What does it mean to have a ‘church home?’
At the most recent New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory Synod of the Uniting Church, held in July 2019, a decision was made to focus on growth. The resolution stated:
‘That the Synod Commit, over the next 3 years, that we will organise ourselves, and request our Presbyteries to so organise themselves, to prioritise, promote and enable growth:
- in discipleship,
- in relationship,
- in number and
- in impact
Within and through our congregations.’
It is important to note that this priority is not about numbers alone, about increasing people in the pews. This is only one part of it. It is also about growing in the understanding on one’s faith, of deepening relationships with God and one another, and having a growing and positive impact on those not just in our congregations, but in our communities as well.
With this in mind, it is timely to consider what this might mean to one’s local congregation. What indeed does it mean to have a ‘church home’ and what does a good one look like? What kind of theology underpins this?
The ‘flipside’ of choice is hospitality
Rev. Dr John Squires (Presbytery Minister—Wellbeing, Canberra Region Presbytery) reminds us that we no longer live in a time where people walked to their lifelong ‘brand’ of church. With easier modes of transport and a rise in competing obligations on Sundays, individuals now go church shopping to find a congregation that suits their needs. The ‘flipside’ of choice is hospitality.
Places that held people and grew in numbers were those places where a single person, a dedicated team, or even a whole congregation, was committed to generous hospitality, warm welcome, genuine care for one another… Creating a church home which welcomes, includes, values, and affirms anyone who wishes to participate, is a critical missional strategy… Teaching and nurturing go hand in hand… Being open to change and development in spiritual understanding, in expressions of faith, in modes of worship, in theological commitment, is vital if more people are to find places they can see as their church home. Every new person who participates offers all manner of hope, possibility, creativity to the existing entity. Being open to that is a challenge for the longterm members!
Rev. Lynne Aird, Intentional Interim Minister at Adelaide West Uniting Church agrees. A good church home is one that is welcoming, inclusive and values its members. It is a place where ‘people love God and love others’, where ‘forgiveness is given and care extended.’ A church is a place where ‘people feel they belong, a place they can believe and a place where they come together to bless others.’ It is a space where ‘people are encouraged and inspired to participate in the mission of God.’
The five people of the AWUC congregation that were interviewed for this paper all had similar sentiments. Every one of them said that a good church home was one of friendly welcome, a place of belonging, had a sense of community and was genuinely accepting.
Belonging, believing and blessing others
Any social group, however, can be welcoming. The church needs something more than this to be ‘Christian’. A good home church, according to Lynne, will also have elements of being a chosen family, where members have their faith in common and God as the focus, even though they don’t agree on everything. She sees a church home is a place to belong, believe and to bless others. It is a place to learn, grow in faith and maturity, pray, worship, ask the big questions about life and faith, care for others and show they are valued. It is also vital that a church home is a place to be encouraged, nurtured and inspired to be the people of God, participating in the mission, or work, of God in the world.
This concept of a welcoming church is considered by some theologians as attractional, that is, non-Christians need to come to us, the church. Another way of thinking is the missional church – one that goes out into the world. In a recent Facebook post in the Assembly’s Growing in Faith Circle Group, Jon Humphries posed the question of having church outside a building and incorporating activities that people are already interested in – for example, bushwalking church, dog walking church, etc. Lynne understands church as a community of people rather than a building. If a church does have a building, she likes to think of it as a sport change room – ‘the place where we are inspired to go out and play the game of life. The building is not the game itself.’
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, in their book The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, argue precisely that the Christendom model of church is no longer tenable. The early church may actually be a better model for the contemporary Western church if it wants to grow.
A sense of ‘home’
What kind of Biblical theology might underpin concepts of church growth and having a church home? For Lynne there are a number of factors.
Firstly, our very purpose is to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27) because every human is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). God welcomes us and so we welcome all others, including outcasts and those whom society rejects. As we belong to God, so we belong to each other because we are the body of Christ together (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12). Loving others includes blessing others. This can include caring for the poor, praying for others, valuing the worth of all people because we care for each other and bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). The Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 are the final words of Jesus on earth in that gospel, but there actually needs to be a sense of ‘home’ for this to be effective.
John highlights that: There are many elements in the letters of Paul that instruct us as to how we are to be pastoral, inclusive, caring… in the midst of his passion there sits a compassion born of his relationship with a living Lord and his commitment to his fellow workers and new converts. 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and the greetings at the end of Romans and 1 Corinthians, all indicate this to me.
Theology is a shifting thing. In the UCA, we have made a commitment to fresh words and deeds. We recognise that we encounter the living Lord in and through the (inevitable) changes taking place in history. We set out to shape a new church and to be open to reforming and reworking traditional, received patterns of ministry and faith. That’s still a central call, in my mind, for the UCA today.
His final point is important to reflect on in different contexts. Many programmes and initiatives are ‘easy’ for city congregations where there are the people and resources to implement them. It may be far more difficult to see numerical growth, at least, in country towns.
Karl Barth, in his book The Church and the Churches, might have some insight into this. For him, there is only one Church. Its task is the proclamation of Jesus Christ. The myriad of denominations really doesn’t matter in the big scheme of Christianity (Barth actually views it as a helpless sin to be repented of). As long as the ‘one holy, Catholic and apostolic Church’ is being as obedient as it can, the grace of God is present. The growth of discipleship, relationship, numbers and impact that the NSW/ACT Synod is promoting, is the same sort of growth that the universal Church benefits from.
Dr Katherine Grocott