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On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

I love the United Church of Christ.

I do. After growing up a “spiritual but not religious” “none” at the tail end of Generation X, I found my way into Christ’s church at the age of 17 and was baptized. Eight years later I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a church I also love deeply. Because I was openly gay, though, in 2010 I felt that I needed to transfer my ordination to a church that could openly affirm all of me.

The United Church of Christ was that place, and for the past six years I have served as a UCC parish pastor, a delegate to General Synod, a member of Association and Conference committees, and as someone actively involved on the national level.

But I’m not writing as any of those things today. Today I’m writing as this: a disciple of Christ who wants to be a part of a church seeking to love God and follow Christ in this world.

The Gospel is radical. It requires us to acknowledge first and foremost not just who we are, but WHOSE. For those who would call themselves Christians, that means acknowledging that we belong to God and that we are claimed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

That’s why we call our denomination the United Church OF CHRIST.

Which is why I’m shaken by a recent piece of marketing (I can’t bring myself to call it evangelism) from my denomination. A new meme circulating on social media proclaims us the “United Church of ‘I’m a Very Spiritual Person.'”

12592230_10153339764751787_1236073688534807391_nSo, first of all, I’m not exactly sure what the message is supposed to be in this ad, which is already troubling from a marketing perspective. But I suspect what we are trying to do is reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” folks, or the religious “nones” out there who are numerous in Generation X and the Millennial crowd.

Like I said, that was exactly what I was growing up. And so I think I’m qualified to say that this ad just doesn’t speak to me. In fact, it turns me off now, and it would have turned me off as a spiritually seeking young adult.

Why? Because it conveys the message that the United Church of Christ is a place where nothing will be required from me. I don’t have to believe in God (or even try). I don’t have to develop a relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to be a disciple in the world. I can just say “I’m really spiritual” and that’s enough.

The only trouble is, there are a million places that exist for those who just want to be “spiritual”. You can engage your spirit in a yoga class, book group, therapist’s office, arts class, and more. Those are all great things, by the way. But they are very different than a Christian church.

Another meme recently put out by the UCC asked, “What do you need most on Sunday mornings?” The possible answers: music, community, love, inspiration, donuts. Again, all great things, but none of them are in any way unique to church. In fact, I’d wager you could find just as good or better examples of most of those things outside of the church doors.

12510473_10153296238666787_7321833935111760409_n
I come to church to worship God. I come to experience the awe that comes in knowing of Christ’s grace. I come to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. I come to be better equipped to serve God’s world.

I don’t come for the donuts.

And neither will other Gen Xers and Millennials.

At this point it might be tempting to say, “Hey, it’s just a meme. Calm down.” But this is more than just a meme. This is a prevailing trend in our denomination, as well as other mainline denominations, that has been going on for years. It’s the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning in favor of what is easy and popular.

My concern is that as we try to market ourselves to a sort of lowest common spiritual denominator, we are forgetting that churches are unique places in a culture where commitment is increasingly devalued. In church we are asked to seek not our own will, but God’s. We are asked to serve not ourselves, but Christ. We are called on to receive from a tradition that is radically transformative, and not watered down.

That is counter-cultural to what my generation has heard for its whole existence. It’s Niebuhr’s classic idea of Christ transforming culture. And, if the church is to be “marketed” to the spiritual seekers under 40, this is our strongest “selling point”. The days of obligatory church attendance are over. If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.

There is a tradition in recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous that the program grows by “attraction not promotion”. There are no ads for AA. Instead, people join because they meet others in recovery, see the good in their lives, and decide they want to be a part of something like that.

I think the church needs to relearn that concept. I’m a big believer in social media, but in the end social media doesn’t hold a candle to the power a disciple of Christ has to live a life that witnesses to God’s love and grace.

And so, I have a radical proposal. What if as a church we invested less in ad campaigns and overhead, and instead created resources that helped to raise up a denomination full of Christ’s disciples? What if we invested in developing Christian growth materials that congregations could use? What if we took the theological seriously, and trained our future pastors to talk about their faith, and explain why it matters? And what if we rooted our outreach not in our own anxiety about the church losing members, but in our joy over what Christ has done in our lives and what Christ calls us to do in the world?

I believe God has great plans for the United Church of Christ. But I also believe we can never hope to claim them if we continuously insist on throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Now’s the time to try something new. Now’s the time for us to try something truly radical. And it starts with remembering that we are the United Church OF CHRIST, and that’s an amazing thing.

35 thoughts on “On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

  1. “If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.” Amen. It is this very thing that challenged how I thought I wanted to live and felt the emptiness. Now I’m a pastor and I make WAY less, all my hopes and dreams were foiled or turned sideways…. and I’m happier and more because of it. The challenge of the UCC and the challenge of Jesus that I heard there caused me to live differently. Let’s not loose that or cheapen it.

  2. YES!! AMEN! Thank you for proclaiming this. I have been saying and thinking this for years. I love the UCC but because of its strong justice stances and willingness to say that God is still speaking and so we must listen. I am a leader at at UCC church that is growing precisely because we proclaim a faith that transforms and challenges us and is centered in the radical beauty of the Trinity. If we give up with Christ part of the United Church of Christ, will be a ship without and anchor. We have something uniquely wonderful to offer to the world. Why do we instead seek to water that down?

  3. Amen, Emily! I thought I was the only one troubled by that meme. The church is always to reach out but never to forget that our life and love and service is in Jesus Christ.

  4. You are so speaking my thoughts. As a fellow Generation Xer – the message of the UCC with some of these memes lack depth and they water down the message too much. I love the UCC; we can do better than this.
    When I read your question about “developing Christian growth materials that congregations could use” I could not have nodded more empathetic than I did. When I was in Cleveland a few years ago I asked why there is so little, even on the website, for adults and faith formation. As a former atheist (now seminarian) who went there to look before having the courage to ask questions in church, the site held little to help me. I questioned that but was told that this is what churches are for. I still think the denomination itself has to make itself relevant, not only the churches – even if we are Congregationalists. I was looking for spiritual food and did not even find milk. I wanted to find a solid ground on which to build my own faith rather than build a house of cards within the confines of my own mind and desires.
    Of course, God can still work wonders (I am proof of that) but – do we have to make her job so hard or do we want to cooperate and co-create?

  5. Emily, I think you know I love and respect you…cause I do. And I agree with much of what you say here. This meme doesn’t work, but I would argue it doesn’t work because at a fundamental level the Body of Christ is not something that can be “advertised.” It is something we live, and as you say if we do that, people will notice us living differently…and might just join us.

    I should also say that while I too came to faith later in life, I never considered myself to be SBNR, and honestly still don’t use the word “spiritual” to describe myself.

    But, with all of that said, I find myself troubled by a tendency we have to assume that SBNR’s are lazy. I hear something of that in your “it conveys the message that the United Church of Christ is a place where nothing will be required from me. I don’t have to believe in God (or even try). I don’t have to develop a relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to be a disciple in the world. I can just say “I’m really spiritual” and that’s enough.”

    What I hear underlying that statement is an assumption that Christians are the ones doing the real work and SBNR’s are just floating along doing as they please. From the SBNR’s I have known this is not the case.

    On a second point. I am not required to believe in God (or even to try): I am invited to. I am not required to develop a relationship with Jesus: I choose that. And I am not required to be a disciple in the world: I freely choose to do that. What fills me with awe is that God’s grace is independent of that choice: that God would go on loving me even if I refused to love God.

    • Hi Chris. I don’t think SBNR folks are lazy at all. In fact, I think many go deeper spiritually than some pew sitters. But, I do think that is different from church. And I just want to let church be church. I want us to be authentic.

      • Hello everyone..?excellent article and responses. I came from the southern baptists many years ago due to religious but not spiritual tendencies. Sometimes but not in this conversation I hear a snarky attitude regarding those who claim spirituality but not church. I believe these folk are likely the future of our tradition and if we are not reaching them we need to reflect on what we might be failing to do. The new ad campaign may be a serious attempt to invite these folk in the door in the hope of serious discipleship to follow. Look at our empty pews on worship days…we need to try many things. Yes I believe in spiritual and numerical growth.

  6. Amen and amen! Thank you for your wise words and powerful call to us! I am very interested in resources that could help us “raise up a denomination full of Christ’s disciples” and “Christian growth materials that congregations could use.” What would these much-needed resources look like and how do we develop them?

  7. Thanks, Emily. Seems to me that you’re spot on. The “Still Speaking” – Comma identity campaign did a good job, sharp, attractive, humorous, deep, theologically sound. But what I’ve seen so far on the newer pieces tend to be corny, lacking any real depth, or in any way helping people use their brains and hearts. And yes, where is anything that makes the UCC inviting and unique on the spiritual landscape? Hope our UCC “PR” folk (whatever the acronym might be) would read your piece with open minds and open hearts.

    • I have seen many of the (then) proposed memes and they seemed desperate, coy and sometimes offensive. I got the impression that the “PR folk” were somehow well-intentioned, but seriously out-of-touch. I am reminded that when I found the UCC and was baptized at age 43 in 1996 ~ I was jokingly told it stood for Utterly Confused Christians. I thought it was funny, back then. Not so much now.

  8. I grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod – in a denomination that was so invested in being a religion that they often forgot that there is a spiritual side to faith. As a teen, I was told that there was no place for me to serve as a minister even if God’s call was strong. Later,as a young, bisexual single mother I was told that I needed to stay in a loveless and often damaging relationship because it was what Christ wanted for me. The end result is I became exactly who this meme is aimed at, a person who lost the religion of my childhood. One who was driven from the church where I was baptized, confirmed and married and cast out and told my belief in Christ and my desire to do the work He planned was not enough to provide a place at the table. I became spiritual but I walked away from religion.

    Eventually, I found my way back into churches and tried nearly every major denomination before eventually finding United Church of Christ. Then, I found my way back to being a religious as well as a spiritual person. This meme spoke exactly the opposite to me as it seemed to do to you. To me it said, come as you are and learn to serve Christ as a person who knows that unity in spirit with Him is more important that religious practices or dogma. I could have ended up like thousands of other people like me that I know. They simply walked away from God and believed the damage that was told to them by former churches.

    Instead, because there was a place that let me be in a church and simply declare that “I’m a very spiritual person” without having to make a commitment right away to another relationship and another religious body, I was able to find healing. I was able to accept what Christ ultimately offers – love, compassion, and mercy. Today, at age 44, I am applying to become a member in discernment in the United Church of Christ. I have spent the past several years working as a lay leader in the Open and Affirming movement and I hope to devote the remainder of my career serving as minister striving for true justice and witness of Christ in our world.

    In the end, I think that the church can and must do and be both. Let the “church be church” in an authentic way as you have suggested. However, also let it be a step back into a life of faithful service to Christ for those driven from other religious backgrounds. I know you suggested that the church should take these advertising campaign dollars and use them to build the churches. However, I think you need to look at one other side of it – if there had never been a UCC advertising campaign, I would never found my way back to a life of faith. I would never have found religion again. I would never have been healed. Those advertising dollars saved this lost soul and I hope and pray they continue to be spent, because as much as I will spend the remainder of my life serving, I will also spend it praying that the church is able to reach more lost, spiritual people like me.

    Last fall, I bore witness of my own faith as you suggested and introduced a young, lost, transgender woman to the UCC. She was alone and isolated, cast out by her family and her Catholic church. She was suicidal and living in her car when a mutual friend asked if I would speak with her or help her find some financial resources. When we spoke, she said that she believed in God but did not think she could ever worship in a church again. I got a message from her a few weeks ago. She is living in a major eastern city, has a job and an apartment, is back in school to become a psychiatrist, and is attending a UCC church.

    Had I told her or if someone had told me that I could only come and be a part of the UCC if I believed exactly like every other person sitting in the pews next to me, I likely would have walked back out the door and never stayed long enough to rediscover a “Gospel that challenge and sustains” me. While some people might not understand the need for this message, to me it is exactly as you want and request. It is the church being church, exactly as Christ taught and envisioned, and it is authentic in a way many other churches have lost. God bless this message. It spoke volumes to me. In fact, I may even frame it and hang it in my office because I think it will inspire the youth I work with to ask deep questions and grow spiritually AND religiously. I am a spiritual person. Thanks to UCC advertising dollars, I am also a religious person again.

  9. As the former director of the Stillspeaking Campaign, I understand the good attempt here at “whimsy.” It can sometimes be challenging to wrap whimsy in good theology, but it can be done. So let’s not be too hard on the “home team.”🙂 There were lots of ideas like this from the ad agency that we rejected and that landed on the cutting floor for precisely the reasons listed above. You should see the “cute” and clever ideas we rejected. Many of them were like these two examples. We also had groups of hand-picked clergy to review some of our ideas before release to catch such things that got by our in-house team (LIke Jesus and the 12 Home-Boyz which I had kinda liked.) I had seen the Methodist Campaign make these kinds of errors. I thought we should learn from their mistakes since we had less money. (HeHe!) Plus, our branding objective was clear, we wanted brand the UNITED CHURCH … of Christ as a distinctively progressive church that did not throw the Baby Jesus, our theology, or the resurrected Christ out with the bath water. Someone said that I was “like a dog with a bone when it came to our brand” and I guess someone has to be. Just a little tweaking here could make all the difference. Mostly glad to see that something is happening and also glad, Emily that you are speaking out for excellence in this way. Blessings!

  10. Awe, and I thought you were going to end this with “And that is why I am returning to the PCUSA!” You know, a lot has changed over here!

    Love your posts.

  11. As a former long time church hater I respectfully disagree and suggest in context the meme/ads are effective messages to those outside the church. The first meme/ad pictured in the blog very clearly has the word “church” highlighted in an unmissable fashion. “Church” is a word sadly tainted and burdened with hate and hypocrisy, doctrine and dogma. Non-church goers see that word and it seems nonspiritual to them. “Church” and “Spiritual person” create a discordance to a great many who do not got to church. This meme/ad cleverly plays that note of discordance to the UCC’s advantage. It says “Spiritual person you are welcome in a church.” And make no mistake “church” also still bundles Christ within it’s meaning, and God and Jesus and Bible and Holy Spirit. This meme/ad brilliantly speaks volumes to Spiritual outsiders who think they don’t want religion. It lets those folks know they are welcome at UCC churches. The second meme/ad has the word “love” centered and subliminally highlighted surrounded by stuff you can get elsewhere, it– love– is what missing elsewhere and in many non-church goers Sundays. The meme/ad tells them where to find love –in our churches.

  12. I believe the aim of these memes is to let outsiders know that we accept people at all stages of their spiritual journey. I was brought up Congregational/UCC, went through a period of paganism/naturalism and have come back to the church because of the community and the music. I still struggle with my personal belief system and wonder sometimes if I believe anything at all. Fortunately, my church accepts that and welcomes me as a whole, loving member, still a work in progress. Isn’t that what the goal is? Are we to only reach out to people who believe as we do?

  13. Beautifully said. Along with a piece today by Jeff Nelson, you are tapping into some of my own concerns, and some of my fondest hopes, for our denomination. I remember watching the video of the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA and feeling so inspired, then watch our new General Minister’s plan for the UCC and feeling so let down. I love the UCC as well, but I am concerned (and have been in my 20 years here) that we fail to go deep way too often.

  14. This is a good piece. It’s also the first time I’ve seen this meme. That says something about our respective social media bubbles–I’m an Episcopalian and get all the Episcopalian stuff eventually, but seldom the UCC stuff.

    My reaction to the meme is: If you replace “Christ” with “I” anything, you’ve taken a wrong turn. The church is not about me, as nicely as I sing, or about you, as wonderful as you are, it is about the overwhelming love and action of God in Christ. Even to those who parse their metaphysics differently than I do, this is really important. I have seen, and experienced vividly how the “Christian niceness” of the church can rip people up. It is the Christians that have driven people away from the churches, not Christ, nor the ancient faith which we have received. And I’m not just talking about fundamentalists or conservatives–those who make it about themselves, their appeal, their success, their saving of their institutions only succeed in incorporating the church in its historic failure rather than preaching the Gospel of Christ–who, himself wasn’t such a great success, btw–got himself killed, alienated all the religious leaders, etc.

    Keep on with what you’re doing Emily. It is important.

  15. I was in another denomination before UCC. At one denomination-wide event, we changed our logo to remove the cross. I attended a workshop titled “Keeping Jesus in Progressive Christianity” which began by saying we need to excise from our churches the words “Savior,” “Messiah,” and “Christ.” I wondered whether we should call ourselves “Jesusians” or just “ians.”

    Yes, we need to reach out to seekers. But we need to do so with integrity. And we need to keep our identity.

    Thank you so much for this article.

  16. As an accountant in the U.S. Protestant world – my guess is this is a desperate attempt to “do something”… The liberal, progressive church and the theological schools that educate their clergy are DYING!!!!! It is true they won’t come for donuts but they also won’t come for Jesus so what to do……

  17. And this is why I love the United Church of Christ. Diversity with in and the ability to feel safe and confident to speak up that you do not agree with everything that is said without fear of being kicked out.

    I myself like the particular ad yoy speak of because it resonated with me and I felt it speaks to the folks that have been hurt by other denominations. I can also see your side on this too. Great article and I shared it and encouraged others to read it as well.
    We all come from different points in our journey and different paths and it is so important to remember that and work through that as the community of faith known as the United Church of Christ.
    And P.S. I grew up in the Presbytetian Church (USA) too and left because I felt the calling into the ministry and at the time was an out lesbian. I’m now an out Transgender man who is under care with his UCC church trying to figure out his call.

  18. Thank you so much, Emily. I couldn’t agree more. And the issue doesn’t just apply to particular marketing attempts but to the public image of the denomination as a whole, imho.

  19. I resonate to Jeff’s remarks. Back in 1947 at the age of fourteen, I was taught in my Confirmation booklet that “A Christian is one who accepts Jesus Christ as the Master of his life.” My New England Congregational
    church did not recite creeds but it did sing the Doxology and the Glory Be to the Father every Sunday. It gave me a good education in both old and new testament and at the same time affirmed that other religions could be legitimate paths to the Infinite Love which informs the universe. This is why I have been a faithful member of the UCC and the Congregational Christian Churches before it. Love, following Jesus, liberal thought, no pressure toward rigid orthodoxy, yet honoring orthodoxy. Eclecticism in ritual and music, but good taste in both. It’s a glorious soup in which to spiritually marinate!

  20. Amen and thank you! I’m a Lutheran pastor down in Augusta and have served two interims in the UCC in the past so the national page is part of my Facebook feed. I really have a warm spot in my heart for the UCC particularly with their powerful voice in social justice areas. However, when I saw that meme I just about spit out my coffee! I didn’t weigh in then since I’m not currently playing in that pool, but I’m glad you did and did it so well. I could just hear my preaching professor shouting, “Preacher! Is there any Word of the Lord today?” when I read that. Thanks for the Word!

  21. Pingback: The Future of Liberal Christianity – Approaching Justice

  22. Yes. A Christian church must be rooted in Christ. Otherwise there is no point in calling ourselves Christians. But I would also add that the church must be spiritual as well. Theology, worship, mission, holiness, evangelism, social justice – all of these are necessary parts of the Christian life. But they all flow out of a personal relationship with God (not simply with things God has inspired). If we don’t have that, none of the other things will have the power to sustain themselves.

  23. Mmmmmmm yes.

    I left fundamentalist Christianity (independent fundamental churches of america) over three years ago, and I took a break from church attendance for some time. But since I’ve been coming back, I come for church. For communion, for the music, to encounter God’s presence with others. I dislike megachurch marketing methods that seem more like retail than Jesus.

  24. It’s such a delight to read these well-thought-out comments – both pro and con! Since we are talking marketing, I wanted to articulate a trend I think I see: those of us with strong church backgrounds are decrying the meme on theological grounds. We are concerned that the adds are ‘watering down’ our denominational message since following Christ requires something from people, SBNR is not enough, people can get these things outside of church, etc.

    We want the message to capture the essence of our denomination in an inviting yet challenging way, and I don’t disagree with that.

    However these objections are coming from people who are already grounded in theological concepts, as I am. Emily did an excellent job on articulating why she comes to church: to hear the Word, receive the sacraments, follow God and experience awe in the presence of the transforming grace of Christ. However, she is using the language taught to her by the church. She can already name her wanting. The people these adds target may lack the language to do so. This is where, in my opinion, we must begin.

    I pastor a small rural UCC congregation. Part of my duties include teaching a 3rd grade class, using a curriculum that presumes a familiarity with very basic theological concepts. The class begins with stories taken from the life of Jesus. I was halfway through one of them when a boy raised his hand and said, “can I ask you something?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “You keep talking about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Who’s Jesus?” Huge reality check for me!

    As a young seeker, both these adds would have spoken volumes to me. I would have been intrigued enough to investigate further because I would have sensed an acceptance lacking in any of the other churches I visited. These adds wouldn’t have sounded like any other church I’d ever known – which would have been a bonus.

    If these adds seem lacking to us, perhaps its because we’ve already been “churched.” The challenge is, to craft meaningful, inviting images and language for those on the outside. To me, these adds are an attempt to do exactly that, now, while the word “church” is still a part of most people’s vocabulary. Because we might not have that much time left. Just sayin’.

  25. Thank you Emily! What you have said is what many of us have been saying for, well many years now. Perhaps our National setting will listen to you. Well done!

  26. I think that if you are wanting the traditional idea of church, which is to follow the teachings of the bible, to bend for your particular lifestyle, then you cannot be too picky about other bendings the church may be doing to be more inclusive and less “stick to just the bible teachings”. I say, if these advertising tactics draw more people to church to consider spiritual matters, so much the better. If all that talk about Jesus ends up turning them off because they only came for the donuts, then they will naturally stop going. I thought part of the idea is to allow people to check it out and see if it speaks to them? I say, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth…and realize that if you want your church to be flexible for YOU, then you have to allow it to be flexible for others as well.

    • Asking that the church be welcome to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, who are only living as the Creator created them, is not about flexibility. It’s about being Christian. Throwing away bedrocks of theology is something completely different. I’m far from a “stick to just the Bible” Christian, but I do believe putting God at the center is mandatory. And being gay is not a “lifestyle”, thanks.

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