The Rev. Rod Echols, the new minister at Neighborhood Congregational Church, expresses a passion for “progressive Christianity,” and he thinks it’s the key to growing the church founded in 1943. “It means we can’t stand by. We must speak to the issues happening around us,” he said in defining what the concept means to him.
Parishioner Michele McCormick described the Rev. Echols’ arrival in Laguna Beach as auspicious. Although he has been in the pulpit only since May and hasn’t yet found a place to live in town, she said “he responded at a moment’s notice to my and Mayor Iseman’s request for him to do the opening prayer,” setting the tone for a unity rally of 300 or so people on Main Beach last Saturday, Aug. 19. It served as a counter-protest and preceded a demonstration organized by the anti illegal immigration group America First, which drew 2,500 people.
Prior to the America First protest scheduled for 6 p.m., NCC was a hotbed of activity. The reverend gave the 10 a.m. sermon in his usual interactive style to approximately 85 congregants. From 2 to 4 p.m. he and 20 other clergy from around Orange County led a non-violence training and vigil for 250 community members. After a shared meal, Echols, a rabbi, an imam and leaders of the local Methodist and Episcopal churches led an interfaith service at 5 p.m., which drew 500 attendees to NCC, many of whom marched to Main Beach afterward.
Now he’s looking for ways to build on that awareness. “We can do ourselves a service as a community by intentionally listening to each other,” the Rev. Echols said. His goal is to make his church a safe space to do that.
Echols arrives in Laguna at a difficult time for the United Church of Christ, the denomination with which NCC is affiliated. In March 2016, John C. Dorhouer, the UCC’s general minister and president, disclosed financial challenges at a board meeting in Cleveland. He called for “revising patterns from the ground up and building a staff that meets the needs of a rapidly changing world and church.”
Echols’ predecessor, was well aware of the problem of declining church attendance. “Churches can be myopic in adjusting to change,” said the Rev. BJ Beu, who served in the pulpit for seven years, in a January 2016 interview with the Indy. “The church needs to get beyond where it’s at. Every mainline church in America is in decline. For the most part, the membership is getting older and the numbers are going down.”
The Rev. Beu was let go in early 2016 when 36 of 54 congregants voted for his dismissal at the church’s annual meeting.
A stormy forecast lies ahead, says a 2015 study by the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data. Projections showed that over the next three decades, the number of UCC congregations will decline to approximately 3,600 churches from over 5,100 churches today. During the same time period, the number of UCC members will drop precipitously, to just under 200,000 from 1.1 million today.
Further, a Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study found that only 14.7 percent of U.S. adults were affiliated with mainline Protestant traditions, as opposed to evangelical and fundamentalist religions, a decline from 18.1 percent in 2007.
The Pew study finds that among millennials, those born since 1981, a third express no religious affiliation. And Protestants have one of the lowest retention rates of any major religious tradition, with only 45 percent of those raised in the faith continuing to identify with it as an adult, the study says.
The Rev. Echols comes to Laguna Beach with a background in development as well as theology. In addition to leading UCC and American Baptist congregations, he’s held fundraising positions at two universities and two non-profits. “I understand the business side of religion,” he said. Working with those organizations “gave me a sensitivity to engage across perspectives,” he said.
A Memphis native and oldest of three children, the Rev. Echols grew up in “a strong African American community with a conservative world view.” He described himself as “a fish out of water” when he arrived, on scholarship, at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He credits his mother, who recently retired as an administrator at the University of Memphis, for ensuring he attended an integrated public elementaryschool, one of three black students at the school.
Brown “opened me to new ideas” where “I went on a journey of exploring other religions,” he said in a recent interview with radio show host Billy Fried on FM station KX 93.5. He re-read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and played jazz and R&B tunes on the school radio station. “I retained my faith,” he said. The pastor also holds a Master of Divinity from Boston University.
In searching for a new pastor, “we sought strong leadership qualities, wisdom, compassion, openness and clear vision in identifying our role in the community both locally and globally,” said Pam Wicks, the music director at NCC. “With Rev. Echols, we hit the jackpot! He is all that and more. We, as a church, are growing again. The excitement and joy at NCC are palpable,” she added.
For the church to remain relevant, the Rev. Echols says it is necessary for the church to be a “voice for the community, especially on justice issues.” It takes courage, he said, to tackle issues such as racial insensitivity, exemplified by the LBHS students who threw a watermelon at the home of a black classmate last December.
The Rev. Echols plans a series of sermons, Sunday, Sept. 10 through Oct. 22, entitled, “What is Progressive Christianity?” Each will feature live music and a question and answer period. A potluck lunch is planned for Sunday, Sept. 24. He hopes these “conversations” will let people know “we’re interested in their ideas.” His aim is to promote inclusion of other faiths and emphasize justice in “collaborating to make a better world.”
McCormick, who also spoke at last Saturday’s rally, did not participate in the Sunday demonstration. “Progressive Christianity is a draw in itself and Pastor Echols is a wonderful preacher. I think NCC has finally found the dynamic leader they’ve been seeking,” she said.