By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)
Advocates for churches and Christian institutions reconsidering biblical teaching on sexual morality frequently claim that such cultural accomodationism is “needed” if Christian communities are to have any hope of surviving in an America whose secular culture is increasingly intolerant of moral boundaries for sexual expression (beyond consent).
If one is going to take such arguments seriously, it makes sense to consider how well that has worked in the denomination that has most prominently pioneered enthusiastic abandonment of biblical values on marriage and sex.
The United Church of Christ (UCC) attracted heaps of polarized public attention in 2005 with its embrace of a strong pro-same-sex-marriage stand, for church as well as society. But this was really a sadly unsurprising development in a denomination whose leaders had by that point already harshly excluded evangelicals (within the limits of the UCC’s congregational polity), aggressively promoted secular sexual values, and even allowed local congregations to dually affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association for many years.
UCC denominational officials defended high-profile homosexuality-affirming actions in the middle of the previous decade by, among other things, boasting of a presumably controversy-driven increase in traffic to the find-a-church section of the UCC website. To paraphrase this argument: “You naysayers protested, but just you wait and see all the people who will come flocking to our churches as a result of this!” In a rather similar vein, Chicago United Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck defended her recent promotion of same-sex marriage in Illinois (in which she notably misrepresented the UMC’s official position), by framing it as something that will attract non-Christians to attend United Methodist congregations.
So how has such pandering worked out for the UCC?
As of this writing, the UCC stands poised to finally dip below the benchmark of one million members, which is less than half the size it had when it was founded (by merger) in 1962.
According to the most recently available annual report of the denomination’s own Pension Board, the denomination has shed a whopping 37 percent of its congregations since that year, and just in the first decade of the new millennium, it saw a decline of 35 percent in membership, 41 percent in church-school attendance, and 12 percent in the number of congregations.
And prospects for the future do not look much brighter. Contrary to optimistic predictions by progressives that departing conservatives would be replaced by an influx of sexually liberal newcomers, the UCC Pension Board report admits that “the rate of decline is accelerating.” Furthermore, of the remaining congregations, over 40 percent have annual budgets smaller than the “bare minimum for sustaining full-time ministerial leadership and the minimum necessary for mission and ministry.”
This will inevitably take an accelerating toll on beloved, generations-old denominational institutions. Last month, the final convocation was delivered at Bangor Theological Seminary, one of the UCC’s seven seminaries. Last year, in the face of falling enrollments and growing financial pressures, the trustees unanimously decided to cease the seminary’s operations as a degree-granting school after this June, just one year shy of its 200th birthday. So far, there has been talk of continuing the institution as a shadow-of-its-former-self theological center, but the details of this are still undecided.
At least some UCC liberals drew the line at John Thomas, the UCC’s crusading liberal president and general minister for most of the last decade, carrying on an affair with a much-younger subordinate staffer, for whom he eventually divorced his wife. But that is apparently not too much for one of the UCC’s remaining seminaries, Chicago Theological Seminary, where Thomas remains a role model for the denomination’s clergy-in-training as Senior Advisor to the President and Visiting Professor in Church Ministries.
This is a striking fate for a denomination once considered “mainline” in American society. More of the now “sideline” denomination’s seminaries and other institutions will probably shutter their doors within the next decade or two. In all likelihood, I will personally never drive past the construction site for a new UCC congregation. Within my lifetime, I expect to see the 40-year-old Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) eclipse the UCC in membership and worship attendance. It is questionable whether or not the UCC will even survive the twenty-first century. Perhaps it may try to buy some time through merging with the Disciples of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Churches, or even (why not?) the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The spiritual and existential end of a Christian denomination with such a rich heritage should drive any disciple of Jesus to mourn.
In my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, a very vocal minority repeatedly claims that UCC has set a courageous, future-building example for us to follow. Recently, some voices have argued that if non-mainline evangelical churches are to survive among younger generations of Americans, they too must move their approach to sexual morality closer to that of the UCC.
In light of the above, the best response this young adult can offer is: Seriously???