How Diverse Is the United Church of Christ?

Some years ago, when I was serving a church in the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC), I attended a pastors’ retreat where I heard one of our Associate Conference Ministers, the Rev. Beth Kennett, suggest during a lunch table conversation that the problem with the UCC is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a liberal church or a diverse church. I have often thought about Beth’s words, and I have often recited them to others. More recently, I have wondered about their validity: Is the UCC really diverse? Is the United Church of Christ liberal (or Progressive)? Just how diverse and how liberal? As it turns out, the answer is complicated; it depends partly on how you think about diversity.

On the one hand, the UCC claims to be a diverse church—and most of us can agree that it is diverse, in at least four ways.

(1.) The UCC is diverse insofar as it advocates and works for social, racial, and economic justice, and embraces the poor, the LGBTQ community, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other historically disenfranchised and oppressed populations and groups.

(2.) The United Church of Christ extends “a radical welcome” to all who come through the doors of its churches, institutions, and denominational offices: first-time visitors and forty-year members; the young and the old; atheists, doubters, non-Christians, and true believers; gays and straights; people of color as well as White people; the poor and the rich; people of disability and those who consider themselves able; and saints and sinners. UCC churches do not restrict participation, membership, Christ’s Table, or the rites of the church only to the “saved.” As the banner outside our church building puts it, “Jesus didn’t reject people—neither do we.”

(3.) The National Church in Cleveland models diversity by inviting a broad cross-section of Christian denominations, groups, and churches into its inclusive fellowship. It enjoys full communion with its ecumenical partner, the Disciples of Christ, and through formula of agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Canada. In addition, the UCC is in discussion to establish full communion relationships with nine other Protestant and Anglican denominations.

(4.) The United Church of Christ is diverse in the sense that UCC churches are all very different from one another. There are Congregational UCC churches and Christian UCC churches. There are Evangelical and Reformed UCC congregations. There are White UCC churches, Black UCC churches, Hispanic UCC churches, and Native American UCC churches. There are Calvin Synod congregations, and Pacific Islander congregations. In addition, there are big-city UCC churches and rural UCC churches. There are big congregations and small congregations. There are Liberal (or Progressive) UCC churches and Conservative UCC churches. Each congregation has its own unique colors, textures, flavors, languages, and traditions, but the UCC welcomes them all into its expansive fold, and it tries to encourage them in their service to God and humanity, and in their continuing involvement with the denomination.

We may note parenthetically that many of these examples of diversity are not exclusive to the United Church of Christ. Almost every Liberal, Progressive, or Mainline Protestant denomination—and certainly the Roman Catholic Church—can say that it works for social, racial, and economic justice, and is welcoming to gays and people of color. And every denomination that has numerous churches (including the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention!) can lay claim to the demographic diversity described in paragraph (4.). But UCC ecumenicity, highlighted above in paragraph (3.), is a genuine and undeniable United Church of Christ distinctive. No other denomination enjoys full communion with so many ecumenical partners. The United Church of Christ takes the “United” in its name seriously; following the teaching of Jesus (“That they may all be one”—John 17:21), it calls itself a United and Uniting church, and its vision can best be summed up in the motto, “In essentials–-unity;  in nonessentials-–diversity;  in all things–-charity.” As the UCC website notes, “Love and unity in the midst of our diversity are our greatest assets.”

On the other hand, despite these amazing manifestations of ecumenism and Progressive consciousness, when we look at the demographics of individual congregations, we see that far too many UCC churches are not very diverse. Indeed, many UCC congregations (including churches in racially-mixed urban communities) are monocultural: many if not most White churches are totally White, a lot of Black churches are almost entirely Black, and so forth. In addition, the median age of UCC congregants seems to be about 60, and their median hair color seems to be about…gray.  I hasten to add that there are many notable and glorious exceptions to this pattern—multicultural churches that sparkle with genuine social, economic, and theological diversity—but still, too often and in too many churches, we see more homogeneity than diversity.

Indeed, some UCC congregants, leaders, and pastors—particularly in small, rural, and conservative churches—are almost Evangelical in their theology and preferred worship style, and say that they feel uncomfortable with the United Church of Christ’s support of “gay marriage” and LGBTQ rights, its use of gender-neutral language in worship, its unwavering embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its advocacy on behalf of other social justice issues.

To be sure, these are United Church of Christ people and churches—and we in the UCC try to demonstrate our diversity and inclusivity by the way we welcome these folks and congregations with open arms, and include them in our fellowship.  Even so, many of us hope that over time they will become more accepting, more progressive…and more like the UCC itself.

I believe that the United Church of Christ is neither as diverse nor as liberal as we like to think it is. I also believe that what many UCC people want most of all is for our Church to become more liberal (or progressive).

I do suspect that the acid test of our diversity as individual UCC congregants, pastors and leaders, and as a denomination, is in our hiring and employment practices at the National and Conference levels.  As I said, we spend a good deal of time and significant resources reassuring small, rural, and/or Conservative UCC churches that they have a home in, and are valued members of, our denomination—regardless of whether or not they become Open and Affirming (a UCC term designating LGBTQ-friendly congregations that welcome gay people into all phases of their ministry and service, including ordained pastoral leadership), because the United Church of Christ is diverse, and it welcomes all sorts of churches, theologies, and practices into its fellowship.  And we are sincere in offering them that reassurance.

Yet I wonder.  When the National Church and the Conferences engage in search processes to fill vacant staff positions, how many of the leaders (ordained and non-ordained women and men) who are eventually called or hired for such ministries and offices do you suppose are theologically conservative or Evangelical, embrace pro-life positions, are homophobic, and/or fly the Confederate flag on their porches?  You would probably be correct if you guessed zero, nada, zilch, no one.

You would not even be looked at, let alone called or hired for a National or Conference-level position in the United Church of Christ, if you were theologically conservative, or did not support our denomination’s commitment to social, racial, and economic justice, or did not embrace an open and affirming position.

And that is as it should be. A person who holds such views may be a leader in a small rural UCC church, but she or he cannot—and should not—work in the National “Church House” in Cleveland, or serve on a Conference Staff.

Indeed, under certain circumstances, the presence and involvement of theologically Conservative and Evangelical people in UCC church programs and services can incite controversy.  In their 2007 book, Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, Sheldon Culver of the UCC’s Missouri Mid-South Conference, and John Dorhauer, formerly of the Missouri Mid-South Conference and now UCC General Minister and President, chronicled how “conservative renewal groups” affiliated with the Christian right have “infiltrate[d] mainline churches, and stir[red] up dissent” among congregants, “with the goal of taking over the leadership of th[os]e church[es], and ultimately, th[eir] denomination[s].”  Culver and Dorhauer noted pointedly that United Church of Christ congregations have been targeted by such attacks.

I don’t know if the Christian Right is still engaging in this kind of activity in 2016;  Culver and Dorhauer wrote their book ten years ago, and I suspect that mainline churches have gotten a lot smarter since then about not allowing “hostile takeovers” to get started. But I also suspect that the Christian Right’s “steeplejacking” activities were enabled, at least in some cases, by mushy thinking on the part of mainline church leaders about diversity, inclusivity, and toleration. It is one thing when our conversations about diversity are driven by God’s love and the demands of justice, and manifest themselves in efforts to create more multi-cultural, multi-racial, and open and affirming churches; it is quite another thing when leaders attempt, in the name of diversity, to please an entire spectrum of folks, from near-Unitarians to Evangelicals, all of whom happen to attend the same UCC church—or worse, try to mollify and hang on to congregants who have extreme and intolerant beliefs.

We in the United Church of Christ embrace all Christian people. We welcome all Churches and worship traditions into our fellowship. We are diverse in the sense that we want to encourage small, rural, and conservative UCC churches to stay in our denomination, to get involved with their sister UCC churches, and to acquire Christ’s passion for inclusion—for embracing and serving “the least of these” in the world. But we do not welcome or embrace sectarian prejudices and racist, homophobic, and exclusionary theologies.

I would never advise a rural, conservative UCC church to leave our denomination. I would never tell someone with Conservative or Evangelical beliefs that she or he should not attend or join a UCC church. And I would never discourage someone who did not have Liberal or Progressive theological and social values from applying for a ministry position in Cleveland, at the Conference setting, or at a local UCC church.

But why would a Conservative or Evangelical church that is unhappy with our denomination want to stay in the UCC? And why would an individual who thinks that the United Church of Christ is unacceptably liberal want to attend or pastor a UCC church (let alone join the staff of a United Church of Christ Conference or work in the “Church House” in Cleveland)?

This is not a matter of excluding anyone, or of being intolerant of Conservative churches, leaders, or congregants.  It’s just that people need to be happy with their church and denominational affiliations—or else, they should make whatever changes are necessary in order to become happy.  Life is too short to do otherwise.


Who Needs A Temple? Who Needs A Church Building?

          Then King Solomon summoned into his presence at Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families.  And they brought up the ark of the Lord and the tent of meeting and all the sacred furnishings in it.  King Solomon and the entire assembly of Israel were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be counted.
          The priests brought the ark of the Lord to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim.
          When the priests withdrew, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord.  And the priests could not perform their service because the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
          Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud;  I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.  I have succeeded David my father and now I sit on the throne of Israel, and I have built the temple for the God of Israel.”                                                  

—1 Kings 8:1, 4-6, 10-12, 20

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Imagine this:

It is the year 2031—fifteen years from now.  Personal circumstances have made it necessary for you to move away from the town you have lived in most of your life.  Since leaving, you have become disconnected with your old friends and with day-to-day events in your old community.  You have stopped receiving news about who is doing what, what new shops are opening on Main Street, and who had divorced and retired and died.  And now it is August 2031, and you have just returned to your old hometown for a high school reunion.  It is your first time back since you left eight years ago.

On Sunday morning you decide to go to church—and your heart skips a beat as you approach the familiar old church building.  You remember going to Sunday School there as a child—and playing on the playground equipment.  But as you walk through those oversized front doors that you remember so well, you are greeted by . . . subdued lighting, smells of incense, and an elderly Asian man wearing a robe.  He greets you.  Welcome to the Community Buddhist Center!

“Wait a minute,” you protest.  You are here for the morning worship service!  “This is the church—!”

“Ahh!,” the man tells you.  “Old church does not exist anymore.  I’m very sorry!  This building is now a Buddhist temple.  Come in, please!”

These were the opening paragraphs in a sermon I preached recently at one of two churches I was serving.  My congregants hated the sermon—they despised it—largely because I asked them to imagine their church going out of business and selling its worship space to a group of Buddhists.  Like many struggling churches today, I knew that our congregation was anxious—both about its ability to maintain its large, aging building—and, relatedly, about its future viability as a church.  Not surprisingly, my sermon—or at least my first four or five paragraphs—aggravated both of those concerns.

Even so, I will ask you the same questions that I voiced in my sermon that morning—because they are important:  Would such a conversation at your church’s front door, with an elderly Asian man who is dressed in a robe disturb you?  Would it bother you or me if we moved away from our community, and returned a few years later only to find that our beloved church was now a Buddhist temple?

Or would it bother us if our church went on for a few more years, and then closed its doors shortly after we died?  I mean, it shouldn’t really upset us because we’ll be dead, right?  But would it disturb us if we knew before we died that this would happen?

I told my congregation that it would bother me a lot.  And then I added:  “I assume it would bother you a lot as well.”

But why would it?  Would it somehow lessen our faith, would it lessen our Jesus or our God, if our church sold its building to a local Buddhist group?  Or if our church went out of business entirely?

This was the dilemma that confronted Solomon as he and all of Israel gathered to dedicate the Temple, the house of God.  It is the dream of all political leaders to be remembered for outstanding accomplishments.  Almost as soon as Solomon became King of Israel, he began an extensive building program.  He built whole cities where once there was only desert.  But his crowning achievement was the building of the Temple.

There had long been talk of building a temple to the glory of God.  In Moses’ day, the Israelites believed that God dwelled in a tent.  Since the people were wandering through the desert and living in tents themselves, it made sense to regard God as dwelling in a tent;  that way, God would be accessible to the people.  But when the Israelites arrived in the promised land and began living in permanent houses in villages and towns, it no longer seemed right for God to dwell in a tent.  God needed a permanent home.  So Solomon assembled the world’s finest architects and builders to construct a temple unlike any structure known.  Many Israelites labored to finish construction in seven years.

Dedication Day was a special occasion.  The elders and the heads of all the tribes assembled, and there was much fanfare, as the ark of the covenant was moved into the Temple, its new, permanent home.

And then “a cloud filled the house of God, and the priests could not stand to minister there because the glory of God filled the Temple.”  It was said that at that very moment fire shot down from heaven.  Perhaps the only thing missing was a marching band!  Solomon—perhaps anticipating the bluster of American real estate developer and presidential candidate Donald Trump three millennia later—proclaimed boastfully, “I have built an exalted house, a place for God to dwell forever.”

Now, Temples are useful things.  So are church buildings.  It is comforting to know that there is a place where we can go to feel God’s presence.  Away from our problems, in the quietness of the sanctuary, we are able to search for peace of mind.  It is not unusual in city churches to find people who stop in during the day, seeking comfort.  When life gets rough, when loved ones die, or a marriage dissolves, or health problems ensue, many of us will sit in the church, hoping to feel God’s presence.

Perhaps that is why so many of us feel an emotional attachment to our church and to our church building.  Churches and church buildings are supposed to be permanent institutions—like God, baseball, Chevrolet, and the American Dream.  I certainly understand why people don’t want their church, their church building, or anything having to do with how they practice their religion, to change.  And I understand my congregation’s lack of enthusiasm when I asked them to imagine our church building becoming a community Buddhist center.

Even so, our reading from 1 Kings, as well as Bible history, raise complicating questions about Temples—and about church buildings.

We are in the habit of calling our religious buildings churches and “Houses of God;”  and it is convenient to focus on such building as the center of our spiritual lives.  But as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the United Church of Christ asks in a “Sermon Seed” reflection (http://www.ucc. org/worship_samuel, Sunday, August 23, 2015), “where does God truly live”?  Is the brick-and-mortar (or the sheetrock-and-vinyl-siding) building really the church?  Of course not—the real church is the people who worship in that building!  And is the church building the only place where we can find God?  Surely not—for God “is” everywhere.  God lives within us—in our “hearts.”  And God lives in our church, as well as in other churches.  But God also lives in our homes, and God lives in the Adirondacks when we go camping or hunting there.  And God accompanies us to Disneyland when we take our children there.  And God rides with us in our vehicles, when we drive to work or go shopping.

The God who loves us can be found in church, but God is not limited to one fixed place.  Solomon realized this when he admitted in his prayer, “Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  God cannot be limited or inhibited by human hands or buildings.  God is beyond our control.

We also know that everything in this life, everything except God, is impermanent, and changes or wears out—and this certainly includes our cars, our human bodies, and church buildings.  Entropy is a basic law of the universe.  Can we live with that?  Would you and I be okay knowing that our church isn’t permanent?  Or that our church building will someday fall into disrepair, or get torn down, or be sold to a Buddhist meditation group?

A related question is:  How much Temple can we afford?  A magnificent building can cost tens of thousands of dollars (and in some cases, $50,000 to $60,000 or more) annually, to heat in the winter, cool in the summer, and keep in good repair.  The Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, tells us that more and more churches are being confronted with the unpalatable choice of keeping their minister but having to sell their building—or keeping their buildings but having to let their ministers go.  Increasingly, American churches are unable to afford both their buildings and their clergy.

The dedication of the Temple was Solomon’s finest hour.  Solomon anticipated that the Temple would inspire people in distant lands to learn of God’s power.  He imagined that foreigners would visit Jerusalem, see this magnificent building, and be converted to the God of the Israelites.  It sounded good.  “If you build it, they will come.”  An impressive building will draw people to God—who can criticize that?  But this extreme focus on the Temple was subtly insidious.  Over and over again, the Bible warns us against worshiping false images of God.  Was the Temple in danger of becoming an idol?  Can church buildings today become idols?  What do we worship—God or our building?

Over and over again in the Hebrew Bible, Rev. Matthews notes, we see a tension between the priestly realm which sought to maintain the institutions and the rules of Judaism—and the prophetic realm which recognized that God could not be contained in the dry traditions and rules of one narrow religion, but that God is present in each of us, and that true religion means going outside the Temple, outside the church building, and into the community, to care for the widow and orphan, to visit the sick and the prisoner, and to do good unto our neighbors.

Jesus represented that prophetic realm—that new way of thinking about religion.   “Consider the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field,” he said.  If Solomon’s temple represented the old system of worship, with its priests and sacrifices and rules, Jesus represented the New Covenant.  From now on, Jesus said, God will dwell within you.  Each of you is a temple.  No longer do you need to worship God only in one place, in one Temple or church.

Historians tell us that Solomon’s Temple was built in 832 B.C.E., and that it was destroyed 410 years later by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar.  It was rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah, but it was destroyed a second time in 70 A.D., and after that, it was never rebuilt.  Today there is no Temple in Israel.  Neither Jewish religious worship nor Judaism require a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem.

What about today?  What does God have in mind for your church and my church?  Could it be that God is doing a new thing that diminishes the importance of church buildings with their “buildings and grounds committees” and large “physical plant maintenance” budgets;  a new thing that eliminates the pressure of having to collect a lot of money every month just for institutional upkeep;  a new thing that frees up churchgoers and their dollars to engage in the work of outreach and mission?  I’m not sure, but I’d love to know what you think.

So I’m curious:  What has been your experience with churches and church buildings?  I began this blog by telling you about my disastrous sermon—the one with an imaginary story about our church being converted into a community Buddhist center.  Imagine that happening to your church.  How would you feel?  What does the church and its building represent to you?  Is it your home, or God’s home, or both?  What makes it a sacred space for you?

How much Temple can you and I—and church people throughout North America—afford today?  Think of this as an ongoing cost-benefit calculation:  Are the benefits of maintaining our churches’ aging buildings so important to you and me that we are willing to continue paying our fair share of the costs of building upkeep, in addition to the cost of salaries and programs, month after month?  In many cases such giving requires genuine financial sacrifice on the part of church members and their families.  Of course, as a pastor, I of all people can easily endorse the idea that we should give generously and even sacrificially to the church and to its ministries—and I would tell you to do the same.  But the reality is that many of us today are living on fixed incomes, and/or have numerous family expenses, and/or are unable to give more than a few dollars each week.  Can churches maintain their big buildings without gutting their worship, education, and missions programs, and losing their pastor(s)?  Is the old way of doing church sustainable?

In Real Good Church (Cleveland:  Pilgrim, 2014), the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette, a UCC Pastor, predicts that in twenty years’ time, as many as 80 percent of currently-existing churches will be out of business.  From what you see of religious life and church attendance—in your own congregation, in your community, and across America—do you agree with Baskette?  Why or why not?  Is the problem churches face today just about a shortage of dollars?  What feelings does this possibility, of large-scale church closures, evoke in you?

So where is the Gospel in all this?  Where is the good news?  I see several things that are “good news:”
  • God is always with us.  God is not tied to one particular building or congregation or denomination.
  • There is a widespread sentiment throughout the church today that God is doing a new thing—even though, right now, many of us can barely make out the contours of what that new thing is.  It will be exciting to see how God transforms the church—and us—in the years ahead.
  • Jesus said that he is the vine, and we are the branches, and God is the horticulturist who prunes us with a cosmic pair of shears (John 15).  Pruning is always a good thing.  Some churches may die, but the remainder will be strengthened.
  • For the followers of Jesus, resurrection—new life—always follows death.

As Jesus’ followers, we say that we believe in resurrections.  But for resurrections to occur, deaths have to happen first.  I suspect that we need to stop thinking of the sale of a church building or the closure of a church (or even of many churches) as a failure.  If some existing churches sell their buildings or go out of business, perhaps their resources and buildings can live on . . . and bring blessing to other church groups and congregations—and yes, even to community Buddhist centers.

What do you think?


Is the American Church Going Out of Business? A Blog about Change and Church Decline

There are many things that I don’t understand very well:

  • The strange weather we’ve been having (I know about global warming and El Nino—but the weather these days has just been weird).
  • The persistence of racism and homophobia in America in 2015.
  • Uber, and the new on-demand economy.
  • ISIS (or ISIL).
  • Donald Trump.
  • The changes taking place in American religion—and in particular, the decline of the church.  Everything is in flux today;  change is happening faster than ever.  (The trouble is, I liked things the way they were.)

This blog is about change.  It is about decline, renewal, and transformation in the American church.  There’s much that we don’t understand about what God is doing, despite our many years of worshipping and Sunday-schooling and fellowshipping and praying and dish-to-passing and pastoring.

Now, I don’t want to overstate my case.  Many churches are not declining, and seem not to be getting rocked by change.  There are large and small churches that are reaching out to their communities and doing innovative and meaningful ministry.  By the same token, I have wonderful clergy colleagues who are enthused and excited about the opportunities they have to do ministry in new ways, and who view this as a kind of golden age of the church.

Perhaps you are one of these amazing pastors or church leaders who doesn’t know the meaning of the word, “decline.”  Perhaps your church is experiencing phenomenal growth.  If so, wonderful and amazing!  Both you and your church are blessed, and you are a blessing to others!

But chances are that you know of some churches—perhaps sister churches in your denomination, down the block, or across the street—that aren’t doing very well.  Perhaps you know some church leaders or pastors who are discouraged.  Many of us know such leaders and churches because, unfortunately, there are a lot of them—a lot of us—out there.  Perhaps your church and my church—perhaps you and I—are going through tough times.

One of the reasons I’m writing this blog is that I believe in the Biblical ethic which undergirds the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-12).  Do you remember it?  After killing his brother, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  the text clearly implies that he is.  We are all our sisters’ and our brothers’ keepers!  If my church is doing well, and a sister church (or several sister churches) are hurting, I cannot in good conscience celebrate my congregation’s success.  It will not do for me to say, in effect, “Good for us;  too bad about them!”

These days, a number of pastors and church “experts” are talking and writing honestly about change in the church—about renewal, and about decline.  Numerous books, articles, workshops, and blogs are being produced on these topics.  Experts are lecturing on, and the rest of us are talking about, church decline.  These experts predict that some, and perhaps a great many, churches will soon go out of business.

For example, the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette—a fellow United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor—predicts in Real Good Church (Cleveland:  Pilgrim, 2014), that “something like 80% of our mainline Christian churches will be dead” in 20 years (p. 11).  Can this be true?  Baskette makes this claim casually, almost in passing, but her assertion is unnerving.  I mean, won’t some churches—and even some small, part-time, chapel-type ministries—defy predictions and just go on living?  Incidentally, Baskette’s book is not about church decline;  just the opposite—the subtitle of her book is, How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too.

Whatever it is that churches are experiencing today—renewal or decline—it is certain that powerful change is swamping all Christian denominations—the American Church as a whole.  It is happening in the two churches I serve, Groton City Church (UCC) and Groton Community Church (UCC).  And it is happening throughout the theological spectrum.  It is happening in Mainline Protestant churches, and in Catholic congregations, and in Evangelical-Conservative fellowships, and in Charismatic and Pentecostal houses of worship.

It didn’t use to be this way when I started out in ministry (but then again, I am something of a dinosaur).  Back in the 1970s and 1980s, hardly anyone was talking or writing about change or decline.  Instead, pastors and “experts” were writing books and leading workshops on “church growth.”  (In fact, Baskette’s subtitle perfectly captures what those books and workshops were all about.)  Back then, the United Church of Christ was focused on civil rights and fighting racism, on articulating its position on LGBT and ONA issues, and on its rich ecumenical dialogue with other Christian denominations.

Today, many in the UCC are talking about change.  They are talking about church revitalization, and while they are not dwelling or fixated on decline, they are talking openly about it.  The fact is that many UCC churches have plateaued or are declining.  Recently, Conference Minister Dave Gaewski reported that churches in the New York Conference are giving fewer and fewer dollars to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) and to other special offerings that support the Conference, and that if these trends of giving continue, Conference work will be impaired, and the Conference itself could be out of business in four years.  Ouch!

Within the Association of the New York Conference, in which I serve:

  • Three or four relatively large and/or affluent churches seem to float, like islands in a sea of smaller and poorer churches;
  • There seem to be fewer churches with “full-time” pastors.  Many churches have 30-hour-a-week, or half-time, pastors.  (Most part-time pastors work 40 or more hours per week—the only thing part-time is their salaries.)
  • Relatedly, there seem to be fewer seminary-trained and ordained pastors.  Those who are seminary-trained have student loans to pay off, and gravitate toward bigger or wealthier urban or suburban churches that can offer full-time appointments and larger salaries.  This leaves non-seminary-trained and non-ordained ministers pastoring smaller rural churches.

Beyond the New York Conference and the United Church of Christ, there are similar signs of change:

  • Somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 American churches close their doors annually.  And these numbers may be conservative.  The truth may be more like 8,000–10,000 houses of worship disbanding every year.
  • In the Roman Catholic Church, “membership,” as measured by those who self-identify as Catholic, continues to grow, but participation, membership in religious orders, the number of seminaries, and the number of clergy have been declining since the 1960s.
  •  Fifty to seventy years ago, the church was one of the most highly trusted and respected institutions in the United States.  The parish pastorate was considered an esteemed profession and a noble calling;  the minister was on a par professionally with the physician, the lawyer, the tenured professor, and the corporate executive.  Today, neither the church nor the pastorate garner that kind of respect in society-at-large.
  • Over the past two years, the Alban Institute and the Bangor Theological Seminary have gone out of business.  Another seminary—historic Andover Newton Theological School in Boston—announced recently that it plans to relocate and scale down its operations.  Andover Newton is actively seeking a partnership with another mainline organization—most likely another seminary.  Without such a partnership, the first theological seminary in the United States may be forced to close its doors permanently.  
  • Many more seminaries are facing smaller enrollments and soaring overhead.  The average cost for a three-year Master of Divinity degree in North America is $100,000.  Most hard hit are Protestant mainline denominational schools, but Evangelical seminaries are also experiencing decline.
  • There has been a stark reduction in the number of women and men going attending seminary and going into the ministry right out of college.  Today, 23 percent of all seminary and divinity school applicants are over the age of 50 and are pursuing ministry as their second or third career.  The 50-to-64-year-old cohort is the fastest-growing population among divinity school students.  (Often, these older seminarians have private pensions and health insurance, and do not have young families to support;  consequently, they may be less expensive for churches to hire.)

Why is all of this happening?  It is not happening because pastors and church leaders are ill-trained, pessimistic, or lack a can-do spirit.  It is not happening because of bad, weak, or tired leadership.  It is not happening because church people, leaders, and pastors don’t have enough faith, or are not praying hard enough.  It is not happening because congregations are lazy, or because church leaders aren’t trying the old tried-and-true techniques.  It is not happening because God is punishing certain churches, or refusing to bless them.

Rather, these things are happening largely because of societal change.  As UCC pastor Anthony Robinson writes, our society has shifted radically over the past sixty years—from being a culture of obligation during the 1950s, in which people felt socially obligated to attend weekly church services—to becoming a culture of choice and non-affiliation today, in which people feel free not to attend, or even identify with, a church.

In addition, there is a sense that the old approaches, the tried-and-true techniques that used to work, aren’t working anymore.

As author and columnist Rachel Held Evans argued so convincingly a couple of years ago in a CNN blog (“Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church”), young adults—those in their twenties and thirties—cannot abide hypocritical institutions, and many see the church in those terms and are dropping out in droves.  This raises an obvious question:  If Millennials leave, where is the next generation of congregants and church leaders going to come from?  It is not at all certain that Millennials will return to church once they have children of their own or enter their ‘golden years.”  Is the church going the way of the dodo bird???

Of course, many of us are quick to compare our declining churches with the mega-church across town, which is bulging at the seams, and has overflowing crowds, multiple services, and a jam-packed parking lot every Sunday morning.  Don’t such burgeoning congregations disprove the “churches-are-declining” thesis?

Not really.  Often, these churches are Evangelical or fundamentalistic in theology, and feature charismatic leaders, constant entertainment, guilt-laden appeals (“God wants you to tithe ten percent of your income!”  “If you’re not in church every Sunday, God is not going to bless you!”), and negative, excluding messaging (“Gay marriage—or evolution, or Planned Parenthood, or Obamacare, or sex outside of marriage, or fill-in-the-blank—is an abomination before God!”).

These churches seem successful—and so congregants often ask, “What are they doing right that we are doing wrong??!!!”  I must confess that sometimes I am tempted to reply mischievously that, yes, of course, they are doing wonderful work!  And all of the starving-children charities appealing to us for money in those late night television commercials are also doing wonderful work just because they say they are!  And all of the investments our stock broker recommends are high-flyers that will make us crazy-rich once we put down a small $10,000 investment!

I mean, look.  Despite these churches’ apparent (and self-proclaimed) successes, there are serious questions to be asked about how well they are doing.  Many mega-churches have mega-mortgages, mega-budgets, mega-financial troubles, and mega-leadership problems.  Two notable examples are the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California (remember the Hour of Power TV show on Sunday mornings?) which went bankrupt and now houses a Roman Catholic congregation, and the Mars Hill mega-church, which went out of business and spun off all of its “franchised” congregations.

Even The Southern Baptist Convention, which has been the most insistent of all the Protestant denomination in boasting of how it, unlike the mainline denominations, has maintained its focus on evangelism and church growth (and has been carefully tracking such statistics as numbers of baptisms, attendance and membership figures, and amounts of giving for years), now reports that its churches are experiencing no growth or “negative growth.”

We don’t know for sure whether such declines are a temporary blip or represent a long-term trend—but church closures are, by definition, long-term in nature.

Perhaps we can better understand the decline that is plaguing the American church if we think about stewardship—what you and I put into the collection plate every Sunday morning, or on the Sundays we actually make it to church.  The inescapable truth is that the church runs on money.  We could all wish that fervent prayers and heartfelt blessings would be enough to pay the salaries, cover the utility bills, and foot the bill for building upkeep and maintenance, religious programming, and consumables like bulletins, communion wine, toilet paper, and coffee.  But prayers and blessings are not enough.  Dollars are needed, and the more people who attend church, the bigger the church budget will be, and the more dollars that will be required to support it.

Now think about your own level of giving.  And think about why most churchgoers don’t tithe 10% of their income to the church, and don’t give much money to their denominations.  It’s not because folks don’t love their church, or their Bishop or Conference Minister.   Rather, it’s because they are overextended financially.  Most of us are giving all we can.  Many older people live on fixed incomes, while younger congregants have families and tight budgets.  This is true in the New York Conference, and it is true in denominations and churches across America.

In Facing Decline, Finding Hope, Jeffrey D. Jones, associate professor of ministerial leadership at Andover Newton Theological School, suggests that instead of denying the reality of decline or struggling to “turn things around,” pastors and church leaders should reframe the questions that they ask of their congregations.

  • Instead of asking, “How do we bring them in?”, they should ask, “How do we send them out?”
  • Instead of asking, “What should the pastor do?”, leaders and congregants should be asking, “What is our congregation’s shared ministry?”
  • Instead of asking, “What’s our vision and how do we implement it?”, they should ask, “What’s God up to, and how do we get onboard?”
  • Instead of wondering, “How do we survive?” or “How do we re-structure?”, they need to be asking, “How do we serve?”
  • Instead of asking, “What are we doing to save people?”, the church should be asking, “What are we doing to make the reign of God more present in this time and place?”

Here’s what seems likely:  While some churches will die, the church as a whole isn’t going anywhere—it will endure.  But increasingly, it will be taking on new and less-institutionalized forms, and we will be encountering more virtual churches, more house churches, and more churches that are intentional about not owning their buildings (so that congregants’ financial donations can go directly into outreach and mission—rather than getting eaten by building maintenance).  Already some churches are meeting in bars, bowling alleys, and theaters—they are thriving!—and they have no intention of purchasing land and constructing ornate edifices.

Existing churches will not all go away—but some will get smaller.  Some will become “chaplaincies”—with tiny budgets, part-time (or very part-time) pastors, and no community outreach.  Many church buildings will fall into disrepair due to high maintenance costs.  Other churches will experience renewal, re-birth, and phenomenal growth.  Those of us who are churchgoers and leaders may well wonder what our churches and ministries will look like 30 years from now.  I ask those questions of the churches I have pastored.

Many of the shifts that churches are experiencing are cultural, and are impervious to “trying harder,” to new techniques, to slick stewardship campaigns, and to “Bring-A-Friend-to-Church” appeals or “Firefighters-and-Police-Officers-Sunday” type promotionals.  Adding younger people to committees and boards, and the last-resort solution of firing the preacher and bringing in a new minister who is younger and more dynamic do not seem to work either.

In the final analysis, what is happening in many of our churches may be what Sandy Gregory, our organist at Groton City Church, calls “a God Thing.”  We may not fully understand it, but God seems to be doing something new.  For this reason, we should not despair.

What do you think?  Is church decline part of your experience?  Or is your congregation undergoing renewal, re-birth, and amazing growth?  If your church is thriving, do you know of other churches that are in decline?  What signs do you see, in your church or in other churches, that are suggestive of renewal—or of decline?  Do you agree that what many American churches are experiencing as decline may be “a God Thing?”  Please post a reply, and share your comments, thoughts, disagreements, ideas, amplifications, rebuttals, and opinions!

Welcome to this blog!  I will try to make entries periodically (on a fairly regular basis if not every month).  I will “talk” with you again next time.