Monday, April 03, 2006

Having a Disgruntled Moment

Before you read anything beyond this sentence, read this entry.

Done? No really, did you read it? Don't read any further unless you did. I'm serious. Did you? Okay, then. Go ahead.

And settle in for a few minutes, because this turned out to be really long.

So the National Council of Churches has published its new Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Various other blogs have picked up on it, including Chuck and Shane. As has been expected, they each have very different foci and takes on the information. Not only does the Yearbook report membership for all denominations and faith groups, but this particular book focuses on the influence of blogs and the emerging church and other ecclesio-trends. The one figure I was particularly interested in was, of course, the following:

-United Church of Christ, 1,265,786, reporting a decrease of 2.38 percent.

Guess how that drop happened. If you've thought about it for more than a half second, you either haven't been reading up on recent UCC events or...I can't think of a good smartass comment. Something about living in a cave or a bubble or having the attention span of a 2-year-old. Whatever works. Come up with your own if you have the time.

At last count, 103 churches have left the UCC since the Equal Marriage Rights for All resolution that was passed at General Synod. I got this information from the Faithful and Welcoming website (you read that other entry, right?), a group that makes it a point to know things like that.

A comment found elsewhere after this figure was reported was the following: 'Maybe it was their ejector seats.' This was from a non-UCC member. Remember that whole thing about defining church by who you are rather than who you aren't? That's not just for UCC people. But besides that, what could I as a UCC pastor say to that? There really isn't much beyond a rant about kicking people when they're down. Really, we've known since July that we'd lose members and churches, we just didn't know the degree to which it would occur. Now we have some idea.

103 churches. 2.38 percent.

The positive version looks like this: 5800+ churches still UCC, 1,265,786 members.

And boy howdy we shouldn't worry because we've got our new exciting commercial. I had two parishioners approach me the other day about it. They'd seen it twice, and still weren't sure about its point. They said it went by too fast for them to get what was going on. 'I just saw people getting ejected into the air...and then suddenly the UCC is mentioned.' There's a lot to unpack there, but let's stick with the overall impact that it made. They had to see it a few times to 'get' it. I wonder how typical this will be as this ad starts showing. And how much can we really expect from it? Is this going to bring back that 2.38 percent? Maybe we can report a growth next year thanks to the brilliant minds who concocted such a whimsical concept that, as it turns out, flies by too quickly for Jane and Joe TVwatcher?

Perhaps they can go to the Find a Church feature on the UCC website. Go ahead and click on the link after you get past the Big Giant Comma and find that listing of Still Speaking links. Know where it takes you? The listing of Still Speaking churches, not the general listing of UCC churches. You won't find my church on there unless you know your way to the general Find a Church listing. Sorry. If you were trying to locate me, you can't. Not the way they've got it set up.

This entry is not meant to be an open letter to UCC National, but I'm a little confident that with my recent involvement with the Leak That Wasn't A Leak and my link to UCCTruths, someone from National now stops by on occasion. So here are some thoughts that you can take or leave. I'd rather you'd take, seeing as how to a certain extent I have to clean up your mess at the local level on occasion...when my people care enough to pay attention (they actually prefer to ignore you, which is certainly within our polity but it makes for some rough Association relationships sometimes).

~God is Still Speaking is not all there is. The slogan was repeated ad nauseum during Synod, commas all over the place, the Big Giant Comma on the website now...I'm glad that there's still excitement in this campaign, but how about giving the rest of your churches a fair shot? And we reaffirmed the cross, crown, and orb as our symbol. The last thing that denominational critics need is more fuel to what was originally an overreactionary issue. Now the main site has been seemingly hijacked by the comma and GISS. It used to be that these things were part of who we are, now it's being made to look like it's the main thing.

~I agree that those disenfranchised with institutional church could use a reason to come back and give it another try, but the new commercial is basically a retread of the bouncer commercial and an indication that perhaps GISS needs more depth and a wider target audience.

~We're gonna lose more members. Sorry. But the Equal Marriage thing made a lot of people mad, and that's just going to happen. I and many others voted for it knowing this. A commercial isn't going to save us. A(nother) website where people can post how they've been burned by organized religion isn't going to save us. A 'return to orthodoxy' or whatever isn't going to save us. Flashier ads and big screens and praise bands and lattes in the narthex will bring in more consumers but won't make better Christians; none of that will save us. Local churches interacting with communities, rather than this 'ya'll come' approach, will be how the UCC will thrive.

Maybe National can do some things to help with that sort of campaign, rather than asking for money for ad buys.


Jennifer G Brownell said...

Hey Jeff,

I totally hear your pain about having to be on the front lines with folks who feel like they're disenfranchised by the very church whose message is supposed to be all about inclusion. I read both your posts, and while my pedigree is not QUITE as spotless as yours :) I am also a UCC pastor and PK. In addition, I seem to be in a small minority of UCC church folk who actually like the ad.

Having worked in marketing - and now in ministry - here's how I imagine the thinking is going about the ad from the folks who've produced and put it out:
1. Yes, the church is shrinking now, but not just as a result of the ad. The folks in our pews are getting older and older.
2. In the short term, this ad and the GISS campaign in general will wreak a lot of havoc, as some churches and members leave.
3. In the long term, the churches that stay and thrive as a result of the ad will be stronger, and they will populated with more younger people, as well as those stalwarts who've hung on.

I want to be clear here - the major part of job is pastoral care with the elderly, and in my role I am as much as advocate as a pastor. I love the people with whom I work and I feel honored and privileged to hear their stories and learn from their wisdom. I also think that multi-generatiional interaction is one of the big gifts that the church has to offer our fragmented culture (oh, boy, you're getting my ordination paper, now....) But, in truth, the future of the church does not lie with our elders, and we cannot build a church only with and for folks who are, realistically, not going to be around for the long haul anyway.

Does this sound too harsh? Too cynical? Let me know.....

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hijack so many of these comments, but I couldn't agree more.

Jennifer G Brownell said...

Oh, and one more thing. from a marketing perspective, if I was working on GISS, I sure would try to make it as provocative as possible, so that it would not get on any networks, and so that bloggers would spend lots of net time chewing on it. You cant buy this kind of publicity for any money.

Jeff Nelson said...

Hi Juniper. I certainly agree with your assessment of working in 'older' congregations. A lot of my week is spent in the same way yours is.

I'm more hesitant to believe that this ad will attract more young people and really, on a more general level, more people in general. Some will discover the UCC this way, but I'm discovering in my own setting that, both in terms of evangelism and in terms of congregational participation in activities, approaching people personally seems to work better than leaving an open invitation to whomever, whenever. That's why I suggest a local church renewal program as opposed to a national ad campaign. Some conferences and associations have their own programs in this vein (Ohio is one), but all would benefit from it, and it would bring the entire denomination closer together.

I reflected months ago that even with the churches who are leaving, there are just as many new churches being started. I liken it to a tree that loses leaves but at the same time has new buds forming. It'll take a while for those buds to blossom. It'll be a whole new tree at that point, too.

All of this, I guess, is to say that I'd like to see more encouraging and strengthening of the local church, rather than a campaign offered by national that churches can maybe or maybe not buy into...a campaign that is beginning to overshadow those who haven't. I generally like the campaign, but am beginning to feel a little frustrated by it.

P.S. The other post was just to dissuade anyone from suggesting that I'm anti-UCC or BWF or whatever else (there are a lot of accusations flying around like that lately). I'm a proud UCC member and pastor who happens to have a beef.:)

Anonymous said...

Jeff: Email me when you get a chance... I don't have your email address... and you can delete this post too if you want. :)

LutheranChik said...

We were talking about the decline in mainline denominations on a Lutheran forum I'm part of, and we reminded ourselves that there are many, many non-ideological factors involved in the supposed demise of mainline denominations. And as far as that goes, there is a corresponding membership decline in most civic and fraternal organizations, not just churches. And...some of our churches are growing. My own congregation is growing tremendously; we're embarking this month on our first ever expansion project since the church was built back during WW I. So we ain't dead yet.;-)