Synod 2019 (5-7 July) Bible Studies will be offered this year by UTC Principal, Peter Walker, based on the theme, Living Church. The three studies are titled ‘The Purpose of the Living Church’, ‘The Focus of the Living Church’, and ‘The Identity of the Living Church’. In a brief taste of study one, Peter reflects on why we hope to see the church growing.
We hope, pray, and plan for church growth. We dream and strategise in ministry teams, church councils, and presbytery workshops. How can we grow this group? This congregation? This program? This Uniting Church in Australia? It’s profoundly important work. Yet our hoping, praying, and planning is not a response to concerns about our future. It is a response to the call of Jesus Christ upon his church.
The purpose which constitutes the church is the sharing of a message. The church’s mission is to understand that message, to live by that message, and to equip ourselves to share that message – with words and with love. That message is to inform all that we are, and all that we do. It is the reason we hope and plan for church growth. We call that message the Gospel.
Around the year 30, a group of women and men who had followed their rabbi to a Roman cross encountered him, somehow, alive among them after his execution. And the manner in which they encountered their rabbi, undoubtedly actually him and yet indescribably transformed, led them to believe he was no longer subject to death and would never leave them again.
Given Israel’s grasp of life and death, and of the One in whose hands they believed these two realities to be held, this experience led those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth to believe they were not only in the presence of their resurrected rabbi – they were also in the presence of the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
These events were so precious to those who first experienced them that they travelled their world telling others that God had begun a new thing, miraculously, among them. God had started renewing and reconciling the whole creation to God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Basis of Union paragraph 3). This cost many of those early witnesses a great deal, and cost some of them their lives. Yet they seem to have embraced this suffering as though they were, in fact, gaining their life.
Others came to believe through this re-telling of the message. They, too, felt themselves called to share it. Two thousand years later, the disciple communities of the Uniting Church in Australia are among those who have heard the message of the Gospel, found our lives renewed and reconciled because of that message, and are now joined to a vast chain of witnesses who went before us.
To ensure the chain of witnesses that goes before each generation is joined to a chain of witnesses that will follow after each generation, God calls into being the church. People like us. As flawed as we are, we hope that the lives of people around us and ahead of us will nevertheless be touched and transformed by that message, which began with those first astonished and courageous witnesses, and which we too are now called to share with words and loving service.
And so we prayerfully and strategically plan for church growth, yes. But we never do that for the church’s sake. Whenever the church’s focus becomes self-concern, we risk straying from the mission of God, and not even the best laid plans for growth will help us. Rather, we hope to see the church growing so that, by the grace of God, we may continue to be a faithful and fruitful witness, in fresh words and deeds, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.|
Peter Walker is Principal at United Theological College