UCC

June 9, 2016

Autopsy of a Dead UCC Congregation

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:


37 Responses to Autopsy of a Dead UCC Congregation

  1. I think it is the ejector seats.

  2. “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.”

    But the female pastor couldn’t take the “risk” of sharing the real Gospel and teaching the word of God, because she doesn’t believe either.

    • Wendy Miller Olapade says:

      How exactly would you know this? Have we met? have you worshipped with sanctuary?

    • Matthew Ray says:

      These comments are further evidence that you are nothing but an internet bully/troll. I will pray for you, and that you will find it in your heart to stop harassing progressive Christians, and others that you seem to find fault with on an hourly basis. Shame on you.

      • Lewis Thompson says:

        “Progressive Christians.” Another PC Oxymoron. They deny the divinity of Christ, are more concerned about being Social Justice Warriors than in preaching the Word of God and believe that Gay Marriage is a Sacrament. I believe that these SJWs can justify virtually anything. No wonder the Presbyterians, UCC, Episcopalians etc. are dying. The PC (USA) is in a Death Spiral as well.

  3. Philip says:

    The fallacy is that liberalism is people oriented. The truth is, when you really think about it, progressives don’t really care for (or about) ordinary everyday people. The elitists became too elite for each other.

  4. DannyBoyJr says:

    Without the Gospel, the progressive churches would just be sunday social clubs, and people are already members of other social clubs. Without the Gospel, what differentiates a progressive church with a Rotary club, a bowling club, a book reading club, or a baking club?

    • Marshall P says:

      You might actually meet a Christian at the Rotary club. In a progressive church – slim pickings.

    • RicoSuaveGuapo says:

      Exactly. Progressive churches stand for little other than so-called “social justice” issues. Which do not require church or fellowship; indeed, most people into those issues are little more than keyboard warriors.

      If – as a church – that’s all you’re selling, what’s my motivation to not stay in bed on Sunday morning?

  5. Namyriah says:

    Oh yeah, that familiar fantasy, increased growth in the liberal churches due to their inclusiveness, which will almost certainly draw in the young people like potato salad draws flies at a picnic – except it never does work out that way.

    Thanks so much for including that little bit of data: the pastor from Vermont doing the familiar song and dance about attracting the young people, when she had a grand total of TWO in her church. That pretty much sums up the state of the liberal church – on paper, they should be attracting left-wing youth, but in practice it ain’t happening.

    • Becca Girrell says:

      *wave* Hi from the scary liberal with two youth in a Sunday School class five years ago. Please see my comment on the overall article.
      Christ’s Shalom,
      Becca

      • Namyriah says:

        Gee, I hate to burst your little bubble, but no one finds LGBTXYZ activists “scary,” nor left-wing clergy. Words like “self-congratulating” and “self-righteous” come to mind. I’m a former employee of the UM Board of Discipleship, and after interacting with post-Christian clergy for years, I understood why Dante depicted hell as being full of clergy. Most of the staff members had an MDiv or even a DMin from a liberal seminary, and I’d say most were atheists or agnostics, or at best deists. I can respect atheists with their “religion poisons everything” line – they are wrong, but at least they are honest about their goal of wanting to destroy Christianity. The Board of Discipleship taught me that left-wing seminaries graduate people who also believe religion poisons everything, but these people pass themselves off as Christians and use the church for your own personal agenda. In one sense you have succeeded in your goals, you drove away most of the Christians (myself included), who have no desire to contribute our time or dollars to an advocacy group for people whose behavior is condemned clearly in the New Testament and in 2000 years of Christian ethical teaching. You drove us away, but now you’ve got that little problem of empty pews. People are leaving your churches for the obvious reason: God isn’t there.

        Not to worry, though: your church’s non-gender-specific restrooms are sure to draw hundreds of people who choose a church based on its labeling of restrooms.

      • RicoSuaveGuapo says:

        quelle surprise

  6. Becca Girrell says:

    Hi there.
    I won’t bother checking the rest of your article for inaccuracies, which I’m sure are legion, but I’m calling you out on bearing false witness in your paragraph about me. That’s the paragraph beginning “Progressive churches tend to emphasize,” and I’m your outspoken liberal.
    Your attempts at using statistics are flawed, because 1. you seem to be using statistics that are out of sync with the dates you report, and 2. you use them out of context. So let me clarify.
    Vermont and New Hampshire are listed as the least religious states, respectively, in the most recent Pew Research poll. Truly, New England is a new-again mission field, where the Good News of Christ’s love and how we and the world are transformed by being formed as Christ’s disciples is deeply needed, and powerfully felt. In addition, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire trade off the top three spots between them on most-white-state in the nation “honors.” The New Hampshire District as a whole, a fairly traditionalist part of the New England Annual Conference, has an average worship attendance of 38.5 people per church per Sunday.
    More to your inaccurate points, specifically, I believe when you look at my former church’s number of youth, that’s the the category “youth (ages 12-18) in Sunday School or classes.” Yeah, that was a kind of small number. Of course, over my time at that church, the number of all children and youth in the congregation (not necessarily classes) grew from 3 to close to 20. But what do I know? Likewise, in my less than two years at my new appointment in New Hampshire, where our worship attendance is more than twice the average for the district and growing, the available statistics from the 2015 journal are from 2013-14 at best, before my appointment commenced. In 2015 there were two baptisms, and ten members received, two by profession of faith. That’s about 14% growth of the congregational size. Young adults, who are not recorded as having participated in the classes of the church (given that we tend to work all day and parent kids all night) number somewhere in the high 20s/ low 30s on a given Sunday (out of a congregation that averages less than 90). Our Sunday School average fluctuates, but if all the children and youth are there, say for the pageant, there are about 35 people under the age of 18, up from approximately 15. Don’t thank me, but thank our Director of Spiritual Formation, for exploding that program; she and her wife are very active members of the congregation. The church where I serve reports 9.4% of all the children reported in the District, and 3% of all the youth. Darn kids these days just keep on volunteering in the community, so they don’t come to youth group, although 5 of them faithfully attended Sunday School discussion group all year. Finally, the church where I serve, despite trying not to shove people into ethnic boxes, contains congregation members (not necessarily church members, some of them because they refuse to join a denomination that considers queer people “incompatible”) who are: Native/First Nation, Asian/Pacific Islander, Afro-Carribean, African, and multi-racial persons. Our *reported* membership is 7% not-white, and our attendance more like 12% not-white, in a state and a region that is only 2% not-white.
    I’d suggest that in the future, you attempt to get an understanding of the context of the region in which you are reporting church “decline,” to grasp the nuance of how the church is changing here, and how and why the patterns of church decline and rebirth in New England might be important to understand as they spread across the connection, yes even eventually to places where 88 faithful, powerful, magnificent lay people would currently seem like a sad little number to you, instead of the incredible world-changing people of faith that they are. But grasping nuance is clearly beyond your ken if you can’t even read a statistical table through the warped lenses of your liberal-phobia.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be back to advocating for housing justice by feeding and building relationship with homeless persons, calling city councillors, and networking with atheists who suddenly declare (as one did to me last night) “hey, not all religious people are a******s!” Which is literally what I was doing this morning.
    – Reverend Rebecca Girrell, Lebanon New Hampshire, New England Conference

    • Noel Weymouth says:

      That sounds great! Kissing up to atheists is what Christianity is all about.
      Oh, btw: when you make your inevitable impression on the atheists, keep track of how many of them join your church. We all know that progressive churches are growing like weeds.

  7. Jason P Taggart says:

    Young people’s lack of interest in the progressive churches is backed up by the Pew Research Religious Landscape Study of 2015.

    26 percent of mainliners are over 65.
    20 percent of evangelicals are over 65.
    Evangelicals have higher percentages of Millennials and Generation X.
    Evangelicals are 76 percent white, mainlines are 86 percent white. (That’s kind of ironic, since liberals always boast about their diversity, but racially they don’t look like America, they look like clubs for white people.)
    Believing in God with absolutely certainty: 88 percent of evangelicals, 66 percent of mainliners.
    Frequency of reading the Bible at least once per week: 63 percent of evangelicals, 30 percent of mainlines. (It’s not exactly news that the more people actually read the Bible for themselves, the less likely they are to be liberal.)
    Decline from 2007 to 2014 was greater among mainlines (-3.4%) than evangelicals (-0.9). The gloating that accompanies news that the Southern Baptists are losing members needs to be balanced by the bigger picture, that the liberal churches and the Christian churches are not losing at the same rate. Some of the conservative denominations like the Assemblies of God are expanding rapidly.

  8. Xerxesfire says:

    No surprise here that a church on life support is rapidly dying out. They need to reinvigorate themselves with the life changing gospel message of Christ’s atonement for their sins…and the sooner the better. STAT! The social gospel is the death of mainline Christianity. From personal experience, I have attended several UCC church services and walked out, not feeling any better or challenged to be a better Christian. I even found the music boring and I love good church music! Seriously, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to become a member at UCC. They are going the way of the dodo bird.

  9. Wendy Miller Olapade says:

    Mr. Walton, it is interesting to me that you have presumed to perform an autopsy without actually interacting with the body on which you are reporting and have chosen to evaluate our experiment based on a newspaper article whose objective is to tell the story of the changing landscape for faith communities in our postmodern culture. The globe was not telling the story of a church plant experiment.

    Your observations might hold more value if you had actually considered the church about which you write. May I refer you to the church’s website. If you are actually interested in knowing about our experiment, our vision, mission and commitment to the good news of Jesus you can find our what we are doing that is transforming people’s lives and serving people in Medford. http://sanctuaryucc.org/about/mission/

    • 0pus says:

      What is that supposed to prove? Every church’s website has a mission statement, with the expected references to God, Christ, Holy Spirit, community, etc etc. The problem with progressives is, you mistake words for realities. Composing a mission statement for a website is easy. Being faithful to God is not. Phrases like “action-oriented followers of Jesus” and the mandatory “extravagant welcome” have failed to stop the membership losses in your churches. Do you think that improving your mission statement will change that? Face it, your “extravagant welcome” is as big a failure as the UCC’s “God is still speaking.”

      • Torgmada says:

        “God is still speaking”- The UCC motto- is quite frankly true. The problem is the UCC isn’t listening!

        • Rev. Barb Loose says:

          I am a retired pastor ordained in the UCC. I was 10 months old when this denomination was founded and felt this is the denomination I not only grew up in but with. Working with people from cradle to grave was a sacred honor. However the wider UCC has not been a pastoral presence for clergy during times of travail nor when conflict divides a congregation. I have reached the point that I not only retired from a vocation but the UCC as well

  10. Glen Kissel says:

    “Now divorced and remarried to a transgendered man, the pastor….” Seriously, you made that up.

  11. Bill Rettig says:

    I don’t understand all of these anti-Christian comments directed at this church and its minister. Here is one quote from an early responder. “But the female pastor couldn’t take the “risk” of sharing the real Gospel and teaching the word of God, because she doesn’t believe either.” Someone explain what the writer meant by the term “REAL GOSPEL.” To me the real Gospel is that God loves us more than we can imagine and that Jesus was sent to earth to show us how much we are loved. If some of the respondents are as angry and narrow minded as they seem that does not reflect the love and respect that Jesus showed to everyone (On occassion the Pharisees are an exception to the rule.). The UCC churches and ministers that I know represent the true image of Christ by practicing the Inclusion, love, friendship, forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness that characterized Jesus life on earth. Which one of you, who have been so critical, is holy enough to throw the first stone? I thought not. Forgive instead of accusing. Embrace instead of ostracizing. Understand the other person rather than trying to win an argument.

    Reply

    • Susan says:

      Thank you, Bill. All this Christian bickering strays all by itself from the heart of the gospel. Progressive or conservative, liberal or fundamentalist, the point is that God is love and we are put on this earth to love God and one another. UCC churches do that. The model that love. They embody the gospel without having to hit people over the head with it

    • Torgmada says:

      “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone….” is shortly followed by “Go, and sin no more.”. The latter is oft forgotten by the preachers of dying churches.

    • Brian says:

      “To me the real Gospel is that God loves us more than we can imagine and that Jesus was sent to earth to show us how much we are loved.”

      That’s not the gospel. It’s the Liberal version of the gospel.

      Jesus’ primary work was not to set an example for us to follow, but to bear our sins. He lived a perfect life, on our behalf. He died a sinner’s death, again, on our behalf. That is the gospel. See 1 Corinthians 15

      “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

      For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . .”

  12. Michael says:

    What miserable human beings you are.

  13. Former UCC member says:

    There once were quite a few UCC churches in my area. Most of them have changed back to the Reformed denomination. I don’t remember passing any UCC churches lately. I was raised in the UCC church, but when my father died and my mother became too ill to travel to the UCC church, I started taking her to the Methodist church near her house. When my mother died, I remained at the Methodist church. My friends that remained at the UCC church stated that things became too progressive and the members felt that if you went as far to be inclusive as not to preach the true gospel, you are not doing any good as a church. The church members changed the denomination back to the Reformed denomination. Anyone has always been welcome at the church as well as most churches, but if a church condones sin and overlooks it as being ok, they are not doing the people any good at all. God loves everyone, but he wants us all to turn from our sin. There is forgiveness for everyone, but if someone does not believe what they are doing is sin, how will they repent.

  14. Layman says:

    John 3 : 16 For God so loved the world that he sent his son to die for us. Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. God sent his son to die to forgive our sins of what we have done and left undone. The Law shows us our sins and the Gospel saves our souls. Though we don’t understand God maybe we make it to complicated. Seems like time to stop the bickering and share what Christ crucified for the world means. Maybe this layman missed it-

  15. Will says:

    Typical IRD hit job. They misquote church leaders and spin their words to fit their agenda. They could care less about people of any religious or politic ideology. Their whole point of existence is to cripple the witness of mainline churches. Part if their strategy is to recruit nuts in denominations so they can manipulate democratic processes. If non-mainline churches were involved in issues they disagree with they would be put on their hit list.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Noteworthy how this three year old blog entry continues to garner comments.

      • Eric Griffin says:

        I just find it interesting that you found it necessary to write this article at all, Mr. Walton. Christians have been divided on various issues since the beginning of our faith tradition, when those Christians who had been practicing Jews before accepting the new faith that had been inspired in them by the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ began to insist that the new, male, Gentile converts to the faith needed to become circumcised first and become practicing Jews before becoming followers of Jesus. Do you remember all the arguments that Paul had with those in his churches who insisted that Gentiles needed to become circumcised first, or “mutilate their flesh,” as Paul put it, in order to become a disciple of Christ? This is no different from what some right wing Christians are doing today, with their insistence that people need to mutilate their authentic selves and their true being, and deny who they are, before they are willing to grant them entry into their churches (the emphasis being on “their” churches, because I am not convinced that any church which teaches us to hate another human being because they may be homosexual or transgender is God’s church). Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is, is that Christians will continue to disagree over many matters until Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. Then and only then, will God reveal to us who was right and who was wrong, although none of that may matter when the day of judgment comes. Some of us Christians really should be content to wait for the revelation of God about some of these matters that are so all-consuming for some of us, and continue practicing our faith in a manner that is comfortable for us while allowing others to freely practice their faith in a manner that seems best for them. For the record though, Jesus must have been concerned somewhat about “social” problems in the world and redeeming the world also of its social sins in addition to delivering persons from their personal sins, for in Luke, Chapter 4, verse 18, he quoted these words from the prophet Isaiah to indicate what type of ministry he had been sent by God into the world to practice: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” It is significant that Jesus states quite clearly that he came to bring good news to poor people and to give them new hope even in the midst of their oppressive socioeconomic situation in life . And it is significant, too, that he also came to bring liberation to individual’s who had been imprisoned for both political and religious reasons, having refused to worship and to be loyal to the Roman emperor as many of them had, and instead having chose to worship God and to be loyal to God and God’s causes. My criticism of right wing Christians is this: they seem to be obsessed with the 7 few texts or so in the Bible that they believe condemn homosexuality, while ignoring much of the Torah, the prophets, and also the teachings of Jesus which do call on us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to practice economic justice by giving laborers their wages due instead of having good music in our worship services as a better way to honor God, and to minister to both the spiritual and physical needs of people, instead of being hypocrites and making them feel guilty about some of the things they may have done or are doing that many of the right wing Christians are often guilty of secretly doing themselves, including engaging in adulterous relations with persons other than their spouses, and being involved in homosexual relationships outside of their marriages as well. Jesus counseled all of us best when he instructed us to be concerned about the log that is in our own eyes, some of us, instead of being worried about removing the speck that is in our brother’s or sister’s eyes. By removing the log that some of us Christians have in our eyes, perhaps some us will not continue to be blind to the very real, and tangible social sins of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and the economic disparity which continues to exist between women and men, and between white people and people of color here in our nation.

        • Jeffrey Walton says:

          I’m amazed that readers are still finding this blog entry — I must have done something right on the search engine optimization!

          2 Timothy 4 seems relevant to all of this: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.”

  16. Eric Griffin says:

    Evangelicals love to quote 2nd Timothy 4 as way of telling the world that only they have the correct interpretation of scripture while others have it all wrong. Thankfully, no reputable scholars even includes 2nd Timothy among the authentically Pauline letters. Yet it is often quoted by deluded individuals who believe that they, and they alone know the mind of God and who is teaching correct doctrines and who is not. As I suspected, the organization you represent does not really stand for the democratic defense of religious practice and the dialogue that the practice of true democracy encourages. But rather, you simply wish to continue to promote division in the church instead trying to discover the common ground that all Christians share. As a Christian, I am always busy trying to “evangelize” people and tell them about the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Unlike you, however, I just choose to share the gospel with everyone without making judgments about where they are in life and let the Holy Spirit do the rest

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