witches, and prefers sit-ins (just name the cause) to evangelistic rallies.'"

—The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in an Oct. 15 column on  crosswalk.com.

"The United Church of Christ avoids making specific confessions of the Christian faith. They leave this as an option, emphasizing instead theological 'freedom' and 'autonomy.' The UCC's 'A Statement of Faith' was adopted in 1959 at its first General Synod. This statement stipulates that each individual congregation is free to adopt it or not to adopt it.

"The statement itself, sadly, is very inadequate. It is not clear on the most basic of Christian doctrines, such as, the doctrine of God, the Holy Trinity, sin, eternal salvation through Christ alone, the Sacraments, the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and so forth. Because there is such lack of clarity in regard to basic Biblical truths, the UCC is known as one of the most liberal of all church bodies in regard to the Christian faith and also in regard to key moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, and does accept the ordination of homosexuals as pastors in congregations of their church.

"The UCC places a high priority on establishing fellowship with other churches, but not on the basis of agreement in the various articles of the Christian faith."

—The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's description of the UCC on its website,  lcms.org/cic/ucc.htm.

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