State of UCC Address

January 15, 2006



State of University Congregational Church Address (1/15/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Last week I delivered a State of the Church address—our version of a State of the Union Address or State of the State Address—and concentrated on the state of the worldwide church. This morning we will turn to the state of this particular institution—University Congregational Church. To do this, I want to place our little corner of Christianity in its broadest context. We did not invent the Christian religion in this place. We stand in a long tradition of faithful men and women who have embraced the teachings of Jesus since he lived some 2000 years ago.

So let’s take a brief look at the history of the church. There were no churches when Jesus lived. His followers were exclusively Jewish. They were not trying to start a new religion. They were reformers, attempting to reform Judaism as it was being practiced in first century Israel.

After his death many of his followers continued meeting in the synagogues. Christianity was considered a sort of cult, however, within the Jewish faith, and their view of religion was soon not welcome in the Jewish houses of worship. People started meeting in the homes of faithful followers. These groups included gentiles—non-Jews—who responded to the message of Jesus.

So the first churches were comprised of people who met in homes. It wasn’t common for a church to have its own special building until the 4th century when Roman Empire embraced Christianity under Constantine. Then local basilicas were often turned into houses of worship. A basilica was a public meeting hall, and the basic structure of an ancient basilica is reflected even in modern churches. A basilica was rectangular, with aisles, had a narthex, and the outer walls were lined with tall windows. Sound familiar?

There were many strands of Christianity. What we now call orthodox Christianity emerged as the victor among many competing ideas regarding the nature of Jesus and the nature of the church. But in the early days of the church there was plenty of room for some free thinking. It was in the 4th century that the creeds were developed, and afterwards those who practiced their faith contrary to the creeds were considered heretics.
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St. Augustine was one of the first truly great thinkers in the Christian faith. He lived in the 4th and 5th centuries. St Thomas Aquinas is often regarded as the greatest thinker in the history of the church. He lived in the 13th century. I bring up the subject of these great saints for a reason. Sometimes when I talk about Augustine or Aquinas, people wonder why I am talking about Catholics. They were not Catholics. They were Christians. Protestantism and Catholicism did not split until the 16th century. We Protestants can lay equal claim to Augustine and Aquinas. They are a part of our shared history.

I should back up a bit and mention the first great split in the church occurred in the year 1054, when the church divided between east and west—between Orthodox and Catholic—between Constantinople and Rome. That split was 99% political and 1% theological. Our roots—the roots of the Congregational tradition, are traced through the Catholic half of that divide.

Then, in 1517, Martin Luther, having observed a variety of corrupt practices in the Catholic faith of the Middle Ages, nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, a list of 97 complaints against the Roman church. That is considered the pivotal moment in a series of events that began the Protestant Reformation.

In Continental Europe, the Reformation followed one of four paths. These paths were forged by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and Menno Simons. To trace our Congregational roots, we must look to England. Forgive me now as I greatly oversimplify what happened in England regarding the Reformation.

Henry VIII saw no reason to have his country involved in the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church was fine with him. Until he wanted a divorce. And the Pope said no. And suddenly Protestantism started looking real good to Henry. In fact, he decided to start the Church of England. Now who should head this new denomination? Henry! And Henry was more than happy to give himself permission to get a divorce.

That was the not-so-noble beginning to what turned out to be a great church—the Church of England, also called the Anglican Church, and in America called the Episcopalian Church. It truly is a great denomination, and today some of the best writing and most critical thinking in Christianity emanates from the Episcopal Church.

But let’s go back to 16th and 17th century England. The officials of the Church of England took their religion very seriously. Their buildings were ornate, with beautiful stained glass windows. They had a hierarchy of priests and bishops just like the Catholic Church. Their priests wore lavish robes and headgear. They had in many ways re-invented the customs of the Catholic Church.

There were those in the Church of England who resented all those trappings. Seeing all the changes going on in continental Europe, they felt England’s Reformation had happened in name only. There were two such groups—the Separatists and the Puritans. The separatists wanted to separate from the Church of England and start their own denomination, and the Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England—to change it from within.

These two groups were persecuted within the church. A group of them finally had enough, and they started building their own churches, with a whole new set of rules. Instead of a hierarchy of priests and bishops making the rules for worship, it was all up to the congregation. This was the birth of Congregationalism.

This didn’t set too well with the political and religious authorities. One group moved to Holland where they established their own congregation. After a generation, however, they became distraught that they were raising their children in a non-English speaking land. They chartered a ship to sail to the New World, where they could practice their religion in freedom while speaking their native tongue. That ship, of course, was called the Mayflower.

They landed at Plymouth Rock, and the rest is history. Soon another group of Puritans and Separatists arrived and started Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thus, the history of Congregationalism and the history of our nation go hand in hand.

In those American churches, they established democracies. Leaders were elected by the congregation, not appointed by a higher authority. In fact, there was no higher authority than the congregation itself. Each congregation had its own constitution, written and voted upon by the people of the Congregation. The constitution of the Congregational Church in Hartford is often credited as being a roadmap for the American Constitution.

So what happened? Why isn’t there a Congregational Church on every corner in America? There is one on practically every corner of New England. Congregational Churches, with both the philosophy and the architectural style of our own church—simple, white, tall steeple, no stained glass—can be found all over that part of the world. Why didn’t Congregationalism remain a religious force as the nation expanded westward?

Two things. First, because each Congregational church was independent, it was difficult to raise large sums of money to plant new churches in the west. Other denominations had hundreds of churches that could pool their resources and send missionaries and church builders across the country. That put Congregationalism at a distinct disadvantage. Second, Congregationalists had a passion for education. The money they raised was often used to build colleges as opposed to churches. But some great colleges came about as a result of the efforts of Congregational churches. Harvard and Yale were started by Congregationalists. So were Dartmouth, Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and closer to home, Wichita State University, founded as Fairmount College, began as a congregational institution.

In the late 1950’s most Congregational Churches formed a new denomination—The United Church of Christ. This group is comprised of purely voluntary member churches, as a way of attempting to have the benefits of a wider denomination without the problems that go with hierarchical authority. It has enabled member churches to have a greater impact on worldwide mission, and offers great support for its ministers.

University Congregational Church was born in the historic Congregational tradition in 1983. Dr. Robert Meyers had been the pulpit minister at Plymouth Congregational Church here in Wichita, sharing duties with another minister who handled pastoral care and administration. When that congregation wanted a single full-time minister, Dr. Meyers was unwilling to give up his career as an academic—he taught literature at WSU. A core group of people from Plymouth ultimately decided to establish a new church with Dr. Meyers as its head.

The first meeting of University Congregational Church took place on April 16, 1983 at Collegiate School. Amazingly, 237 people attended that first service. In June of 1983 the congregation rented space from First Christian Church on North Market. In October of 1983 the Constitution and bylaws of University Congregational Church were approved by a vote of the membership, and a plan was soon set in motion to build a new facility.

This was a long process. Groundbreaking for this church building occurred on July 13th of 1986, and the first service in this new building were held about a year later, on June 14th of 1987. The original building did not include the west wing of the church—Fellowship Hall and the children’s wing—which was added in 1990.

In 1997, when Dr. Meyers turned 70, it was determined that he could use some help, and I was called as Associate Minister. Dr. Meyers and I shared the pulpit for the next seven years, with my becoming Senior Minister in the year 2000.

Today, the state of our church is strong—very strong. Financially, we are secure, thanks to the sacrifices of you, the people who call this church home. Our programming has never been better. From “Cook’s Night Out” to the youth program, wonderful things continue to happen with the people of this congregation. We have a physical facility, a church building, that I believe is simply one of the most beautiful places on earth. And we have a staff that cares for the building, the people, and the operations of this church with dedication.

Of course, there is the issue of my health. It is no secret that I am dealing with a bad disease—Advanced Renal Cell Carcinoma. I have been as open possible with you about this awful cancer, and the prognosis that accompanies this disease. I want you to know that I am doing well. Some would say it is a miracle I am still around, but I expect more miracles in the future.

Still, the fact is the day will come when I am no longer around to lead this congregation, whether that day comes next month or in thirty years. I am holding out for the 30 years, by the way. I want you to understand my hope for the future of this church. I want to be on record with my recommendations. Bob Meyers was a much loved minister. Statistically, the odds of my succeeding at this church were minimal. The statistics show that the minister following a beloved founding minister fails. The expectations are too high. Bob and I made it work, and I give 100% of the credit for our success to Bob, who was not only my number one cheerleader, but a man who was willing to let go of something he dearly loved—this church—for the sake of this church’s future. I have been very lucky, because I, like Bob, have received so much love from the people of this congregation, it is impossible to describe.

But the next person will have a tough time. Again, the odds of him or her succeeding are slim. Virtually every mainline church in the country has a suggestion for the replacement of a beloved minister, and that involves an “interim minister.” An interim minister is a person who specializes in serving a church for a set period of time—6 months or a year—while the congregation seeks a new full time minister. Interim ministry is very important. Ministers who are specially trained in interim ministry know how to set the groundwork for the future permanent minister. It also allows the congregation plenty of time to find the right person. I hope you will follow this method when the time comes. Of course, I also hope we don’t need to resort to that method until somewhere around the year 2040.

But when the time comes that I become too ill, or get run over by a bus, or decided to give up the ministry and start raising chinchillas, I hope you will seek out a professional interim minister. You can search nationally for one, or contact the local United Church of Christ office for some direction in the matter. But an interim takes all the pressure off your search and call process. And then, and I’ll be brutally honest here, you can get out there and steal yourself a good minister. And that is exactly what you should do. The future minister of this church is preaching somewhere right now. He is underpaid, underappreciated, and an excellent preacher.

You will not find an excellent preacher who is willing to come in here and play second fiddle for any length of time. Excellent preachers are few and far between, they are in demand, and they are working. And often, congregations expect their minister to live in poverty—just like Jesus! You will find the right person, but he or she is standing in a pulpit somewhere even as we speak.

And that, dear friends, brings to an end my state of the church address. I hope you all understand what a special place this is. You are what make it so. And what we have right now—this relationship we have with one another, this worship atmosphere we create together—this is something unique. We should cherish every moment of it. And we do.