Special Report

Ejecting From the Church

The venerable United Church of Christ embarks on another silly ad campaign certain to thin its ranks still further.

By 4.6.06

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The liberal-controlled United Church of Christ (UCC) has unveiled its latest television ad, which features an intolerant and presumably conservative church ejecting an "African-American mother," "a gay couple, an Arab-American, [and] a person using a walker," according a UCC news release news release.

This ejection is quite literal. Each person rockets up from an ejector seat after attempting to sit in a church pew. The ad contrasts the inclusive UCC with the ejecting church: "The United Church of Christ -- no matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."

UCC President Rev. John Thomas promised about the ad: "No one will look at a church pew again in the same way!" According to Thomas, the ad showcases the "extravagant" hospitality of the Christian gospel.

The 1.2 million member denomination is spending $1.5 million on the commercial, to be broadcast just in time for Holy Week and Easter.

But almost all major networks -- CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and WB -- have rejected the ads, believing they are "issue advocacy" and too controversial. Similarly, most networks rejected the UCC's last ad spot over a year ago, which featured a bouncer turning away racial minorities and gays from another hypothetical intolerant, i.e. conservative church.

Who these dreadful exclusionary churches are, the UCC ad campaign of course never specifies. Presumably they include the vast majority of U.S. churches that, unlike the UCC, do affirm traditional Christian doctrinal and sexual standards.

Helpfully, the UCC has launched www.rejectionhurts.com, for those who have felt "rejection" from these churches to record their anguish. The UCC website refuses to allow stories from UCC members who have felt "rejection" from their own denomination. So a caucus group of conservative UCC members has started up their own "Fellowship of the Ejected" campaign, which can be found at www.biblicalwitness.org.

The spiritual descendant of New England's old Puritans, the UCC can claim an historical and social pedigree equal to the Episcopal Church. Both denominations are well-heeled, well educated and disproportionately comprised of social and political elites. Both are also liberal-controlled and suffering steep membership decline.

Despite all of its welcoming and affirming, the UCC has lost one million members over the last 40 years, or over 40 percent of its original membership. Like the Episcopal Church, the UCC remains overwhelmingly a denomination of the white, upper-middle class. Minorities and working-class whites have not been ejected by the UCC but are not attracted to its brand of New England-style liberal Protestantism.

Last year's decision by the UCC to become the first major U.S. denomination formally to endorse same-sex "marriage" only contributed to the UCC's membership plunge. At least one hundred congregations have voted to leave the UCC just since 2005, as recorded by www.faithfulandwelcoming.org. The ultimate number probably will be several times that.

According to the UCC, dozens of "gay-friendly" congregations are seeking to affiliate with the UCC. But they are not likely to compensate for the annual loss of tens of thousands of members. In 2004 alone, the UCC lost over 30,000.

Neither its steep decline nor its inability to reach beyond a narrow demographic has inclined the UCC toward modesty or self-reflection. Instead, the UCC has launched www.accessibleairwaves.org to complain about the lack of media attention for political pronouncements from the UCC and other declining, liberal led mainline Protestant denominations. The media prefers the Religious Right, the UCC frets.

"Last December, do you remember when 115 mainline religious leaders and church members were arrested in Washington, D.C., during a last-ditch effort to draw attention to then-proposed cuts to the Federal Budget that would affect millions of low-income Americans?" the UCC website asks. "Of course you don't remember. The major news networks didn't cover it."

Similarly, the UCC wonders why the media will not cover its opposition to the Iraq War, qualms about immigration reform, and push for removing sanctions against Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Forty years ago, one out of every six Americans belonged to a mainline Protestant denomination like the UCC. Today, it is one out of 15 Americans. And, according to exit polls from 2004, church-going mainliners still vote more conservative than liberal. Hence, most secular media find little reason to give coverage to mainline church leaders who, unlike the Religious Right, do not really have a readily identifiable constituency.

Of this demographic change, UCC leaders seem oblivious. In a speech last month at Gettsyburg College, UCC President John Thomas blasted conservative religious influence.

"There is the generalized sense in the culture that Christianity means a relatively conservative portrait of the Gospel," Thomas complained. "What people see on television, they hear on the radio, is a conservative to more right-wing conservative view of politics and religion in general." Thomas noted that many responded to the UCC's endorsement of same-sex "marriage" with "amazement." For too many, church means "no," he observed. Apparently, the UCC wants to provide an alternative "Yes!"

Endlessly including, affirming, and declaring "Yes!" the declining UCC has been rewarded with only further membership loss and growing apathy. A church trying to catch up with the secular culture, instead of adhering to its historic doctrines, almost always enters a hamster wheel that leads nowhere.

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.