What Matters includes a variety of resources to connect your questions of faith with the deep faith expressed by the UCC. Discover what matters through reflection, stories from UCC congregations and members, stories from history, Bible study, prayer, worship, and service.
Explore on your own or with others. There are plenty of suggestions for seekers, new member classes, baptism preparation or membership groups, or pastor classes. For ideas about how use What Matters with groups, click here. Discover the questions and insights of those not familiar with the UCC in the article "What Matters to Visitors and Seekers?"
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and the Table for a Just and Loving World Still-speaking God
What Matters to You? Matters to Us - Engaging Six Vital Themes of OurFaith by Sidney D. Fowler is a new book for individual or group study based on core themes of
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(Part one in a two-part series on the future of the UCC)
While the United Church of Christ continues to lose both members and congregations, the decline may be slowing. Denominational leaders are eyeing these numbers while staying focused on vitality and considering ways to connect with an up-and-coming generation for whom the traditional model of church membership may be obsolete.
Recently-released Yearbook figures for 2009 show a net loss of 33 UCC congregations and 31,492 members. Total membership as of December 31 stood at 1,080,199, with 5,287 congregations.
In 2008, the UCC saw a net loss of 57 congregations and 33,590 members. In 2007, the denomination declined by 141 congregations and 51,193 members — its biggest loss since 1961. The 2005 General Synod affirmation of marriage equality fueled losses in 2007 and 2006, but also led to some new affiliations, church leaders say.
How is the UCC faring compared to other mainline denominations? According to the 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches published by the National Council of Churches, no mainline denomination saw a net gain in members in 2008 (the year for which the NCCs 2010 Yearbook data was collected). The UCC lost 2.93 percent of its membership; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 3.28 percent; the Episcopal Church, 2 percent; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1.92 percent. The United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination at 7,774,420 members, lost 1.01 percent in 2008, according to its own figures.
During the same year, the Catholic Church, the Latter-day Saints, the Assemblies of God, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) gained between 1 and 2 percent. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Church, lost 0.24 percent of its members.
Denominational leaders in the UCC are paying attention to the decline, but are interested in other factors besides the number of people in the pews. "We're not looking at membership as much as we used to as an indicator of church vitality," says the Rev. Stephen Sterner, executive minister for Local Church Ministries.
One sign of vitality is a diversity that increasingly reflects the changing U.S. population, says Sterner. Within local churches, worship attendance, the number of adult baptisms, and members' involvement in mission or service are also key indicators, he says. A small church that looks like its community and is engaged in ministry there may actually be healthier than a larger church that does not reflect its community's racial mix and is located where people must drive some distance to attend, Sterner added.
One trend impacting churches is the religious habits of young adults. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research, says young adults are marrying and starting families later. They live with roommates or partners and juggle busy schedules, but appreciate opportunities to get involved with groups and issues they care about, Jones says.
Jones and others who study religious engagement patterns among Millenials (ages 18 to early 30s) say young adults don't have strong denominational loyalties. Those who claim any religious involvement are likely to connect with a number of different faith groups and organizations for service, mission, study and worship.
"This is different than a membership model, where you're at services or Sunday School on a weekly basis," says Jones. While Millenials' affiliations may be less regular or institutionalized, "those connections are important to them," he says.
The UCC's progressive stances on issues such as marriage equality have led some members and congregations to leave. These stances may attract youth and young adults, says Jones, because the treatment of gays and lesbians is "a huge factor in how younger generations are evaluating religious institutions."
His findings are similar to The Barna Group's survey of 16 to 29 year-olds outside the Christian faith about their perceptions of contemporary Christianity. The results were the basis for the 2007 book unchristian, by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman. Barna's subjects described contemporary Christianity as "anti-gay" "judgmental" and "hypocritical" — qualities they saw as antithetical to Jesus' life and teachings.
The Rev. Geoffrey Black, general minister and president of the UCC, says the challenge of connecting with youth and young adults often comes up in his conversations with local churches, conferences and associations.
Black, Sterner and others are in the final stages of preparing a denomination-wide strategy for youth and young adult engagement. That strategy, Sterner insists, must go beyond trying to figure out how to get 18 to 30 year-olds into the church. "What we need to figure out is how do we get the church to youth and young adults," he says.
This could require "a rethinking of what it means to be church," he adds.
Black's travels around the country during his first year as general minister and president have given him much reason to be hope-filled about the denomination's future, he says.
"We're trying to work through some things, but the church, in its many configurations, is really alive and vibrant and poised to engage those questions and to do that reaching out."
[Part two in this series will explore the question: Can the UCC grow and stay true to its identity?]
The Rev. Rebecca Bowman Woods is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, former news editor of DisciplesWorld Magazine, and a regular contributor to United Church News and StillSpeaking Magazine.
The United Church of Christ has not been known for its evangelistic fervor, at least not within living memory. But I have come to believe that, as a denomination, we have turned the corner and are now hard at work seeking to recover the ministry of evangelism. One only has to look at the "God is still speaking" campaign to see what I mean. Here is a program that has been a very effective means of outreach.
One aspect of the Stillspeaking campaign that caught my attention recently was a series of evangelistic booklets it produces. My favorite is "16 Reasons I Love Jesus." This booklet is real, funny, deeply true and challenging.
I have given away a number of these and, without exception, they have been well received. Now, to be honest, most of these booklets have gone to friends from various churches who, after reading it, express amazement that "16 Reasons I Love Jesus" is being used by, of all denominations, the UCC.
Yes, I know the booklets are meant for those outside the church, but I enjoy the reaction of my church friends and see it as a sign that in the UCC, we are busy getting on with recovering this lost ministry of evangelism.
What happened to the ministry of evangelism in the UCC? I think that this is a complex question but, apart from anything else, the fundamentalists spooked us. Along with other mainline denominations, we seemed to have made a deal. The fundamentalist would do evangelism and we would get on with social justice.
In post-World War II America, the split between these two ministries was deep and non-negotiable. I remember my own amazement when I moved to Africa in the 1960s to discover that the African church apparently had not heard about this deal: They happily went along caring for the needs of others (like feeding the hungry and protesting apartheid) while simultaneously calling people to follow the way of Jesus (and so escape the power of evil spirits and find joy in life).
And, of course, the African church got it right. Both ministries are a central part of the church of Jesus Christ. It is a both/and not an either/or.
So in this 21st century climate of openness to the spiritual but suspicion of the religious, how do we recover the ministry of evangelism? How do we engage in outreach in ways that fit who we are as a denomination, as well as touching the real issues of those we seek to reach?
The first challenge in our churches is to deal with the "cringe factor" when we mention evangelism. Perhaps we do have to talk about outreach, faith sharing, being "good news" people, holy conversation or some other combination of words that get across the central idea that evangelism is all about sharing the amazing news about who Jesus is, what Jesus has done for us and our planet, and how we can experience new life (resurrection life) through Jesus.
So on one level, evangelism is an invitation into relationship. Relationship stands at the core of Christianity: relationship with God, relationship with Jesus, relationship with the community of those seeking to follow Jesus, relationship with those we are called to love, relationship with ourselves.
The idea behind invitation is that when others connect with our Christian community, they begin to discover what the community is all about and, in particular, what binds the community together. "Belonging before believing" is the phrase often used to capture this perspective.
Invitation to belong is one thing; invitation to believe is another. Evangelism is all about an invitation to believe the gospel. In the UCC, we are pretty good when it comes to discussing God but we need to learn what it means to talk about Jesus.
Conversion is another word that causes some discomfort in the UCC. But let us be clear: conversion is the goal of evangelism. Our longing is that people discover the Way of Jesus; that they decide to turn from their own way to this new Way; and that they start following Jesus by faith.
We do not need to be embarrassed by this call to conversion. Conversion to Jesus can and does bring new life out of a destructive lifestyle, even as it brings new purpose out of an aimless lifestyle.
I am convinced that evangelism is not primarily a matter of individual witness. I believe that evangelism is primarily the calling of the community. It takes a community, not only to raise a child, but to reach a person with the gospel. The church is the primary context for conversion.
One thing I have been talking about a lot these days is what I call "contemplative evangelism." The idea is pretty simple. If people are fascinated by spirituality, why not invite them to places and activities where they can explore the spiritual? Perhaps to a small group that is learning the art of spiritual journaling, then journaling together, and then talking about what they are journaling.
This isn’t just academic. Mainline churches have declined steadily for the past 40 years, losing 50 percent of their membership (members per capita). And nothing seems to abate this trend. The UCC is doing worse than most other denominations, losing 60 percent of our market share in this same time frame. The math is easy. If this keeps on there will be no such thing at the United Church of Christ by the year 2100.
Now I do not want to make evangelism into a membership drive. To do so undercuts the whole meaning of the gospel. But I do want to note that without active outreach, we will die as a denomination.
We share the gospel because it is good news and when we do share the gospel — by how we live, by what we say, and by what we do both as individuals and communities — others see new life, come to Jesus, and experience the beginning of transformation.
Conversion is like that. And so they join in our community.
We share not to prevent ourselves from going out of business. We share because this is our business and when we do, we thrive. No, evangelism is not an academic exercise; it is what the church is all about. And the Stillspeaking witness and welcome is what the UCC is all about.
The Rev. Richard Peace is a UCC pastor and the Robert Boyd Munger Professor of Evangelism and Spiritual Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. This article is excerpted from the upcoming booklet, "Rediscovering Evangelism: Outreach in the United Church of Christ in the Twenty-first Century."
The Southern Baptist Convention, with some 16.2 million members on the books, claims to be the nation's largest Protestant denomination. But the Rev. Thomas Ascol believes the active membership is really a fraction of that. Ascol, pastor of the 230-member Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., points to a church report showing that only 6 million Southern Baptists attend church on an average Sunday.
"The reality is, the FBI couldn't find half of those (members) if they had to," said Ascol, who asserts his own congregation attendance swells to at least 350 every Sunday. Ascol is urging his denomination to call for "integrity in the way we regard our membership rolls in our churches and also in the way we report statistics."
For religious organizations, membership figures are a lot like a position on the annual list of best colleges. A rise is trumpeted as a sign of vitality, strength and clout. And a drop probably means somebody somewhere checked the wrong box on some unimportant survey.
Vast differences in theology and accounting practices make it nearly impossible to really know how many members a church body has, whether active or occasional worshippers.
That, in turn, makes side-by-side comparisons nearly impossible.
"Church membership is not as straightforward as it seems," said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "It's not like, who's a member of Costco?"
Lindner, a Presbyterian, produces the NCC's annual Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches, which is widely seen as an authoritative source for church membership statistics. But even she knows there are limits.
"A person who attends the Church of God in Christ on Wednesday evening and an (African Methodist Episcopal) service on Sunday morning will likely be included in both counts," the 2007 Yearbook cautions.
Here's a quick look at some of the factors that go into collecting church membership statistics, and why they can be so problematic:
"Numbers are only as reliable as the church officials who collect them. "For some, very careful counts are made of members," the 2007 Yearbook says. "Other groups only make estimates."
For example, the National Baptist Convention of America Inc., a historically black denomination, has reported a steady 3.5 million members since 2000 — no additions, no deletions.
The National Missionary Baptist Convention's numbers have been frozen at 2.5 million since 1992.
Dale Jones, chairman of the 2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, which draws from 149 religious groups, said statisticians are wary of membership numbers ending in several zeros, though he declined to cite examples.
"There are groups that we just question, 'Where did they come up with those figures?'" he said.
Often a church's understanding of membership — how it is started, how it is maintained and how it can be revoked — influences counts.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), with 13 million members worldwide, is often reported to be one of the "fastest-growing" churches in the United States. Mormons start enrolling children as members through baptism at age 8. Members stay on the rolls — even if they move to another church — unless they ask to be removed or are excommunicated.
"Baptism is a sacred covenant. We believe it has eternal consequences," spokeswoman Kim Farah said. "Baptism is a very sacred thing, and it's a very personal thing, and far be it for us to take someone off the church membership except if they have asked."
Ascol, the Southern Baptist, takes issue with some churches that enroll people after they answer an altar call and commit themselves to following Jesus. He says it's a superficial means of joining the church and requires no real commitment. Even after those members disappear, the denomination counts them, he said.
"Just because you call yourself Southern Baptist doesn't make you Christian. Just because you go to church doesn't make you Christian," he said. "Our desire is to see people born again. Church membership and the Baptist understanding of that is a covenanted relationship."
Roman Catholics, the largest U.S. church with a reported 69 million members, start counting baptized infants as members and often don't remove people until they die. Most membership surveys don't actually count who's in the pews on Sunday.
To be disenrolled, Catholics must write a bishop to ask that their baptisms be revoked, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center affiliated with Georgetown University.
That means it is possible, for example, to be born Catholic, married Methodist, die Lutheran and still be listed as a member of the 1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church.
"The Catholic understanding of membership is that a person becomes a member upon baptism and remains a member for life," Gautier said. "Whether you show up at church or not is not what determines whether you're a member."
Mainline Protestant churches — the UCC, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others — are roundly criticized for hemorrhaging members for 40 years. And while membership has surely dropped, mainline churches are often the first to cleanse their rolls of the inactive to produce a more accurate figure.
The 15 million-member Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, saw their U.S. numbers drop in recent years in part because a church audit found duplicates on membership rolls, said Kathleen Jones, an assistant for general statistics for the denomination. Those duplicates are being purged.
Often, new pastors want up-to-date numbers because they don't want to be blamed for any drops, said Lindner of the NCC. And some denominations assess fees to congregations based on membership, so the smaller the numbers, the smaller the fees.
When asked about voting habits, belief in God or their feelings toward race or gender, Americans are notorious for answering what they think pollsters want to hear. Church demographers say the same rings true for church attendance.
Some studies show more Americans consider themselves Southern Baptist than are accounted for by the denomination's own numbers, said Roger Finke, director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State.
The same is true of Catholics and Presbyterians, Finke said. And while an estimated 53 percent of Americans consider themselves Protestant, "surveys of denominational membership find that only 35 percent (of the general population) are estimated to be members of a local congregation," he said.
"Many people who are not members of a local church still view themselves as being Protestant, Catholic or some other religion, even though they're not actively involved in a church."
Apples to oranges?
While the UCC prides itself on accurate membership data, the church's institutional honesty often leads to attacks by critics. Here's evidence that counting doesn't always add up.
UCC churches report annually on membership additions (confessions of faith, reaffirmations, transfers in) and deletions (death or transfer out). Most do not include children in their membership tallies until after they are confi rmed, and most periodically cleanse their rolls of inactive members, especially when a new pastor arrives.
The Roman Catholic Church reports all who have been baptized in the Catholic faith, from infancy to death. In order to be excluded from the count, lapsed Catholics must write a letter to a bishop requesting their membership be revoked.
Because it insists that baptism is eternal, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints never weeds out members from its tally. The Mormon faith only removes those the church has officially excommunicated or those who specifically request termination.
Some church bodies have used the same membership totals for years. The National Baptist Convention has reported its total at 3.5 million since 2000. The National Missionary Baptist Convention's 2.5 million count has not been revised up or down since 1992.
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."
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.