A recent Boston Globe review of a struggling United Church of Christ congregation reminded me that one of IRD’s most-read blog entries in 2016 is about the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) self-forecast collapse. The descendant of the Congregationalist and German Reformed traditions has been locked into steady decline since its founding in the 1950s, having lost nearly 60 percent of its membership during the intervening years. An internal report from the UCC national office forecast a further 80 percent decline in the next 30 years, dropping a denomination that once was spiritual home to in excess of 2.1 million U.S. Christians down to a predicted 200,000 members in 2045.
Consequences of this historic collapse are felt in UCC congregations now, with an estimated one-quarter of all UCC churches without a full-time pastor. Many churches, especially in the denomination’s New England heartland, are facing a difficult choice between retaining their buildings and employing clergy, with many opting to rely upon retired and non-stipendiary clergy instead of full-time ministers.
The Boston Globe’s Lisa Wangsness authored a remarkable chronicle of the West Medford United Church of Christ in the Boston suburb (Wangsness followed the congregation for a period of two years). Facing empty pews and high operating costs, the congregation voted to sell their historic church home to an Evangelical Haitian congregation and re-style themselves as Sanctuary, a small storefront church that could also serve as a community arts space. It was a leap of faith for a progressive congregation on a shoe-string budget and with few young people (the church had four dozen official members at the time of the move, but only about 20 came to the church afterwards).
Pastor Wendy Miller Olapade is a workhorse — clearly pushing in every way that she knows how – to serve the community around her and take risks. At one point in the article, she notes that Evangelicals had built thriving faith communities out of storefronts. Why couldn’t a progressive church start one in Medford?
Progressives don’t typically plant churches (the entire Presbyterian Church USA planted four new congregations in 2013, while the Assemblies of God planted 324 the same year) and disproportionately elderly congregations focused on institutional preservation never do.
The article is full of red flags, not the least of which is church members’ lament about the decline of New England Protestant churchgoing culture: no more ladies’ circle, church suppers, or Easter luncheon. The Gospel is unmentioned for pages. Love is frequently mentioned, but the congregation struggles to identify a sense of purpose. There is a backwards-looking nostalgia instead of a vision for future ministry.
“The larger culture was changing, too,” the article notes. “Attending a church or synagogue was now more of a choice than an expectation. You used to have to explain to the neighbors why you didn’t go; increasingly, you had to explain why you did.”
Of course, the Northeastern United States is difficult ground for those seeking to do ministry, and the UCC is not the only casualty. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has been merging or shuttering parish churches for years while the UCC’s oldine Protestant peers have seen Northeastern churches shrink precipitously. Just this week, the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of Rochester, NY announced that his diocese would be selling its headquarters, which costs approximately $100,000 a year to operate and offers four times the square footage needed for the small diocesan staff.
Progressive churches tend to emphasize inclusion however, with an insistence that their liberal theological interpretation will result in increased growth, especially among younger potential congregants. In 2012, one outspoken liberal at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference proclaimed that she was speaking on behalf of the youth. A quick check of her Vermont congregation’s statistics revealed that she had a total of two youth in her entire church. Four years later, she was back at General Conference, now pastoring a church in New Hampshire with a total weekly attendance of 88. Once again, examining her church statistics proved to be instructive. Now divorced and remarried to a transgender man, the pastor performed zero baptisms at her church in 2015, there were zero young adults and a total of five youth. Ethnic diversity was also in short supply, with no Asian, African American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander congregants. No doubt she still felt prepared to speak on behalf of youth, minorities and “inclusion.”
Sanctuary’s pastor wants to reach ethnic minorities and young persons, but the congregation is mostly elderly. One highlight is the arrival of a younger mother, recently begun church shopping after departing a nearby church plant associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Since Wangsness notes that Sanctuary’s congregation is down to about two dozen at this point, I wanted to learn how the Baptist congregation was faring. It turns out that there is a SBC congregation in West Medford, planted in 2011, with an average Sunday attendance of about 130. So somebody is experiencing growth.
Denominational officials are supportive of Olapade’s experiment, granting the congregation $80,000 which allowed the hire of a community pastor to assist in efforts to grow Sanctuary. Locally, the congregation will receive the Bold New Ministry Initiative Award from the UCC’s Massachusetts Conference later this month. The church and its pastor also received coaching through the Center for Progressive Renewal, an initiative that seeks to build up progressive Christian congregations.
Ultimately, however, the church has shrunk since it sold and quit its historic property. I don’t think remaining as West Medford UCC was an option, but Olapade’s bold effort to re-style the church as a storefront plant seems to be falling short. Thriving churches do exist in the area, including several Brazilian Portuguese Assemblies of God congregations in Medford, the aforementioned SBC plant, and of course the Evangelical Haitian congregation that purchased the old West Medford UCC building (a streaming video of the church’s May 22 worship service showed a full sanctuary). These congregations haven’t had a two-year profile penned about them in the Boston Globe, but I think it’s a safe bet that if one were written, we wouldn’t have to read for several pages before the Gospel was mentioned.
Pastor Wendy Olapade talks to the Boston Globe:
(View photos from the Boston Globe story here).
Here is a video of the Evangelical Haitian congregation worshiping in their new building: