“We convert, if we do at all, by being something irresistible, not by demanding something impossible.” — May Sarton, The House by the Sea
One of the challenges we in the United Church of Christ face is about how to understand and leverage our unique assets to live into the ministries that God has placed before us. When we examine our assets, clergy and lay leaders alike often end up going into a scarcity spiral, in comparison to other churches. Sure, we have property, but the Methodists have more. We have money, but the Presbyterians have more. And while we are deeply committed to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, we know that we don’t have a monopoly on that love, as seen in our ecumenical partnerships.
So what do we have? What is it that makes the United Church of Christ what it is? What assets are we uniquely positioned to leverage in order to become an ever more vital, vibrant, and faithful people?
To my mind, the greatest and most unique assets we have in the United Church of Christ are the stories of our people. We have a fascinating history, especially as you look at how four completely different antecedent denominations eventually became one (you can read more here). Since the UCC was created in 1957, we have come to understand that we have an especially unique group of people, “a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix” as one of our own pastors wrote. What other denomination has our particular range of people: white to Samoan to African-American, cisgender to transgender, Trinitarian to agnostic, and a host of people along those spectrums (and more)?
Our unique stories are what make us who we are, yet we often fail to tell the world about ourselves. Before the “God is Still Speaking” campaign began in 2004, I remember sitting in a room full of clergy colleagues, listening to then General Minister and President John Thomas talk about the results of a marketing firm’s research about the United Church of Christ. The firm had concluded two important things, Thomas said. First, they had let us know that the largest generation in American history (the millennial generation) overwhelmingly shared our values. They were a natural and obvious outreach opportunity for us in the United Church of Christ. The second piece of information? As a whole, this generation had never heard of us.
I can testify to this reality. Born in 1978, I’m on the edge of Generation X and the Millenial Generation. When I went to seminary in 2000, I didn’t know what denomination I was, and I had never heard of the United Church of Christ. All I knew was that I had left the Southern Baptist church in which I was raised. During my first week at Claremont School of Theology, I heard a neighbor say that she was nervous about preaching her first sermon at her internship at a church down the street. Attendance was often about 300 people, and the congregation had an unusually large group of retired pastors, activists, and theologians due to a nearby retirement community for clergy. I heard this second-year student talking, and I told her, “Look, why don’t I come to your church this Sunday? I’ve got nowhere to be, and at least you’ll know more than I do.” A few days later, I walked a mile down the road to what I would later realize was the first UCC congregation I’d ever visited. My neighbor preached a sermon about her experiences as a hospital chaplain over the summer, working in New York. I came back the following week, and then the following week. I was nervous about joining another church after getting burned, but eventually, I became a member of that congregation. And my life in the United Church of Christ began.
I believe in my bones that this is how we grow and revitalize the UCC: by sharing our stories with the world. Not the perfect stories, not the most accomplished and successful moments, not the facades we put up for people — but by honestly witnessing to who we are, where we’ve been, and what we know to be true.
We as a people have a long history of publicly telling our stories, including the most vulnerable and difficult moments. In the 17th century, for example, our Congregational cousins back in England began regularly writing in a genre that came to be known as spiritual autobiography. John Bunyan wrote the most famous one, entitled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. It followed a narrative pattern of laying out the author’s various sins and terrible behavior, then describing a come-to-Jesus experience of unmerited grace that changed everything. This death-and-resurrection pattern shaped generations of both religious thinkers and authors, influencing everything from sermon structure to the evolution of the modern novel.
Spiritual autobiography has made a resurgence in recent years across denominations. Books upon books upon books have been published to help readers undertake the work of writing a memoir that reflects their spiritual experience. This resurgence has taken a particular interest in the stories of older adults, helping them write down the stories and memories of their lives while they still can.
As a pastor, I cannot begin to tell you how much surviving generations appreciate having the stories of their elders. In memorial service after memorial service, I watch as ears perk up upon hearing mourners share stories that not everyone knew. These experiences help bring healing and understanding to grieving friends and families, but more than that, they lend perspective on why their own lives have turned out the way they have.
We are losing these stories, and we are in danger of losing more. The generation that fought World War II is nearly gone, and as the last of them die, a lot of stories and memories that continue to shape the world are going to the grave with them. Increasingly, I now find myself doing funerals for members of the Silent Generation, who came of age amid McCarthyism and often concluded that when in doubt, it was better not to say too much. That attitude may have been a necessary choice in the 1950s, but I truly believe it does not work anymore. Please, share your memories with those you love before it’s too late.
Whatever your age or experience, I believe that the world needs to hear your story. It’s up to you how much to share, and when and with whom to share. But the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves create who we are. I believe firmly that all of us — including you — are possessed of inherent worth and dignity from our Creator, and that means that your life’s story is worthy of being heard. At a minimum, the people you love may understand you better. But telling your story might just change a life forever and for the better. When a neighbor told me their story, I found a church home for the rest of my life in the United Church of Christ, and I eventually brought my parents and my brother with me. One person’s honest story of vulnerability turned into 4 new members for our denomination, just through my nuclear family. How much more could God do if we all shared our stories with the world?
Our stories in the UCC have the power to change lives. In many ways, our stories as UCC people not only reflect who we are; those stories are who we are. By sharing them, I have witnessed how we have become a more vital, vibrant, and faithful people. So for God’s sake, I pray that you have the courage to let the world hear your story.
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.