A Ship’s Tale


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.



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


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.

From this day forward…

04 April 2016 From this Day Forward

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.