Fifteen years ago, when I was a pastor in the Southern Conference, I overheard someone remark that the trouble with the United Church of Christ (UCC) is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a liberal church or a diverse church. I’ve often thought about those words, and I’ve often recited them to others. More recently, I’ve wondered about their validity: How diverse is the UCC? How liberal (or progressive) is it? And what do we mean by diversity? Is UCC diversity just about ending racism and getting congregations to become Open and Affirming (ONA)? Is it about intergenerational worship? Is diversity about our churches’ different worship styles and theologies?
For starters, UCC diversity doesn’t mean that when our denomination advocates for social justice concerns, it speaks for every UCC congregation and member. Nor does it mean that because General Synod does not speak for everyone, it should remain silent and never take a stand.
And diversity doesn’t defy the laws of logic. A church cannot endorse and simultaneously reject a certain viewpoint or commitment. Nor can a theological idea or church practice be both true and false, or exist and not exist. Nor can a pastor embrace change and tradition at the same time. Nor can UCC leaders advocate for LGBTQ rights and racial justice in urban and multicultural churches—and not talk about these commitments in rural congregations.
There are many ways in which we are diverse.
Diversity is evident in the “radical welcome” and “extravagant hospitality” that UCC churches extend to all who come through their doors: first-time visitors and forty-year members; the young and the old; atheists, doubters, and true believers; gays and straights; people of color as well as white people; the poor and the rich; people of disability and the able; and saints and sinners of every kind. UCC churches do not restrict participation, membership, or Christ’s Table to the “saved.” Like the banner says, “Jesus didn’t reject people—and neither do we.”
The United Church of Christ is diverse in the sense that our congregations are all different from one another. There are Congregational UCC churches, Christian UCC churches, and “E&R” UCC churches. There are white, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Islander UCC congregations. UCC churches are large and small, urban and rural. Each has its own unique colors, textures, language, and traditions, but all are welcomed into our denomination’s expansive fold.
The UCC demonstrates its diversity in the cross-section of Christian denominations that it invites into its inclusive fellowship. We enjoy full communion with our ecumenical partner, the Disciples of Christ, and through a formula of agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Canada. In addition, the UCC seeks to establish full communion relationships with several other Protestant and Anglican denominations.
Our denomination’s diversity is evident theologically, in the way that conservative and Evangelical UCC churches and congregants partner together in fellowship and ministry with progressive and liberal UCC congregations. To be sure, many of our churches and people have different perspectives about a host of issues—and sometimes we struggle to live into our diversity.
There are also ways in which we’re not as diverse as we should be.
When we look at individual congregations—rather than entire Conferences or the National Church—we see that far too many UCC churches are monocultural: most white churches are totally white, many Black churches are almost entirely Black, and so forth. In addition, the median age of UCC congregants seems to be about 60, and their median hair color seems to be about…gray and balding. There are glorious exceptions—multicultural churches that sparkle with demographic and theological diversity—but too often, in too many churches, we see more homogeneity than diversity.
Then too, some Conservative and Evangelical UCC churches and congregants say that the United Church of Christ is not truly diverse—they feel patronized, or condescended to, by UCC liberals and progressives, and by the National Church. To be sure, these are UCC churches, and many are culturally and politically conservative as well as theologically conservative. Indeed, they say they are uncomfortable with our denomination’s use of gender-neutral language, with its condemnation of Islamophobia, and with its unwavering support of LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, economic justice, women’s reproductive rights, and various other social justice issues.
In other words, just because we call ourselves a diverse church doesn’t necessarily mean we are one. We need to work harder at being diverse.
I believe that the acid test of UCC diversity—and what defines the parameters of our diversity—may well be our Church’s search-and-call and hiring practices, particularly at the Conference and National settings. We cannot call ourselves a diverse church and at the same time call only progressive and liberal persons to staff our Conference and National Church vacancies, and to fill the pulpits of our “best” and largest churches. UCC conservatives and Evangelicals should be filling some of these positions.
The bottom line here is respect—first, mutual respect for all our sister and brother UCC members and their congregations, whether they are conservatives or liberals, progressives or Evangelicals, Democrats or Republicans, White or Black, gay or straight, and ONA or non-ONA—and second, respect for traditionally marginalized individuals and groups, including LGBTQ people, people of color, Hispanics, Asians, women, Muslims, foreigners, the homeless, and atheists and skeptics.
The United Church of Christ embraces all people. We welcome all congregations and worship traditions, and we encourage urban, suburban, and rural churches of all sizes and theological perspectives to celebrate their UCC identity, connect with their sister UCC churches, and acquire Christ’s passion for inclusion—for embracing and serving “the least of these” in the world.
Our Church welcomes progressives and Evangelicals, and conservative and liberal churches, theologies, and worship traditions—but there is no room in any setting of the UCC for racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, or homophobia.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.