Collaborating Communities

Mysterious, intricate, pulsing with energy… 

The human body is an endlessly fascinating repository of secrets. The miracle of the skin, the strength and structure of the bones, the dynamic balance of the muscles… your physical being is knit according to a pattern of incredible complexity. So begins Philip Yancey’s description of the book he wrote with Dr Paul Brand, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made to describe the spiritual lessons to be learned from the human body.

Indeed, the church, as a community, is described in the Bible (1 Corinthians 12:12 ff) as a body of many parts. The parts do not operate independently of the other parts of the body, and together they make up the whole body. Each part has a role to play or a contribution to bring for the benefit of the whole, and ultimately for each other part of the body, though they might not seem directly related.

The body works best when all the different parts are operating at peak efficiency doing what they do best – eyes see, ears hear and so on. The writer goes on to say that there should be no division in the body, but rather that the parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it, and if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

It is a beautiful picture of synergy, where the working of the parts together with each other produces a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

This is the intention of the creation of Networks of Collaborating Communities in the WA Synod Strategic Plan for 2017-2020. Over time, we have seen various iterations of this concept in the Parish model, or the Regional Mission, or Church Hub idea. The difference is that these other models tended to have a paternalistic approach – a more senior (bigger, successful, stronger etc) congregation looked after, or provided services to, a brood of smaller fledgling (struggling, without a minister) congregations.

The Strategic Plan however, recognises that strength or gifting can be measured in many ways other than size or wealth – just like the body!

Diagram 1

In Diagram 1 above, each circle represents a community (congregation, service centre of one of our agencies, a school or a focus group – say, refugee action). Some are big in what they do, some are small but the link runs both ways – each has something to offer for the benefit of the whole, and all together they serve God’s Mission in the world.

By definition, a ‘Collaborating Community’ is a purposeful relationship between two or more groups in which all parties strategically choose to cooperate in order to achieve shared or overlapping objectives. Our objective as the Uniting Church in WA is to be a Christian Community for Everyone, which is Uniting in God’s Mission to the World as we grow Communities of Christ-Followers who are grounded in Worship, Witness and Service.

I have purposefully steered away from examples of the model so that there is no limitation on the way Networks of Collaborating Communities might be formed or may operate, but let’s try some examples – if you promise that these will not be the only models, and that you will be much more creative that I have been!

A Uniting Church school (or agency) and a congregation could collaborate – not simply in shared space but in shared lives and ministry together. I attended my grandkid’s Sports Day grankids recently – what an amazing sense of community and potential for working together in the Mission of God.

Several rural communities in geographic proximity might connect together with shared events – say a weekend camp, 5th Sunday services, shared worship and preaching. A metro congregation may live stream their sermon each Sunday to a group of country congregations. The congregations themselves could lead in their own worship and prayers. The metro congregations could build relationships with the country congregations through weekend visits to share worship, do Messy Church, repair buildings, and so on.

Some country congregations also have really exciting ministries – Merredin Uniting Church’s Ride for Life is a great example where they assist at-risk teenagers to cope with life by teaching horse riding skills. Lighthouse Church Geraldton has Breakfast Church at the start of each school term as an opportunity to invite others to church. Three Springs has a service for motorcycle groups. Mundijong has an incredible community garden ministry. Metro congregation members could also host visits to the city by country folk for medical or other needs.

Several congregations with an interest in overseas mission, or service in remote areas, could work together to fund raise and visit people in those places. Young people in particular are often motivated in their faith by visits to communities served by their congregations.

A group of congregations without ministers in placement could identify as a Collaborating Communities Network. Working together they could create a team of trained people recognised as Pastors who work full time, or part time, as a team across the congregations, building up their relationships with the wider community establishing a positive footprint as a Christian community grounded in Worship of God, Witnessing to God’s grace in their lives and Serving the people in the area.

The ideas are limitless, and the Strategic Plan provides not only for training and guidance, but also financial assistance through the Uniting Church Foundation Trust.

More about that later.

Meanwhile, contact me if you would like to know more about our Strategic Plan and keep thinking of way in which you can contribute to the Uniting Church being a Christian Community for Everyone!

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

Pure Church: Understanding Who the Church Is

I once met someone who worked in a café in Iceland. She told me that one of the specialities of the café was pure water. It was bottled and labelled but the water did not come from a factory. The café owners simply filled the bottles from the pure mountain stream than ran behind the café. Apparently the tourists could really taste the difference, no additives or preservatives.

We look for the pure. Whether its pure water, pure wool, pure juice or pure motives. After all, our world is full of the impure and the polluted.

Every now and then one of our rivers has dead fish washed ashore. Pollution kills. In some cities like Beijing it’s hard to breath because the air is so polluted.

We long for pure air, water and food. We also are mindful that our minds can so easily be polluted. I think of what Internet porn is doing to innocent minds; it’s a form of mental pollution that can lead to other harmful effects. Jesus once said “Blessed are the pure in spirit for they shall see God”. (Matthew 5: 8). Jesus was not advocating a new kind of pharisaic perfectionism. He defined and lived out a new kind of purity, where the love of God, liberated people to welcome and embrace people who were considered unclean and unwanted, the poor, the leper and the prostitute. It was a holy and moral love without straying into moralism or sentimentality.

This pure undiluted love of God flowed freely in Jesus and is what he encourages in the awesome sermon on the mount. It is aspirational, for one of the first things we discover about ourselves is that we are far from pure.

We are a mix of good and bad. Saint and sinner, capable of great good and frightening evil. Still we aim high, with the help of the Spirit , the guidance of God’s word and the encouragement and correction of others.

We don’t need to hang around the church for very long before we discover that it is not a sinless community. As the American New Testament theologian Scot McKnight says, ‘the church is a hospital for sinners, not a retirement centre for the perfect”.

Many centuries ago, a group of Protestants were intent on purging the Anglican Church in England of all traces of Catholicism. They wanted a pure church. In the end, frustrated and disillusioned, they got in boats and became American Pilgrims.

Some of them followed a sad five step pattern out of the church.

  1. Step one, they discovered the glories of the church in the New Testament, while overlooking the flaws of the fragile community.
  2. Step two they had a fresh vision of the church, which was very idealistic and unrealistic.
  3. Step three they had real problems achieving their vision, not surprising they face opposition and their own fallen humanity.
  4. Step four, they got discouraged and became very critical of the church.
  5. Step five they withdrew from the church.

What began with hope and idealism ended with frustration and failure. Where did they go wrong?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, renowned Christian minister, professor, in his great little book, Life together speaks about people who have created a dream image of the church that doesn’t exist. He says “those who love the dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”

Looking for pure or perfect Christians in a pure and perfect church is a failure to understand who the church is.

At our best we demonstrate in word and deed, the love, truth and unity of Christ, at our worst we are jealous, arrogant, loveless and self-centred. This does not mean that we give up on God or the church but rather  we recognise that following Jesus is always about being in a community of faith, loving others in strength and in weakness. We are celebrate each other, while at times admitting our weaknesses and repenting of our sin. Truth is we need each other. With Christ and each other we can be the best we can be.

We hope and pray and work for the renewal, reformation and reimaging of the church. We are to love each other, despite our failings. That’s not about perfection, but it is about a journey forward together, being a pilgrim people.

This is what I have signed up for, what about you?

Rev Francis