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 Uniting Church Australia Identity

A church like us for times like this:
reflections on the national census of UCA congregations and ministers

 Andrew F Dutney    (President UC in A)

It would be hard not to be excited about the future of the church if you attended NCYC in Parramatta in January, as I did. It was a life-giving, life-changing, inter-cultural festival of music, Bible study, prayer, dancing, painting, eating, laughing, talking, listening, caring and deepening commitment to discipleship. The quality of those hundreds of young Christians was very impressive. They came from every part of Australia, every cultural and linguistic community, every type of congregation and style of Christian faith within the UCA. They are passionate, smart, deeply committed disciples of Jesus who love God, each other and their neighbours of every kind. I want to be part of their church!

I had these younger sisters and brothers in mind as I received the final reports from my national census of UCA Congregations and Ministers recently. What kind of church are we today? What kind of church is nurturing and mentoring those young Christians? What kind of church will they get to lead in the next couple of decades?

For one thing, the UCA is a big church. It is present – publically 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. And 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. It’s almost a cliché, but the best word to describe the congregations that God calls together in the UCA is “diverse” – so much so, that I know that I wasn’t able to adequately include enough of the UAICC congregations or all of the migrant ethnic congregations. Even so, it was clear from the census results that UCA congregations meet, organise themselves, and are led in very diverse ways.

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 the long 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.

Although it wasn’t part of the census as such, I have seen in my role as President that the UCA has very strong partnerships and ecumenical relationships throughout Asia, the Pacific and, more recently, Africa. 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).

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 1970s. We are a very different church. But if we think and act as if we were the UCA of the 1970s 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 is that it was bigger. In those days the vast majority of our congregations were more than 100 strong and only a few were smaller than 50 people. 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. Like Scouts and Guides, church was somewhere people sent their kids to be prepared for adult citizenship.

But that Australia and that church is 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.

That will involve, e.g. congregations not thinking about how to adapt structures or practices of the 1970s for today but trying to discern the structures and practices that will nurture people in faith and mission in 2014. As one colleague put it to me recently: “We’re not a volunteer organization. We’re a community of disciples.” It will involve, e.g. the Assembly recognising that the Regulations that were drafted in the 1970s were for the church of the 1970s. They make assumptions about the life of congregations that are simply false in 2014. How might the Assembly go about resourcing the congregations of this new century with Regulations that reflect their actual shape and circumstances?

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’s 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).