Is the United Church of Christ the most liberal mainline Protestant church in the United States?

With its combined roots in both the New England Congregational and German Reformed movements during the days when both were clearly advocates of the Reformed faith, the theological decline in the United Church of Christ is indeed sad.

But of even more consequence is the fact that most ‘average Christians’ in America are not aware of the depth of this decline. And that probably includes many within that denomination.

Let’s begin to look for the answer to our prime question (Is the UCC the most liberal mainline Protestant church in the US?) by looking at what they say about themselves.

Last year, during their Synod meeting in 2009 (they meet every-other-year), commissioners attended a luncheon program promoting the ‘God Is Still Speaking’ marketing program of the UCC.

The opening scene in the program featured John Robinson, the Pilgrim’s pastor in Holland, who is adopted by the script as the real founder of the UCC. The setting is the 23rd Century and Robinson has returned to see how his descendents are doing.

One character in the script is known as Future Kid. He is teaching some ancient history to his listeners and says:

In virtual history, we learned that the UCC and its ancestors were among the first to take a stand against hate – like slavery. We did other justice work before anyone else. Not only did we ordain the first African American, the first woman, and the first openly gay person, but we were the first to embrace beings from other worlds as family. The United Church of Christ started something that not only went viral; it changed the way everyone lived. We are now one big interplanetary network.

Of course, the implication is that the voyage of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower was the UCC’s first stand against hate – towards non-conformist Protestants in England.

The ‘Stillspeaking’ Initiative within the UCC began nearly a decade ago with an ad campaign developed by two very astute Madison-avenue types employed by the denomination. After several years of development, the program was formalized in 2004. The following explanation of the program is taken the official UCC website (http://www.ucc.org/god-is-still-speaking/):

In 2004, it was concluded that there was a present and real need for genuine welcome, openness and acceptance for all within the church. The UCC responded to this call of extravagant welcome and radical hospitality with a new branding campaign to proclaim to the world that anyone could find a home in the United Church of Christ.

“No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey,
you’re welcome here.”

To date, more than 2,500 churches have chosen to formally participate in the God is still speaking, campaign. As that number continues to grow, the United Church of Christ continues to balance religious tradition with new ideas for religion that is relevant.

The Stillspeaking Ministry continues to provide resources that enable all settings of the church to proclaim the good news of extravagant welcome. Together under one collective identity, we can enthusiastically support and proudly lift up that the UCC is a welcoming, justice-minded Christian community.

At a time when religion is too often portrayed as narrow-minded and exclusive, many are raising their voices for an alternative vision:
· where God is all-loving and inclusive
· where a church welcomes and accepts everyone as they are
· where your mind is nourished as much as your soul
· where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary
· where together we grow a just and peaceful world.

One of the defining characteristics of the UCC is that we join in community by testimonials, not tests, of faith. Your beliefs, your understanding of God and Jesus and church are uniquely yours, as you seek and explore alongside others in community. By becoming a Stillspeaking Voice, you can pledge to share your faith journey with others.

As an advertising campaign this initiative had some problems. The ads were denied space by the national TV networks because they were too controversial for main-stream media. (Read that sentence again to be sure you understood it!)

In fact, by 2007, the ‘campaign’ had to be shut down and the two men responsible for development had to be laid off (along with hundreds of other UCC employees in Cleveland, Ohio) due to declining numbers of members resulting in declining dollars of income.

But the bad news is that this funding problem did not result in the suspension of the concept. Rather, the UCC has just adapted it as their primary method of outreach and discipleship. In other words, an advertising campaign that was too liberal for network TV in 2004 has become an integral part of the denomination’s identity.

When one looks at the official UCC website, one the primary tabs is entitled “Feed Your Spirit” – obviously where you would look for encouragement and Bible study. Obviously NOT! Following are a couple of extracts from devotionals posted on this site during the past 10 days. After reading these extracts, ask yourself our prime question: “Is the UCC the most liberal mainline Protestant denomination in the US?” (taken from http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/)

July 31, 2010 – How Faith Backfires
It’s tempting to think that with God’s help I can succeed where otherwise I’d fail. With God’s help I can get rid of a bad habit; with God’s help I can forgive someone who has hurt me; with God’s help, I can save my marriage.

Faith can inspire overconfidence. When things don’t work out the way that, with God’s help, we devoutly desired, we become disillusioned and feel more overwhelmed than ever.

What counts is not what we have the power to do with God’s help, but what God can do with our help. If the focus is not on me but on God, then my preconceptions about what’s needed may be challenged. Giving up a bad habit may be less important right now than acquiring a new habit, like getting more exercise. Being more forgiving may be something I need to leave in God’s hands because my feelings can’t change right now just because they should ― even with God’s help. And what if my marriage is meant to dissolve? Why am I trying to save it?

July 21, 2010 – Is Jesus God?
Jesus said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from God comes to me.”

Jesus is not God, but God is like Jesus. Life is full of mystery and much we cannot explain. But in Jesus we see that, at the heart of it all, God’s love pulses and often surprises us, turning many a grim situation upside down.

While the church has debated the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity, the New Testament is not doctrine. And the Bible is not theology: it’s an anthology of stories about God often culminating in twist endings that bring O’Henry to mind. In these narratives we see God imperfectly, “as in a mirror dimly.” But we still see.

Consider Moses, who knew nothing of doctrine or theology. A common bush burns with something of God, turning his life upside down. In stories like those of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan, Jesus shows us something contrary to what we’d expect: a wild son honored despite a dissolute life; an outsider showing compassion when insiders to the faith leave the victim behind.

Will we, like Moses, pay closer attention to something as ordinary as a bush, like the incidental compliment of a neighbor or, say, another church council meeting?

And how have we been like the prodigal son, or his father, or that elder brother who resented the attention lavished on his wayward brother? Can our own hearts beat with stories like those? What do they say about the mystery and the love of God?

So, one last time, “Is the UCC the most liberal mainline Protestant church in the US?”