There is a good deal of discussion within the United Church of Christ, and among clergy in general, about what makes for successful parish ministry. It is a hot topic because mainline Protestant churches of every stripe are in decline nationally. In fact, the UCC is in a rather steep decline.
Four years ago, the United Church of Christ produced a report titled “Futuring The UCC: 30 Year Projections”. Based on predictable trends, there were some rather startling statistics in this report. For example, in the next 30 years (actually, given the age of the report, more like 25 years) the number of UCC parishes will drop from 5,100 today to 3,200. Membership will drop even more dramatically: from a current overall membership of just under 1 million to 200,000. That’s an 80 percent reduction in just 25 years!
These are estimates, of course, and they are assuming nothing will intercede to change the downward trends. There are many theories as to why this is happening but two things stand out: A steep rise in Americans who identify themselves as having no interest in church affiliation, and, secondly, the fact that most UCC churches are in rural areas where populations in general are dropping. With more and more of our churches having less than 50 people in worship on Sunday, it is not surprising that one UCC church closes about every two weeks.
So how can we turn this around? What makes for a successful parish? Again, there are many theories but in my experience a successful, growing church requires a balance of three ingredients: Spiritual formation, social activism, and fellowship. Now, all churches have these elements, but the key word is “balance”.
When it comes to spiritual formation, worship is the cornerstone. A dynamic, uplifting worship experience is essential. It allows people to reconnect to God in new ways and provides proof that the Christian faith is not the dust-covered faith of our forebears. Instead, it is a relevant part of the human experience today. From this flows Christian education in various other forms, but worship should always be the center of parish ministry.
Social activism is an outgrowth of worship. It allows for tangible expression of our discipleship. Helping society’s disenfranchised and advocating on their behalf is foundational to our ministry in Christ.
And, lastly, fellowship is more than just chatting up the latest news with our friends. It is community building at its best and provides an antidote to the growing isolationism of modern life.
Spiritual formation, social activism, and fellowship. Again, the key is balance. Problems arise when these things are out of balance.
For example, a church that is focused only on fostering a personal relationship with God through worship will lack community. Conversely, a parish overly focused on fellowship will mirror any number of secular civic organizations. And a church that defines itself primarily through its social activism (and, frankly, there are many of these in the UCC) runs the risk of alienating segments of its limited membership by taking stands that, while prophetic, can hobble the future for that parish.
Balance. It is something we work hard to maintain here at First Congregational Church. I think the health of our parish—particularly in light of national trends—is evidence that we are very effective in our witness to Christ in our community. That’s because we are able to balance these key ingredients that make for successful parish ministry.
See you in church,