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For me, this Fathers’ Day was an illustration of the intensity of contemporary cross cultural experience. Yesterday morning I led Beneficent Church’s annual Abbott Park worship. Abbott Park is located right next to the meetinghouse and belongs to Beneficent Church. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. We had 80 people in worship–African Americans, Chinese, Hondurans, homeless, European Americans, Native Americans, university professors, small business owners, older folks from Beneficent Church’s apartment building next door, parents, and young children, gay, straight, transgenedered people–to name some of the people groups represented.

This was also Pride weekend in Providence. Beneficent Church is Open and Affirming. The church is a water stop for Providence’s annual Pride Parade. We also marched in the parade. We also hosted the Providence Gay Men’s Chorus, who performed at Beneficent Church Friday night.

Sunday morning, I preached on the story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God, who spoke to Elijah out of “sheer silence” on Mount Sinai. I spoke about spiritual tenacity–about how God didn’t give up on Elijah when Elijah felt like giving up on God. I spoke about my experience of discovering as an adult that my dad was gay, about my father’s spiritual tenacity, and about God’s faithfulness to my family.

I felt the difficulty of trying to communicate a Bible story that represents a cultural context so different from the 21st century American city–for instance, the fact that the Biblical prophet Elijah was engaged in spiritual war on behalf of God against the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal and that Elijah actually had Baal’s prophets killed. This sort of thing makes people who live in the land of the champion of religious liberty, Roger Williams, uneasy.

I felt the difficulty of trying to communicate out of my own family experience to a faith community that represents such a diversity of families and cultures.

How does a faith community build a strong, vibrant, faithful faith identity in the face of such diversity? As one of our deacons likes to say, “Not without a lot of work, some struggle, and a few tears.” And, I might add, not without Jesus. The good news is that God continues to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us, preparing our hearts to encounter God in life-giving, life-changing ways. With God’s help we are reaching across cultures, celebrating differences, and building understanding. With God’s grace, our fractured, postmodern lives are made whole.

(By Rev. Nicole Grant Yonkman. First published on www.ucc.org.) This past Sunday, three of our confirmation class kids assisted in worship by leading prayers and reading scripture. Each child’s reaction ranged from petrified to resigned determination. For all of these kids, this was their first time speaking in front of a group of people that was not their class from school. In the look on their faces, I was reminded that being a church leader does not just happen, it is a skill that must be carefully nurtured and developed.

I am in the small minority of UCC pastors – just four percent – who are under 40 years old. I went to seminary right out of college and ministry has been my career for the last 14 years. While I was marginally involved in church as a child, my call was really nurtured and encouraged through a campus ministry program at college.

While I feel fortunate to have had strong role models in college who pointed me in the direction of seminary and ministry, I don’t see a lot of pathways for young people. I’m not just talking about young people who might want to become ministers. I’m talking about young people that want to be Christians; to live a life of faith and walk the Jesus walk. Although our country faces the toughest financial crisis since the Great Depression, our churches have been declining and struggling financially and numerically for years.

The truth is, many children, youth and young adult programs in local churches, denominations, and colleges were cut years ago. We are now reaping what we sowed a generation ago: a majority aging and aged congregations that have few or no children whatsoever. It’s now not just one lost generation, but two lost generations. Generation X has come of age and given birth to children who have no idea what church is.

So what is a church to do? Read more . . .

A Call for Mercy Sermon for 25 October 2009 at Beneficent Church by Nicole Grant Yonkman

Power Issues Sermon for 18 October 2009 at Beneficent Church by Todd Grant Yonkman

Money Problems Sermon for 11 October 2009 at Beneficent Church by Todd Grant Yonkman

2009 NCLI, Emory University, Atlanta, GA

2009 NCLI, Emory University, Atlanta, GA

I just returned from a week in Atlanta. I was on the leadership team for the New Church Leadership Institute, a training event for church planters and church revitalizers. It was a lot of fun working with a great group of people dedicated to growing existing churches and planting new ones. My role was basically to be helpful and do whatever needed to be done to make the NCLI a great experience for everyone. So I lead worship two mornings, provided afternoon music breaks, taught a seminar on social networking and Web design, drove the shuttle bus, helped out with the bookstore, and made lots of great friends. Find out more about the NCLI by visiting growtheucc.org. Our goal for next year is to have 500 people at the event! The energy this year was great. It’s good to know that there is a new generation of leaders in the United Church of Christ who have the gifts and the skills to work for a healthy, hopeful future for our churches.

On April 26, Beneficent Congregational Church (Providence, RI) called Todd and Nicole to be their co-pastors. Beneficent Church was founded in 1743 by a group of Congregationalists who had a revival experience during the Great Awakening and were moved by the Holy Spirit to start a mission to the working-class people on the west side of the Providence River. The founding pastor, Joseph Snow, Jr., was a carpenter by trade.

Over the years, Beneficent Church grew in size and influence. The working-class neighborhood gentrified and became a place where the wealthy and powerful lived. Beneficent responded by adjusting its mission to reach its new neighbors, many of whom found a church home there. The church’s pastors continued to be very creative and mission-oriented, beginning what were at the time cutting edge programs such as children’s Sunday school, and taking advantage of the new medium of radio to broadcast their sermons.

In more recent history, Beneficent Church, like many established, mainline churches, has experienced significant decline in its membership. Beneficent Church has called Nicole and me in the hopes that we might help the congregation “redevelop,” that is, re-establish a vital relationship to its community in order to grow in membership and mission impact. It’s a challenge we look forward to.

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