And I continue to be excited about being part of this fellowship of God's people.
It’s easy to be excited about our church when you spend a bit of time with younger members and leaders - as I did in January at NCYC and as I will at the National Young Adult Leaders Conference in December this year.
For events like these young people come from every part of Australia,
from every cultural and linguistic community, from every style and type of Christian perspective within the Uniting Church.
I’m so impressed by the quality of these young Christians.
They’re passionate, smart, deeply committed disciples of Jesus who love God, each other, and their neighbours of every kind.
I’m glad to be part of their church!
I had these younger sisters and brothers in mind as I received the final reports from the national census of UCA Congregations and Ministers recently. There were simple things we did not know, such as how many UCA congregations and ministers there are or how they are distributed.
Such simple information is critical if we are to deal with some fundamental questions:
What kind of church are we today?
What kind of church is nurturing and mentoring those young Christians I met at NCYC?
What kind of church will they get to lead in the next couple of decades?
By Australian standards, the UCA is a big church. It is present – publicly present – across the whole of Australia. It has more than 2000 congregations of Christ’s people. (That’s more than twice the number of McDonalds outlets.) Every week around 100,000 people gather in UCA congregations to worship and encourage one another in discipleship.
To give you another comparison, that’s about the same as the number of people at the MCG for an AFL Grand Final or the first day of an Ashes Boxing Day Test – every week! Most UCA congregations are smaller than 50. But nearly one in ten is larger than 100 with a handful being larger than 200 strong. Some of those have several hundred, and few have more than a thousand participants.
It’s almost a cliché, but the best word to describe the congregations that God calls together in the UCA is “diverse”. UCA congregations meet, organise themselves, and are led in very diverse ways. If we ever were locked into a one-size-fits-all approach to congregational life and ministry, that day is long gone.
Our rural footprint is quite remarkable. Although most of our members are in the cities, most of our congregations are in rural situations. Many of these are lay-led congregations that have found innovative ways to be present and effective in their communities in contrast to the withdrawal of so many organizations, businesses and services during a long period of rural decline.
There are lessons to be learned here for the whole UCA. We have a large order of well-trained, experienced ministers to draw on. The Synods provided me with the contact details of nearly 2500 UCA ministers. Finding ways to release the leadership of these members should be a priority – including encouraging their mentoring of our young adult leaders, lay and ordained. Renewal in ministry will enrich us all.
The UCA also has very strong partnerships and ecumenical relationships throughout Asia, the Pacific and, more recently, Africa. There are many diaspora communities from these regions within the UCA too. That is, we are in close fellowship with the thriving, growing parts of the church of God to which we can look for encouragement and insights as we take up God’s invitation to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in Australia today.
The census of Congregations and Ministers has shown us that the UCA is a significant presence in Australian society with tremendous potential to be just what God calls us to be: “a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself” (Basis of Union, paragraph 3).
I celebrate that.
At the same time I am conscious that the census has thrown a light on something else about the UCA in 2014. We are still invested in systems, practices and habits of mind that have less to do with who we are now than what the UCA was in a previous generation.
To make the most of our opportunities to participate In God’s mission now, in 2014, we need to recognise that we are not the same as the UCA of the 1970’s. We are a very different church but if we think and act as if we were the UCA of the 1970’s we will just sabotage ourselves. There is understandable grief about that for many people – especially for my generation and the ones before mine, who came to faith in that very different church.
We miss it - deeply, sometimes.
The most obvious difference between us and the UCA of the 1970’s is that it was bigger. In those days almost all congregations had their own Minister, perhaps two, or at least shared one with another congregation. In those days the Minister was pretty much in charge, did most of the hands on ministry, and was an important community leader.
In those days the church was at the centre of the community – in towns, neighbourhoods, and the society as a whole. Along with the RSL, the church had some public clout.
Together with Rotary and Lions, the church was expected and trusted to get things done for the community. The church was somewhere people sent their kids to be prepared for adult citizenship. That Australia and that church are long gone. We have the data to confirm it. Sometimes we miss it. That’s understandable. But God has already made us into a new church and is calling us to be Christ’s body and witnesses in this new Australia.
What those young Christians who inspired me at NCYC need from the UCA is a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the kind of church we are in 2014. Then they need a commitment from their elders to bring their wisdom to bear on how we can be the best church we can be in 2014.
None of this is easy, especially for people who are grieving for the church of the past but the church of today and its promise for the future is so exciting that I’m sure we can do it – strengthened and guided by the Holy Spirit. Because, of course, it is not about us or about the UCA “brand”. It’s about what God in Christ has already done and is doing: bringing reconciliation and renewal to the whole creation.
The church doesn’t have a mission of its own. The missional God has a church. The UCA is one small, very recent part of that church of God. It is our joy and privilege to participate in God’s mission in our own particular time and place – nothing more or less than that – as a foretaste, sign and instrument of “the end in view for the whole creation”. (Basis of Union, paragraph 3).
I’m excited to be part of this church. I hope you can see why.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the friendship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.