; charset=UTF-8" /> “Listening Up” in San Diego : Connecting Voices
Free hacker tools

“Listening Up” in San Diego

by Mary Domb Mikkelson

Geoffrey Black

“The first duty of love is to listen.”  

     Concise and to the point in a world where listening is often considered a lost art, theologian Paul Tillich’s words were given bold new dimension when UCC General Minister and President Rev. Geoffrey Black visited Mission Hills UCC in San Diego, CA recently.*  There on a warm summer evening to “listen to the hopes, dreams and visions” of church members, he also heard and addressed their concerns for and apprehensions about a church striving for connection and relevance.   “We are,” he emphasized, “in a time of major change in our society and economy and it is no surprise that the church is also changing.”

     The first question focused on one of the more feared changes – declining membership and what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend.  Highlighting factors at play in churches bucking that trend, churches where youth and young families are being attracted by UCC’s “penchant for being on the cutting edge of justice issues” and offering a welcome to all,” Black commented that, “Our values resonate with younger adults ready to come into leadership and it is our job to find ways to connect with them.”  To this end, he stressed, “We at UCC still need to grow in the skills of welcoming and reaching out.  Hospitality is a lot more that opening doors and assuming people will come.”  

     Asked whether he “had the passion and vision to reverse the downward trend,” Black explored the concept of “starting churches where people are and in ways that resonate with them.  The old model where we purchased real estate and built a church isn’t working.”  Among his recommendations were developing a variation on the historical model in which an established church reached out into new communities, planting and nourishing new congregations.  Telling the story of a pastor in Atlanta who started a very good coffee shop then a successful church with the people who became her customers, he added, “Many of the churches we start won’t look like the one we are in this evening…They may not even have buildings.”  Another story, this one of the effective bus ads – “The last place you need to catch hell is in church,” followed to good effect by “no matter who you are or where you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here” – captured the spirit of a Bible Belt UCC with a growing congregation.

     One of UCC’s “cutting edge” positions, its potentially divisive stand on immigration issues, found its way into the discussion.  “Jesus people,” Black commented, “have to step up to the plate…advocate for justice…become ministers of reconciliation… find a path to peace and harmony as our country’s demographics change.”  “Moving forward,” he suggested, “will take courage, dedication and clearness of purpose…remember that what you say and do is what UCC will be seen and heard as saying and doing.”

     Other concerns, all of which were listened to and explored, included cultural differences and perceptions delaying the incorporation of some new start churches into the UCC whole; a call for UCC members and all Americans to make a paradigm – and sacrificial – shift in how we serve as stewards of our earth and, once again, what the church of the future would look like in a world where the internet, conference calls and social media applications might well be its “community.”

      Next up:  “What is the most surprising thing, good or bad, you’ve encountered since you took office?”  “When we decided on these “listening tours” Black responded, “I thought, given the economic climate and the tenor of the times, people might be cautious about where UCC has been and is going on issues of inclusion, social justice, etc.  Instead, time after time, all across the country, they have declared that we are doing the right thing and that we must not back down.”

     Then came a question about mega-churches and whether they should be perceived as danger or challenge and what should be UCC’s strategy for attracting people who discover they don’t really belong in them – and the importance of “God is still speaking” to that strategy.  Commenting that many new UCC people hadn’t previously known such a church existed, Black again stressed that we need to become more active in getting our story out

     Time for those hopes, dreams and visions.  Among those expressed were that UCC will continue pushing “God is still speaking” (“many of the new people at our church got interested in UCC after hearing it”) and keep a top notch website developer on the payroll (“those people who read the ad next went to our website”).  Assuring the audience that “still speaking” is here to stay, Black went on to discuss three “less expensive than TV ads” ways in which it is being promoted – UCC’s new StillSpeaking Magazine; the viral ad, “Language of God” and becoming a StillSpeaking Voice, all of which may be explored at www.ucc.org.

     This led, not surprisingly, to questions about money, among them, “What would you do to turn the financial picture around for the national church?”

     Pointing out that the church (and many conferences, associations and local congregations) are still “going” on assets given (generously, even sacrificially) in the 19th Century, Black stressed the need to figure out how to encourage – and simplify the giving of – generous donations both locally and to the national church.  One well-received comment from the audience involved taking a lesson from President Obama’s e-mail campaign and sending out, along with a daily devotional, the opportunity to “skip a cup of coffee and send $5 to the church.” 

     One of the high school students in the audience asked about UCC colleges.  Emphasizing the importance of building networks at UCC-connected schools and among UCC students, Black commented that college campuses and military chaplains (whose work, by and large, can be considered “young adult ministry”) are two great sources for gaining valuable insights into how we can best reach out to young adults.

     When another questioner reiterated the importance of national church encouraging local congregations to reach out to young families and to provide programs designed to meet their needs, Black’s response was, for many in the audience, perhaps the most meaningful of the evening.  “Nurturing children in faith was very much a part of Jesus’ ministry,” he said, “but church school is not ‘what’s happening’ today.  What worked in the 50s won’t work today. We have to develop and fund whatever WILL reach our young people.”

     The animated discussion sparked during Geoffrey Black’s San Diego “listening tour” continued over punch and cookies and will, judging by audience reaction and enthusiasm, be carried into churches throughout San Diego.   In the words of the old Chinese proverb, “To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is an essential to all true conversation.”

     Thank you, Rev. Black.  It was a great conversation!

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

Spam protection by WP Captcha-Free