Leaving a Legacy
I have been given the privilege of traveling the breadth of our denomination to preach, teach, and bear witness to the many ways God is still speaking in our midst through the faithful gathering of disciples that comprise our 4,882 churches over all 50 states.
Whether the gathering has been in smaller congregations or in larger gatherings, in every instance I have born witness to what is possible when people come together to worship and to serve. Whether speaking with an inquisitive confirmation class at First Church in Wenham on a Wednesday night in Massachusetts, or witnessing the congregational “laying on of hands and sending forth” of both church and community for the work of Jesus and Justice at City of Refuge in Oakland, or being filled with joy at the sight of children running into the sanctuary from children’s church to bless communion at Old South, Boston, or listening to Pastor Ozzie Smith play his sax in the pulpit as the choir sings on a Sunday morning. God is up to something in our midst and it matters. The theological witness of the United Church of Christ matters.
There are many reports and statistics that would suggest the church as we know it is dying. In 2018, we had 57 churches close and there were others who withdrew from our communion and even some who were removed for judicatory reasons. Attendance is declining in most churches and, if this is the only lens one views, the future seems bleak. Yet, there is Good News for the church. The first of that news is the revelation that the death of the church is greatly exaggerated. Scripture assures us the church will never die.
Secondly, while we have experienced loss, we have also grown. New communities of faith are springing up all around us. Some are choosing buildings and some are not. Our fastest growing churches are our non-white congregations and OAN churches. These new churches are not necessarily emerging in areas that are customary for us, like the fellowship of UCC millennials I met with in Sacramento who’ve started meeting with a growing group of self-named “recovering evangelicals.” Our future is hope-full as we consider what God might be saying to the church in this moment.
What if we are being called in this moment to take inventory of our faith and the fruit of our labor? What if we asked ourselves how is God calling the church into being in our midst? As congregations age or circumstances change, what if our questions were not only around how to die well, but also how might we be born again? How might our emptying churches become birthing stations for new ministries of a still speaking God? What if when congregations discern it’s their time to end, they also listen for what is to begin?