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On the Road to Damascus…and Orange County…

by Rev. Dr. David Alicea, UCC Paradise Hills

     The story of Saul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-31) is filled with incomparable drama and theological truth.  Enveloped in heavenly light, he who “was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (NIV), moved from hatred to love, from persecutor of Christians to “prisoner of Christ” (Ephesians 3:1). And so Saul became Paul,

     We, too, as individuals and as the church, are in need of such a Pauline experience.

     Today’s church needs to wake up and embrace reality if it is to successfully proclaim the good news in Christ Jesus.  United Methodist minister Paul Nixon shares a key question in his book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church: “Is it possible to be a faithful servant of the Resurrected Christ and serve as pastor within one of the mainline denominations?”  For Nixon the answer is “Yes!” He understands that by embracing the power of change through effective leadership our churches can survive today’s spiritual meltdown.  One promising fact validating his response is recent research showing that Open and Affirming (ONA) churches are experiencing membership growth.

     Why and how?   Here are my thoughts.

     I recently participated in the LinK EVENT at UCC’s Cleveland offices, which was attended by pastors who lead congregations of different ethnic backgrounds. There is, apparently, a multicultural growth trend in our congregations in which, for example, Caucasian congregations call African-American pastors. I learned, through observation and getting to know those in attendance, the pre-conditions validating the assertion that Open and Affirming congregations are experiencing growth.   These pre-conditions include:

 Acceptance by congregants and clergy of newcomers and unchurched visitors – the openness and courage to accept them as they are, theological, sexual and sociological differences aside. This is essential to witnessing God’s healing and saving love. A church that accepts people as they are is a healthy environment sustained by a healthy heart. When people feel accepted and embraced, they grow open to sharing their lives and to building the Kingdom of God.
• Consideration by pastors of congregation’s historical and cultural formation.  A willingness to accept other cultural backgrounds in order to understand the nature and ethos of the congregation provides the minister with an essential personal touch and sensitivity to understand people’s struggles and joys in life.  It is not about pastors demanding to be understood but about pastors understanding their congregations, an acceptance which translates into connecting with people while learning how to embrace their ethnic background. 

• Willingness to embrace change and the in-depth thinking, critical analysis and vision to initiate growth. Embracing change requires collective work, but it is the pastor’s role to be the catalyst that ignites the will to change.  Each pastor I talked with demonstrated a high level of effective leadership, commitment to church and community and a determination to stay connected to Conference and National church.

• A profound need to make sense of the church’s role with its history, sense of justice and desire to serve people despite their affiliations or religious background and the realization that we can’t do this alone.  We need to connect and join efforts with other groups, institutions and organizations in order to make sense of the moral chaos that leads to violence, bias and despair.  Together we can become effective in implementing justice and mercy for all.

Open and Affirming churches represent a huge challenge to those clinging to traditional customs and venues, ways that lead to the dead end street of closing churches.  With that in mind, I’d like to share now the other side of the coin in terms of what I believe ONA churches need to concentrate on and develop in their spiritual pilgrimage with community and church.

I believe that a more relevant and emergent Christology must be developed along with our social agenda.  Although our worship services are excellent and inspiring, I feel a need for our worship to be more theological and Christological. There is a need to make clear a theology that leads to our Open and Affirming agenda.  People need to aware of the role Jesus plays in our spiritual development in terms of a theological stand that is relevant, effective, appealing and significant. While social agenda and justice are, indeed, a strong part of our historical commitment to the underprivileged and abused, it is our theological/Christological foundation that makes us CHURCH.  In order to make sense of our spiritual experience and journey, we need to learn to speak a theology/Christology that enhances our posture with the Gospel as an Open and Affirming Church.

With these things in mind, I am looking forward to participating in Annual Gathering 2012 (Chapman University, June 8-9) where we can continue to affirm our spiritual journey and together glorify the God who calls us to be a progressive church committed to justice and life-giving love shared with all.  For my part, I will present a multicultural class on Hispanic idiosyncrasies as a pre-requisite to developing a Hispanic mission. I hope to see you there and to together enjoy our service to Christ and the church. God bless!


One Response to “On the Road to Damascus…and Orange County…”
  1. Rev Megan More says:

    Dear David,

    I should hope they would grow. Such churches are in spirit and in fact doing Christ’s work as being welcoming in love for all people, especially the “stranger” in our midst, and putting into praxis the Second Great Commandment to Love our Neighbor as ourselves. Only by being open and affirming, inclusive and loving, can that progressive Christianity which Christ preached about become a reality.

    I also applaud the progress the UCC is making in this manner, and along with the MCC, has done so much to bring other denominations into the understanding of what real “Inclusive” Love in Christ is all about. We still have a long road to go, and many obsticles in the way, but as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said so often, and in the lines of his signature hymn, “We shall overcome.”

    God Bless

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