Where to from here?
Synod 2019 committed the church through its councils to growth. This was to me a surprising decision given my long experience of resistance to the very idea of church growth, invariably and dismissively referred to as ‘bums on seats.’
Helpfully, the Synod resolution provided more definition and specified growth in discipleship, relationship, number, and impact. Listening to the ‘growth’ discussion and participating in the Synod’s attempts to orientate its operations to supporting and enabling that decision has been instructive.
The ‘it’s not about bums on seats’ reaction appears to have muted somewhat and momentum now seems to be building in relation to growth in discipleship and relationship. Hopefully, this is an early sign of a long overdue mindset shift that will continue to build momentum for change.
Undoubtedly, the church (the whole church, not just the UCA) is living through an extended period of contraction and its influence and impact is not as extensive as it once might have been. I wonder to what extent that contraction has contributed to the lack of emphasis on discipleship formation and the importance of lively disciple-forming, disciple-nurturing communities?
I often hear reference to a congregation being in ‘survival mode’. This often seems to mean a congregation enslaved to keeping the doors open and the roof waterproof; who then have little energy available for generative ministry. The demands of this ‘maintenance ministry’ are enormous and the faithfulness with which people undertake the work is simply an extraordinary expression of personal discipleship.
That the doors are open and the roof is waterproof is necessary for a range of reasons but it is nevertheless a secondary purpose. I particularly appreciate the United Methodist Church’s mission statement that says that the purpose of the church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world.
A big question for congregations and faith communities to ask themselves in these times is, how are we a disciple-forming, disciplenurturing community and how can we engage generously and hospitably with the world outside the church?
The answer might means placing more emphasis on relationship and less on doors and roofs. Easier said than done because what is required is actually a mindset shift, the shift from a maintenance mindset to a discipleship / growth mindset and, of course, old habits die hard and change is challenging.
I’ve just read a rather bracing chapter on generativity in a book called Strangers to the City by Michael Casey. Reflecting on the sterility and lack of generativity in monastic communities, Father Casey says, it is important to insist that pastoral care is more than keeping people calm and apparently happy – drugged to the eyebrows with superficial solace and sympathy. Sometimes genuine concern involves upsetting their peaceful co-existence; urging them to break out of the cast iron frameworks in which their lives are lived, to take risks, to cast their nets in deeper waters… in Australia is one of the country’s largest denominations.
As the church contemplates the challenge and imperative of growth, particularly in discipleship and relationship, (number might be a consequence of growth in both of those things), are we brave enough to turn our attention away from maintenance, which means away from familiarity and certainty, to explore and experiment with engaging with the world in new ways?
I imagine that the ‘new thing’ might be different in different places and I also imagine that it could be energising and hopeful in surprising ways. Could such a shift contribute to building momentum for growth?
Our vision is that it will be a fellowship of reconciliation, living God’s love, following Jesus Christ and acting for the common good to build a just and compassionate community of faith.