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What Makes This Progressive Church Thrive

What does a thriving progressive church look like?
There’s no cookie-cutter answer to that question. There’s no one “secret sauce” to sprinkle on a church to bring it alive. But from each other, churches can discover ingredients for the recipes for vitality that will work for them.
Three years ago, Claremont United Church of Christ was in a sanctuary too big for its 175 people attending two Sunday services. Then the church hired a young clergy couple, Jen Strickland and Jacob Buchholz, to lead it. They coaxed the worship team to reduce the number and length of announcements, choreograph the entrances and exits of liturgists and musicians and choir members, add an eclectic mix of musical genres, and maintain themes in all aspects of the service. This made worship shorter and sweeter, sticking to an hour of engaging, meaningful experiences. They follow the “church year”, but preach in topical series rather than using the standard lectionary of scriptures. They added a mix of wonderful music of different genres to add to the traditional music accompanied by the church’s big pipe organ. Travis and Trisha Long, new members, said “we had been searching for a church like CUCC for years and couldn’t believe we found one that checked all those boxes.”
Showing solidarity with the influx into the church of “exvangelicals”, on occasion the church started to include a rock band playing Hillsong praise music, choosing those with lyrics befitting a theologically progressive church. And on holiday weekends and in summers, instead of trimming down Sunday worship and events, Jen and Jacob did the opposite – so that if members were in town, they’d really want to show up. They made improvements in the children’s program. They turned the deacons’ board from a “party planning” group into two units devoted to pastoral care and spiritual growth.   The church website and signage makes its progressive identity unmistakable for “outsiders” and newcomers. Jen and Jacob made sure that every Sunday, parishioners are invited into some kind of direct action for social justice or service. The church took on a special mission of visiting and advocating for migrants in custody at the ICE center in Adelanto, north of Claremont.   Jen and Jacob incarnated this commitment in a very personal way. For several months, in their home they sheltered two migrants waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. The migrants had been bonded out of detention by the church. This action got a lot of local press attention.
The church has grown substantially in spirit, mission, and numbers. Over 370 people now show up for the two services. The church is adding 65-70 members a year: an eclectic mix of ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. From the nearby Claremont colleges, students and professors are attracted. The church is welcoming an influx of Chinese and Korean families. And “exvangelicals” are thrilled to find a congregation that practices and preaches a kinder, gentler kind of Christianity.
“We continue to be engaged at CUCC through the consistently thoughtful and inspiring sermons, the focus on social justice, the opportunities to become involved in a variety of church and community activities, and a growing youth program that our children love. CUCC is unique by having a husband and wife pastor, who not only share the pulpit, but are incredibly intentional about forming relationships with all their congregants,” Travis and Trisha report.
A combination of dozens of non-radical changes have radically enlivened Claremont UCC. It is said that the “devil is in the details”. It would appear that the divine is in the details, as well.

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