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Preacher expects new church models will emerge for the future

Preaching at the PNC Annual Meeting closing worship, Ben Guess of the National Local Church Ministries said he has found that “people in exile worry about what matters,” because people crossing the wilderness undergo deep change.

Ben Guess preaching
Ben Guess is featured speaker and preacher

After World War II, there was a surge in service organizations and churches.  People wanted to belong.  With Woodstock, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, rock ‘n roll and the sexual revolution, everything that was certain fell apart, he said.

Right after the UCC formed in 1957, membership groups began stepping into exile without realizing it, he said. 

It was a symptom of a broader dis-ease,” he said.  “The reality is that the biggest issue facing the church 20 or 30 years ago is the same one facing the church today.  We just feel it far more acutely now, because our prominence and resources then afforded us the luxury of avoiding it for so long.

“The first step of adaptive change is realizing the urgency for change.  While unsettling, the urgency is a blessing, not a curse,” Guess said.

With a similar age and ethnic makeup, he said the Missouri Synod has experienced a similar decline in membership and funding nationally in the last 30 years, despite its different stands on social issues.  Guess suggests the spiral of change is happening from conservative to liberal religious and service organizations. 

He believes people do not join churches today because they want more relationships.  They join because they want to serve and make a difference.

“Socially conventional Christianity is no longer the driving force bringing people  into our doors,” he said. “Christianity, thank God, is becoming deliberate again. 

“While our numbers may be adjusting to that new reality, the discipleship and stewardship of those who remain is being reformed and deepened,” Guess said, finding hope in that. 

“It’s not that people don’t or won’t take the gospel seriously anymore. It’s that they want to explore it and engage it more seriously.  They want a faith that keeps them looking upward and outward, even inward, but not in any insular way,” he observed.

So Habitat for Humanity and other service programs are thriving.  People want to hammer nails and engage in social issues so they have purpose.

He said the new generation does not want to support institutions ancestors built, but want to share money at home and abroad to fulfill God’s mission, so there is a future with hope.

He told of Mount St. Joseph near Owensboro, Ky., the once-thriving mother house for Ursuline nuns, where he went for a two-week mission camp in high school.

It is now a nursing home.  Large buildings rise out of soybean fields, he said.  Later he went on a retreat and loved seeing nuns wearing shorts and tennis shoes in the late 1960s. 

The average age is 85.  Dorms were empty.  Classrooms were closed.  The only activity was in the graveyard.

He asked a nun what would happen.  She said the sisters will sell the center, when there are only a few left and if it no longer is an instrument to fulfill their mission.  They will move into an apartment that overlooks 15 acres of farmland.  He heard liberation in her voice, a sense that God has plans as they wander in the wilderness.

“The UCC is likely to continue to get smaller, in membership, denominational budgets, and perhaps the number of congregations,” Guess said. “Maybe we do not need a monastery when an apartment will do.

He believes more people will be touched and changed by the UCC than in the past, because the church’s “extravagant welcome, continuing testament and changed lives resonate.

“We see bubbling from grassroots churches that want to be part of the theology and polity we offer,” he said, telling of 20 congregations joining the UCC in spring 2012, churches like Liberation Ministries that want the inclusive fellowship and polity the UCC offers.

“Our united and uniting vision is taking us places we did not envision,” he said. 

Although membership is declining, constituents are rising as people are interested in more than the number of names on a list, he said.

“If we just look at money and numbers, we may not see that more people want to serve and make a difference,” he said, noting that’s unsettling for a professional on the UCC’s payroll.

I am hopeful, because I know God has plans for us,” he said, telling of the Nexus Café tech saavy new Southern Baptist church start near the UCC office in Cleveland.

“We can learn from glimpsing into what the church is,” he said. “We need to be values and mission driven.

“While many predict the demise of small churches, they will evolve.  As believers behave as Christ, there will be a resurgence,” he said.  “Small groups of faithful people will not go out of style.

“In the midst of discerning, our vision, love and energy will emerge to a future crafted for our world in the mind of God,” Guess said.

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Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference News © September 2012




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