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!
“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.
A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to be able to go back to Geraldton to conduct a wedding. It was a small private affair but I was struck again by those beautiful words in the traditional vows, “from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.” It’s about commitment to a relationship. It’s about today and every day from now on being different to yesterday. It is about covenant.
I was talking to someone soon after that about where I thought the church was headed. I said that wherever we were headed, we needed to have “a different future” and that it needed to be “from this day forward”. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that as church we are no longer what we used to be. We are unsure about the focus of our calling, we are uncertain about where we are going and we are doing the things that every troubled relationship ends up doing. We are going through the motions of love, longing for a recovery of the romance of yesteryear and counting the pennies to make sure we have enough to last out our days. “For better” is gone, “in health” is out of the question and in the “richer or poorer” bit we just want the books to balance.
Initially the Church was founded as a company of people who walked with Jesus. It moved forward as inter-connected groups who broke bread together, praising God and enjoying the favour of the people. They were one in heart and mind as they shared their possessions, and there was not a needy person among them as they testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. But then they became organised. They created management structures and dressed their leaders in different clothing. The leaders took over doing the stuff and controlling the way things are done.
The people initially were happy. But times changed, the people realised that they could do things by themselves in all kinds of areas of their work. They could take the initiative and they could make new discoveries (This goes all the way back to Galileo!). Initially they were happy to be led in their spiritual lives but then found that it was boring and unfulfilling and they began to leave the church and subsequent generations grew up without knowledge of the faith.
I have four pictures on the wall in my office – they are the four congregations in which I have served, two in South Africa and two in Western Australia. They remind me that the church is about the people who gather together week after week to worship God, to bear witness to their faith and to serve the world in His name. It is easy to forget this: we can become caught up in bureaucracy, in the system and in our all-so-important committees. And the Church has done exactly that, in most denominations and in virtually every place!
Our different future is not to become congregation-based, but to recognise that the heart of the church is the people who meet in congregations to worship God. Everything else about the church exists to serve them and to help them be more effective and influential where they are. We need to be committed to this with all our resources. We will, I believe need significantly stronger lay leadership as well as ministers who are trained to resource several lay-led communities out of regional centres. We must create a renewed enthusiasm for the gospel in all its meanings as good news for this world and the next. We have an attractive gospel but we have allowed it to become dusty.
On Sunday, in one of our smallest congregations, I heard a message about God’s vision: that it is big and full of adventure. Sometimes, the preacher said, we think we know what that mission is and we want to keep on going to Bithynia (Acts 16:7) but God wants us in Macedonia. The question that struck me was this, “Who is the Macedonian that is calling out to you?” Paul and his party changed plans and they headed into another direction and from that day forward, the church had a completely different future.
Over the next while, I plan to share with you about plans I believe we should think about changing and about new directions we should be taking. Watch this space.