Where’s Christ in the United Church of Christ?

I recently attended a funeral (actually, a “memorial service”) at a United Church of Christ church not far from my own church. The service was for a woman I had known fairly well, a woman who was a very active and faithful member of that particular church.

In the course of the entire memorial service there was hardly a mention of Jesus or Christ, except for maybe in the hymns that we sang. Instead of a sermon or homily, the service had a “reflection,” which was a well-crafted catalogue of the deceased woman’s life. If there were vague suggestions of “God,” they were tepid, at best. Even the prayers didn’t seem explicitly Christian.

We could have been anywhere, any sort of gathering place, remembering a special person who had died. It was as if the church had simply been a place where the woman had spent her volunteer time, instead of a place that had nurtured her spirit, had provided shape to her life of faith, had helped foster her relationship with her Creator, and conveyed the promises held in the death and resurrection, and in the lessons and parables, of Christ.

As I sat in that sanctuary, slowly seething with frustration, I remembered that this was not the first time for this sort of experience, attending a memorial service with little religious content and even less explicitly Christian content. I had been to a similar memorial service at another local United Church of Christ church a couple of years ago.

A day or two after this most recent memorial service experience, I attended a meeting that included a Maine Conference staff person—a clergy person—and shared my frustration of the seemingly “non-Christian” funeral. This particular person, despite being a leader in the Conference, did not share my consternation.

And then, at yet another Conference related meeting, I was told that the senior pastor at one of Maine’s largest UCC churches had shared the reflection that if they were to go back to do this all over again, they would more likely be a pastor in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School many years ago, we often heard the joke that UCC stood for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” In recent weeks, I’ve started to wonder if we are actually considering. Or, if we have made up our minds: we’ve considered and we’ve opted against Christ. We like Jesus well enough, to some extent anyway, but the Christ part maybe goes too far.

In Central Maine, an area where church attendance and affiliation is low, it is tempting to tone down the overtly Christian stuff. It can be risky, after all. I remember a memorial service that I led about a decade ago, for a family member of one of my most active church members. The family member who had died had not regularly attended church, nor did most of the family. But, his daughter did, and she was the one I had in mind in crafting the service. In the middle of my homily, where I did talk about Christ and the cross, at least one family member actually made an audible sound of derision.

At Old South, we have quite a few members—myself included—who often struggle with what it means to believe in, to follow, to have an attachment to Christ. We don’t pretend that isn’t going on. But, just because we struggle doesn’t mean that we end up letting go altogether. Instead, we are a community of people who invite doubts and questions—and wonder too. We do so openly and honestly, without judgment, but rather with a sense of deepening wisdom, grace and faith, as we grapple with the compelling, yet mysterious, story of God incarnate.

It has begun to feel that what we do at Old South is not widely shared. Instead, we seem to be a part of the Maine Conference United Church of Something, we don’t know what, maybe nothing.

No wonder we in the United Church of Christ are losing members at an alarming rate. Who wants to be a part of an organization—and a church no less—that doesn’t know what it is or why it exists?

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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