Keynote Address delivered at the 213th Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
by The Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Friday, June 15, 2012
Transformation: For Your Welfare, Not For Harm
"For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
About 20 years ago now, at my ecclesiastical council, a grumpy man stood up in the back of the church and asked if I knew what was the most-divisive theological argument being debated in the United Church of Christ. At first I wanted to say, “Oh, yes, the color of the new sanctuary carpet?” but before I could give any response, he interrupted me, preferring to answer his own question instead.
“It’s whether or not children should be receiving communion before they are confirmed!” he said.
That may well have been a swirling controversy at the time, even if I missed it, but I can attest that – twenty years later – the tender age of our would-be communicants is rarely if ever mentioned as major cause for alarm. If anything, we worry that we don’t have any kids to commune with at all.
One of the fortunate things about being in exile is that you learn to focus your attention on what really matters. In fact, you have no other choice. When all you carry must fit in a backpack, you can’t insist on bringing the dining room table.
I like how author Gil Rendle puts it: The church, right now, is under the illusion that it can build a new prison using the old prison’s bricks without losing any of the prisoners.
Equating the church to a prison is not the best metaphor, but you get the point.
In other words, he says, we want to cross this current wilderness with everything and everyone intact. But such an ideal can’t happen, he says. You can’t go through deep change and remain unchanged at the same time. Transformation means something is being formed anew.
Following World War II, as Rendle explains it, scientific advances offered us the illusion of a secure future. The mainline church, as well as other member organizations (the VFW, the DAR, the Elks, the Lions and the Rotarians), were at the height of their influence. People wanted to belong, to fit in, to join, and the church was central to fulfilling that mission. Here you could get a membership card.
But as Rendle says, along came Woodstock and Watergate, the fuller atomic age, the communist scare and the hunt for Soviet sympathizers, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the assassination of national leaders, the emergence of rock and roll, the sexual revolution, and all that was certain (or presumed to be certain) was called into question. And when people don’t know what went wrong, they want to know who went wrong. And fingers are pointed in multiple directions.
As Carol Howard Merritt has pointed out, “When a minister entered a store wearing his clergy collar in the fifties, he got a discount. When the same minister entered the store in his collar in the seventies, he got dirty looks.”
One could argue that, calendar-wise, right after the UCC was formed in 1957, it was already taking its first baby steps from that Uniting General Synod right into the first edges of wilderness. But we’re just now realizing that. But we didn’t go there alone, but alongside every other member organization, from the VFW right on down the line). Looking back, it was the beginning of all membership-organization’s exiles. The ground was shifting even if we didn’t feel it at the time. And the problem is you’re often in the wilderness a long time before you realize it.
That grumpy man’s question to me about the UCC’s most-divisive argument, back in 1992, was indicative of his own feelings of dislocation. Life was breaking in on the church’s supposed order, and his particular worry (children at communion) was only symptomatic of the broader disorder or dis-ease that has only multiplied for us since then. He didn’t like it. And we don’t like it.
The reality is that the biggest issue facing the church 20 years ago, or even 30 years ago, really is the same one facing the church today, only we feel it far more acutely now, because our prominence and vast resources THEN afforded us the temporary luxury of avoiding it for so long.
The first step of adaptive change is coming to realize the urgency for change, and that urgency – while unsettling – is a blessing, not a curse.
When some people like to blame the UCC’s supposed decline, or even our demise, on its more-liberal social policy positions, I always point to the Missouri Synod-Lutheran Church as my response.
No other denomination could possibly be more dissimilar to the UCC in its stances on social issues, but at the same time, no denomination more closely mirrors our demographics (that is, the age and racial/ethnic makeup of the people in our pews and the general membership trends that both denominations have experienced over the past 30 years.) Apart from our distanced positions on every single hot-button issue, the UCC and the Missouri Synod are remarkably similar in size, regional concentrations, and the marked decline we’ve experienced in the two categories we’ve used to measure success in the church: overall membership and monies given to the national organization.
Unfortunately for Missouri Synod Lutherans, they don’t have the luxury of being able to blame it on gay people.
So how does one explain that similar trajectory? For that matter, how does one explain the spiral of change that is affecting every religious and social service organization, across the board, be they conservative, liberal or somewhere in between?
The reason is that people no longer join congregations because they need more relationships or because they want to be a ‘member.’ They already have as many social friendships as their time and lifestyle will allow.
But people do say they want to become active in something where they feel that they are having an impact, that they are making a difference, where they find a depth of honest exploration and real joy.
Therefore, the theological shift is from “keeping members satisfied” to “giving people meaning.”
Socially conventional Christianity is no longer the driving force that brings people into our doors. Christianity, thank God, is becoming deliberate again and that new intentionality means that, while our numbers may be adjusting to that new reality, the discipleship and stewardship of those who choose to remain is being reformed and deepened. We are no longer conforming to this world, but being transformed.
I find some real hope in that. It’s not that people don’t or won’t take the gospel seriously anymore. It’s that they want to explore it and engage it even more seriously.
They want a faith that keeps them looking upward and outward, even inward, but not in any insular way.
This is why organizations like Habitat for Humanity or Heifer International have thrived in the past 30 years, while membership organizations, like the PTA, or the UCC, have had a hard go of it. To our surprise, people don’t want to read our resolutions or review our minutes. They want a hammer and some nails. They want to engage faith at a deeper level, and they want some indication that their faith has muscle.
The function of the congregation has shifted from being social to being purposeful, from relational to missional.
Young people today aren’t “just NOT interested” in church any more, as some claim, but a new generation is not willing to support the big, cumbersome institutions that our grandparents so lovingly built for us.
They aren’t willing to play that “offering charade” where we bless our monetary gifts under allusions that they’re being shared “at home and around the world to further the work of God’s mission” because they don’t see that happening.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Outside of Owensboro, Ky., there is a magical place called Mt. Saint Joseph. It is the Roman Catholic Mother House of a once-thriving order of Ursaline Nuns and it serves as the infirmary where the oldest sisters come from around the world to spend their final days. It’s a throw-back to another time. Huge, impressive buildings that rise out of soybean fields. It’s the last thing you’d expect to find along that narrow county road that eventually dead-ends at a river’s edge. It’s so out of the way that most people would never see it, unless they had set out looking for it.
For several years in high school, I attended a two-week music camp at Maple Mount, as it’s called, and I befriended one of the younger nuns, Sister Margaret, who lived there. Younger, meaning she was probably in her 50s. Years later, when I came back to Henderson, Ky., as a pastor, I often took spiritual retreats at Maple Mount.
One evening I was out walking, and Sister Margaret was out walking, so we met up and started walking and talking together. (I am just Protestant enough to still get a kick out of seeing a nun in shorts and tennis shoes.)
By this time, Margaret was easily in her late 60s, but still vividly the youngest and spryest of any of the sisters there. Surely the average age was 85 at best.
We walked around the sprawling campus and she pointed out the buildings and the purposes they once served. There sat the two empty dormitories and a stately classroom that once housed students of Maple Mount Academy, the all-girls boarding school, now closed. We walked past the indoor pool and gymnasium, facilities I had used when I had been a summer camper there. Now boarded up. The only place I spotted any new activity was in the graveyard where it seemed like the number of newer, cleaner headstones was catching up with the number of moss-covered ones.
I don’t know if my next comment was rude. I hope not, but I asked Sr. Margaret, “What’s going to happen here?” “This place is so magnificent, but unless something drastic changes, it doesn’t appear to be sustainable.”
And her response to me has become one of those 5 or 10 comments in life that you hear, and it just refuses to let you go.
She said, “When and if there are only a few of us left, we’ll sell all this and move to … an apartment. Even though we love it so, we don’t need it in order to fulfill our mission.”
“An apartment?” I thought to myself. “An apartment?” … gazing over hundreds and hundreds of acres of church-owned farmland, with a 150-year-old monastery sitting atop this beautiful hilltop.
I heard some sadness and frustration in Margaret’s response, some resignation to the inevitable perhaps, but more so, I heard profound liberation in what she said. Far more liberation than frustration, to be sure.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
And while no one can tell the future, especially when you’re wandering in a wilderness. The one thing that’s for certain is that we’re not going back to the place where we came from.
I take strange comfort in the realization that the greatest new-church planter that the church has ever known, the Apostle Paul, created some of church’s best, most faithful and most famous congregations that ever existed, but every single one of them – for one reason or another – has closed. It’s an odd reassurance, isn’t it, but it’s proof that times changes, populations shift, events occur, and tough decisions are made about every single congregation’s life, at one time or another, no matter how prominent or important that church was at one time or another, but the faith – the church of Jesus Christ – adapts and lives on.
Equally, I also know that churches possess incredible fortitude. If you go in any town in Massachusetts, any town in America, you will find that the oldest continuous entities are faith communities. Our churches are older than the best civic groups, or grocery stores, or fancy florists or impossible-to-get-an-appointment hair dressers in town. Perseverance is just part of our DNA. And odds are that, years from now, that hip new restaurant or Super Wal-Mart that everyone is flocking to, will have shut its doors, but a church nearby will still be open (struggling, adapting, maybe even thriving for spells along the way). It happens, you know.
And, just as I’m reassured that some churches do close, or persevere against great odds or dire predictions, I also know that the church is adaptive, new churches emerge and new ways of being Christian community challenge us, yes, but they preserve us, for the movement of the Holy Spirit in a new day and time.
The reality is that the UCC is likely to continue to get smaller, in terms of membership, denominational budgets, and perhaps in the number of congregations that are part of our fellowship. That’s not an indictment on our purpose or our effectiveness; it’s an honest accounting of birth rates, the locations of our outlets and the population shifts in our nation. It also doesn’t mean that we won’t have tens of thousands of new members in the coming years and many new vital congregations joining our denomination. Because we will. We are.
All I’m saying is that you don’t need a monastery when all you really need is an apartment. Please hear that as liberation, not as more frustration.
But, here’s the excitement: We also know that more people will be touched, impacted and changed by the United Church of Christ than in years past. Because the church, she is changing. Our UCC values of extravagant welcome, continuing testament and changed lives – they resonate profoundly with the trajectory of our nation, perhaps more than ever before.
And that’s why no other mainline denomination, except the UCC, is seeing something odd – this strange bubbling up of grassroots churches – new emergent churches – that want to be part of the kind of inclusive fellowship, the kind of polity, that we uniquely offer. About 20 new congregations this spring alone are joining the UCC: Churches like Liberation Ministries UCC in Seattle; Bridges of Grace, an ONA church in Charleston, W.V., the first new UCC church in that state in decades. Bluegrass UCC in Lexington, Ky., where the first settled pastor was installed last weekend.
Vision Church of Houston, TX, one of a handful but growing number of ONA-spirited Korean UCC congregations.
Anew UCC in Mitchell, S.D., Grace UCC and Living Waters UCC in Philadelphia. Faith Family Community Church in Tampa. West Hollywood UCC in California, a former Presbyterian Church that found our way of being church, in the UCC, as truly authentic and irresistible to who they want to be.
Lest we forget, two of the four largest churches in the UCC – Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga., and Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, joined us in just the last few years. And their roots are neither Congregational Christian, nor Evangelical and Reformed. Our new churches are coming to us from Southern Baptist traditions, like Covenant Baptist UCC, a large and vital new affiliation, in Washington, D.C., or from progressive Pentecostal traditions, where the ecumenical Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, under the leadership of Bishop Yvette Flunder of San Francisco, a UCC pastor, is bringing dozens of new affirming Charismatic congregations (Metho-bapti-costals), mostly people of color, into the UCC.
The united-and-uniting vision of the United Church of Christ is taking shape in ways that the UCC’s framers never envisioned, but perhaps in greater breadth than they ever thought possible.
But, again, membership numbers alone will not be sufficient for measuring what success really looks like in this new age of church life.
About five years ago, the United Methodist Church started tracking its churches’ “constituents” – those who looked primarily to a church for nurture, community and pastoral support – whether or not they were members or not.
Not surprising, even though membership is in decline, the number of constituents is rising. I suspect the same would be true in the UCC. And it’s why we are committed to introducing new questions and categories for reporting, so that our numbers speak to impact, not merely people on a list.
As long as we continue to ask only about membership and donations to the national church, we are setting ourselves up to interpreting our overall impact in negative terms, using shrinking numbers that really don’t tell the whole story.
When your mission is relational, you count the number of people on your dance card. But when your mission is purposeful, you look at the number of people dancing. The first keeps track of all that’s been received; the second celebrates all that’s been given. Not how many came in, but how many went out to serve, to make a difference.
As I am fond of saying, McDonald’s doesn’t tell you how many restaurants they have; or how many employees they hire. They tell you what matters in a service industry: billions and billions served.
The church is learning the importance of doing the same.
As a church professional, someone who’s on the payroll and is depending on the pension, I can hear all this as unsettling news. I prefer the monastery. (And I suppose many of you do too.) I’d prefer you give me a big grant or a couple million-dollar donors to ensure the future that I would envision. But, when I think like a Christian, I’m sort of hopeful about this emerging shift.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. God knows. We do not.
Directly across the street from the UCC Church House in Cleveland is a brand new hip restaurant and coffee house, the Nexus Café. It’s generating quite the buzz. It opened just about a month ago. A classy place, with a master chef and good food. What’s not immediately apparent is that Nexus Café is a new church start by the Southern Baptists. After meeting for years in a comedy club, Gateway Church wanted their own building, but one that could help pay for itself, that would bring people into its doors, and provide extra employment for church staff who couldn’t depend on full-time salaries from the congregation. A community room in the back serves as their tech-savvy worship space, but faith formation is happening with every sandwich, every cup of coffee, they serve.
When we hear of churches like that, some of us must have the same puzzled look on our faces that King James must had on his, when he first learned of the people called “Pilgrims,” whose ways of worship, community and governance seemed strangely dissimilar and disloyal to the Christian traditions that had seemingly served the church so well for centuries.
I wish the Nexus Café was a UCC church (and perhaps it will be someday), but I’m still excited about what we can learn from it. It’s another glimpse into what the church will be, perhaps must be, to live out its faithfulness in new ways.
We’re in this period of great experimentation and innovation, and the outcome of this new millennium reformation is still taking shape. We are being transformed.
But, let me add, some things will remain the same: We will still rely on the capacity and leadership of large churches to support much of our denominational work, along with the faithful giving of smaller congregations and individuals. There’s still room in the church for some Cathedrals, those that can use their most vast resources to teach and build up the whole. And we will find new ways to allow excellent, innovative churches – of all sizes – to teach us how to adapt.
Denominations are going to be values-driven, with local mission lifted up and celebrated, much like a “thousand points of light” but with all those lights pointed to and focused on shared concerns, global concerns, but ones that we can measure collectively the total impact and locally our particular participation toward some articulated end, much like we experienced so exuberantly during “Mission 1.”
So let me tell you now about a few new things on the horizon, that just might fill you with some hope and excitement:
- About a year ago, we set a goal (and signed contracts) that 2,600 UCC young people would attend National Youth Event 2012, July 10-14, at Purdue University. I’ve got to tell you that, just one month ago, it looked like we had set ourselves up for a huge financial disaster and national-church embarrassment. It looked like we were going to be lucky if we got half that number. (The Disciples had already decided to cancel their summer youth event this year due to lackluster interest.) But God is still speaking, yes, and hundreds of registrations have poured into NYE during the last three weeks. On June 1, the last day of registration, the tally stood at a remarkable 2,612. It’s going to be a super event.
- On the last day of National Youth Event, we will spend the day talking about and equipping our youth to be the leaders of the UCC’s new “Faith, In” Project, which emphasizes the rootedness of our faith in the communities, the places, God has called us to serve. “Live your faith. Love your community,” is the project’s motto, and asks of its participants two simple questions: “Where is God at work in your community and how can you join in?” It’s a part of our emphasis to step beyond our institutional angst to discover again the joy of being in mission again, to be used by God again.
It’s a movement we’re hoping will spread across the whole UCC, but also attract the imaginations of other unlikely secular partners as well: the business community, local government, the media, where we will prove the case that faith communities are powerful places from whence we can love our communities into new life. A few weeks ago, the “Faith in, Cleveland” project launched with much fanfare at Cleveland’s Tower City, sponsored by the national UCC offices and the 70 UCC churches in the area, but enthusiastically endorsed by the city itself and other groups, like Positively Cleveland and local media outlets, the Faith In Cleveland project is putting the UCC at the forefront of the love-your-city movement. Cleveland is the pilot city for this new UCC-wide emphasis, and we’re hoping to do it right so that it will be lived-out concretely and replicated in cities and towns across the country. You can learn more at faithinproject.com
- I’m also excited to let you in on a secret that’s just now being let out of the bag. Following the huge success of Mission: 1 last November, we will soon be launching our next all-church local mission campaign. It’s going to be called “Mission 4/1 Earth” launching on Easter Monday, April 1, (4/1) and continuing through the 50 days of Eastertide. “Mission 4/1 Earth” will intentionally connect Easter to Earth Day to Arbor Day to Pentecost, bringing forth across the UCC, ONE UNITED CHURCH on a resurrection witness for planet earth, with 50 great days of reaching in, digging in, teaching in and shouting out for the environment. And, once again, we will tally our progress, hoping to achieve 1,000,000 reported UCC volunteer hours of active earth care, through clean-ups, tree-planting campaigns, educational and advocacy opportunities, and carbon-reducing activities. And we’re in positive discussions with Arbor Day Foundation, GreenFaith, and 350.org to be our national co-sponsors of Mission 4/1 Earth, with a goal of joining with global partners to bring about the planting of more than 100,000 trees during that 50-day period, again with our collective efforts being reported and made transparent for us to see in real time. That’s Mission 4/1 Earth coming to a UCC church near you on 4.1.2013 during the 50 days of Eastertide. We’ll be bombarding you with more information, ideas and resources soon.
- And there are many other exciting things you’ll be hearing about, like the launch of a new non-geographic online UCC congregation – Extravagance UCC – where people in places where no UCC church exists can finally authentically affiliate with us as full members of the church, receiving pastoral care; online, phonetime, and face-time community and support; and be connected to communities of vibrant worship, such as Darkwood Brew or Cathedral of Hope.
Those who predict the demise of the small church are wrong. Small churches will evolve, to be sure, and not all of them will look alike. But the “small Christian community” will remain the bedrock of our Christian experience, because believing, belonging and behaving as Christian people is experiencing resurgence and adaptability.
Will we build the same kind of buildings we once did? Probably not. Will we create the infrastructures we once did? We are likely to rethink them.
Yet, the small, intentional group of people committed to being faithful together – that will never go out of style. Hear that. Believe that. Because it is true.
About six months ago, I was in a meeting with Bill McKinney, who many of you know, the former president of the Pacific School of Religion, and a fellow Bay Stater.
During our opening time of introductions, Bill shared that, on his way to the meeting, he experienced something quite interesting. He was on a shuttle bus in Chicago, where just before the doors closed, a young mother and her three-year old daughter came on board, carrying a lot of luggage and all the trappings that come with transporting a young child.
The driver, before departing for the journey, came through the center aisle to collect the $16 fares from each of the passengers. When he reached the young mother and asked for her cash, she replied that her boyfriend had told her that the shuttle was complimentary. She did not have any cash. She didn’t have the $32 required for both her and her daughter.
“Well, you can pay by credit card,” the driver said. She didn’t have a credit card.
She did say she could write a check, except the driver said he couldn’t accept personal checks.
So with seemingly no other option, the bus driver said, “You’re going to have to get off the bus.”
So, with shame and frustration, this woman started to gather her belongings. Everyone around her had heard the conversation.
But one guy, in the front of the bus, stood up and said to the other passengers, “You know, this doesn’t have to end this way. Why don’t we take up a collection? I’ve got $10. Who else will chip in?”
Bill said he also contributed $10 … and within about 30 more seconds, the required $32 was in the bus driver’s hand.
“Why don’t we take up a collection?” What a grace-filled moment of possibility that must have been.
What amazes me most about that story is that, as Bill was telling it, I had expected that the man who stood up was going to valiantly cough up the whole $32. But it was his trust in others’ inherent goodness that I didn’t expect. He displayed such courage, such a trust in the potential goodness of others, that it transformed that bus ride into one worth remembering.
That’s what Christian communities do. We remind one another that both life’s struggles and joys, our problems and their solutions, are riding together on the same bus, and they are always indistinguishable when Christ is invited into the midst of us.
John Wesley had three rules.
Do no harm.
Do as much good as you can possibly do.
And stay in love with God.
The first and the second are hard enough. But the third – staying in love with God – is what always proves the most difficult, especially during times of significant angst, experimentation and change. If we’re not careful, we can forget the love we once knew so well.
And that’s why … we have each other, for in the mix of our discernment, new understandings, new visions, will arise. New love and energy will emerge. And we, too, have God to thank for that, for this future has been crafted with our welfare in mind. It’s meant for good and not for harm.