By Tiffany Vail
Associate for Communication
Keynote Speaker The Rev. J. Bennett Guess offered a hopeful vision to Annual Meeting delegates on Friday, saying that it is time for the church to look beyond declining membership numbers to new ways of being church and measuring success.
“Transformation” was the theme of the 213th Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Conference, and Guess - Executive Minister of the United Church of Christ's Local Church Ministries - reminded those in attendance that “you can’t go through deep change and remain unchanged at the same time.”
Guess said the church right now is in the wilderness – and has been there for a long time.
Following World War II, he said, membership organizations – from mainline churches to the Elks to the DAR and VFW – were at the height of their influence. People wanted to belong. But then society shifted. Woodstock, Watergate, the Vietnam War – everything was called into question. People lost interest in joining organizations, and membership in those groups began a long and steady downward spiral being felt today in every religious organization.
“People no longer join congregations because they need more relationships, or because they want to be a member,” Guess said. “They already have as many social friendships as their time and lifestyle will allow.”
“But people do say that they want to become active in something where they feel they are having an impact, where they are making a difference, where they find a depth of honest exploration and real joy.”
“That is why Habitat for Humanity and Heifer International have thrived in the last 30 years, while member organizations like the PTA and the UCC have had a hard go of it,” he said. “To our surprise, people don’t want to read our resolutions or review our minutes. They want a hammer and some nails, they want to engage faith at a deeper level, and they want some indication that their faith has muscle.”
“The function of the congregation has shifted from being social to being purposeful, from being relational to being missional,” he said. “Young people today are not just ‘not interested in church anymore,’ as some would claim. But the new generation is not willing to support the big cumbersome institutions that our grandparents so lovingly built for us.”
Guess said that – even though 20 congregations are joining the UCC this spring, attracted by the denomination’s polity and theology - “the reality is that the UCC is likely to get smaller, in terms of membership, denominational budgets and perhaps in the number of congregations that are part of our fellowship.”
“That’s not an indictment on our purpose or our effectiveness, it is simply an honest accounting of birthrates, of the locations of our outlets, and the population shifts that are happening in this nation,” he said.
And while this change is unsettling, Guess said, it is also prodding us down an exciting, liberating path.
“It’s not that people don’t or won’t take the gospel seriously anymore, they want to explore it and engage it even more seriously, he said. “They want a faith that keeps them looking upward and outwards and even inward, but not in an insular way.”
“Christianity, thank God, is becoming deliberate again,” he said. “And new intentionality means that while our numbers may be adjusting to that new reality, the discipleship and stewardship of those of us who choose to remain, and those who choose to join us, means we will be deeper and reformed in our faith. “
“We are no longer conforming to the ways of the world, but being transformed. And I find real hope in that,” he said.
Guess also said that the church needs to start measuring its impact in different ways, something the national setting is committed to doing.
“As long as we continue to ask only about membership and donations to the connectional church, we are setting ourselves up to interpreting our overall impact in negative terms using shrinking numbers that never will tell the whole story,” he said.
“When your mission is relational you count the number of people on your dance card. But when your mission is purposeful, you look out and count all the people who are dancing, he said. “The first keeps track of all that has been received; the second celebrates all that has been given. It is not how many came in, but how many went out to serve and made a difference.”
“McDonald’s doesn’t tell you how many restaurants they have, or how many employees, they have, they tell you the one thing that matters in a service industry: billions and billions served. The church must learn to do that same,” he said.