God Still Speaks: An Interview with Geoffrey Black
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black ’72 M.A.R. is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, a denomination of 1.1 million members in the U.S. in more than 5,100 congregations. The denomination is known for a commitment to fighting injustices, honoring intellect and faith together, and affirming an all-loving God. “We are a church where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary,” the UCC website declares.
Black was elected to the position in 2009 after serving as Conference Minister of the New York Conference for nine years. He has been a local church pastor, a chaplain at Brown University, and a lecturer at Union Theological Seminary.
Ecumenical commitment, concern for equal justice, African-American empowerment, and community improvement are important themes in Black’s ministry.
Reflections: How would you characterize organized religion’s future in light of the trend of declining numbers?
Geoffrey Black: The statistics are real, and there are a lot of reasons for it. We’re seeing demographic shifts. There are regions in our country where the economy has been shrinking and people have moved away. They aren’t going to the church their parents or grandparents went to and may not have an interest in church at all. That’s the reality.
But I remind people there are still young people in our midst, and we can certainly have meaningful interaction with them. There’s reason for optimism. I’m a member of a small congregation with a small youth group, and they are an exciting bunch of kids. Let’s remember, there are young people who attend church and there are young people who they know who don’t attend. With a little creativity, a church can turn to its young people as evangelizers. A church might double the size of its youth group by sponsoring a mission trip that focuses on repairing houses or teaching little kids. That excites young people.
Even a church with no youth can support those that do – through the denomination’s youth programs. The UCC holds a national youth event every four years – attendance tops 4,000.
Some people wring their hands, but there’s always potential. We have to be strategic. And we can’t assume we know what young people want. We need to listen to them tell us what is important.
Reflections: What are churches doing well?
Black: It’s important that churches give young people responsibility. Consult with them about how the church can utilize social media and share the Good News. Invite them, and they feel affirmed. At the congregation I attend, we have a Sonrise service at Easter which is completely led by the young people. They are pumped! They see it as something they can do for their church.
One of the most successful ways the UCC has engaged young people is in congregations which conduct our faith-based comprehensive sexuality curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” Children and youth are transformed by this deep engagement in who they are as people of faith, as human beings, and as sexual human beings with spiritual and moral values. They learn to make life-giving choices and appreciate the skills they gain to navigate some rocky waters.
Our research says Millennials are hopeful. The young people I know at church are bright and capable. They’re affirming of – and affirmed by – their parents. They are excited about a church that cares about the things they care about – like climate change and bullying.
Reflections: “God Is Still Speaking” – the UCC’s official identity tag. What does it mean to you?
Black: The statement speaks to God’s ongoing revelation to us. It calls us to listen for God’s voice. We can discern God speaking through scripture and worship and prayer – and in unexpected places. So we want young people to seek God’s presence in their lives wherever they find themselves. In my experience, young people think that’s a cool thing about their church: They can have a relationship with God as teenagers.
Reflections: What would people miss if churches lose their influence?
Black: First, there’s an element of community that they hunger for which is beyond the nuclear family, a family feeling grounded in eternal values and history. The church is a unique institution that way. Churches are the only institution which is multi-generational by nature. This is a real gift we often overlook.
Yes, there are some traditional church models that don’t work as well now, but that doesn’t mean Christianity is invalid. Very few societies can go without some kind of spiritual entity. The church needs to adjust to the times, and that can be a struggle in a diverse society. But we are moving in creative ways. We have traditional churches that connect with people and we have emerging churches that are adapting to change. Both kinds are going to live side by side for some time to come.