Monday, April 09, 2007

Old Branches, New Buds

Via UCCTruths, I was able to catch up on the latest membership numbers for the United Church of Christ as presented by the National Council of Churches' annual yearbook. The stats aren't pretty:

21. United Church of Christ, 1,224,297, reporting a decrease of 3.28 percent.

Two years later, it still isn't hard to guess the reason. According to FWC's website, 227 churches have left the UCC since the 25th General Synod's passing of Equal Marriage Rights for All. The above stat is the largest decrease of any "mainline" denomination reported this year.

There is a hopeful side that I can see. About a week ago, our national office sent out a new flyer entitled Now is the Time for New Church Development, which sets out the very ambitious goal of establishing 1600 new churches by the year 2021. I occasionally wonder if I'm called to participate in such a thing down the road, which scares me if it's genuine and not just my ego. Regardless, this flyer and its stated goals gives me hope that while limbs are falling off, new buds are forming. The face and shape of the denomination will change accordingly, but if Associations and Conferences actively support this endeavor, there is good cause to go ahead and plan the 100-year celebration.

Here are a few suggestions for pursuing this goal:

1. Make it about the new churches' needs and consequently about local communities' needs rather than about wider church needs. Yes, the denomination is struggling financially, but that should not be a primary reason for establishing new churches. Our hearts are in the wrong place if we're only planting churches so that they can send money to the Association, Conference, or National setting. This isn't about the institution, it's about engaging the needs of a local setting through mission and evangelism.

2. Emphasize local mission and evangelism. Sounds repetitive, but a local church needs to reflect the local culture. The old model of plopping a vaccuous message in the middle of a foreign culture is breaking or has broken down. New churches will need to be relevant and relateable. A big city liberal heading out to rural Iowa with little regard or love for the context in which s/he is called to establish a church probably won't do well. Aside from that, what does the community need? Is there a large homeless population? A conflict between leaders and workers? A struggling mentally ill population? A general ignorance of or antagonism toward Christianity? How will a new church address these needs?

3. Give permission to take risks. Church planting is a risk in and of itself, but how willing is the planter to try new forms of church governance, worship, evangelism, etc.? Do you really need to buy or build a building eventually? Do you really need to have worship on Sunday morning as opposed to some other day and/or time? Do you really need to wear vestments or feature a 20-minute sermon? Do you really need to seek out an old set of hymnals that some other church isn't using any more, at least until you can afford new ones (and then, do you really need the New Century Hymnal just because you're UCC)? Do you really need a Powerpoint projector? Why do you or don't you think that people will respond if you dare to be a different sort of church? Note that these are practical issues I'm talking about, not theological ones. To a certain extent, the medium is the message, but here I just mean the medium.

Like I said, this new initiative gives me hope for the future of the UCC. The above stats show that the mountain may be a little steep, along with a general post-denominational trend in America. Still, the prospect of new, dynamic, and missional churches being established and supported with the UCC's help is pretty exciting, and worth supporting.