By Janis Fontaine
Churches throughout the country are struggling with the same issues: how to attract new members and how to keep the members they have.
Two local churches are working together to address these issues to benefit both.
Church of the Palms in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach Congregational Church have been practicing a “cooperative ministry” since May 2022. They are affiliated under United Church of Christ.
“It’s going very well,” the Rev. Todd Petty, pastor of Church of the Palms, said by phone.
In the past few years, Boynton Congregational had undergone big changes: It sold its property to the city and moved to a smaller, leased site. Then it lost its pastor. Petty started leading worship at both churches a few Sundays each month.
Finally, it just made more sense to incorporate both churches at one site — Church of the Palms. The two churches haven’t officially merged yet, but it’s likely to happen this year.
In congregations affiliated under UCC — about 5,000 churches nationally with more than a million members — most decisions are made locally, rather than by a governing body such as a diocese. Individual churches decide how conservative or progressive they want to be.
United Church of Christ often calls itself the “church of firsts.” According to ucc.org, the church was “the first historically white denomination to ordain an African-American, the first to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay man, and the first Christian church to affirm the right of same-gender couples to marry. We were in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement and the Civil Rights movement.”
The three ideals the church holds above others are inclusiveness, progressive thought and community-mindedness, and the functioning of the two local churches as one for the good of the congregants is a testament to these ideals.
Petty came to Church of the Palms in January 2020, just as the pandemic began. It was a terrible time for all churches, but to Petty, who relocated from snowbound Michigan, keeping a positive attitude for his new congregation during the pandemic was important.
United Church of Christ prides itself on being “a church of extravagant welcome,” following Jesus’ example of “gracious hospitality.” Petty said people consider two things when they are looking for a new church: Was the message meaningful and inspiring and were the people friendly?
“Our commitment is to be open and affirming, especially to the LGBTQ community,” Petty said. “We consider ourselves a progressive church with traditional worship that’s community-minded.”
UCC is a democratic church. Church members get to vote on big decisions — like who the next minister will be — and decide what they want the personality of their church to be. “We say, ‘Our congregation speaks to us, but not for us,’” Petty said.
Petty said that the No. 1 reason people come to a new church is a personal invitation. Maybe a neighbor says, “Come check out my church,” or a colleague mentions something interesting about a sermon.
Certainly, people are checking out churches online and churches need a strong presence there. Church of the Palms has a Facebook page, which is one of the best ways to stay connected. Another is to hold virtual services as the church does.
Petty said churches in general have two congregations now: in-person and virtual. Some people love the virtual option and attend more often now that services are online. Other people like to come and sit in the pews.
Petty strives to serve both.
“We also allow our facilities to be used by 12 other churches,” Petty said. “We’re a ministry of space and we’re very proud of that.”
And if you’re looking for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Church of the Palms has one almost every day.
Petty says he committed himself to serving God in the fifth grade, but his mother knew even earlier that her son would grow up to serve God.
He comes from a long line of preachers: His great-great-great- grandfather was the first in the family. “It’s in my DNA,” Petty said.
Church of the Palms is undergoing two important beautification projects: The church is refurbishing the stained glass out front, and it will install in the church courtyard the dalle de verre stained glass cross that Boynton Beach Congregational salvaged from its original site.
Consider this your personal invitation to come by and see what’s happening.
Church of the Palms is at 1960 N. Swinton Ave. In-person worship takes place at 10 a.m. Sunday, followed by coffee in the Friendship Center. The virtual service streams at 4:30 p.m. Call 561-276-6347.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at email@example.com.