Just before Easter, the website realclearreligion.org included a link to a blog post from the Institute on Religion and Democracy entitled, “Financial Crunch Hits the United Church of Christ” (written by Jeffrey Walton). The post described the crisis in the United Church of Christ, especially at the national level, where staff cuts are, and have been, taking place.
The blog post went on to unleash disturbing trends at the local level as well:
“Last summer, UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) studies were released that confirmed dire forecasts. The first, Futuring the United Church of Christ: 30-Year Projections, showed that over the next three decades, the number of UCC congregations will decline from over 5,100 churches today to approximately 3,600 churches. During the same time period, the number of UCC members will drop precipitously, from 1.1 million to just under 200,000 adherents.”
During a gloomy Holy Week (for all of the usual difficult stories and themes, as well as a local mini recurrence of winter that caused our Maundy Thursday service to be cancelled), the story about the continued decline of the United Church of Christ seemed a little more than I wanted to consider. After all, there’s nothing in there that hints at anything that might turn Easter-like.
The comments section accompanying the blog is full of all of the usual “suspects,” when it comes to blame for what is happening in the United Church of Christ. It’s stuff I’ve heard many, many times before—support of same-sex marriage (and the LBGTQ community in general), adhering to left-leaning politics (especially support of same-sex marriage), etc. If our decline is indeed tied to support of marriage equality, then perhaps I’m a little more prepared to go down with the ship.
At this time of year, during the pre- and post-Easter season, I often find myself thinking about the meaning of numbers. When Jesus was crucified, only a small number of his friends—most, if not all, women—were there to witness his suffering and death. The men had gone off to hide, probably worried that they might be next. On Easter morning, the Gospels tell that, again, the numbers were small. Only a few showed up at the empty tomb. Only a few were there to begin to share the news.
At its most foundational “event,” the numbers were small, intimate. The news was amazing, shocking, confusing, life-changing—but centered around a very small group. Presumably, Christ could have chosen to do something much more grand. Christ could have chosen to involve a lot more people. Instead, there were only a few.
The United Church of Christ may well be in decline and may be in precipitous decline. But, in this Easter season, I find hope in small numbers. I don’t calculate our “success” by the standards of the world, but by the small voice that began near an empty tomb. Churches (and denominations) ought not calculate their closeness to Christ through membership numbers or cars in parking lots.
Sure, numbers are important to the business of being Church, but numbers don’t necessarily say anything about faithfulness to the work of Christ. There’s a critical difference. The Gospels are quite clear that Jesus never seemed especially interested in winning popularity contests. We should, therefore, be a little more careful about asserting some sort of divine message of disfavor when denominations, and local churches, find themselves in decline (or, divine approval when the numbers are surging). The small group may have something very significant to share, and though not attracting large groups, may be doing important Godly work.