Contemporary UCC & DOC

Sermon for Trinity Sunday
June 4, 2023

You just heard something from the very end of Matthew’s gospel called The Great Commission. These words were spoken by Jesus after the resurrection as he was preparing the disciples for the future. There are several places we can point to in the scriptures where the disciples became apostles; that is, where Jesus’ followers became official emissaries of the Kingdom of God. And this is one of them, for Jesus said:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
—Matt. 28:19-20

When we hear these words, we’re not supposed to hear them as individuals. Of course, we’re supposed to do our part as individual Christians. But these words were spoken to what at that time was the entire church. And so, how each denomination and congregation of God’s people interprets these words is important. How we invite others to be part of the church, and what we teach them isn’t just something that sets us apart—it’s literally how we fulfill The Great Commission.

I am a United Church of Christ pastor. But even before I was ever called to serve a partnership congregation—one that was part of both the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I very much admired the DOC identity statement:

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

And so, during covid, when I had to make weekly videos to take the place of our in-person worship services, I began opening each week’s video with those words.

But, of course, we’re not just part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We’re also part of the United Church of Christ. And the UCC has a mission statement, which says:

United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.

And before long, I had created a welcome at the beginning of our worship videos that combined these two statements. When we finally came back together after more than a year apart, I suggested to the elders that we continue opening our service with these words. They liked the idea, and suggested that we all share in the welcome statement. And that’s why we open worship the way we do now—in a beautiful combination of the identity and mission statements of our two churches.

There are dozens of partnership congregations around the country—unions of our two denominations that have entered into full communion. Though the UCC and DOC formed this ecumenical partnership in the 80’s, our roots go much deeper. In Chardon, the First Congregational Church and the Chardon Christian Church united to form a single congregation way back in 1950, making us perhaps the oldest partnership congregation in the country.

Our partnership was formed before either of our denominations even existed. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches came together to form the United Church of Christ. And it wasn’t until 1968 that the Christian Churches that referred to themselves the Disciples of Christ stopped calling themselves a non-denominational movement, but officially formed a denomination.

The world was different in the 50’s and 60’s. We all know that, of course. But nothing in the world has changed more than religious views and religious affiliation. Back then, historic churches like the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists were very influential. And even in the late 60’s, when the Disciples officially became a denomination, they were still a major force in American Christianity.

Having a voice is one of the ways churches have traditionally counted on to fulfill The Great Commission. When we have a voice, we can make disciples; when we have a voice, we can teach people about Jesus’ commandments. So being heard is important. Think about it this way:

There’s a famous chef who’s on TV a lot. I don’t need to name him, but maybe you’ll know who I’m talking about when I tell you he’s British. Anyway, I’m not too fond of him. I find him rude and abusive and foul-mouthed. But I used to watch one of his shows. It was a show in which a lot of young chefs are brought together to compete. And one thing I noticed is that most of them started out one way—being nice to other people, not cussing every other word, and so on. But the more successful ones changed. They began to become a lot more foul-mouthed and less respectful of others. So foul language and rudeness became the common tongue.

That’s what churches do, too—or at least try to do. In the language we speak and in the way we treat others, we hope to help others see our faith and understand how it is we interpret the words of Jesus. Some churches use their voice to condemn people. Our two churches use ours to include people—everybody.

One of the reasons I think it was so easy and so natural to combine the DOC’s identity statement and the UCC’s mission statement into the words of welcome we use in our worship is that the two denominations are so much alike in their priorities and in understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Maybe this is due to the fact that we’re both so fiercely congregational. (This means in both the UCC and DOC, congregations are autonomous. Though we’re bound by covenant with other churches, we own our own property, we call our own pastors, and we can set policies all on our own.) So if a church wants to take a relatively radical stand or call a pastor others might declare should be outside the church, they can do so.

And they have. In both churches. And what’s happened over the years is that congregations that disagreed with them have been free to leave the denomination. We see that very clearly here in Northeast Ohio. There’s a Congregational Church on just about every town square or at nearly every major crossroads. Some never joined the United Church of Christ, and others left. Down in Kentucky where I’m from, it’s the same thing with Christian churches. Many never joined the new denomination that formed in 1968, but many other congregations left it because they felt it was too liberal for them.

This means that the center of both denominations has moved to the left over the years. So, while many in our community see us as too accepting, the average pastor in either the UCC or the Disciples probably think of us as a bit quaint.

If we dwell on it, I suppose it’s a bit troubling to think that the two churches we’re a part of are in decline (numerically, at least). It can also be demoralizing to be criticized for taking an unpopular stance. But as I’ve said before: In our church, we don’t understand love through the filter of scripture; we interpret scripture through the filter of love.

We call ourselves pilgrims, and that’s as much a theology as it is a name. For we know we’re on a journey together. The landscape around us and the climate are ever changing—as are the people we encounter along the way. But, as a writer back in the 1800’s (William Hazlitt) once put it, “A wise traveler never despises his own country.” We’re part of two traditions that value honest inquiry. We encourage openness to new ideas. And whether we think of ourselves as members of the UCC or the Disciples of Christ, we consider it scandalous to place anybody on the outside based on who they are or how they identify themselves.

So in this world where people increasingly want to divide up, let’s continue our pilgrimage. Along the way, we’ll love the unloved and welcome the rejected. And may the language we speak and the deeds we do be the way we fulfill The Great Commission to make disciples and share the teachings of Christ.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.