church life is also mission

15 September, 2005 at 7:35 pm 5 comments

I'm writing this in Cleveland, Ohio, where 4 of us from the URC are visiting the United Churches of Christ to consult on their God is Still Speaking, initiative. It's quite something! This relatively small church has done market research which shows that many people are extremely angry with the Church. They are alienated from the institutional church, rather than from God. They feel there isn't a place for them. This includes lesbians, gays and transgengered people, but also thinking people, divorcees and others whom the church feels unable to welcome. They've mounted a nation-wide sophisticated advertising campaign that extends a welcome to everyone, without suggesting they need to become "like us". The God is still speaking theme is to say that God hasn't pronounced the last word on subjects the church often appears to regard as closed. The inclusion of gay people is an obvious area. The point is that if a subject is closed, then so are the doors to the people it affects.

In one sense, it seems an innocuous enough campaign. After all, don't we all tend to say "Everyone is welcome here"? Yet people experience a different reality. As a result of the campaign, the UCC has had hundreds of thousands of people contacting them to find their nearest UCC church. The attitude is "If church is really like that, I want to be part of it!" The response has been astonishing and overwhelming. They've had independent churches wanting to affiliate to the UCC because of the campaign. The streets here are lined with banners with the campaign strap lines and the UCC logo.

My concern was that this was yet another instance of a church engaged in self-promotion. It clearly isn't! They've found a way of being unapologetically evangelical not only about the gospel but also about church (without confusing the two inappropriately) because the message of welcome is heard as Good News.

One reason for the campaign's success is that the campaign is edgy, irreverent and playful. Its message is designed with the target audience in mind, rather than the church itself. And it genuinely communicates! Have a look at stillspeaking.com and play the bouncer ad on the title page. We've heard and seen testimonies about how the simple message of genuine love, acceptance and welcome has revolutionised people's lives. It's stopped suicides. It's given hope and purpose. And it's enabled people to relate to God in Jesus Christ in new and real ways.

We were talking about the way in which we as the URC and other UK churches still have to resolve the sexuality issue. Ron Buford, the mover behind the campaign, said something that I've not heard in the various church debates on the subject and that made a deep impression. He said, "We are a covenant church. Baptism is a covenant. It promises lifelong incorporation into the body of Christ and acceptance. When we exclude people whom we've baptised, we break covenant. We say, 'Sorry. We didn't mean that this was a lifelong covenant!' Then we break covenant with God and that is desperately serious!"

Another comment that really grabbed me as true of so much of church life: "If the 1950s ever return, let me tell you: we're ready for it!" Isn't it depressingly true that we're stuck in models of the past that are passe and will never do for us now what they did in their time? Let's bring that emerging church to birth … quickly!

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Entry filed under: christology, emerging church, mission.

when is evangelism (in)appropriate? model of the church

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. homileo  |  16 September, 2005 at 9:09 am

    This sounds very positive wol. Will you be sharing the outcomes of your consultations with our sister church more widely within the URC? I still have a question however. When we join the ‘market’ with this type of advertising do we become just another retailer selling a product?

    Reply
  • 2. Wol  |  20 September, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    There should be some interesting stuff emerging, homileo. Your question about the “market” is precisely the unease with which I went over. All I can say is that I found and instance of genuine communication rather than advertising, spin and market hype. It was immesnsely encouraging.

    Reply
  • 3. Lucy  |  21 September, 2005 at 11:57 am

    Any one starting a promotion of any kind needs to decide what the product is first….

    Reply
  • 4. Paul  |  12 October, 2005 at 7:13 am

    “They’ve found a way of being unapologetically evangelical not only about the gospel but also about church”

    …c’mon, surely the word for this sentence is “evangelistic”?

    Apart from the fact they all begin with the same root word, I still fail to understand why people seem to insist on using these words interchangeably: evangelical, evangelism, evangelistic.

    Reply
  • 5. Keith Alexander  |  15 October, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Having consumed quite a lot of the material on the website “still speaking” I must confess that it is warm, open and welcoming when compared to stuff I have encountered this side of the pond. If I were to live in the USA, this church would strongly tempt me to join.

    Their openness is so refreshing that I have to take notice. I have already found that my new church that I attend in Anglesey has homophobics sounding off when the subject arises. Having said this, there are the others who, though staying silent in the debate, keep their minds open.

    Personally, I can’t see the problem expressed with the word, “evangelical” and its partners. Christian preachers are all evangelists. It is just that the word gets used to cover fundamentalisim being pushed. The other week I met an Anglican priest we would call evangelical, but who expressed ten tons of common sense when we got down to discussing our faith and theology.

    If today’s church were to use the word “evangelical” more often it would cause the meaning to shift back to what it used to be. This would be a good thing.

    Reply

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