Wherever the river flows, everything will live.
Ezekiel 47:9 (CEB)
The prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple was a vision that included a lot of water—water coming out from under the temple door and creating a great river. As you can imagine, water is pretty important for people who live in the desert; so this final vision of Ezekiel’s was a show stopper for the Hebrew people.
Ezekiel also goes into some detail about this water and its effects on the surrounding environment, including its depth at varying points and its ability to turn salt water into fresh water as the river comes in contact with the sea. There are also fruit trees along the river and lots of different kinds of fish so that the people can thrive from the bounty of the water.
In the latest edition of the annual UCC Statistical Profile (available in October), there is a special section on congregations that are growing. One characteristic of these growing churches is that they tend to be either multi-racial or non-white congregations. Greater percentages of non-white congregations experienced growth over the last five years, with percentages of bi-racial/multi-racial and Native American congregations experiencing the greatest membership increases overall (22.2% and 20.0% of these churches, respectively).
A recent article from Religion News Service confirmed this trend occurring beyond the United Church of Christ, particularly among black churches. Even though Christians are declining in the general U.S. population, black churches have retained a steady percentage of members. Even more striking, the percentage of African American millennials participating in black churches is similar to percentages of older generations.
There are many reasons for this trend; but I believe that one major reason centers on the heart of the Christian message. The works and words of Jesus as written in the gospels demonstrate a faith that speaks to the marginalized, both in his own time and in this present moment. Jesus continually sided with the “other,” the oppressed, those who were historically and institutionally underrepresented, those for whom the system did not always work. Jesus’ message of comfort, hope, and justice resonates deeply with many people of color in particular ways given our historical experiences and present realities.
But beyond the reasons, growth in a larger percentage of these congregations signals the presence of life. There is a river—teeming with fish, with fruit trees along its bank—flowing mightily in many of these churches. And while we know that the river flows to all God’s people when we are gathered together, I wonder what it would be like to support and nurture these particular growing congregations in the “Church-with-a-big-C” sense. I wonder what it might look like to learn from our growing multi-racial and non-white congregations in ways that will make the whole river flow more deeply and freely. I wonder what it would look like if we as the United Church of Christ made a stated commitment to birth, renew, and welcome more racially/ethnically diverse congregations into our denominational life.
Ezekiel’s vision was a vision for a people in exile; they were marginalized in a land not their own. They were given a message of hope through a vision of water in the desert. This message was true then, and it is true now. Wherever the river flows, everything will live.
Sparking Ministry Conversations
How does—or how might—your congregation tap into flowing rivers teeming with life?
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi is director of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data. She is passionate about racial justice and statistics, two topics that seem unrelated but have many intersections. Kristina and other minister-researcher types blog about questions of importance for the UCC and beyond through Vital Signs & Statistics.
This article is cross-posted in the Stillspeaking Weekly, a series designed with pastors, lay leaders and committees in mind, offering thoughtful and practical reflections that invite and inspire dialogue on how churches can strengthen their ministries.