Mission must change with changing times
The General Secretary of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT, the Rev. Dr Andrew Williams, believes the Uniting Church is at its “most critical moment since union”.
Reflecting on mission in his March Newsletter, Dr Williams asked, “What can be done to make your congregation, your presbytery, our Synod more mission-shaped?”
He said, “We know things have to change radically and yet we hover between that knowledge and the desire for things to stay the same and familiar.”
After referring to Acts 1:8 (“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”) he quotes Brian McLaren from A New Kind of Christian:
“My guess is that out of one hundred churches, maybe ten would say they want to transition. Most are happy as they are, or they would rather die than change. My guess is that out of the ten churches who say they want to transition, probably only two or three really do, meaning that they are willing to pay the full price. My guess is that out of those two or three, one or two could actually do it, but it would be far more difficult than they imagined.”
Dr Williams said, “We are living in a time of exponential change.”
For one, he said, the pattern of the week has changed. Many people work on Sunday, Sunday sport has become standard, and it is one of the only spots in the week for time with families.
“Could we worship on other days of the week?” he asked.
Secondly, the way people relate to others has changed. They used to relate to one another where they lived. They knew their neighbours, travelled less, and lived near their parents.
“Nowadays relationships are formed by ‘networks’ through our work or leisure. The people we know do not live in the same place. Church needs to relate to these networks as well as particular areas.”
Thirdly, culture has changed.
“In the past there was one recognisable ‘culture’ for most of society. The churches were central to that culture. Now there are many different groups and subcultures. “There are more TV channels with smaller audiences. There are more music styles with their own following.
“The church is no longer central to this changing pattern of culture. Yet God calls us to carry the good news to all of these different cultures and sub-groups.”
He said, “We are in a cultural shift from a time of honouring ‘sameness’ to a time of honouring ‘difference’.
“Many of us grew up in congregations during a time when we expected our congregation to behave the same way as other congregations of our faith tradition. Much of this expectation was based on our experience of a culture that reinforced sameness.
“This culture of sameness applied to our homes, our appliances, our social groups and our congregations. It was a one-size-fits-all world. Now we are living in a culture that embraces differences.”
Dr Williams said, “We do not live in a time of clear answers; we live in a time when we must use discernment and experimentation to find our way through change.
“Discernment is the task we face. Discernment is like driving a car at night; the headlights cast only enough light for us to see the next small bit of road immediately in front of us.
“Ultimately discernment requires our willingness to act in faith on what God wants us to do.”
Today, he said, much of our population knows less and less about Christianity (although a majority still claim belief in God, and to be Christian).
“Signs, symbols and traditions which mean a lot within the church are very hard for an outsider to understand. We need options for those who need to begin at the beginning.
“Indeed this even challenges our theology of mission.
“Over the past 30 years Australia has moved from being an evangelism field to being a mission field.
“In an ‘evangelism field’ the role of the evangelist is to go out from the church, recall people to faith and bring them back to the existing churches. In a ‘mission field’ the role of the missionary is to take the gospel into a new culture and seek to build a worshipping Christian community that belongs authentically to that culture.
“Now that the majority of the population have never experienced what it is to belong to a worshipping Christian community even as a child, Australia has become a mission field.
“A mission field requires a different approach. Building churches in an unfamiliar culture requires new forms of church for a new missionary situation.”
Dr Williams referred to Vincent Donovan’s book Christianity Rediscovered. It was a classic “mission text” in which Donovan told of living in a Masai camp, taking nothing from them and simply waiting until the chief trusted him enough to be willing to let him explain the Christian gospel to the elders.
Donovan said, “I realised when I came back to America, that on the home front I had left behind me one of the most exotic tribes of all — the young people of America. They have their own form of dress … food, music, ritual, language, values — these are the things that make up a tribe or a subculture as they have been called. It is to that tribe, as they are, that the gospel must be brought …
“You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have been before.”
Dr Williams continued, “Our society may be becoming less religious but it is increasingly interested in spiritual things.
“People are looking for meaning and answers to life’s big questions. Many are spiritual seekers. There is a rising interest in all forms of spiritual experience (check out your local book store!)
“Often people do not connect this spiritual search with ‘traditional’ churches.
“Our ecclesiology must change; we will no longer be able to ask, ‘Does it belong to our (Uniting Church) brand or not?’”
He said the inherited mode of church was: church = building + minister + stipend.
A more biblical equation would be: church = worship + community + mission.
“So, church exists wherever there is a community engaged in worship and mission, wherever they choose to meet and on whatever day.”
He asked if that meant the church had to abandon what it was doing and all the traditions people loved.
“Not at all! The research suggests that, when done well, the traditional forms of church are still helpful and meaningful for up to 40 per cent of the population.
“This is a wonderful mission field. We need to continue to develop and grow the church as it is.”
There were many ways to do this, he said:
- through becoming a more welcoming and open community;
- through offering ways for all ages to learn about faith;
- through worship and preaching that have depth and relevance;
- through inviting people into life-changing discipleship and service.
But what about that other 60 per cent?
“It is no longer enough for churches to say ‘Come to us, our doors are open; all are welcome — and be the church this way!’
“We need to sow the seed of the gospel in new ways.”
He said, “We may have stayed in Jerusalem long enough!
“So our church needs some traditional churches alongside some new ideas, some ‘fresh expressions’, some ‘emerging’ options. So we need the confidence to speak of Jesus once again.”