One© Jerry Holsopple & Kristin Kennedy, photographers, by permission.
What Matters to You
What are all the ways we use
and experience water, bread, and wine?
How might those experiences also describe
What are the sounds or voices of God?
What is your experience of God
What Matters to Us
Just some water, just a simple meal of bread and juice, but for us in the United Church Christ, what is simple means much more. We celebrate two sacraments. One is Baptism. The other is Holy Communion which is also often called the Lord's Supper or Eucharist. Sacraments are our ritual acts in worship life when the Holy Spirit uses water, bread, and wine to make visible the grace, forgiveness, and presence of God in Christ.
The preamble of our constitution simply states the UCC "recognizes" these two sacraments. Recognition, however, is more than a mere casual acknowledgment. Recognition is a deep way of seeing and experiencing God and God's action in these rites. Recognition recalls Jesus Christ and his own baptism (Mark 1:9-11), his call to baptize others (Matthew 28:16-20), and the invitation to become one with Christ and one another in baptism (Romans 6:1-4). Recognition remembers Jesus' meals with his followers and the Last Supper (Luke 22:7-13), discovers his continuing presence in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30-31a), and anticipates a great banquet for all God's people (Luke 14:15-24). Recognition is not only an individual act, but one we share with other Christians throughout the world.
What happens at Baptism and Holy Communion. What do they mean? Our Book of Worship and the words we use to celebrate the sacraments reflect a variety of meanings. These understandings we share in common with many other Christians, and are also reflected in the World Council of Churches' ecumenical agreement calledBaptism, Eucharist and Ministry .
Through water at baptism, God embraces you — no matter who you are — and brings you into Christ's Church. You become vital not only to a local church, but the wider Church. You share in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The church also promises to love, support, and care for you throughout your whole life. Baptized, you now participate fully in life of the Church and God's realm.
At Holy Communion, we share a simple meal of bread and wine. Here, we experience the presence of Christ again. Together, around God's welcome table, we recall God's loving acts especially in Jesus, we experience our oneness in Christ, hope for a time when all will be fed, and anticipate the fullness of God's love and justice throughout creation.
Practices of the sacraments vary among our congregations. A 2004-2006 UCC worship survey details our range of practices. Some congregations baptize infants through adults, while others seem to begin baptism with older children. All use water, but the amount varies from a small amount to full immersion in a body of water. Most often, a pastor baptizes "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," others use additional expressions of the Triune God. Baptism occurs within a worshiping congregation and, as the entry rite into Christ's Church, occurs only once.
The frequency of Holy Communion ranges from seldom to weekly, but is most often celebrated monthly. Some use a common loaf of bread and a cup; others use wafers and small communion cups. Some receive communion in the pews, others join together at the front of the worship space. Some congregations reserve Communion for those who are both baptized and confirmed, while others invite all regardless of baptism or confirmation. Increasingly children are welcome to the Table at their parent's discretion.
All our emphases seem to come together in the sacraments. Christ claims us, and we belong to Christ. God offers an extravagant welcome, and we share in it. God keeps covenant with us, and we unite as one with Christians throughout the world. God offers a vision of justice and love, and we are inspired to live it. Together, through water, bread, and wine, we know the still-speaking God.
From your own experience of baptism and Holy Communion, what do they mean to you? How might the meanings have changed over time?
When have you participated in a baptism or Holy Communion that was particularly meaningful? Pray a prayer such as "O God, what are you saying and revealing to us about our own congregation's practice of the sacraments?"
What Matters to UCC Congregations
What do you find compelling about the role of the sacraments at Northshore UCC?
What comes to mind and heart about your own congregation's sacramental life as you hear about Northshore UCC?
What is your prayer for Northshore UCC and your own congregation?
What are the sounds of God's realm breaking through?
Throughout the United Church of Christ, the prevalent understanding of Baptism, for both clergy and laity, is "incorporation into the Church Universal, the Body of Christ." From the beginning of Northshore United Church of Christ, the congregation has expressed this emphasis in their life and ministry.
Take for example the mosaic sculpture that graces the exterior of the church, titled "Dancing Jesus." The sculpture has become a joyful sign of their faith. At Northshore's first worship service in 1984, each mosaic piece was joined together to form the image of Christ. Each piece hammered into place by a founding member of the congregation. The church, literally, became parts, living members, of Christ. With every baptism, every celebration of baptism renewal, Northshore proclaims their faith. And with each of act of compassion and justice, Northshore members remember and express their baptisms.
Northshore UCC has gone down by the riverside and celebrated the baptism and confirmation of youth. "A new me!" is what baptism felt like to Brandon, one of those recently baptized. Another youth, Jenn, describes her baptism: "It was an amazing experience, both as the end of a time of exploring spirituality, and as the beginning of the wonderful journey to come."
Jenn is right about baptism at Northshore. It's not an individualistic event to be forgotten. The Reverend Kathleen Morgan, interim minister at Northshore, points out that: "I always involve the congregation in baptism so that they are aware of the roles they play in person's lives — as teachers, guides, and mentors. The congregation holds this time as holy, and, as a result, feels connection with the whole, wider, church family."
Morgan also points out, "It is important to have a service of renewal for congregations so they can remember their baptism and re-covenant with each other as a family of faith." Each year in early January when the story of Jesus' baptism is read, Morgan includes a rite of baptismal renewal in worship. This invitation for renewal is for the entire congregation.
The pastor also points to times when individuals feel a need to renew their own baptismal covenant. Throughout her ministry, she has recognized such moments. Although Morgan offered the following prayer in a former congregation, this prayer for Gary, a church member who affirmed his baptism, is an invitation to those she now pastors to celebrate their own baptisms:
We rejoice with Gary in his deepening understanding of faith and discipleship. We promise Gary our continuing friendship and prayers as we share the journey, hopes and labors of the church. O God, we ask you to give him strength for life's journey, courage in time of suffering, the joy of faith, the freedom of love and the hope of hew life in Jesus Christ, who makes us one. Amen.
God, working through Baptism, is making Northshore "one" — one with each other, one with the community, one with Christ. They express their baptisms in ministry with the homeless through the King County Task Force to End Homelessness and their distinctive project called Tent City. They also are engaged in significant interfaith and ecumenical ministries. Passed through the waters of baptism, joined together as the Body of Christ, Northshore is a vital expression of "Remember your baptism and be thankful!"
What are ways that you see James Fouther expressing the sacraments in his own life?
If you have been baptized, what do you know about the event? What has it come to mean to you?
What is your prayer for James? After hearing his story, what might God be saying to you?
Now a grown man with children of his own, James Fouther celebrates the early days of his life. "What do I know about my baptism? I was baptized as an infant at the Congregational Church of Park Manor UCC in Chicago. My mom just recently sent me my Certificate of Baptism and a baptism day letter from Reverend Dr. Arthur Gray who baptized me." Fouther talks about how he didn't think much about his baptism until he was a young adult. He was dating a woman who said if they were going to truly get serious he would have to be re-baptized in her church. "Whoa! That relationship ended in a crash!" Fouther declares, "I realized all of a sudden that my own baptism and church family was as important to me in my twenties as when I was a baby and youth." Now as a pastor in Denver at the United Church of Montbello ,that church of his baptism back in Chicago, thousands of miles away, is still incredibly important to him. Grace poured out, the sacraments have stuck, and they are central to his ministry.
Reverend Dr. Fouther pastors a church that is an ecumenical or federated congregation. The church was founded by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church, as well as the UCC. At both the water of baptism and gathered at the communion rail, they celebrate their oneness in Christ. "At communion each first Sunday of the month, when that 'private' moment comes when members receive the bread and the juice, we are squeezed right next to somebody else who is receiving communion. Older members are squeezed right next to children and youth. Folks not only nod at each other at the rail, but when tears begin to fall from someone's face there is a person, usually on each side, to embrace them and help with a tissue or two."
Fouther points out that some things have changed since his childhood. As a youth, he had to wait until after confirmation to receive communion. Reflecting on the wisdom and gifts of his own children, he declares, "All who claim Jesus Christ as Savior, all our children come to the table. My prayer is that our children experience the same oneness in Jesus Christ that our adults know and experience."
Fouther speaks of bridging a postmodern world and the timeless message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the table and gathered together at baptism, he invites those who are children, youth, and adults, those who are unchurched and those who come from a variety of traditions, to lavish in the grace and goodness of Christ who makes us one.
What was at stake in these historical accounts around the sacraments? Where do you see God's action in the accounts? What is disturbing?
In what ways do the stories cause you to reflect on Holy Communion or Baptism in a new way?
How does the UCC reflect these historical moments in how we live our faith today?
In what ways do these stories challenge and affirm the ministry of your own congregation?
Baptism, Moon Lake, © Bill Steber, photographer, Used by permission.
God Troubles the Water — Radical Baptism
Baptism for enslaved people in colonial and antebellum America was a radical event. The meaning of Baptism was debated by those in power. Should slaves be baptized? Does being baptized in Christ make one free in this world as well as the next? The answer by many in power was "no." As early as 1639, Maryland was the first colony to specifically state that baptism as a Christian did not make a slave free.
In 1883, following the emancipation of slaves, Frederick Douglass, the famous orator, teacher, and former slave, pointed to how Baptism challenged the institution of slavery. At the Congregational Church in Washington D.C., Douglass declared: "Baptism was then a vital and commanding question, one with which moral and intellectual giants of the day were required to grapple…When a heathen ceased to be a heathen and became a Christian, he no longer be held as a slave."
At another lecture Douglass revealed in more detail the threat of Baptism to slavery. The language seems strange and archaic today, but reveals the radical impact of Baptism at that time.
For to baptize the Negro and admit him into membership in the Christian church was to recognize him as a man, a child of God, an heir of Heaven, redeemed by the blood of Christ, a temple of the Holy Ghost, a standing type and representative of the Savior of the world, one who, according to the apostle Paul, must be treated no longer as a servant, but as a beloved brother. Viewed in this light, his admission to baptism, and to the church was a matter of the gravest consideration….It would impair the value of the slave,… [I]f the Negro is to be regarded as a Christian, he could not be regarded as a heathen, and as the Bible sanctioned only the enslavement of the heathen, the Negro Christian could not be bought and sold, enslaved and whipped… From every view, [the slave owners] could then take the proposition to baptize the Negro was rank radicalism and deserved stern resistance at its inception.
In spite of arguments against the baptism of those enslaved, Christ led folk to the water. "God troubled the waters." In narratives collected from ex-slaves, one hears liberation, hope, and encouragement. In the following account, a former slave connects vision, baptism, and the call to courageous faith:
Jesus himself baptized me, saying, "My little one, behold I baptized you myself. I command you to go in yonder world. Open your mouth, and I will speak through you. Harken unto me, for I am able to encircle the world as an iron hand. I told you to go, and you shall go…." Since I became converted I have seen visions and many wondrous things.
The quotation from the former slave is from God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves, edited by Clifton H. Johnson (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1969) 67. For more information on the narratives of ex-slaves contact the Amistad Research Center. The research center, now at Tulane University, New Orleans, contains archives, art, and artifacts of the former American Missionary Association (AMA) of the United Church of Christ. AMA was founded as a significant force in the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements.
Worship Wars, Warring Words
Can you imagine arguing and debating for over three decades about a book of worship and what liturgies to include?
It's part of our history from about 1847 to 1887. The German Reformed Church, one of our predecessor denominations, struggled to discern its sacramental life as it lived a new life in the United States during a time bridging the frontier and modern society.
The church formed a committee to offer a book of worship that would faithfully provide Reformed liturgies to congregations. Over time a debate developed that particularly focused around the critical thinking of two Pennsylvania pastor-professors, John William Nevin and John H.A. Bomberger.
Nevin, who represented the emerging Mercersburg Theology, called on the church to reincorporate the tradition, creeds, and practices of the ancient church — especially a renewed commitment to the presence, the mystery, of Christ at Holy Communion. He is known for his early work, The Mystical Presence of Christ.
Bomberger, at first a supporter of Nevin, finally rejected Nevin's emphasis on the ancient, and insisted on understandings that he felt more in keeping with the Reformation, free from more traditional Catholic understandings of both Holy Communion and Baptism. He presented his views in the article "Reformed, Not Ritualistic." His supporters, often known as "Old Reformed," met in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, in 1867 to clearly state opposition to the seemingly growing support for Nevin's liturgy and perspective.
Throughout the debate and several committees, the committees usually favored Nevin and his emphasis on the power of sacraments and on the Church as a bearer of grace. When the Directory of Worship was finally adopted in 1887, it offered the rich ancient sacramental tradition expressed by Nevin. It also, however, offered a variety of other resources and encouraged the use of free or extemporaneous prayers. Congregations were able to choose between options. "Mercersburg" and "Old Reformed" emerged together.
Although the debate was often polarizing and painful, the struggle calls on us to seriously examine our understandings of Baptism and Holy Communion and how they express the grace and presence of God. How is this struggle still alive in your own congregation?
For more information on this debate see John C. Shetler's "The Ursinus School and the Reaction against Evangelical Catholicism" and "The German Reformed Church". Also see "The Myerstown Convention," article 94, 561-574, and John Williamson Nevin's "The Church Movement: Seventh Article,in LTH, volume 4, article 90, 544-549, and D.B. Hart's John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2005) is an insightful and critical interpretation of Nevin.
With What Words Will We Pray?
Pastor Ginna Minasian Dalton invites Little River UCC of Annandale, VA, into Communion.
Where do the words come from that you hear and say at Baptism or Holy Communion? In 1977, the eleventh General Synod of the UCC called on the Office for Church Life and Leadership to craft words for a book of worship "using inclusive language." From 1979 to the publication of Book of Worship. in 1986, a committee of ten prayerfully discerned words faithful to tradition, committed to justice, and celebrating the powerful and full grace of God.
This commitment did not represent a frivolous trend toward often belittled political correctness. Rather it was a deep commitment to the expansiveness of God and to God's embrace of all humanity. The commitment embraced not only language about men and women, but language sensitive to race, abilities, and the goodness of creation. It encouraged active participation of "total persons to the loving initiative of God" — suggesting ways beyond mere thinking and speaking including embracing, touching and pouring, anointing, and singing. It was inclusive in another way, an ecumenical way. Book of Worship reflected the liturgical renewal movement that also shaped the rites of other denominations in common, yet ancient, forms.
Words remained and words were revised in both the Baptism and Holy Communion rites. For example in the service for Baptism, one hears about distinct ways God has called upon women. In the thanksgiving prayer over the water, we recall "Jesus Christ, who was nurtured in the water of Mary's womb" and who "became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well." Rather then rehearsing the entire Apostles Creed, an option is offered for affirming faith. Believers are asked three questions based on the traditional Trinity form. The questions seem to both recall tradition and open up the possibility for fresh understandings of the Triune God. On the other hand, in order to celebrate our ancient faith and recognize ecumenical commitments, the order for Baptism preserved the traditional formula of "I baptize you (or 'you are baptized') in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Words for Holy Communion were also prayerfully considered. The invitation to Communion in Book of Worship reflects the inclusive heart of the liturgy:
As in the prayer of thanksgiving over baptismal water, the Communion prayer of thanksgiving is expansive: it gives thanks for the beauty of creation, remembers ancestors in faith, calls us to reconciliation, and beckons the entire human family to the table. The prayer over the bread and wine asks God to act not only through us, but in all of creation:
Responses to the Book of Worship included both favorable and unfavorable reviews. Yet the acceptance of Book of Worship encouraged the continuing commitment to inclusive language especially evident in The New Century Hymnal (1995). In specific and fresh ways, the prayers reflected the expansive and transforming gift of God's grace through sacraments.
For more information, see "Order for Baptism" and "Service of Word and Sacrament I" in Book of Worship: United Church of Christ. Also refer to Thomas Dipko's "Theological Guidelines that Informed," article 34, 185-193, and Chalmer Coe's "Book of Worship: A Response," article 35, 194-199, in LTH, volume 7.
Community in Communion: 1 Corinthians 11:17-33
Begin with a time of silence. Ask God to guide your understanding of scripture. Slowly read 1 Corinthians 11:17-33 aloud. Ask yourself:
What disturbs me about this passage?
What seems to be at stake here?
If I were to paint a picture of Holy Communion among the folk at Corinth,
what do I guess it would look like?
Consider the historical setting of Paul's writing to the church at Corinth. He was concerned with the factions within the church. The church was more divided than united as they participated in Holy Communion. The sacramental meal was part of a common meal where some gorged on food and drink, and others went hungry. Rather than a time that expressed oneness in Christ, it highlighted a division between those who had much and those who had little. Social differences were accentuated.
Paul connects Holy Communion with the ethical implications of the sacrament by pointing back to Jesus' sharing at the Last Supper. He provides the "words of institution" ("that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took the loaf of bread…" found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) not so much as a word-for-word script for future celebrations, but rather to point out the origin of the meal as a sharing in Christ's offering-of-love presence. Communion expressed Christ's life, death, and resurrection in behalf of others. True participation in Christ's meal transformed unjust social relationships as well as personal "hungers." Paul called on the Corinthians to partake in the meal in a worthy manner. He insisted, "Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (verse 28).
Enter silence again. Be aware of any thoughts or insights that occur at prayer. Then prayerfully reflect on questions as these:
How is our congregation different from or similar to the Corinthians?
What difference does vividly remembering Jesus at his Last Supper make to participation in Holy Communion today?
How do I prepare to participate in Holy Communion? What might it mean for me, for our congregation, to examine ourselves?
What are the differences that participation in Christ's presence at Holy Communion make to both individuals and a gathered community?
One more time, rest in silent prayer.
Preparing Hearts for Baptism
The prayer over the water of baptism found in Book of Worship is a beautiful retelling of God's blessing through water in all of history. When someone is baptized, they participate again in God's story of salvation, liberation, and new birth. As you anticipate your own baptism or that of another, imaginatively rehearse the baptismal story. This exercise is not an imitation of baptism, but rather intended to prayerfully bring the story to life when you actually participate in baptism.
Breathe deeply, aware of God's presence, and pour water in a small basin. Pray the words slowly, pausing often during the verses of the prayer. Imagine the stories of salvation rising from the water. At the end of the words, finally dip your hands in the water and then fold them in prayer. Continue to pray in silence, open to God, sensitive to any understandings, feelings, or convictions that may emerge.
Thanksgiving and Blessing over the Water
We thank you, God, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving Word.
Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters.
Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth earth to sustain life.
In the time of Noah,
you washed the earth with the waters of the flood,
and your ark of salvation bore a new beginning.
In the time of Moses [, Aaron, and Miriam],
our people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters
from slavery to freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan
to enter the promised land.
In the fullness of time, you sent Jesus Christ,
who was nurtured in the water of Mary's womb.
Jesus was baptized by John in the water of the Jordan,
became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well,
washed the feet of the disciples,
and sent them forth to baptize all nations by water and the Holy Spirit.
Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water.
By your Holy Spirit save those who confess the name of Jesus Christ
that sin may have no power over them.
Create new life in <the one/all> baptized this day
that <she/he/they>may rise in Christ.
Glory to you, eternal God,
the one who was, and is, and shall always be,
world without end. Amen.
It's True: We Are One at Baptism!
John U. Miller, both executive director of the Capitol Area Council of Churches and pastor of the Evangelical Protestant UCC in Albany, New York, has worked with others to design a program that celebrates baptism as incorporation into the full body of Christ.
At any congregation's request, the "Ecumenical Witnesses of Baptism" program, sponsored by the area council of churches, will send representatives from the wider church to participate in any baptism. Often, participants may include representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church, Reformed Church in America, or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Each congregation that invites the representatives may involve them in a variety of ways in the service — from liturgist to mere witness. Often, it is the ecumenical representative that offers the baptismal certificate to those baptized.
This spirit of the ecumenical witness program is at the heart of UCC understanding of Baptism. Encourage the practice of witnesses from other denominations at all baptisms celebrated at your congregation.
From Prayers and Patterns from Worship (Cleveland: Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, 2004) 25.
God's World Matters
Connecting Sacraments with the Stuff of Life
In the sacraments, water, bread, and juice — ordinary stuff of life — convey the presence of Christ to the world. Born of water, Christians forever connect the basic gift with new life and oneness in Christ. Can we ever again simply take God's gift of water for granted? Fed with the bread of Christ, we are filled and transformed. Can we forget those who go without bread? God is present in the gifts. As Christians, God calls us to be stewards of the common stuff. In gratitude, blessed with the sacraments, we are called to share water and bread with the world.
View the DVD, Troubled Waters, and discover how the UCC is doing its part to raise the justice issues surrounding the immediate and future availability of life-giving, life-sustaining water. Most vulnerable to the depletion of water are those on the margins, the poor, and the powerless. In gratitude for the sharing of God's goodness at Baptism and at the table, how do we work for adequate water and bread for those who suffer from little?
What Matters is written by Sidney D. Fowler. Designed by Duy-Khuong Van (risingflare.com)
Copyright © 2005 - 2008 Congregational Vitality in the United Church of Christ.
What Matters to You
What sound or voice brings you great joy?
What sound or voice do you long to hear?
What are sounds or voices of God?
What are the sounds of God's realm breaking through?
Matters to Us
"If you think God's not finished with you yet, guess what? God's not even finished with God yet. God isn't finished with you, or finished with the church or our world, or even letting us know more about God's own compassion, justice, hope, and truth. If you are open, if you listen carefully, you'll discover what God is saying to this generation at this time in history. There's more good news to be heard!
This understanding of God's "revelation" is a central aspect of United Church of Christ faith. We believe that God was revealed in the past, but also in the present and the future. In the Bible, God was known through covenants with people and nations, through prophets and teachers, through conflicts and commandments, in visions and songs, and through the followers of Jesus and the church. God acted profoundly in the life and ministry, even in the death, of Christ. On Easter, God declared in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, "I'll never, never stop speaking. Alleluia!" Throughout history, in moments of compassion, justice, and peace, in our worship, sacraments, prayer, seeking, action, and silence, God continues to speak.
In the UCC, our Constitution reminds us that we are called "in each generation to make this faith our own." A recent UCC slogan conveys the call in another way: "Our faith is over 2000 years old. Our thinking is not." Now, we join with those who came before us in discerning God's voice for our own time.
You are encouraged to discover God speaking through the Bible. We believe we are called to be attentive to God's Word. The Word we discover there, however, is not frozen in time. "Indeed, the word of God is living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). If you explore the Bible and move from book to book, you may discover that God is revealed in different ways, sometimes even seemingly contradictory ways. At distinct moments in biblical history, God speaks in new ways about God's unchanging intent of love, justice, deliverance, community, reconciliation, and peace. God continues to shed more light and truth in our world. In a similar way, we are not limited by past understandings of scripture, but we seek new insights and help for living the faith today. God is not finished with us yet.
In 1975, the Reverend Oliver Powell stated, "Clearly the stance of the United Church is toward the world. All its doors and windows are open onto it. The church believes that God loves the world as much as [God] loves the church. . ." (LTH, Vol 7, 301-305). Because our doors and windows are open, we listen for God in a variety of places out in the world: in the arts, in political struggles, in the sciences, in media, in education, and especially in voices of those who are often ignored. For example, we are not a people who simply dismiss reason and science as an enemy of faith. We affirm that God, indeed, may work through the sciences. We have joined with other denominations who present evolution in a way that is not in opposition to faith, but rather considers science as another way of appreciating the beauty and complexity of God's creation.
We also cherish the arts. In 1977, at our 11th General Synod, we expressed how God speaks through the arts as prophetic and effective channels of God's judgment and grace. We said, "When we are drawn into a work of art, we experience its transforming power; the arts open us to new ways of understanding both personal and public life and give us insight and energy to act in love and justice for the sake of the Holy." (LTH, Vol 7, 274-277)
Amistad Chapel at the United Church of Christ
Church House, Cleveland, Ohio.
Today, God is especially speaking through a beautiful diversity of voices. God continues to form us through new people among us, offering a multiculturalmosaic that reflects all of creation. We also hear God's voice in public policy that advocates for those who are poor, hungry, or most vulnerable in our society. Consider, for example, how God is known through work in behalf ofchildren in the areas of public education, health, and policy.
We celebrate our common ground, while honoring our differences: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." In covenant with one another, we prayerfully seek together as the church, the Body of Christ, to discern God's voice in the midst of so many voices. We are aware, at the same time, that God's voice may come in a lone voice, crying out in a world that does not listen.
Even without words at all, often as we wait in silence, we know God still comes.
One cannot worship at Amistad Chapel in Cleveland, Ohio, without seeing the world pass by the extensive windows alongside Prospect Avenue.
Likewise, if you're walking along Prospect Avenue, it's hard to miss anything that's going on in Amistad Chapel.
How might God be speaking through the architecture at the Amistad Chapel?
In what ways is God speaking to your community through your congregation?
What is God trying to say to your congregation through your surrounding community?
Matters to UCC Congregations
Saying "Yes" to the Still-speaking God
In what ways does First Congregational UCC seem to be open to the still-speaking God?
What inspires you about this congregation?
What is your prayer for them?
Formed in 1888, First Congregational Church UCC in Santa Rosa, California, delights in how God is speaking to them in 2006. "We've just begun saying "yes," having the courage to be inclusive without fully knowing where we will go," says pastor David Parks-Ramage, "and God's been busy."
In the past two years, the congregation has opened itself to new people, to a Samoan congregation, and to the neighborhood around them. By being committed to being open to God's revealing and to those whom God has sent their way, worship has grown and enlivened, fellowship has deepened, and outreach to the community has taken off.
"One day a neighborhood man came to visit me," says Parks-Ramage. "He said I'm George and I'm an atheist. I wanted to see what you're doing around here." The pastor responded, "Hi George, which god do you not believe in? Tell me what you have in mind?" From that moment, George and the pastor struck up a great conversation and friendship that led to improving the quality of the neighborhood. George would let the neighborhood know what was going on in the church in his local newsletter. Together, they worked to sponsor a neighborhood picnic involving the congregation and the entire neighborhood. The Santa Rosa Junior College neighborhood is fostering now a true sense of community. First Congregational UCC said "yes" to George and the community. God spoke, transforming them.
First Samoan Congregational Christian Church had been meeting in their building for quite a while. After the Samoan congregation loss their pastor, they came to First Congregational for a bit of pastoral leadership. Together, both congregations are hearing God's voice in new ways. They now share worship and Holy Communion once a month. Their Sunday Schools have combined increasing God's voice in the lives of both communities' children. The Samoan congregation even roasted two whole pigs at the community picnic! First Congregational said "yes" to the Samoan congregation. God spoke, transforming them.
In worship, Parks-Ramage invites persons to speak out in response to the sermon. The congregation sings praises to God in a variety of styles and voices. They organize themselves in "circles" where each month they hear from one another and share a meal or engage in service together. The outreach committee builds on the passion and calling of individual members—inviting each other to share work, for example, with a food pantry or the women's shelter. They have said "yes" to loving and challenging one another in community. God is speaking and transforming them.
God has spoken mightily since 1888. First Congregational United Church of Christ expresses God's still-speaking voice in their mission statement:
Warm and welcoming, dynamic and diverse,
We come together with open arms to
renew our spirits,
challenge our minds,
and celebrate Christ in our midst.
Excited and enlivened by the Holy Spirit,
we are transformed.
Reaching out, we become
what our hearts can see.
What difference does the belief "God is still speaking" seem to make in Marcus' life?
In what ways might God be speaking to you and your congregation through Marcus?
What is your prayer for Marcus?
If you listen carefully to twenty year old Marcus Lewis, you'll discover God profoundly speaking through his life. Listen. "Nojuke ga hingire. Hocak hit'e yakicga haje," Marcus continues to speak, "Nojuke is my name and I am speaking to you in my Ho-chunk language."
Half American Indian, half African American, Nojuke is Marcus Lewis' Ho-chunk name. Marcus insists that God speaks through all aspects of our lives. Through tough times as a child and youth, and now as he is about to graduate from University of Wisconsin, Stevens-Point, he insists, "God still speaks to each and every one of us, each and every day of our lives. The question is: are we ready to listen?"
Marcus has been able to hear God's voice through a difficult relationship with his mother: "God's messages are not always in the forms of words: many times they are in the form of challenges." From the age of 5, Marcus was raised by his grandparents because his mother suffers from the disease of alcoholism. "Alcoholism spreads through my family like wild fire," he points out. "I lost over ten family members during my life to the disease. God speaks to us in many ways, and we must not ignore the voice, even if it's hard. It's so hard to understand that during hard times, isn't it? I tell you right now that we cannot allow that to happen."
Marcus admits that his relationship with God has helped him understand alcoholism and given him strength to figure out his own faithful response to the use of alcohol. He does this, he says, in the midst of a culture where so many people his age "wield alcohol like it's nothing because they only see the humorous side."
Marcus listens for God in his personal life. "I have to remind myself to take the time to listen in the middle of school and rehearsals. Sometimes what really matters gets buried in my busy-ness." Marcus, however, also listens for God in both our history and the world around us. He believes God spoke when slavery ceased—"God smiled." But God also speaks in every act against racism today. He calls on us to listen carefully: 'We are constantly distracted by modern conveniences and balancing the checkbook that sometimes we forget to look at the world and see the good and lift up praises to God."
No matter what comes our way, Marcus insists we listen for God and take action.
Whenever the world looks tough or unkind, open your heart to God. Whenever the clouds begin to roll in, open your heart to God. If it seems that the odds are stacked against you, open your heart to God. When it seems that no one is by your side, open your heart, and realize that God is always with you. Open your heart in the morning; open your heart in the evening. We must always remember to open our hearts to God's message because God is not done with us yet, Oh no. God is still speaking and it's time for us to start listening.
(Source: A personal interview, April 13, 2006, and Marcus Lewis' sermon "Listening through the Ears of Our Hearts," August, 2004).
How do the stories express the still-speaking God?
In what ways do the stories challenge and affirm the ministry of your own congregation?
Robert Weir's painting Embarkation of the Pilgrims hangs in the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. It depicts John Robinson leading the Pilgrims in prayer before sailing to the New World.
One of the often quoted historical snippets in the UCC goes something like this: "there's still more light and truth breaking through." The originator of the phrase was the Reverend John Robinson, pastor to thePilgrims in Leiden, Holland, in 1620. These familiar words were offered by Robinson to inspire the Pilgrims on the eve of their departure from the familiar to the New World ahead of them.
Robinson hoped that the Pilgrims might continue, in a new and vital way, the Protestant Reformation that had swept Europe. Although Robinson would not leave with the Pilgrims, he called on them not to fear, but rather to be open to God's continuing revelation. God was present with them in their history. God was also ahead of them—in the new world speaking in new ways. Robinson's actual words were:
We are now erelong to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more. But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels to follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy word.
Can You Believe It? We Had a Heresy Trial about the Bible.
In 1880, by a vote of 47 to 9, Karl Otto, a Bible professor at Evangelical Seminary in Marthasville, Missouri, was "repudiated" for his method of teaching the Bible. That year at the General Conference of the Evangelical Synod, a committee investigated Dr. Otto's approach to the Bible and declared that he deviated from the doctrinal position of the church. They demanded, that in the future, Otto maintain "true doctrine."
Karl Otto was a bright scholar and pastor of German academic training. For him, God was speaking in a new way through study of the Bible that sought to uncover the original ancient context of scripture. The method was called "historical critical." He attempted to clearly distinguish what the Bible said in its original settings from the layers of church doctrine and tradition that had been heaped upon it. For him reason, science, and faith did not need to be pitted against each other.
Many pastors, however, were upset with the critical approach Otto took. They preferred traditional and devotional understandings of passages. Otto defended himself affirming both the authority of scripture and "liberty of conscience" that was part of the Evangelical's own 1848 confessional statement. Yet when the vote came up, it went against Otto, and he was dismissed from the synod. Otto went on to teach at Elmhurst College and write both fiction and historical novels.
Over time, Otto's scholarship and inquiry was increasingly admired by people of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The historian, Carl Schneider, stated that Otto was vindicated not only by posterity, but by his contemporaries who refused to deny open dialog around biblical doctrine. At Otto's funeral, he was eulogized by Samuel D. Press, a student of Otto's. Press said that not only was Otto's theology centered in Christ, so was his life:
Through Otto's intellectual talents, God presented our church with one of his richest gifts . . . Otto was an untiring searcher for the truth . . . Otto had the courage to present his theological positions freely and openly, without concern for personal consequences.
Karl Otto, in his mind and heart, knew the still-speaking God and that still-speaking God spoke a challenging word through him.
Source: Lowell H. Zuck, "Evangelical Pietism and Biblical Criticism: The Story of Karl Emil Otto" in Barbara Brown Zikmund, Ed, Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ 2 (New York: United Church Press, 1987) 66-79.
Through the Air Waves, Listening for God's Voice
It was a long struggle. From 1953 to 1979, folk struggled to hear the voices of African Americans on the air waves of Jackson, Mississippi. The United Church of Christ was instrumental throughout the battle.
When Jackson radio station WLBT went on the air in 1953, it had a policy not to allow any programming that dealt with racial integration. In 1955, Medgar Evers of the Mississippi NAACP first filed a complaint about the policies of the station. The station continued through 1964 working against racial integration. In spite of a horrendous racist record, their license was repeatedly renewed.
For over 20 years, radio station WLBT, Jackson, MS, was the sight of a struggle over the air waves—to hear the voices of African Americans. (UCC Archives United Church of Christ, OH)
In 1964, the UCC got on board to fight the good fight; initiated a study of the station's practices; and took the concern in 1969 all the way to the United States Court of Appeals. Voices of African Americans were finally heard and the result was awarding a license to African-American controlled TV channel 3.
Everett Parker, the director of the UCC Office of Communications called the decision "a resounding victory over deep-seated racial discrimination and a boon to minorities who have long been second class citizens in television and radio. At last we have a black-controlled network affiliate. We hope this is the first step toward establishing a strong minority influence in network television."
From the establishment of the first publishing press by the Pilgrims in 1621 to current battles with national television and cable networks about running the UCC's inclusive advertising, we have championed God's still-speaking voice through a wide range of media and communications.
Source: United Church of Christ Archives and Records United Church of Christ, Cleveland, OH. For more information, contact Mr. Edward Cade Assistant Archivist.
Be still, and know that I am God! (Psalm 46:10)
How do you listen for God's voice in the Bible? The following approach, drawing on Psalm 46 as an example, is one way to listen for God in scripture. Such listening is always enriched by joining with others. Invite others to gather with you for Bible reflection.
Enter in silence.
Spend some time in silence. Be aware of God's presence as you open yourself to the very real possibility that God may reveal a healing or challenging word to you and your community. Trust in God's presence.
(As an example, open yourself to God's voice speaking through Psalm 46:1-10).
Hear the Bible.
Read the passage aloud. In a group, ask one person to read the passage. Pause, and then hear another group member read the passage. Hearing the Bible read by different voices often draws your heart and imagination to new aspects of the passage. Also, different versions of the Bible will reveal different aspects.
(Read Psalm 46 aloud. Consider reading the version of the psalm found in The New Century Hymnal, page 652, or from The New Century Psalter, page 81).
Identify what comes to mind and heart.
What particular words or images linger after hearing the reading? What disturbs you, comforts you, surprises you? What do you wonder about? Then rest in silence again.
(Psalm 46 is full of imagery. It includes a wide range of emotions and insights. What lingers in your heart?)
Consider what others say about the passage.
Check out Bible commentaries and other sources about the passage. A great on-line site to lead you to commentaries and sources may be found at http://www.textweek.com/scripture.htm. What might God be saying through others who have studied and looked at the passage? If you are in a group, carefully listen to the insights of others about the passage. Following your research, rest quietly in God's presence.
(Read about Psalm 46. You may discover a view of the psalm that emphasizes God who speaks justly through and to creation, nations, and finally in the silence of the assembly gathered for worship. In this view, although God is revealed in particular places as "the city of God," but is not dependent on a particular place. God's very self is the only refuge. In silence, the faithful know God, but still are open to God's continuing mysterious revelation).
Open yourself to God's calling.
In prayer, consider new insight or reluctance within yourself from the engagement with the passage. Slowly read the passage one more time. Consider how God might touch you in both comforting and challenging ways. Perhaps God is calling you to do something in particular? Perhaps God wants you to change in some way? Perhaps God is leading you to speak or act with particular people and situations? What might be God's hope for you and your community?
(Read Psalm 46 again. In prayer, open yourself to God's calling).
Continue your prayer by thanking God for God's guidance and "living Word." Ask God continue to form you and your community through the scripture. Conclude by resting in silence.
(In light of Psalm 46, thank God for being a refuge. Then, be still, rest in the presence of God).
Praying the Serenity Prayer
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed;
courage to change the things that should be changed;
and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Are there prayers that you have learned by heart that capture your spiritual longing? Through the years, the popular "Serenity Prayer" has been such a prayer for many. The prayer is embraced by thousands of persons recovering from addictions, prayed through the Alcoholic Anonymous fellowships. The prayer holds before God both the longing for wisdom and the courage to act needed by those who suffer addictions.
The prayer in the form above, however, was first crafted by Reinhold Niebuhr, an Evangelical and Reformed Church/UCC pastor and ethics professor. He first used the prayer as part of his sermon in the summer of 1943 at Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts. The context of his prayer was a congregation's prayer, but it was also a prayer rooted in a particular time of social and global upheaval. Faced with the evil and violence of a World War, Niebuhr asked the question: "What does the gospel mean in this situation?" Is war ever just in the face of overwhelming evil? Is pacifism always a faithful response? Does God call for acceptance or for change?
The prayer trusts that God still speaks. The prayer calls on those who pray it to seek God's profound wisdom and then act. It is a prayer which keeps us praying no matter our current situation, personal or social.
Pray the prayer often. Then, listen in silence for the voice of God.
Introduce "more light and truth" to your congregation. Bring the words of John Robinson, described in Our History Matters, to life in your congregation's worship. Before or after reading scripture, at the time of the sermon, or following the benediction, sing the following version of Robinson's famous instructions. The song may also be used during times of personal or congregational discernment.
View the lyrics to "More Light" by Christopher Grundy
God's World Matters
As people of the still-speaking God, the UCC affirms and witnesses to the ways that God still moves through our world—opening new possibilities, bringing healing, reconciling places of violence and despair. As people of the Christ's resurrection, we are inheritors of Jesus' power to overcome violence, to be "more than conquerors." With God we can transform the dominating culture of death into a life-sustaining community of grace and peace.
God still leads us to places where hope, faith, forgiveness and justice have been abandoned. God points to places like our criminal justice system, which continues to emphasize a response of revenge and retribution to wrongful acts. It takes a powerful witness to a still-speaking God to try to see a new way. Among those seeking new way are faith-based advocates working to abolish the death penalty in the United States.
The United States remains one of only a handful of nations in the world to administer the death penalty, in the context of a criminal justice system that is not always just, but often taints justice with the bias of class and race. The death penalty closes off the possibility of redemption and reconciliation, it usurps the word of the still-speaking God.
Among those working for the abolition of the death penalty are members of a group called Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). The group includes people who have experienced the loss of a loved one through the violent act of another, yet wish to see the cycle of violence end.
Bud Welch, a member of MVFR, lost his daughter Julie in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He is a tireless advocate for abolishing the death penalty. He realized that a sentence of death for the perpetrators would not bring healing: "I finally realized it was an act of vengeance and rage if we killed Timothy McVeigh. That was why Julie and 167 other people were dead, because of vengeance and rage. It has to stop somewhere." The still-speaking God challenges us to think in new ways about our current criminal justice system. To learn more link towww.ucc.org/justice/criminal.htm.
What Matters is written by Sidney D. Fowler. Designed by Duy-Khuong Van (risingflare.com)
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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.
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Seattle's historic Beacon Avenue UCC, nearly dead and buried, is rising to life as a new congregation, thanks to a helping hand from a neighbor UCC church.
Ever since 1906, a Congregational (and then UCC) church on the corner of Beacon Ave. and South Graham St. in South Seattle has ministered to its community. "Over its 94 years, first as Sommerville Congregational, then as Olivet Congregational and then as Beacon Avenue UCC, this congregation tried many ways to reach out," says Beryl Sibley, a member for 43 years and director of a refugee program housed at the church. "At one point, it had 22 ministries to its community."
But that was then. Last year, Beacon Avenue was down to 12 aging members and a diminished financial base. Closing the doors seemed inevitable, even though it still housed seven outreach ministries.
Beacon's plight stirred the interest of Plymouth Congregational UCC, with its own history of fostering new congregations in Seattle. The pastor, the Rev. Tony Robinson, proposed that Plymouth find a way to sustain a UCC presence in the Beacon Ave. facilities.
Together, Beacon and Plymouth members decided to create a new UCC church, named Bethany for the town where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. During a March 19 service celebrating its life and history, Beacon closed and 25 of its members joined in covenant as charter members of the new multiracial, multicultural congregation. About 15 Plymouth members will worship at the church as associate members. The church will seek official recognition by Advent 2000, and hopes to have 300 members by then.
Except for plans to close the building for repairs two months this summer, its programs and tenants will continue. These include a food bank, a Headstart/ECEAP education center, the Refugee Resettlement Program, and two Samoan and one African-American congregations.
Plymouth is investing $45,000 and has committed to recruiting people from other Seattle-area churches to canvass the neighborhood and tell the UCC story. In addition, the Washington North Idaho Conference is giving $5,000, will seek $5,000 from other UCC congregations and is applying for new church start funds from the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.
When Drew Willard's family moved into its South Plainfield, N.J., home the same week in 1958 as their Jewish neighbors, the two families hit it off immediately. Each wanted a fenced-in yard – so they put up one fence around both properties with a gate that led to the open fields behind them.
More than 50 years later, the Rev. Drew Willard has led the UCC at The Villages (Fla.) in a celebration devoid of division and fulfilling in faith. Worshiping the past seven years at various sites – including the past three at the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom a mile up the road – the UCC at The Villages took root in its new building Aug. 15.
"No more talk about 'when we get to the new building,' " says Willard joyously. "We had a mountaintop experience on Sunday."
Sumter County inspectors issued the church's certificate of occupancy just two days prior, which "turned out to be one of the luckiest Friday the 13ths you could imagine," says Willard. "We said amongst ourselves that if we couldn't get permission to do this, we were going to make the walk anyway. We still would have done an exchange of the cross, the chalice and the Bible in the narthex – like planting the flag on Mt. Everest," says Willard with a laugh.
The "walk" was a mile-long kadimah (kuh-DEE-muh), a pilgrimage of about 100 people from the temple to The Villages' new building. It followed a brief service at the temple where members of both congregations exchanged gifts. "We were singing songs like "Kumbaya" that first half-mile," says Willard of the march.
Once inside the new sanctuary, the sounding of the shofar (a ram horn used as a wind instrument) signaled a new era.
"Confirmed members and choir members lined up first," says Willard. "I presented the cross, Bible and chalice to the diaconate, and everyone had a chance to hold the elements." Jerry Fabian, building committee chair, presented the key to church moderator Phil Pierkowski, and the Rev. Dr. Bill Wealand, the church's founding pastor, offered the invocation.
"It was a wonderful way for my wife and I to visit with so many people with whom we shared five years of building the congregation, much less the building," says Wealand.
Willard's sermon included a recounting of the Sermon on the Mount. "We're neighbors and there's no fence between us now," he told worshipers. Reflecting on that moment two days later, he adds, "As I learn more about the Jewish religion, it helps me become a better Christian. The same holds true for learning about Muslims."
Members of the Jewish community sang a song of blessing, and communion was offered. Sheldon Skurow, spiritual leader of the temple, and Nancy Bell, a Villages member, read a verse from Exodus, alternating in Hebrew and English. Holding hands in song, celebrants closed the service by singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
"Sunday was terrific, it was just … fantastic," says Skurow. "We were almost sorry to see them go." Skurow recalled his congregants' own journey from a temporary space to their new synagogue with a 4-mile kadimah that went past the site where The Villages church now stands. At that time, members of The Villages stood and cheered the synagogue's congregation.
On July 20, 2003, the Rev. Ben New planted the seeds for UCC at The Villages by calling a meeting. Thirty people attended and four years later – after holding worship in a Villages conference room, a storefront office, a Seventh Day Adventist church and the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom – the church rented the temple and purchased land for its own building. Ground was broken in August 2009.
The physical space of the new building reminds Willard of the temple. "The design of the sanctuary and narthex, with the fellowship hall off to the side, is actually the type of layout we have at our church building."
Willard, senior pastor at The Villages since May, traces the inspiration for the farewell event and the kadimah to his candidating service Feb. 21. "After that service, I met with the temple's music director, Rose Eberle. She invited me into their narthex for a demonstration of their acoustics." Eberle and Villages choir member MaryAnn Neder sang – and really struck a chord with Willard.
The opening of The Villages' new space does not mean a close to its relationship with Temple Shalom, says Skurow. "We've had an interfaith Thanksgiving service with them on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving the past few years, and a Methodist church and several others have joined us. In fact, Drew has suggested we have it at their church this year. "
The Rev. David Schoen, UCC's minister and team leader for Congregational Vitality and Discipleship, hails the UCC at The Villages as a rarity. "You just don't see a whole lot of this kind of thing anymore. They are to be congratulated on moving with such focus and intent to achieve a really beautiful facility within seven years. And the Florida Conference should be congratulated for having the foresight to purchase the land."
The UCC's Church Building Loan Fund provided UCC at The Villages with a $1.65 million construction loan.
(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.
|Covenant Baptist Church in southeast Washington, D.C., was one of two churches that affiliated with the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference on Feb. 27.|
The Central Atlantic Conference received two churches into the UCC on Feb. 27, when Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., were granted congregational standing by the UCC's Potomac Association.
Covenant Baptist Church is known throughout the D.C. area for its vibrant worshipping community and its prophetic ministries of justice and service. Founded in 1945 as an all-white Southern Baptist congregation, a racial transition began in 1969 when the church called an African-American pastor to serve its European-American congregation. In its decades of service to its economically challenged neighborhood in southeast Washington, the predominately African-American congregation has developed a reputation for being a beacon of hope, inclusiveness and liberation for the oppressed and marginalized.
Last year, the congregation's senior pastors, the Rev. Dennis and Christine Wiley, were among the visible religious leaders that supported D.C.'s adoption of a controversial law that legalized same-gender marriage.
"Many new members are joining the church, excited by our vision," the Wileys wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column explaining their position. "… Some who disagree with us have condemned us to hell. But we believe that God has granted us the courage of our convictions."
United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., under the leadership of the Rev. Annie Blackwell, is an ecumenical partnership congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.
Formerly known as the Southern Maryland Faith Community, United Christian Church is committed to inclusivity, service and speaking to the holistic needs of those they serve.
"Christ calls us to be 'citizens in the world,' reads the church's website. "We believe that our social expression of Christ's love seeks justice for all humankind."
The Rev. Henry E. "Hank" Fairman, moderator of the Potomac Association, says the two new congregations represent how the UCC "continues to live into the future as a united and uniting church."
"Today we took an affirming step into the future in ministry in community together," Fairman said in a written statement. "Isaiah reminds us, 'Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.' Thanks be to God for challenging us to be a progressive, liberal voice in Christian faith, and for gathering us all in as a united church."
A formal service of reception for United Christian Church will be held at Bethany Christian Church in Fort Washington, Md., on Palm Sunday, March 28. A service welcoming Covenant Baptist Church will take place on May 16.
The Rev. John Deckenback is Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, which includes New Jersey, Delaware, District of Columbia, and portions of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
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.