What? Is the denomination dead? No, it isn’t. Not yet. Preplanning is a wise idea, so why not go ahead and get it done? Trying to plan a funeral as things are finally shutting down will be really difficult. Preplanning is the way to go.
It’s a sad thought. I love the United Church of Christ. I have been nurtured by it and am privileged to have standing as an ordained minister in it. I will be among those grieving. And while at my age I likely won’t be around for the funeral, even the needed preplanning is a source of real sadness.
To be clear, while I don’t think the UCC is dead yet, I am sure it is in poor health. And if the myriad researchers on church attendance are correct, the prognosis is not good. The presenting symptom of poor health is decline in attendance. The health of the UCC measured by attendance is declining steadily. I’m well aware of all sorts of differing reports about why the church is in decline.
I’ve lost count of the number of growth conferences, vitality events and other efforts aimed at finding a remedy. These palliative efforts all seem to have one thing in common: they don’t work. Why is it that no one is able to propose something new, really new? I cannot think of any reason to keep trying remedial measures based on the status quo. The status quo way of being the church is the malady. Leaders of the church need to find some really innovative ideas not in the catalog of current so-called solutions. What is needed is vision toward something new, unfettered by tradition. I’ll offer one potential vision.
How did we get to the point of having to think about the end? The leadership of the denomination is made up of bright, articulate, caring people. Those in charge have been hard at work with a major thrust toward issues of social justice. Commendable. That effort is also a full-time job. But these feel good, trying-to-make-a-difference measures ignore the core issue. It is time to look for innovative thinking that will ensure that vital work – present and future — can continue. No one is engaged in encouraging innovation in any substantive way. Alas, the thrust has been too narrow, and innovation for survival has been largely ignored.
The model we use for most worship is essentially the same model in use in the 900s. It worked then. Centuries ago the church was the center of the community (often literally) and the pivot point for life. Those days are gone. The simple fact is that there is competition for time and energy on the part of people who aren’t ready to give up other activities to get to church at one or two set times each week. They don’t come like they used to. Decline. Sickness. Death.
I don’t hold out a lot of hope for any real change in denomination health. While it may well be too late, there is a slight chance there’s still be time to find a means of at least prolonging the life of the UCC. It seems to me that something ought to be done to enlist the innovation-oriented thinkers and see what happens. Here is the crux of the matter. The old paradigm doesn’t work. That is, getting people to come to the church, to attend, to participate on a limited schedule has failed. So, let’s consider reversing direction. Let’s take the church to the people.
My recent experience suggests that there are a lot of reasons why that might work. The people who will not – or cannot – come to church include all who are in any way challenged physically or emotionally. Think folks with physical limitations and folks who suffer panic attacks as examples. Then there are all the people in what I with great affection call the alphabet soup group, the LGBTQIAP folks. Too many of them have been wounded attempting to attend a traditional church. Of course, there is geography to consider, and traffic jams and parking headaches. What is more important is the fact that we live in an age of ubiquitous digital devices that enable everything from shopping to finding advice on how to treat a youngster with a cough. Birthday cards and letters delivered by postal mail have given way to email and messages on social media. No one mails a photo to the grandparents anymore when Instagram will deliver it in seconds. I won’t belabor the point. Many won’t come to a traditional church because they now access so much of what they need using technology. We can innovate and use that technology to go to them instead.
There are lots of ways to take the church to the people. My colleagues and I have been doing that with great success for over five years. First United Church of Christ Second Life has grown steadily. Using a church campus that includes a recreation of the Garden Tomb and much more, we do everything a traditional bricks and sticks church does except weddings (obvious legal reasons) or a funeral with a body present. That virtual reality church campus is open for the community to gather as they wish around the clock and every day of the year. The point is, the ways are many and limited only by our imaginations and willingness to use what is available. I believe a commitment to think about innovating is the way to begin some life-saving before it’s too late.
Obviously the UCC is not going to abandon the important work being done now. What is needed is an ad hoc, independent project to develop innovative ways to be the church in the present century and to position churches to deal with the technological future. There are multiple reasons why this ad hoc effort should not be part of the present work of the denomination. Among the most important is lack of experience in technology as a way of delivering the church to people. The Extravagance Project was a commendable, if flawed, experiment. The flaw was attempting to marry traditional worship and technology, which resulted in prying loose a traditional worship model and trying to cram it into a technological platform. The worship service part worked, but what got left behind in the process eventually killed the expensive experiment. Belonging to a church is belonging to a community. The community-building part did not happen. It was innovation that did not go far enough. I believe the failure of that effort has served to discourage the leadership of the denomination from trying anything similar anytime soon. Let’s not ask them to do so.
Here’s a step toward a solution. Let’s create that ad hoc group, thinkers committed to leaving their church history books outside the door of wherever they meet (and they really don’t need a “meeting room” to begin with). We could call this group the National Committee for Innovation, Technology and the Local Church (NCITLC). The denomination can provide a needed assist in setting it up; then they can return to the present mission. They don’t have the energy, and perhaps not the interest, that is needed to function as participants.
The charge of the committee should include
- Not being bound by “we always did it this way” thinking
- Examination of the best research about state of attendance
- Willingness to recruit partners with expertise in a variety of technological platforms
- Commitment to creating a pilot project(s) to train clergy with ways of leading a technology-delivered church community (potential seminary role, too)
- Lay involvement in the entire process
- Establishing plans for test churches with an eye toward local church involvement
- Funding and budgeting and/or finding donors interested in the future church
- Anything else the ad hoc NCITLC thinks important
So, anybody for really jumping into a new way of being the church?
I am. I’d sure rather do that than start working on an obituary! That’s not the pre-planning we need.