I heard today that two more UCC congregations in the county in which my congregation is located have voted to close. It is a tragic thing to watch – the members and clergy of these congregations served God and their communities in incredibly faithful ways. Most of our congregations – include my own – could suffer from the same fate. There are many changes we need to make, and many mistakes we need to learn from, if we are to avoid this same fate.
In the midst of all of these closings, I remembered something a former member said to me. He loves his conservative talk radio, and he said that the reason our liberal churches are closing is because we got involved in social justice and/or politics. It is true that some congregations have done that, but I call what we do “Jesus Justice”. How we relate to the world from a Jesus point of view is different from political action – usually.
Why have we in the UCC – among others – struggled to thrive while even more politically active congregations on the Fundamentalist side have grown in numbers and wealth? I think it is because we have chose to be on the side of the oppressed, and most Christians have not. In the penultimate example of oxymoronic thinking, the most “faithful” among us are also often the most bigoted. We, who have not bought into the idea that religion gives you the right to hate, were among the first to fight for the freedom of African slaves – the first to ordain women and LGBT people – the first to speak out for marriage equality – and that is just part of our work for God. Those “Christians” who are ignorant of Scripture have often accused us of being the ones who don’t know the Bible. That is probably because they themselves have not read all of it. They are relying on their own biases and hateful rhetoric to pass for knowing God’s words, and they use proof texting to support their bigotry.
I think it is important to remember that Jesus did the right thing, even though most of the religious and political leaders fought against his message, and they eventually killed him. Now, as then, morality and politics often cross paths. It is interesting that those who would keep minorities and women in second class positions have no problem mixing their religious views with their political views when it comes to issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the like.
It may be that the Mainline Protestant churches lost members, at first, over so-called social issues, but the problem all of us are facing now is much greater. We are facing a loss of respect and reliance on established organizations – we are facing generations who spend less time face to face and more time on screens than previous generations – and we are our own worst enemies because we haven’t dealt appropriately with inappropriate behavior in our ranks. The church is no better than any other organization – and we need to be.
Is there hope? I absolutely think so – but we need to stop living in the 1950’s (or, in some cases, the 1850’s), and recognize that the Gospel can keep the same meaning while be interpreted in different ways from generation to generation. We need to invite people to be part of our God-loving communities. We need to reach out locally, nationally, and globally. We need to keep promoting a Gospel of love, welcome, and inclusion. And we need to confront those who would define Jesus in terms of who they hate. I prefer to talk about who we love. Give it a try – you might like it. Peace.
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary UCC in Reading, PA since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).