Report for Annual Meeting Michigan Conference UCC – Curt Scott
Although I registered for both days of the conference, including the banquet, the passing of my mother restricted me to events on Saturday. Pastor Tom Jones attended Friday, commandeering my nonvegetarian banquet selection.  What I chose to attend on the second day of the conference were the keynote speaker, Rev. Cameron Trimble and Andy Lang’s address on the progress of Open and Affirming among churches in our conference or lack thereof. I consider my experience to include observations, materials offered and discussed, topics for breakout sessions, and what was said or, in some cases, unsaid by presenters regarding the direction and future of this denomination.
The over-arching theme of the event was that our team, as the keynote speaker refereed to
denominations, is in deep trouble while other teams are doing just fine. We’re losing the game for two reasons, Rev. Trimble announced. First, we’re losing players and fans at a rate of -3% per year and have been for some time. That, they contended, was the result of the second reason: we, as a denomination, aren’t attached to an issue central to social justice as we have been historically. We’re no longer on the 5 O’clock news linked arm-in-arm with  victims of injustice. We are a religion of cause not living up to our own reputation.  Philosophically, we, as a denomination, became a liberal outlier, starting in about the 1980s, as American Christianity shifted to the political and civic Right. We’re still churches of relatively progressive people. We decry injustice while other teams remain silent. Nonetheless, we stopped marching and lost the mojo that defined us.
A recent headline perhaps conveys the root of the situation as discussed. Can Greenpeace Mobilize Millions and Save Our Planet in Time. According to Rev. Trimble, saving the planet is the job of the Body of Christ and we’re not doing it. To summarize, we won’t be relevant like we were in the 1840s and 1960s until we go back to acting like we did as a denomination then. Why are Greenpeace and Amnesty International doing our job? Because we stopped being relevant to the planet and the people who live on it. We traded it all for nostalgia and comfort. Most Americans who are adamant about social justice have left the pews. ACLU, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Occupy movement, Zeitgeist movement, Doctors Without Borders, just to name a few, work for social and economic justice and a safer place for people to thrive. They condemn and confront the creation of child-soldiers, for-profit prisons, the trafficking of sex slaves and economic injustice quite well as secular institutions. One could argue that they’ve stolen our reputation; but that would ignore that we haven’t lived up to our reputation since 1965. Tremble made that exact argument. Simply put, no image of this church in-action is more recent than the Civil Rights Movement. The urgency was made real in two ways. Trimble showed a graph conveying the result of the -3% growth rate with milestones years leading to nonexistence in a generation, including the churches represented in that room. Many probably have less than 10 years. Secondly, as a so-called millennial December 2015 minister of this tribe—again, her word—Trimble made clear that her retirement is likely to come from another denomination unless we come up with a path different from the one we are on.
Open and Affirming
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the event, at least that I witnessed, was the mass exodus from the banquet hall after the keynote speaker and before Andy Lang gave his assessment on where we, as a conference, are along the path toward ONA. For Rev. Trimble the room was packed with hundreds of eager Christians. All but about 20 people, mostly male, left before the word “gay” was uttered. That was more telling than any slide about  declining membership.
Mr. Lang’s presentation was entitled Open and Affirming 101. He conveyed the various stages Michigan UCC churches are on along the path of being an ONA house of worship. Put simply, according to Lang, ONA is merely about welcoming without judgement everyone who comes to our door—no more and no less. ONA reaches beyond the LGBT community to those with  mental and psychological challenges. It’s about building a truly inclusive church, by Jesus’ definition of the word.
We can’t afford to turn people away. That’s the fiscal aspect of the situation; but Lang made clear that welcoming anyone from the LGBT who wishes to seek God by way of our path is a matter of ethics and justice; and just as integral to human decency as issues surrounding the education of black children in the 1960s. This allows for the return-to-theme, Trimble talked about.
Action items and conclusion
These are trying times to be sure. Adamant Christians, Muslims and Jews are frothing at the mouth to kill one another. The future prosperity of the nation is in the hands of thieves with authority; racial injustice is as evident now as it was in 1960; economic injustice has increased a hundred fold; girls are being kidnapped or sold by their parents into slavery, in Michigan, and we’re basking in nostalgia wondering where everyone went.
The loudest representatives of that thing we call Christianity in this country are some of the most repugnant, hateful and destructive people breathing. This happened on our watch. According to our leadership, we, the members and they, the leaders, went quiet, grew complacent and sunk into our couches like the rest of the country. We walked away from the job and the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. The younger generation believes credibility requires action, standing up and doing something. They’ve voted with their feet.
We, as a humble Midwest church, can’t afford to fix child prostitution, white slavery or for-profit prisons, or make America love gay people. Nonetheless, we have a problem that has to be solved loudly, relatively cheaply and soon. We have to market who we are. No denomination embraces science as we do. We’re one of the few denominations that accept climate science, but do so like church mice. We blow off a tremendous opportunity to set ourselves apart and attract those who’ve left the church because of deeply embedded Iron Age thinking. We have met this opportunity with silence, say the Millennials, and did so to avoid controversy. Meanwhile, Rev. Trimble and Andy Lang both contended that controversy is what made this denomination and controversy is the only thing that will save us.
Whatever historians say about the actual and no doubt complicated source of our demise, fear of making a political statement will be what it says on the death certificate. To so-called Millennials we simply don’t practice what we preach. We have much to discuss. – cjs