The church I serve has a large black and red banner strategically placed to catch the eye of those passing by. It says: “Jesus never turned anyone away. Neither do we.” After our web site, that sign is the reason most visitors mention for giving our church a try. One of the things we are most excited about is our increasing diversity. It’s surprising, given our beginnings. Glenside UCC was founded 90 years ago as a mission to the German Reformed people who were moving into what was then a rural area north of Philadelphia. Most of the United Church of Christ congregations in southeastern Pennsylvania were begun by people of Pennsylvania German heritage. Homogeneity was what our founders expected. For decades, that was exactly what they got. Over the last ten years, however, change has come rapidly.
Glenside UCC mirrors some of the trends described by Mark Chaves and Shawna Anderson in their analysis of the Third Wave of the National Congregations Study.[i] One of the ways churches are changing is their greater acceptance of gays and lesbians. Beginning with our participation in the God is Still Speaking campaign over a decade ago, openly gay and lesbian folks began to join our congregation. By 2009 we were officially Open and Affirming. Today more than 10% of our membership is gay, lesbian or transgender and form an even greater percentage of church leadership.
Chaves and Anderson also point out the growing ethnic diversity of American Congregations. In just a few years, Glenside UCC has gone from being 99% white to including an increasing number of African American, Hispanic and Native American members. While they make up only about 10% of church membership, these are among our most active members. Fully one-third of our active youth are African American and Hispanic. I can’t help but smile when I contrast our Pennsylvania German beginnings with our current reality. Whoever expected we would enthusiastically include a Native American raised as a Baha’i and her African American partner?
More informal worship is another trend Chaves and Anderson identify from the National Congregations Study. German Reformed background churches of the UCC in our area have a strong liturgical tradition. The predictable rhythm of scripture, prayers and hymns, and the familiarity of the sacraments have long been a draw for our formerly Catholic members. While Glenside remains liturgical, it is not stiff or formal. People pass the peace with enthusiasm. The prayers of the people are heartfelt and spontaneous. And, they can’t help clapping for the youth choir. One new member, a professional percussionist, adds the bongos to anthems and hymns on occasion. We expect worship to continue to change as the congregation continues to change.
Out of the five trends Chaves and Anderson discuss, two do not fit my congregation. Far from lacking denominational affiliation, we are proud to be a part of the United Church of Christ. An important part of my work as pastor is to explain who we are and what we believe. The biggest challenge is getting the word out that churches like ours exist! Finally, we are not declining in size. While we are not likely to be the 650 member congregation that we were in the post-World War II housing and baby boom, we haven’t declined in the last decade. In fact, our worship attendance has inched upward, even as our younger members attend less regularly than our older ones.
It’s clear that the church is changing, and changing fast. I’m curious about what the church of future will look like, about what the Holy Spirit has in store. As a pastor of a local congregation, I have a front row seat. In the months ahead, that’s what I want to blog about.
[i] Mark Chaves and Shawna Anderson, “Changing American Congregations: Findings from the Third Wave of the National Congregations Study”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, (2014) 53(4):676–686.