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Normally, at the turn of the year, I begin working on my Annual Report and my State of the Church presentation for the Annual Meeting. Over the past year or so I’ve been trying to better understand the broad state of Christianity in this post-Covid era, because it seems that so much has changed. I’ve read lots of articles, talked with lots of colleagues, attended some meetings and workshops. I’ve puzzled over how to articulate what I’m sensing, and I’ve puzzled over how to lead the institution faithfully and effectively. I finally feel able to put a bunch of those thoughts to paper.  Which I did a few weeks ago to the Council and now plan to break up into a series of six reflections to appear as newsletter columns.

The State of the Church 2024


What is the current state of the Church?  

And I don’t just mean our congregation, First Central Congregational Church, or just our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  I’m talking about the Big C Church. 

At the same time, I am curious about that question because I do want to know how that big question  impacts our congregation and shapes our visions for the future and our mission and ministries right now.

So, these are my reflections, near the turning of the year, of what the state of the church is.

Let’s begin with the widest angle on what are the global issues shaping religion in the current moment.

Recently I’ve been reading the major new work by Jurgen Habermas, probably the greatest living philosopher, who is 94 years old and clearly trying to get all of his thoughts out there.  In a chapter reviewing how ancient changes in communication technology led to radical new developments in religion and ideas, he concludes by observing that this trend seems to hold over time, that every time there is a dramatic new communication technology, religion undergoes significant changes.  Most obviously it occurred with the printing press appearing in Europe and the subsequent Reformation.  So, he ponders what changes to religion are we currently living through in the wake of the new communication technologies of the 21st century? 

Habermas doesn’t answer that question, but posing it and speculating about it is an excellent reminder that we are living through one of those eras of deep change with many of the factors outside of our control.  We can’t stop or alter these global shifts.  Instead the challenge is to wisely discern what God calls us to do in our time, in our specific location, to faithfully fulfill the mission.

Habermas is not alone in recognizing the major shift we are living through. A decade or so ago a number of Christian thinkers were calling attention to the radical shifts occurring.  Phyllis Tickle wrote that Christianity was undergoing one of its every 500 year “rummage sales” in which we throw out all the stuff that isn’t working anymore and something new arises.  She called it the “Great Emergence.” 

Harvey Cox called it the coming “Age of the Spirit”and predicted that we’d be more inclusive and pluralistic, developing networks across faith and cultural barriers. Or, at least he said we have to do that if humanity is going to survive and thrive.

Tickle, Cox, and plenty of others thought we were primed for a new period of religious growth and revival, maybe even something akin to a new Great Awakening.

Earlier this year I was in a conversation with Jim Keck, the pastor of First Plymouth UCC in Lincoln, and he said he’s spent much of his career waiting for this emergence to emerge.  I feel him.  Having started in this profession a quarter of a century ago now, I feel like my entire career was spent in an era shaped by this discussion and expectation.  It may yet happen, but by late 2023 there isn’t much evidence that American Christianity is going to experience a revival anytime soon.

Which isn’t to say that nothing has emerged in this time, for much of value has.  

For one the Big C Church has responded well intellectually to both the times in which we live and the present human condition.  Recent theology is rich, vibrant, fertile, relevant, resonant–all the things you want.  Though the era in which a broader spectrum of laypeople and society was acquainted with our best thinkers seems to have passed.  But excellent ideas and resources exist.

Early in this century there was a burst of liturgical experimentation, particularly in England in what was called “alternative worship” and here in the States in what was called the emerging church movement.  Early in my career I would read with fascination about what was being tried, and even experienced a little of it.  More participatory worship, deeper use of the visual arts, multi-sensory experiences, new genres of worship music, etc.  I experimented a little with some of these ideas, but never have served in a setting where the right mix of talents and resources allowed a richer exploration.  I don’t read about these trends anymore; so it seems that there wasn’t much of a lasting impact from them.

There has been a renewal of spiritual practices that began about thirty years or so ago.  Meditation, centering prayer, mindfulness, and more are quite common (even secularized) now in a way that didn’t used to be.  This renewal has included Protestant recovery of ancient and medieval traditions.  When I was in college, suddenly CDs of Gregorian Chant were popular and the music of Hildegard of Bingen was being recovered.  Later everyone was talking about Julian of Norwich.  In this era First Central installed a labyrinth on the patio.

Besides a recovery of some older Christian resources, this renewal of spiritual practices also led to deeper connections with other faith traditions.  Yoga, Tai Chi, and Buddhist mindfulness became widespread.  Curiosity about spirituality was on the rise.

Also in recent decades there was greater emphasis on the outward facing engagement of the church in service, advocacy, and engaging with the great issues of the day.  Many would not have predicted the rise of the Religious Left, for example.

Early in this century the United Church of Christ did a good job of discerning many of these trends and changes and so poised the church to participate in them and benefit from them. I think most importantly of the God is Still Speaking campaign.  Which was also a response to changing religious demographics in America, which I’ll move to next.


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First Central Congregational Church