Shape + balance = growth
Shape + balance = growth
Peter Elliott takes a look at what the Uniting Church constitution says our purposes are and how we might achieve them.
I have a hunch that most people in the Uniting Church have never ever seen a copy of their church’s constitution, while even fewer will have read and pondered the paragraph which tells us what the purposes of the Uniting Church are.
These purposes, in section 3 of the Uniting Church’s constitution, are the goals that the Uniting Church believes it has been called by God to fulfil. They are its reason for being; the very centre of its existence.
Something as central to our church’s existence as its purposes needs to be looked at frequently so that we don’t forget where we are heading.
They are not numbered in the constitution but I have numbered them here to make them more accessible.
The purposes of the Uniting Church are:
1. to provide for the worship of God;
2. to proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ;
3. to promote Christian fellowship;
4. to nurture believers in the Christian faith;
5. to engage in mission;
6. to assist in human development and toward the improvement of human relationships;
7. to meet human need through charitable and other services; and
8. to do such other things as may be required in obedience to the Holy Spirit.
When these various purposes are looked at closely, we discover that it is possible to group them into three aspects of what it means for the Uniting Church to be what it believes God is calling it to be.
However, these three aspects are interrelated and interdependent. They are:
1. Providing for the worship of God and proclamation of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ;
2. Promoting Christian fellowship and nurturing believers in the Christian faith; and
3. Engaging in mission to meet human need and assist human development.
This is not to ignore the final requirement of doing whatever we are asked to do in obedience to the Holy Spirit. This is basic to all three of these aspects and underlies everything that describes what it means to be a Christian.
The three tasks can be compared to the three legs of a milking stool that are necessary to hold up the seat. If any one of these legs is missing or too short, the stool will fall over.
Unfortunately, I believe, most Uniting Church congregations have tried to be like a stool with one leg, that one leg being “providing for the worship of God and proclamation of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ”.
This one leg has been viewed as the only thing that the church needs to do. As a result, the minister often puts most of his or her energy into making this one hour of the week (for rarely is it much longer) as attractive a time as possible, while the lay people usually see their attendance at worship as all that is required of them.
Much has been said and written in recent years about how important it is to make worship relevant to our young people by using contemporary music and modern musical instruments. At the same time, while not as much is being said about it, there is a real awareness of the need for the sermon, children’s talk and prayers to speak the language of the people and to address issues that are real for them.
All of this is because the worship service is seen as the one and only aspect of the church’s life that it invites people to be part of. Those churches that fit this mould are struggling in vain to make their Sunday worship all things to all people.
It is not surprising that even those few people who do come in off the streets to sample what the church has to offer — and these are very few — quickly discover there is nothing in it for them.
This is not to suggest that worship is not taking place. Rather, it is to suggest that we all need much more than just worship and gospel proclamation for our spiritual needs to be met.
If all we are offered is this one aspect of the church, we will feel underfed and look elsewhere for sustenance.
Such churches offer insufficient spiritual food for it to be attractive to anyone. The only people who are satisfied are those who are living off their memories of what the church used to be for them or those who have become accustomed to a spiritual starvation diet.
As I understand it, the real purpose of church worship is to celebrate God’s love and forgiveness as it is being experienced and lived out by the members of the congregation, and to affirm who we are.
However, this love needs to be communicated to its members through the fellowship and nurture aspect of the church’s life, and lived out through their mission to those in need.
Without these other two aspects of the church’s life, worship cannot fail to be empty, as it seeks to celebrate something that is not there.
As for hoping that the church will catch and hold the occasional visitor to its Sunday worship and thereby increase its membership … that’s a bit like a sheep farmer hoping to increase the size of his flock by keeping a gate open along the roadside in the hope that the occasional stray sheep will wander in and stay there, even though the paddock is bare.
Those churches that are declining often look at the worship of those that are growing to see if there is anything in the way they worship that they can copy to make their own churches into growing ones. But they fail to see that in growing churches, worship is not the only aspect of their church life.
Growing churches always have effective nurturing programs that are delivered through fellowship groups. Even when they don’t have a good “mission” aspect to their church life, they do care for and teach their members in programs that are additional to their Sunday worship.
The writer of Ephesians points to the importance of these two aspects of the church’s life. He seems to be quite clear about what makes churches grow.
He says in chapter 4, verse 12, that pastors and teachers have spiritual gifts so that they can, “prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up”.
I believe he is saying that it is through works of service that the body of Christ (that is, the Church) will be built up, not through the “right” form of contemporary worship.
If we examine these other two aspects of the church’s life we can see how they relate to each other and help the church have a more balanced life.
Fellowship and nurture
When we look closely at the New Testament, we discover that very little is said about leading the people in worship, while much is said about overseeing and nurturing.
Without any doubt, the early church was successful, for it grew amazingly during those first 300 years.
If the church of today wants to be equally successful, it will need to follow this model and have leadership that is about wisdom and teaching, rather than one that can best be described as “priestly”.
From Paul’s letters it’s also fairly clear that the early church met in homes and therefore in groups that were small enough to gather in someone’s home.
In his books, Paul’s Idea of Community and Going to Church in the First Century, Robert Banks describes what he believes the early church was like and how it met the needs of the people as they sought to grow in Christ.
His books give a very good idea of what it must have been like to be part of the church during those early years of its existence.
They spell out how it was the sense of fellowship and the teaching that helped the members grow in their faith.
This structure probably lasted for no more than three centuries and then gradually faded out as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.
With the church leaders becoming “princes of the church” and membership of the church beginning at birth with infant baptism, the whole shape of the church changed.
It became normal to be thought of as a Christian and the preparing of people for membership that was common during those first three centuries of the church’s life disappeared.
It wasn’t until John Wesley started his “class meetings” in the 17th century that we saw a resurgence of the practice of bringing people together on a weekly basis to share their faith with each other and to support each other in their Christian living.
These groups were not primarily set up to prepare people for church membership. Rather, they were to support those who were followers of Christ but were not finding the necessary spiritual food in the Church of England.
There can be no doubt whatever that class meetings caused the rapid growth of Methodism in a time when attendance in the Anglican Church was declining.
It is my belief that a similar resurgence in the life of the church today will only be possible if we are prepared to make fellowship groups an integral part of the church’s life today.
The future of the Uniting Church, I believe, depends on the establishment of small groups in which all members gather together regularly in groups small enough for everyone to share and learn about what it means to live the Christian life as well as support each other in their life’s journey.
A church seduced
The third leg of our stool is that of ministry and mission. This has always been seen by the church as the responsibility of each and every Christian in their everyday life.
In the last two centuries, however, this has often been neglected as a consequence of the church setting up organisations to do these things.
In more recent years the church has also believed it more efficient to address areas of need by providing synod-based responses rather than just having its members do things as individuals within community based organisations at the local level.
Many Christians are still asking if this is the right way for the church to go. Is this corporate Christianity the best way of seeking to “meet human need through charitable and other services, and doing such other things as may be required in obedience to the Holy Spirit”, or is the church just doing things in the way of the world?
Has the church been seduced into taking on the ways of the world or is it doing the will of God?
I believe the church has been seduced.
I see nothing in the New Testament that would lead me to believe that we have been called by God to organise along worldly lines. In fact, the whole direction of the church in the New Testament is one in which every member has been called to ministry, active ministry; not armchair ministry where we sit back and pay others to do things on our behalf.
I am sure there will be times when Christians find themselves working alongside other Christians in one cause or another, but I don’t believe that we are called to set up church organisations to do these things.
As I see it, the church is called to nurture its people so that they can participate in building up the whole community. I don’t believe it is the church’s role to set up structures and organisations that do things for the less fortunate, but rather to help the whole community address these questions with Christians taking their place alongside non-Christians and working together for the common good.
For me, the parables of salt and yeast are the best indicators of how the church is meant to be involved in the life of the world.
We, who are disciples of Jesus, have been called to spend ourselves as servants of the community, to enrich it by being part of it so that it has both taste and life.
For Uniting Church Christians, there can be no withdrawal into church organisations that protect us from contact with the rest of society except as the givers of money or as pressure groups that seek to influence the various levels of government into passing legislation that we believe is Christian.
While we will need to be part of fellowship groups that nurture and sustain us, this should only be so that we can more effectively venture into every aspect of the life of the wider community of which we are meant to be part.
Like Christ, we are called to give our lives for the whole world so that others will experience God’s love through us and allow themselves to be drawn into the loving embrace of the only loving God.
This is the shape that I believe God has called theUnitingChurchto be.
It’s one in which all three aspects of its life are nurtured and developed so that there will be balanced growth.
It is one in which all its members will be nurtured into that maturity that was in Christ so that they will be able to engage in works of service that result in the building up of Christ’s body, the church.
Then, and only then, will people want to be part of the church.
As people are nurtured in their spiritual growth and helped to discover how they can meet human need through ministry and mission, then they will truly be able to celebrate the nearness of God’s kingdom in their worship.