Moderator’s column: Do we pass the welcome test?

A friend of mine spent a few years away from church. She was burnt out. Eventually she decided it was time to return to a worshipping congregation, but wondered which one. She decided to go visiting congregations on a Sunday morning in the hope she might be welcomed beyond a handshake at the door and a copy of the news-sheet.

She worked out a ‘cup of tea’ test. The plan was to hold her cup of tea after the service, very slowly sip it, and smile at everyone who walked past, hoping that someone might be interested enough to pause and talk with her.

Sadly, several churches failed the cup of tea test. Thankfully, at least one church passed the test when someone noticed her, engaged her in conversation and seemed genuinely interested in her wellbeing.

Too easily we conclude we are a friendly congregation, when it may be the case that we do not notice or go out of our way to look after the newcomer or the stranger. We may have created a place of welcome for the regulars, but not so much for the hesitant visitor.

In congregational ministry I regularly encouraged our leaders to follow the ‘two-minute’ rule. I would suggest that straight after the benediction every leader resist the temptation to gravitate towards their friends. Rather, in those two minutes they should cast a careful eye around the congregation for the visitor or stranger and go straight to them with welcoming words and see where it might lead.

It is often said that in the twenty-first century people move from belonging to believing, rather than the other way around.

That means we have to be constantly on our toes to ensure we are genuinely communities of welcome. People are not looking so much for a friendly church, but to make friends. There is a difference.

The early church went way beyond cups of tea in a church hall. In the book of Acts we read that they practiced the gift of hospitality in all kinds of ways. In Acts 21 v4 we read that Paul and his friends were on a trip to Rome and unexpectedly arrived at Tyre. They found the disciples there and stayed with them for seven days, virtually unannounced.

A similar thing happened in Caesarea, where they stayed with Philip the evangelist. Philip had four unmarried daughters. This means there were at least six in the house already, making it very inconvenient. But at the drop of a hat, he makes room for Paul and his friends. And if that’s not enough, he also squeezes in Agabus (v10).

Hospitality was clearly evident in the early church; I wonder how evident it is in your church or mine?

Every day we have opportunities to be a welcoming, friendly person to another. We do it out of love, not duty. God has welcomed, loved and accepted us; we are to do the same to others. One church I know has a welcoming committee and regularly meets to try and think of more creative and caring ways to be a welcoming church. It is no coincidence they are a growing church.

May all of our churches and communities be truly welcoming places.

Blessings,

Rev Steve Francis, moderator of the Uniting Church WA

This article originally appeared in the Uniting Church Western Australia’s bi-monthly magazine, Revive, August 2016 edition.

SYNOD UPDATE

2016 Synod Graphic

In a little less than a month (September 10-11) we will gather together at Scotch College for the 40th Synod of the Uniting Church in Western Australia. We have some interesting things to discuss and important decisions to make.

Starting on the evening of Friday 9 September  at 7pm, we will gather at Penrhos College for the Opening Worship Service. Our speaker will be Sue Ash OA, CEO of UnitingCare West. UnitingCare West have recently celebrated their 10th anniversary and it will be good to hear of the work they have done, the lives they have transformed and their plans for the future. During the service each person will also have the opportunity to write down their prayer or hope for the Synod of Western Australia. If you could ask God anything for our Synod, for what would you pray? After the service we will celebrate our multi-cultural nature with a shared supper. Please bring a plate from your culture – I’ve heard some interesting options around the Uniting Church Centre. As a South African, I plan to bring some biltong and dried wors.

In the past we have held combined Synod and Presbytery meetings and there has been some blurring between the two councils. (Briefly, Presbytery is responsible for the oversight of ministers and congregations while Synod is responsible for the promotion and encouragement of the mission of the church, theological education and property; Synod also includes our agencies and schools.) From this year, Synod (September) and Presbytery (May and November) will meet separately. There are several other changes related to this which will come to the Synod meeting. Having said that, we will have a brief and celebratory Presbytery meeting on Saturday morning, to receive the Samoan congregation into the Uniting Church.

On Saturday we will have two Bible Studies on healing by Rev Dr Chris Walker, National Consultant on Christian Unity, Doctrine and Worship, and in the evening we will have Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll, Manager, Church Partnerships – Pacific, Uniting World, who will address us on environment and women’s issues in that area. The President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Stuart McMillan and Assembly General Secretary, Colleen Geyer will also be present at Synod.

There are two major matters coming to Synod this year. The first is the election of a new Moderator for the next triennial of Synod. This is always an exciting process. Each three years we elect a Moderator who serves as Moderator Elect for a year before taking up office. The Moderatorial Nominating Committee will bring their report at lunch time on Saturday.

The second relates to the separation of Synod and Presbytery and the related bodies. There are a number of new By Laws but essentially they bring us back to the requirements of UCA regulations. The new By Laws will only take effect at the Presbytery meeting in November but need to be passed at Synod in September. The change comes out of the possibility of establishing a Congress Presbytery and/or a second Presbytery. Presbytery will elect a Chair in a volunteer role and the Deputy General Secretary will take up the role of Presbytery Secretary. If approved this will also change the composition of some of our commissions and committees.

UnitingWorld and Social Justice Board will also have proposals relating to their work.

Finally, on Sunday morning we invite Synod members to attend worship services around the Perth Metro area to bring news of Synod to the congregation. Following the services, Synod members will gather back at Scotch College for lunch and the last items of business, including a report back on their visits to the congregations, and the recognition of ministry (including former Associate General Secretary Rosemary Hudson Miller).

Facing the Crisis

flowers

I was privileged to have the great David Bosch as my professor of missiology. He had just published his book “Transforming Mission” in which he points out all the wrong ways in which we have done mission and how we somehow find our way back. In part, he explains that “the church apparently needs a crisis in order to become more fully alive.”

I remember a time at a student retreat in Hammanskraal when he spoke about this, and I particularly remember him telling us around the braai (BBQ, for the Aussies) on Saturday evening that the Japanese characters for ‘crisis’ were a combination of the characters for “danger” and ‘opportunity’ (機).

At that retreat we had two Jewish socialites who were doing some theology courses to pass the time in their apparently boring lives. On Sunday morning when we gathered for Communion, those two ladies had gone out into the bush in the early morning to gather wild flowers and grasses with which they had beautifully decorated the chapel. They spoke at that service – in which they took communion for the first time – of the profound impact that this idea had on them where crisis was both danger and opportunity. They had sat up all night talking with each other and by daybreak they had realised that their lives were in a crisis, not going anywhere, and that they needed to do something about it. They took the plunge and made a choice to follow Jesus, accepting the salvation He offered, acknowledging Him as Lord of their life and committed themselves to follow His teaching.

We are in a crisis in the church today. We are at the space between the danger of insignificance and the opportunity to be the church that Jesus wants us to be. To do nothing is to sink into that insignificance. But this is also an opportunity to become more fully alive. We need to reshape many things if we are to rise to the challenges of a disinterested people, aging congregations and financial limitations. We need to be clear about who we are and where we are going.

I have been meeting with Cheryl Edwardes, a former Attorney-General for Western Australia and Minister for the Environment. In her role as Senior Advisor, Strategic Communications, at FTI Consulting, she will lead a workshop for the General Council and Resources Board together with chairs of our various committees. In a nutshell, we are asking her to help us to face up to our crisis and give us the tools to find a way forward. I have enjoyed working with her because as a member of the Church she understands exactly what the crisis is. She also knows that she doesn’t have the answers.

A significant part of our crisis is that we think we have the answers but don’t actually know what the problem is. I have met with a number of congregations recently who for various reasons find themselves in a crisis. They don’t understand why, they are doing all the right things but nothing happens. They have tried new programs and approaches but nothing has happened. They just get tired and as members pass on, they become fewer and poorer. That’s not their dream, it’s not God’s plan either. In our conversations I have found that the “they” is confined to a small leadership group and that the congregation at large (even though quite small) is quite unaware of the crisis. I have challenged each of these congregations to share the crisis, to explain that they don’t have enough money to pay the minister, and to be open about everything.

It is in facing the crisis that we may well find the opportunity by discovering God’s intention.