Who's growing in the UCC, who's not, and why

Who's growing in the UCC, who's not, and why

When the latest UCC Statistical Handbook arrived, there were no surprises. Consistent with mainline denominational trends, UCC membership continues to decline. While there are a few hopeful signs, it takes the guidance of experts such as Kirk Hadaway and Sheila Kelly in UCC Research Services to find them.

In 1999 membership declined by 19,406 members (1.37 percent). We lost 77 congregations, 41 of which withdrew from the UCC (6,387 members). We also added 21 congregations (nine new church starts, six pre-existing congregations joined and six former UCC churches were reinstated.)

New church starts are especially encouraging since 39.5 percent of the newer churches grew more than 10 percent. A look at membership growth within UCC congregations as a whole shows that while 15.9 percent are growing, 32 percent are declining and 52.1 percent show no change.

Taken together, these figures show that the greatest opportunities for growth lie in starting new churches and energizing the majority of churches that show no change.

"Mainstream denominations are affected by the culture and demographics, but all the evidence suggests that they would be declining less if they put more emphasis on outreach and new church development," say Hadaway and his colleague, David Roozen, in their book, "Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream."

What about evangelism?

Evangelism has been a dirty word in mainline line circles since the 1950s. In fact, according to one pastor, even in the 1990s our anti-evangelism bias was so strong that a campaign emerged with buttons that said, "Evangelism is not a dirty word."

"[Church] attendance was steered by heritage, habit, and social status," says the noted business guru, Peter Drucker. Gallup polls in the 1950s showed that 49 percent of the U.S. population said they had attended a church or synagogue within the last seven days. The failure to value evangelism is a holdover from the 1950s, when church attendance was downright fashionable.

According to "Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream," large numbers of baby-boomers on church rolls stopped going to church around college age—but failed to return later. The pattern had been that young adults returned with their children. This would have helped stem mainline church membership decline.

Failure to adapt

Instead, boomers became religious consumers, which includes the choice of not going to church and getting religious meaning elsewhere.

"The fading of Christian or other religious tradition as a constraint and guide for choice means that individuals are increasingly on their own in developing what we call a lifestyle," says Hadaway.

A famous Harvard Business Review article showed that the railroad went out of business for one reason: It saw itself in the railroad business instead of the transportation business. Had railroads decided to build networks that included other modes of transportation such as trucks, buses, and airplanes, they would have grown beyond belief. While railroads remained stuck in old ways of doing business, changes all around them moved them into obsolescence.

Similarly, according to Hadaway and Roozen, "a sizable proportion of church members in mainstream denominations don't care whether their churches grow or not...they are uncomfortable with evangelism and they like their church the way it is."

Hopeful signs

Growing UCC churches are different. Hadaway has analyzed the data and presents some surprising and hopeful correlates for church growth. Churches having one or more of the following qualities are more likely to grow: 

Liberal or progressive members,
Use of strings and woodwind instruments in worship,
Use of contemporary music,
Social justice work,
High proportion of new members,
Members who are excited about their church's future,
Congregation that is spiritually vital and alive,
Exciting worship services,
Lack of conflict.

There are 10 UCC churches and three Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations among writer-professor Paul Wilkes' recently released list of "The Best Christian Churches." (click here for article.) "It's not a matter of location, and it's not a matter of denomination or lack of it," says Wilkes. "These churches have found out that doing church like they've always done doesn't always work...Churches need to take risks, to be open to change, to make mistakes and bounce back."

These are not the only churches within the UCC taking risks and doing great things. There are others. Wilkes' list, for example, does not include any congregations from our Evangelical and Reformed tradition, says the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President. "Churches like Old First Reformed in Philadelphia belong on this list as well," he says.

Ron Buford, the UCC's public relations and marketing manager, takes a keen interest in statistics.

Please send copies of brochures, ads, welcoming programs, or other materials that have worked especially well in your local setting to Ron Buford, UCC PIC, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland OH 44115-1100.

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