Being a Christian Community for Everyone

The first case study I was exposed to at Business School was the very famous 1960’s study by Theodore Levitt called Marketing Myopia. He points out that “the history of every dead and dying ‘growth’ industry shows a self-deceiving cycle of bountiful expansion and undetected decay.” He uses the illustration of the railroad business which was failing because they thought they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. They kept their eyes on locomotives and rail tracks rather than the needs of the changing market – they were product oriented rather than customer oriented. Their view was short-sighted and they failed to see developments in road vehicles, airplanes and other modes of transport.

It can be the same with the church. Are we too short-sighted in our planning?

Is it enough to swing open the doors on Sunday and hope people will attend the worship service? We’ve being doing that for a really long time with consistent results. Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The church has become really good at preaching to the choir – trying to convince the already convinced. We focus almost exclusively on ourselves – though we might possibly have a sign outside the church building inviting others to join us, if they can pluck up the courage to enter a room full of strangers who already know each other fairly well.

For some years as a Church Growth Consultant, I would visit congregations incognito, a bit like an undercover food critic. There was usually a lively hubbub as everyone caught up with each other, but I was mostly ignored. I would take a look at the notice board and the publications table. A lot was out of date and mostly it was about themselves in a language that would have been strange for an outsider.

The church however, in the words of some unknown and wise author, is the one institution which should exist exclusively for the benefit of the non-members. The reality is that we exist for ourselves, the same as every other club or group.

I have been working on a Vision Statement for the Uniting Church in Western Australia. If you have read the previous blogs, I wrote about our core values first, and followed that with a preliminary mission statement – Growing communities of Christ followers uniting in God’s mission to the world.

A vision statement declares what you want to become, and with the warning about not being myopic we might ask how we see ourselves in the future. I tested a number of thoughts on a lot of different people and the conversations always ended up with the thought that heart of the Uniting Church is for uniting people under the Lordship of Jesus. In fact, we are seeing the “Uniting Church. Uniting People” by-line appearing everywhere now.

At the launch of the Uniting Church, 40 years ago, the intention was to be a uniting movement, rather than a denomination. The hope was to be an inclusive community of Christ followers who shrugged off the constraints of tradition, customs and various practices which have historically separated Christian denominations. That does make us rather different – we are open to all and everyone who seeks to follow the journey of Christian faith. In practice, this is not always true, but at least it is our intention. We want to be a Christian community for everyone.

The trick to achieving this is that we must do more than simply open the door on a Sunday morning.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

What are we meant to be doing?

The church lives in a changing culture and in the post Christendom era, we are being challenged by declining and aging congregations, and a struggle to find relevance in this new world. In this environment the Synod is working on the development of the strategic plan for the Uniting Church WA. Last time, I wrote about our Core Values and for ease of reference, I repeat them below:

  1.  To follow Jesus through life, death and resurrection
  2. Being community which safely embraces people beyond gender, cultural, economic, national and racial boundaries
  3. To act with God alongside the oppressed, the hurting and the poor
  4. To encourage wisdom and faithfulness in the use of the finite resources of the earth
  5. To exercise wisdom and faithfulness in the use of God-given gifts, talents and skills
  6. To live a creative, adventurous life of faith, characterised by openness, flexibility, hope and joy.

These are values stated 40 years ago at the inception of the Uniting Church, and which, I would hope, remain relevant today, even in our rapidly changing world. From these values, we can begin to build towards a mission statement.

Many authors, including Aubrey Malphurs, author of the book Advanced Strategic Planning for Churches and Ministry Leaders, talks about the need to define purpose (why we are here) and mission (what we are supposed to be doing). By and large, they agree that we are here to glorify God and we are meant to be making disciples, or helping people to be followers of Jesus.

I particularly like the choice of the word ‘glorify’. I have appreciated John Marsh’s definition of this in his commentary, Saint John. He speaks of ‘glory’ meaning “the manifest presence of God in the ordinary.” Thus, throughout John’s gospel, the apostle writes of such things as “my glory is not yet revealed,” “he thus revealed his glory” and “the Son of Man has been glorified”. So, if our purpose is to glorify God, this definition means that we are being called to reveal the presence of God in the ordinariness of our life, in all the things we do and say.

So let’s now go to the Scriptures and look at the commissions of Christ recorded for us by the gospel writers. “Go and make disciples”(Matthew 28:19), “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel” (Mark 16:15), “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), “These things are written that you may know that I am the Christ” (John 20:31).

Clearly there is a sending forth and a teaching or sharing of what we know of Christ.

But the church is more than that. We are also a community – a community which loves one another and the world, and which shares hope in Christ with this world and the next. The church is both a resourcing and a sending community. It is a community in action seeking to be actively involved in Missio Deo, the mission of God.

With that background, we can begin to derive a mission statement, which embraces those sentiments and gives some definition to our mission and purpose. This is then our preliminary mission statement: growing communities of Christ followers uniting in God’s mission to the world.

Some questions we may ask are: Is it short enough to remember easily? Does it embrace all of who we are – congregations, schools, agencies, social justice or Uniting World?

One final and crucial question: Is this what we are actually meant to be doing?

Rev David de Kock

General Secretary

First Post of 2017: Core Values, Strategic Plans and our 40th Anniversary

This is my first update on our blog for 2017, and I hope that everyone has had a great and joyous start to the year.  

For the past couple of months, I have been working with several people on developing a Strategic Plan for the Synod of Western Australia. Interestingly, a similar exercise has been taking place in the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Assembly also collated a list of the Strategic Plans of the other Synods (which saved us from having to undertake that work ourselves).

The results of all the work so far is revealing: possibly because we are referencing the same or similar source documents and almost certainly because, as a Christian community across Australia, we have a common bond of faith, a desire to be an embracing community and a concern for the oppressed.

Our common source documents are the Bible, The Basis of Union, the Constitution, and the Declaration to the Nation made in the founding of this movement which is the Uniting Church in Australia. The Assembly also conducted a nationwide survey on perceptions of the Uniting Church, an understanding of its responsibilities and a review of its strengths and weaknesses. 

From all of this background we have provisionally identified the following as our Core Values.

CORE VALUES

  1. To follow Jesus through life, death and resurrection;
  2. Being community which safely embraces people beyond gender, cultural, economic, national and racial boundaries;
  3. To act with God alongside the oppressed, the hurting and the poor;
  4. To encourage wisdom and faithfulness in the use of the finite resources of the earth;
  5. To exercise wisdom and faithfulness in the use of God-given gifts, talents and skills; and
  6. To live a creative, adventurous life of faith, characterised by openness, flexibility, hope and joy.

Following Jesus is at the core of our being. It is for this reason that we gather and move forward as a pilgrim community, joined together on this journey through life, death and resurrection.

We are also a community which values the life and faith which we share. We are not bound by the things which so easily divide us in the secular sense. In our journey we support each other, encourage one another and lead one another.

But our focus is not on us alone. We also have concerns for the oppressed, the hurting and the poor. And we seek to be wise stewards of the earth’s resources.

In our journey we also recognise that we each have different gifts. No man is an island, and we seek to use our individual gifts, talents and skills to serve God, each other and the world with all wisdom and faithfulness.

CELEBRATING OUR 40TH ANNIVERSARY

Finally, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia this year, we reflect on the 40 year journey of the pilgrim people of God from Egypt to the Promised Land. That journey was often hard, frequently troublesome and spiced with conflict within and without.

We do not want our journey as the Uniting Church in Western Australia to be like that – core to our being is that we will be creative and adventurous in our life of faith, always open with each other, flexible in circumstances and full of hope and joy!

In my next post, I will share our provisional mission statement.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

A Christmas Sermon

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CHRISTMAS IS AMAZING

In fact its utterly beyond comprehension, which is probably why we do all the crazy things we do at this time of the year.

We eat too much, we put up lights everywhere, we bring trees into our houses, we buy things for people we see everyday, and wrap them in beautiful paper which we will just throw away anyway – whole forests disappear in December which is a real headache for concerned conservationists. All of this is just our feeble attempt to somehow celebrate something which is incredibly amazing, so big, so vast, so utterly unbelievable that we do these things to mark the occasion.

How do you get to grips with “Emmanuel” – God with us? Can you actually get your mind around it? God coming to us – the Creator within His creation. Its really hard to get the picture, isn’t it?

I was reading about the Rev Robert Evans this week in Bill Bryson’s “A short history of nearly everything.” Rev Evans is (was) a retired minister in the Uniting Church in New South Wales, a writer on modern evangelical revivals and a part time astronomer. His claim to fame is that he has discovered more Super Novas than anybody else, even more than the great scientists in their huge observatories.

Now listen to this …

A Supernova is an exploding star whose light can outshine an entire galaxy for about a month. How it explodes is an interesting phenomenon. Over time, millions of years, its inner gravitational pull becomes so strong that initially it implodes, drawing everything into itself. Its gravitational pull is so strong that it sucks in everything, including light – it becomes a black hole in the universe.

And its core becomes incredibly heavy. Imagine a million cannonballs squeezed into the size of a marble. As Rev Evans says, just a teaspoon full of this imploded star could weigh 90 billion kgs … And then suddenly it explodes outwards sending all kinds of matter into space. It’s a nuclear explosion of such gigantic proportions that it makes Hiroshima look like a Christmas cracker. It would be the equivalent of a trillion hydrogen bombs all going off at once.

But you don’t need to worry about it. The nearest likely candidate to be a Supernova is a star called Betelguesewhich is a mere 50 thousand light years away. To put that in perspective, to get there you would have to travel at the speed of light for 50 thousand years. In contrast, travelling at the speed of light, it would take you a mere 1.3 seconds to get to the moon, or 8.3 minutes to get to the sun.

Its hard to fathom God’s creation – its mind boggling.

We see pictures in books of our own solar system but they can never be to scale. If the earth were the size of a pea, Jupiter would be 3 lengths of a rugby field away,and Pluto, the furthest “planet” from earth would be 21/2 kilometers away. The nearest star outside our solar system, Proxima Centauri,  would, on this scale, be 16000 kms away. There is absolutely no prospect whatsoever that any human being will ever travel to the edge of our solar system and our solar system is just a dot in the universe.

Amazing isn’t it…

And the God who made all this came right inside His creation. RIGHT INSIDE!

He who flung stars into space by speaking them into being, who spoke the separation of sky and earth, who announced light, and life.

This God came as a baby born of a virgin mother. The Lord of all creation, the master of the universe – God, made himself utterly dependent on man. Formed in the womb of a virgin girl, He came to us. It’s so hard to believe but it’s the real reason for the season.

This amazingly, fantastically big God became a child, a baby in a virgin’s womb – following his own rule for a nine month gestation period, and the years needed to be lived in order to grow to be a man – so that he could lay down the life He took up in order to change our destiny. To turn around everything that we had messed up in our life and history and to give us a new beginning.

Its no wonder that we do crazy things like coming to church in the middle of the week, and eating a roast lunch just a few days after the summer solstice.

I grew up on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. I haven’t yet seen the deserts of Australia but let me tell you, the Kalahari Desert is not a glad place. It’s dry and parched. In places its just moving sand, in other places, its hot sheets of stone, in still other places, the pebbles are the size of golf balls, black as the night and always shiny and hot and hard.

It does not rejoice. It drains the energy from you like a supernova. Despite everything it never quite has life – what life there is hides away, survives on little and blooms very seldom.

BUT, in God, the prophet Isaiah (Ch 35) tells us, the desert will be glad!

The wilderness will rejoice! It will burst into bloom and shout for joy! It is a metamorphosis! And its coming, says the prophet…so strengthen your hands, steady your knees, be strong, do not fear…

GOD IS COMING TO SAVE YOU!

Get up! Get ready! Get going! The eyes of the blind will be opened. The ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame will leap like a deer. The mute tongue will shout for joy. It’s a transformation! Deserts are blooming, invalid people are being restored. Have you thought about that… invalid people, in-valid people. Same word, different pronunciation, same meaning. People without worth, or value. The nothings of creation are becoming the somethings.

In Peter’s first letter, he says this, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Once you were not a people – you were in-valid, but now you are a chosen people, a people belonging to God. We easily miss the reference to the names of the unfaithful children of Hosea. God spoke through that prophet of starting all over again. The unloved became the loved and those without mercy received mercy – it’s the Message of Christmas!

God has transformed His creation.

He has taken a people made in His image, who through sin had made themselves in-valid, and He has, in His Son, born of a virgin, dead on a Cross, risen into glory, given us back the value we first had in Him. He started again.

Once you had not received mercy, now you have received mercy.

Christmas is the season of Emmanuel.

It is God with us and there can never, ever, be a better cause for celebration.

When John the Baptizer was becoming uncertain of his own future, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask the question, “Are you the One, or should we wait for another?”

Christ’s answer was simple – He quoted from Isaiah 35 – “Tell him what you see,  the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf are unstopped, the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shouts for joy.”

In more words than were necessary He was saying, I AM THE ONE!

Observe the fulfillment of prophecy! Look at broken, in-valid people being restored!  My friends, water is gushing forth in the wilderness, there are streams in the desert, the burning sand has become a delightful pool, the land which at first sucked in the moisture is now a bubbling spring.

Its turnaround time. Its Christmas!

This celebration today says, “I believe this!”

We believe this promise is for everyone. This is the celebration of the greatest event which has ever, ever taken place. The Almighty entered into his creation to take sadness and sighing away from us and to overwhelm us with his gladness and joy.

Listen to the voices of those who discovered this in the beginning, when Christ was born amongst us:

Mary, the virgin mother. God chose to enter the world through her womb…

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

 

Zechariah, the father of John:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

because he has come and has redeemed his people.

 

The angels..

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests.

Simeon, the old priest in the Temple

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you now dismiss your servant

in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all people,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

 

Because Christ has come, everything is different now!

God is with us!

 

Merry Christmas and God bless you all.

 

Rev David de Kock

General Secretary

Looking for the Open Door

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Acts 16 gives us an account of an incident on Paul’s second missionary journey. The intent had been to reach further in to Asia Minor, but God had another plan. The vision given to Paul of a man of Macedonia calling out to them to “come over to help us”, is a constant challenge as we seek God’s direction in our personal lives and in the life of the Church.

Here are four thoughts for us as we think about where God might be leading us:

  1. Be Open to New Possibilities

Paul and his team set out on this mission shortly after the Council of Jerusalem, where it had been agreed that Gentiles could be followers of Christ without first becoming Jews. There had been some opposition to this; some were demanding fulfilment of the ritual requirements. The Council however decided that new followers needed to simply follow the moral law rather than ritual law. The outcome was that the church was encouraged to flourish in cultural contexts other than Judaism.

What event have we experienced which has created new possibilities for us? Perhaps it was a move to another place, or a new job. When these things happen we need to be open to the possibilities.

We are in the process of restructuring the Synod and Presbytery, and the final touches will take place at the Presbytery meeting on November. It came about because we had agreed in September 2015 for the Regional Committee of Congress to become a Presbytery.  That transition is not going to happen just yet, but it caused us the review our structures and to see the benefits of the change required to have a second Presbytery. The door was open to new possibilities.

  1. Be Ready to Change

The next thing is that we need to be ready to change.

In preparing for the second missionary journey it was intended that Paul and Barnabas, his partner on the first journey, would lead this second expedition. But Paul didn’t want to take John Mark along because he had deserted early in the first expedition. There was a disagreement and Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

Paul took Timothy with him instead. And what an advantage that was. His mother was Jewish and his father was Greek – he understood the contrast of Jewish/Gentile culture, and how they could co-exist far better than could Paul with his ultra conservative Jewish background.

We don’t need to always do things the same way. The experience of new possibilities opens the door for new opportunities. The falling out between Paul and Barnabas created the opportunity for two teams to lead the thrust of the gospel message. John Mark continued to be encouraged and later, in writing to Timothy, Paul asks him to bring Mark to come to help him.

Sometimes our vision becomes so focussed that we begin to exclude some people. Paul fell into this trap and saw John Mark as a hindrance to the mission. But he was not without grace. As the mission expanded, by God’s, rather than Paul’s, direction, John Mark was in the field, trained by Barnabas and able to help. Paul changed his attitude as he began to see God’s vision.

  1. Be Obedient to God’s Leading

So Paul’s team, with Timothy, set out for Asia Minor. Despite the fact that the Jerusalem Council had given them an open door to engage freely with other cultures they did not even realise that they were keeping themselves confined to the same (Mid Eastern) culture. Oh yes, they had branched out from Judaism to the Gentiles but apart from religious ritual, the culture was pretty much the same.

But, it seems, God did not want the gospel contained within a culture and so He closed the door to Bithynia and opened the door to Europe.

It is not always easy to change our ways. As I have said, sometimes our vision becomes so focussed that we begin to exclude people, but sometimes we also exclude God.

It is said that the words on the tombstone of the church will be “we never did it that way before.” We do need to be ready to change and to recognise the leading which God gives us.

  1. Be Optimistic

Finally, we need to be optimistic – to trust that God’s intention for His church will prevail in every situation.

It must have been challenging to enter into a new culture with the gospel, where the religious direction was vastly different. But trusting in God, Paul and his team crossed the sea.

They found a Jewish woman – Lydia from Thyatira – and she became the first convert. They cast a demon out of a young slave girl – the second convert, and her owners turned the town against them. Paul and his team were imprisoned. An earthquake had opened the door and loosened their shackles but they did not escape. They stayed until it was right to go and the surprised jailer and his family became the next converts.

Without hope, life can easily devolve into pessimism. But Christ offers us hope – we can be optimistic and hopeful of His leading.

In 2 Chronicles 20, King Jehoshaphat is threatened by a vast army. He prays to God” “Lord, we have no power, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” He marches out with his small army and finds the Moabite army already defeated.

We can trust God’s leading!

A Ship’s Tale

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about facing the crisis, noting that crisis includes both danger and opportunity. Today I want to tell a story…

Imagine a ship of yesteryear which sets sail for a faraway place. It has a young crew of enthusiastic sailors with adventure in their heart. On board are all the provisions for the journey; the hold is stocked with bread and wine, with all the other essentials.

The journey is long and arduous, no-one really knows the destination but there is an old map and a tale which goes with it, describing a great journey and an amazing city. Hope lives on in the heart of the sailors. They persevere despite storms and rough seas. Occasionally one is washed overboard and a funeral service takes place. Sometimes one of the sailors, or a group of them, jump ship to join sleeker more modern craft hoping for a quicker arrival at the destination. The rest of the crew, mourn briefly but remain resolute.

The ship is becoming harder to handle with fewer sailors, and as they get older it is more difficult to climb the masts and set the sails. They are weary. And the ship is beginning to leak, there are sometimes more below decks pumping water than there are above to hoist the sails.

Then an awful reality dawns on them. The ship may not last to their destination, sinking is a very real possibility.

On a calm day, they gather in the galley to review their options. All the lifeboats are gone, the lifebuoys are perished and the holds are steadily filling with water. The captain suggests that they build another craft from the good material of the old ship. He paints a picture of opportunity to be redeemed from the failing old galleon but warns also of the dangers. There is danger in doing nothing but there is also danger in how they use the material of the old ship – if they take too much, they may simply hasten its demise, if they take too little, there may not be enough to build an adequate craft and if they build too slowly they may not be ready when the ship finally sinks.

There were some who loved that old ship and did not want to give it up. They wanted to struggle on; they were convinced that all would be well. There were some who were tired of the old ship and were excited about doing something other than bailing water. And there were many who simply didn’t care.

Stories can be told to elicit a particular answer, or sometimes to make you think about alternative answers. Jesus told stories and left them hanging in the air – very few of them were explained, and now two thousand years later, we still find preachers interpreting some of those stories. This story is about creating a future. We can create a future by hanging on to the past, or we can try to make things different, or we can simply do nothing. Each is a valid alternative but they will create different results.

If you read the General Secretary’s report to Synod for 2016, you will see that we are trying to create a different future for the Uniting Church in WA by making things different now. I encourage you to read it.

To close, let me quote from the Rev Peter Laurence OAM, CEO of the Anglican Schools Commission in WA writing in the Anglican Messenger dated August 2016, “The reality is that the average person is not engaging regularly with the conventional structures of the church. They are not in our pews on a Sunday, attending Bible Study on Wednesday night or Mother’s Union on a Friday morning. What they may not realise is that the church, in all her forms, will cross their path many times throughout their year. It may not be through Sunday worship. It may be through our caring agencies, whose arms stretch far and wide throughout all age groups and social classes. It may be through aged care provision for themselves, their parents or grandparents. It may be through our schools, who alone educate well over 150,000 Australians.”

We have a different future, it just depends on how you look at things now, and what you do about it.

 

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

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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.

Life in the Congregations

Recently I was able to attend the Metro East Regional Gathering in Mundijong and also the 162nd anniversary of the Gingin congregation. Both were extraordinary examples of how life and gospel are celebrated in the current context of apparently declining interest in ‘church’. It reinforces my interest in shifting our focus away from ‘head office’ to celebrating and enabling what is happening on the ground at the core of the Church–in the congregations. In Mundijong, the dilapidated church building has been restored and a magnificent community garden has been planted to accompany it. Yes, the congregation did get some help from the Synod Property Division but a huge amount of the work involved the local community in Byford and Mundijong. They found a volunteer group to help with the hard stuff, called MMM Australia (two of the M’s stand for Mission and Maintenance, but I can’t think of the third and it’s not on their website www.mmm.org.au or Facebook page. MMM are a group of volunteer tradies who give of their time and skills to ‘serve those who serve’. They still  have a worship service once a month but they also have regular weekly meetings of all kinds of other groups (AA, Al-Anon, Arts & Crafts, gardeners etc) and they are building a community of people who were initially far from God but who are connecting more and more together as a faith community. The enthusiasm of the group, the commitment to each other and the willingness to identify with a Christian ethos are all positive elements in the group and are attractive to the community at large. They saw a vision in a broken down building and an out of control garden and are turning it into a fresh expression of church. Similarly in Gingin. One hundred and sixty two years ago, the Methodist Church in Perth sent a minister on horseback to serve the community up to 50 miles outside of Perth. He started a Wesleyan congregation in Creaton which has become the Gingin Uniting Church. It has a small well kept building and has worship services twice a month. On the other Sundays they join with the Anglicans and vice versa. After the worship service, as in all country and, it seems, small congregations, they had a magnificent spread for morning tea. Everyone came along and the fellowship was warm and friendly. They have a Home Group Bible Study in the week, they support School Chaplaincy and UnitingCare West’s Winter appeal and are planning a Women’s Prayer and Refection Day at New Norcia. A big feature of their life is Messy Church which attracts up to thirty children plus parents from the community, and was nominated for the Premier’s Australia Day Award. Every member is involved in one or more activities in the community generally and they live out their faith in the everyday of that little town. In the celebration service, their minister, Rev Geoff Lilburne, asked the question – what is the church? And what is it supposed to be? They were similar questions which arose in Mundijong. The answer was the same. The church is a God initiated community of believers which is drawn together in Christ as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. (If that sounds familiar, you are right–it’s from Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union). The Scripture texts in both places were the same too–Amos’ plumb line (getting things right with God), Colossians 1 (thanking God for each other) and Luke 10 (the Good Samaritan). In Mundijong they call themselves Good Samaritans–they are not holy or particularly religious, but they can and do show mercy to those who have fallen on rough times. Sounds to me that we have a good deal of life in our congregations!

The Church has left the building

The Church is leaving the building

“Elvis has left the building” is a phrase that was often used by public address announcers at the conclusion of Elvis Presley concerts in order to disperse audiences who lingered in hopes of an encore. It has since become a catchphrase and punchline to refer to a conclusion of proceedings. (Wikipedia)

Last weekend I attending the closing service for the building in which the Bruce Rock Uniting Church used to worship. Rev John McKane, minister of the Eastern Wheatbelt Parish, banged emphatically on the wall next to the pulpit (there was a great fear that the whole thing would collapse at that point!) and said, “This is not the Church, you are the church!” Of course he was right; that 101 year old corrugated iron shell is not the church, and never has been. It was now simply an unsafe structure which had been used in the past to protect the church from the elements. It had a great and wonderful history but it was not the church.

I took a photo of the congregation leaving after the service and titled it, “the church leaves the building”. It was the conclusion of proceedings, but there is still hope of an encore. I ministered in that congregation for four years with around 10-12 people in attendance. It was not a strong or wealthy congregation. Now several years later there are still 10-12 people, they are surely a faithful people. On Sunday when the building closed, it was packed, perhaps seventy or more people. Yes, some came from other congregations in the Parish, but the potential is still there.

There is always potential in Christ’s Kingdom. A few fish and some loaves become a feast and a seed sown becomes a crop. But there is a lesson also for us in this old building which wasn’t the church. Could moving out of the building give a new impetus to growth, where the rusted corrugated iron, frail timber and threadbare carpets were more of an impediment than grace?

Why do we put so much focus on bricks and mortar, and bank balances, and neat rows of pews? These can be important but they are not the church. The church really only becomes the church when it leaves the building – in Kingdom terms that is not the conclusion of proceedings, it is the hope of an encore. As we go out into the world, from whatever place we venture forth, with the good news of Jesus Christ, we go forth on mission.

In some sad ways, the church has forgotten its mission but things are beginning to change. The church is leaving the building – in Fresh Expressions, in new ways of doing (I prefer “being”) church and so on. We heard from Rev Prof Bill Loader at the General Council meeting recently that the two-thirds world is rapidly becoming the Christian majority. In a few years, China will host the largest number of Christians in the world. In our comfortable Western style First World, it does seem that the church has left the building, but, in a truly Christian way, the church found resurrection in another place. Why not here also?

The church in Bruce Rock closed the building but that same church has gone to join with other churches in the town for the time being and so to be the church with them. Is that a loss? No, it’s an encore. May they find new life, new hope and new inspiration in a church made new in them.

Oh, and by the way, I have never seen such a happy funeral for a 101 year old building.