When Dr. Paul Sherry moved from Chicago to Cleveland earlier this month, he admitted he was leaving “with some trepidation.” And well he might. Sherry is taking over as president of the United Church of Christ. With 1.7 million members, it is among the dozen largest Protestant denominations in the United States, but it’s also one of those mainline churches that have been hemorrhaging at a steady rate for 25 years. In 1965, it claimed 2.1 million followers; since then it has lost 400,000 members, or 19 percent of its membership. And as enrollment has been going down, the average age of members is on the rise.

The United Church of Christ is feeling the effects of the conservative drift in the U.S. church-affiliated population. Fundamentalists like Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and Jerry Falwell are among the best-known Protestant leaders, gradually shoving even the legendary Billy Graham off the top of the heap. It is not age so much that has diminished Graham as it is the faint scent of liberalism about the man, his openness to Catholics, Jews, and others who are not clearly marked for salvation. It is entirely possible that even Jim Bakker will survive his fall from grace, perhaps using it as a stepping-stone back to the pulpit and a hefty bank balance.

When the television preachers lambaste ministers who “prefer the social gospel to that old-time religion” or denounce churches that find common cause with “the powers of this world,” they are talking about the theologically liberal wings of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. But right up at the top of their list is the United Church of Christ.

For the past eight years, Paul Sherry has headed the Community Renewal Society, the Chicago-area social-action arm of the UCC. Shortly before his departure, he remarked: “I’d say we are the most liberal theologically and the most socially activist of any Protestant denomination today.” He said it without a hint of apology and indicated that the UCC, under his guidance, has no intention of abandoning the social gospel, or of seeking common cause with the purveyors of quick electronic salvation.

There are certain “big” issues he would like the church to address. Economic Justice: “How can we shape a domestic policy so that the rich don’t just get richer and the underclass fall further behind?” Race relations: “We’ve got to learn how to treat everyone equally.” And rampant consumerism: “This ceaseless pressure to acquire things is creating a nation of isolated individuals.” No mention of Armageddon, hellfire, or the Rapture to come.

Sherry said his new duties involve some administration at the UCC’s new central office in Cleveland, but his main role, as he sees it, is to be “spokesperson and pastor, the voice of what the United Church of Christ stands for.” In the late 20th century, he noted, “we’re standing as a church at the edge of modern culture, so maybe we’re in a better position to bear prophetic witness. Maybe we can find ways for the gospel to speak truth to power.”

There are several ironies here. Once upon a time, the forefathers of the UCC stood at the very center of American culture, framing its basic values in the nation’s infancy. They were the malcontents who composed the Congregational church: the Puritans and Pilgrims who broke from the Church of England in the 17th century and came to America seeking freedom and independence. Their highest values were hard work, moral uprightness, and religious liberty–up to a point. Indians and supposed witches were not well tolerated.

In a sense, said Dr. Martin Marty, professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Congregational church was the North American religion. Combining quiet piety and sobriety with an acute social consciousness, it exerted enormous influence in the young colonies, an influence that continued well into the 19th century. The Congregationalists, Marty noted, were the founders of Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth; they were antiabolitionists and the leaders of other social movements; they were the formative influence on important writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

But somewhere along the line, Marty said, this quintessential American church “rang up too many victories, ran out of enemies,” and lost its sharp edge. Other cultures and religious traditions in the 19th and early 20th centuries began to have their influence on Protestant America–the Pentecostals, the revivalists, the fundamentalists.

In 1957, the Congregational church merged with the Evangelical and Reformed church to become what is now known as the United Church of Christ. At first, the two old institutions seemed like odd ecumenical bedfellows–the Congregationalists had their roots in England and the Evangelicals had broken away from German Lutheranism. Yet the marriage, the first between a church from Britain and one from the continent, has gone surprisingly well. The Evangelicals, who had always been committed to social welfare, in this country erected an impressive network of hospitals, nursing homes, and other health-care institutions. The church also produced a bevy of theological giants like H. Richard Niebuhr, his brother Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich–all of whom, years after their deaths, still have a pervasive influence in theology schools.

The effect of the merger was to stabilize and strengthen both churches. The UCC, for instance, now runs or is affiliated with 14 seminaries, including the Yale Divinity School, Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Chicago Theological Seminary. The church also oversees several huge health conglomerates, including the Evangelical Health Systems, which runs Christ Community Hospital and five other hospitals in the Chicago area.

Consistent with its tradition, the UCC takes the sort of liberal, activist stand on issues of morality and public policy that would drive Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson up the wall. At their general synod in Fort Worth last July, UCC delegates opposed any constitutional amendment to criminalize flag burning, supported the right of infertile couples to use new reproductive techniques, including surrogate motherhood, urged the closing of plants that produce nuclear weapons, reaffirmed support for freedom of choice in the termination of pregnancy, called for broader dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and even petitioned Texas officials to repeal still-existing antisodomy laws. The synod also called for UCC churches to “reach out to prisoners of conscience and their families” and to boycott Shell Oil for its South African connections and American Home Products for failing to comply with WHO regulations on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes in underdeveloped countries.

In the Chicago area, the United Church of Christ is intensely active. Much of this activity lacks the UCC label, however. Some of its 175 congregations, for instance, still call themselves “congregational” or “evangelical.” The emphasis in most churches is on action rather than contemplation and on adjusting to change rather than canonizing tradition. In fact, it would be extremely difficult to find any denomination in Chicago that takes the city and its problems more seriously than the United Church of Christ does. But unlike many church bodies that insist that the denominational name appear on everything from the Sunday-school bus to the giveaway Thanksgiving turkey, the UCC regularly opts for a self-effacing, ecumenical, nonsectarian posture. Some of the church’s best-known ministers are recognized more for their civic and secular involvements than for their ministerial achievements: for example, Don Benedict, former director of the Community Renewal Society and now head of Clergy and Laity Concerned; Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman; Kenneth Smith, former president of the Chicago Board of Education and now president of Chicago Theological Seminary; and Jorge Morales, militant Puerto Rican rights activist.

The UCC’s active but often anonymous stake in this world is perhaps best illustrated in the Community Renewal Society. Founded 108 years ago by Congregationalists as the Chicago Missionary Society, the agency helped waves of immigrants settle into the new land. It tackled housing, employment, and education problems, while warning newcomers about the dangers of alcohol and idleness. Thanks to a $4 million bequest in 1925 from Victor Lawson, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, the society not only survived the Great Depression but helped thousands of jobless and homeless Chicagoans to survive it as well. The shrewdly invested Lawson money still provides the society with a handy financial foundation.

During the civil-rights era in the 1960s and 1970s, the CRS waded into slum-housing rehabilitation, legal assistance for the poor, and health education. It founded the Urban Training Center, which educates ministers of all denominations about urban problems, and invested heavily in an effort to develop the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization into a model for other neighborhoods. When it became clear that Chicago’s race-related headaches could not be cured if segregation continued, the society pressed for open housing in the suburbs. In 1972, CRS launched the Chicago Reporter, a much-praised investigative monthly that has consistently exposed the causes and effects of institutional racism in the metropolitan area. During the Council Wars years, Sherry and his staff were instrumental in forming the Chicago Covenant, an assembly of business and church leaders that tried to stem the acrimony and bloodletting. And when the plight of street people escalated, the society organized the Interfaith Council for the Homeless.

Under Sherry’s direction, the CRS several years ago launched Building Communities From Within, an ambitious, long-range, financial- and technical-assistance program to help minority churches address the human needs of their neighborhoods. Six of these churches, all on the west side, have Baptist or Pentecostal congregations and have no ties to the United Church of Christ. Thus far, these six churches have tackled home rehabilitation, tenant-landlord referral, employment training, and drug education.

CRS also publishes books and papers on urban issues, sponsors courses in theology schools on public ministry, and keeps a finger on every important development in the city–it encourages involvement, for example, in the new public-school reform process.

Most Chicagoans have probably heard of the Community Renewal Society–through one or another of its campaigns and projects–but it’s a safe bet that the majority do not know its ongoing relationship with the United Church of Christ. And the church pays a price for such uncompromising modesty: despite its commitment to minority rights, the UCC today has less than a 2 percent black membership.

Paul Sherry said he leaves Chicago with some regret. “These seven years were the best years of my ministry,” he said. “The Community Renewal Society is a fine institution, very committed to the city.” Just before he left, Sherry was hailed by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders for keeping a sensitive finger on the pulse of the city and for rallying them on occasion to address critical problems. His own commitment now shifts to the church that undergirds CRS. Whether his election by the synod presages a UCC shift toward more visibility is uncertain.

One immediate task for the new president will be smoothing feathers ruffled by the decision by synod delegates last July to transfer the national headquarters from New York City to Cleveland. Many argued that a move to Cleveland, the butt of numberless disaster jokes, will not upgrade the UCC image. And besides, the relocation will cost more than $10 million. Those who endorsed the move believe operational costs will be cheaper in Cleveland, a city that is closer to the demographic center of the UCC’s membership concentrations in the northeast and midwest. Sherry said he takes no position on what for the moment remains a “very hot topic” with UCC officials. Meanwhile, Roy Larson, former religion editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and now editor of the Chicago Reporter, is acting executive director of the Community Renewal Society while the search for a new director goes on.

Historian Martin Marty’s advice to the UCC in its new Sherry era is: don’t panic just because the membership is not expanding, and don’t try to play catch-up with the fundamentalist churches. “Just because things grow, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better,” he said. The United Church of Christ, said Marty, should keep the strengths it has and develop or rediscover some it may have neglected–it must resist the tendency to be “so unobtrusive you don’t invite people into your household.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.