Who is this generation? These are the children who heard a splintered and shattered Christian voice -- like a pane of glass broken by a stone, yet still in its frame. They believed the American Christian religion was skewed and distorted. Many children in this generation were taught they would belong “only if” they knew the right questions with their corresponding right answers, and lived exclusively in the Christian community. To ask questions outside of the sacred doctrine would mean they would be in spiritual danger. When questions arose regarding same-gender-loving individuals and transgender people, the children found themselves unable to stop asking, and unable to reconcile themselves to the creeds. The children had gotten to know these marginalized people and discovered God among them, so the children wondered why these people were excluded. Conflicted in faith and in practice, they sat in pews – daydreaming and detached – until they finally decided to leave. All across America, mainline and independent churches witnessed a great exodus.
Mothers, fathers, and others were confounded and grieved by this desertion. Where are the children? Why are they leaving? Why don’t they just do what we did? The children left because they could not find peace if others were excluded. They could not live with the insincerity, so they scattered.
Some went to other religious traditions or practices, while others started a quest to find the real Jesus, the real Good News! When they were free to ask the forbidden questions, the answers came like a cleansing spring rain. The answers were new, but ancient. The scattered came together, and they realized they had all found pieces of deep truths long forgotten. Then they rejoiced!
They had discovered that Jesus was radically inclusive. He was a rabble-rouser. He asked forbidden questions and spoke truth to power. He ate and drank with the marginalized and outcast. He welcomed all at his table -- even the oppressor and hypocrite. As Eugene Peterson wrote in The Gospel of John, “Jesus did not impose salvation as a solution: He narrates salvation into being through leisurely conversation, intimate personal relationships, compassionate responses, passionate prayer and putting it all together in a sacrificial death.” The children were excited and free. They had found the real Good News and set out to show others by telling the story, building relationships, being compassionate and praying passionately. They called themselves the Emergent Church.
Some members of First Congregational Church in Haverhill are joining that movement. The Haverhill church, as it existed since 1835, is no more. What emerged? The members sold their brick and mortar institution and set out on two different pathways to become a church made of living stones. One group chose to continue worship by joining other area congregations and using part of the proceeds to continue traditional mission work. A second group, a small band of devotees who had rediscovered the radically inclusive Jesus that speaks to their generation, envisioned a new church. This new progressive Christian community of the United Church of Christ is called Phoenix Rising, United Church of Christ.
Phoenix Rising will be a church of “all the people” extending extravagant welcome to people of every age, gender, ethnicity or tradition, marital or family status, of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Like a seed that must die in order to bring forth its fruit -- and like the resurrection of Christ -- Phoenix Rising is emerging as a new church for a new Haverhill. God is speaking to this generation with a message of transformation. It is the vision of Phoenix Rising to help individuals understand their place in this re-emerging Christian community. We look forward to witnessing the experiences of folks who gain a new sense of identity by connecting to God and others, and then embrace their own self-worth.
See Spotlight to read about how Phoenix Rising is reaching out to this new generation in order to become a church of vitality, making God’s love and justice real.
Donna Spencer Collins is a member of the MACUCC Church Development Ministry Council. She is the called pastor of Phoenix Rising United Church of Christ and was formerly Pastoral Associate for Personal Outreach at Tewksbury Congregational Church, UCC.