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«Exploring context and issues related to the UCA Synod of Victoria & Tasmania’s current reality and potential future for congregations and ...»

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Signposts for the Future Church

Exploring context and issues related to the UCA Synod of

Victoria & Tasmania’s current reality and potential future for

congregations and presbyteries

A Discussion Paper prepared for the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania’s Major

Strategic Review


Scott Guyatt

July 2015

1. Introduction

2. Understanding the Australian Context

2.1 Social and cultural development: Some examples

2.2 Publically held views of church

2.3 Issues around generational change

2.4 Issues around multi-cultural nature of Australian community

2.5 Indigenous Australia

2.6 Issues surrounding broad rural decline

2.7 Other global issues

3. Particular issues facing the Uniting Church

3.1 Data revealed in the 2013 National Census

3.2 The “Scenario Planning” paper of 2013/14

3.3 Issues related to polity and governance

3.4 Issues related to rural decline including Frontier Services

3.5 Breadth of theological perspective

3.6 Lack of agility of well-established organisation

3.7 Issues surrounding ecumenical activity

4. Developments in the missional church conversation

4.1 The Australian conversation around emerging/missional/incarnational church............. 11 4.2 The impact of UK fresh expressions movement in the UK, and in Australia

4.3 The rise of the “Nones”

4.4 Pentecostalism in Australia

4.5 Regional Church models in Australia

4.6 Micro/Simple Church models and resourcing in Australia

4.7 Young Generations

4.8 Resource ministry in rural contexts

4.9 Church Planting & Evangelism

5. The challenge of evidence

6. Seeing the signposts

6.1 Fostering innovation & imagination in mission and discipleship

6.2 A new season of cooperation within the Uniting Church

6.3 Leadership

6.4 Polity and Structure

7. Summary

8. Reference Material

Documents specifically referenced in this paper

Other sources and further reading

2 |Signposts for the Future Church Version 2: August 2015

1. Introduction There is a fundamental difference between maps and signposts.

Maps enable us to plot a specific course.

Signposts, on the other hand, point in the direction we want to travel. They help us figure out which option to take at confusing intersections. And they give us an indication of how far there is yet to go.

Signposts are useful, but not comprehensive.

Signposts for the future church is a discussion paper produced for the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania’s Major Strategic Review. The paper outlines issues of context for the church in Australia in general, and Victoria and Tasmania specifically as it looks toward an uncertain future.

This paper primarily addresses the congregational life of the church. It does not explore in depth any issues related to schools, university colleges, agencies or other expressions and organisations related to the Uniting Church in Australia.

Signposts is not a “how-to” manual. It is not an academic paper. It does not contain all the answers to every question we are currently asking.

It is an attempt to look forward, observing the signposts that may point to opportunities for us to learn, grow, and explore. As you enter into this paper, you are invited to do so from a standpoint of wondering: wondering where the Spirit of God is calling us; and wondering where the signs of the times point.

Wondering is your part to play. Agreeing is optional.

2. Understanding the Australian Context It is abundantly clear that the Australian context is shifting rapidly. In this section we briefly introduce a range of global and national issues of cultural and social significance that impact us.

The intent here is not to undertake a comprehensive introduction to the issues at hand (for a more in depth introduction we refer to A Review of the Environmental Context of the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania and some Implications for the Development of Ministry from Christian Research Associates), but to note particular issues of significance for the consideration of the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania.

2.1 Social and cultural development: Some examples First, the rise of global digital communications (first radio, then television, now internet-based communication) has heralded the rise of global connectedness and, with it, the popular culture movement. The means, and time-frames in which knowledge is acquired, shared, processed and critiqued on a global basis have profoundly shifted. Access to almost the entirety of human 3 |Signposts for the Future Church Version 2: August 2015 knowledge resides in each person’s pocket – and even if we do not necessarily use that power well, it nonetheless shifts the way we think about and process knowledge.

Second, these emerging communications technologies have enabled the rise of social media which in nearly every sphere of life has become astonishing in its capacity to provide means for organising, sharing, critiquing and connecting people in ways we have never seen before. For the church this represents both significant opportunity to engage our host culture, and ongoing challenge to the traditional ways in which we have organised, structured and conducted our affairs.

Third, a rising resistance to sacrifice in the name of economic progress can be observed in current conversations including the burgeoning environmental movement and peace (or anti-war) viewpoints for example. This development will have local and global impact in the years to come.

Fourth, the expression of truth has become individualised in western culture – no more so than in the realm of spirituality and religion, where the individual’s choices, experiences and expressions take primacy over any agreed upon standards.

Fifth, the growing acceptance (across western culture at least) of the range of healthy human sexuality is challenging many traditionally held views. This has been a particularly confronting development for parts of the Christian church in general, and across the diversity of theological perspectives within the Uniting Church in particular.

Sixth, the emergence of a broad range of expressions of family unit (beyond the traditional nuclear family) has re-shaped many traditional norms in Australia. Dual income families, single parent families, blended families are everyday realities for Australia communities in which the church lives and proclaims the gospel.

Seventh, the renewed pursuit of gender equality in culture and society is a vital development. The gap between women’s experiences of the world and those of men in terms of family, gender roles, economics, and gender-based violence continues to be a challenge to our society, and to our churches.

Eighth, the march of technological advances is fundamentally challenging the way we think about our own humanity. Bio-technology through our capacity to extend life, manipulate genes, and clone living tissue is just one example which has both positive and destructive potential. Technology as applied to global military, communications (already mentioned above), transport and the scientific endeavour to understand our universe are further examples.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the challenges of our advancing culture to the global environment in which we live. Climate change and its attendant global implications, together with the local and regional impact of environmental degradation present fundamental economic, technological and moral challenges to us. The related issues of food and water security have the potential to be world-changing issues over the next century. How does the church express itself in this world?

4 |Signposts for the Future Church Version 2: August 2015

2.2 Publically held views of church In 2015 McCrindle Research released the results of a research project entitled Church in Australian Life. The research presents a bleak picture of the view of church held in the Australian community.

One question revealed the gulf between views held by those within and those outside the church regarding the role the church has to play in a range of social or community issues. More disturbing were the disparate views on the role the church can play with respect to personal life. McCrindle reported that only 27% of those surveyed believe the church highly assists people in personal spirituality, while 54% believe it cannot do so at all and that perceptions of church are the number one blocker to engagement.

There are multiple issues at play here, each contributing to a notable tendency for churches to be pilloried and demonised in public conversation. Two of these issues are worthy of further brief comment.

2.2.1 Impact of Sexual Abuse of Children & the Royal Commission While the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse investigates abuse of children in many institutional settings, the significance of the Commission and of events leading to it for the church in Australia should not be underestimated.

The Australian community rightly expects the church to be a place of safety for all – particularly the vulnerable. That children have suffered in the ways we are learning about through the Commission is therefore deeply distressing, and justifiably so. We have much work ahead of us to (a) contribute to repairing the damage done to individuals and their families (in as much as that is possible); (b) take (and demonstrate that we have taken) the necessary steps to ensure that children are safe in our midst; and (c) rebuild eroded public confidence.

2.2.2 Impact of same sex marriage debate Perhaps the most significant national conversation underway in Australia, in terms of public view of church, is that related to same sex marriage. This is a complex subject for the Australian community at large and for churches in particular. It is a conversation of significant challenge to the Uniting Church with its diverse theological standpoints.

Clearly this is an issue of extreme importance for those who experience exclusion and marginalisation and have experienced lifelong suffering because of it, and this should be held uppermost in our minds. Nonetheless it is worth also observing that the Church itself suffers reputational damage in this debate, with mainstream media, and activist communities continuing to paint Christian churches as old-fashioned and out-of-touch with modern social standards and views.

2.3 Issues around generational change Generational change has been an ongoing topic of conversation in Australia for many years. Within the Uniting Church this conversation bites particularly hard due to the widely lived experience of losing young people and children. While not true everywhere (and particularly so in our multicultural congregations), there is substantial quantitative and anecdotal evidence of this reality.

Sociologists note the ways in which each generation perceives and experiences the world differ, the general priorities of a cohort, and the major global events that shape their values – and this can inform our engagement with different generational cohorts. Alongside generational difference we 5 |Signposts for the Future Church Version 2: August 2015 must note the increasing tribalisation of our society, in which sub-cultures within the wider context are more common, more diverse, and more distinctive than previously experienced.

2.4 Issues around multi-cultural nature of Australian community Strong immigration since the middle of last century has resulted in a multi-cultural nation that is melting pot of ethnic and cultural groups from all corners of the globe. This is more evident in Victoria than in Tasmania – and more so in Melbourne than in some regional areas – but it is a reality everywhere.

Within the Uniting Church the multi-cultural nature of our society has been a particular gift and blessing. The multi-cultural Uniting Church is a growing reality, and in many ways represents important insights into the future shape of the Church.

The challenges for us are to first contribute to a society (and a church) in which this diversity of culture can live together in peace, and with respect. A second is to understand the particular challenges for cultural and ethnic groups as second and subsequent generations are born and grow up in Australia.

Along with multi-cultural Australia has come a growing sense that we are a multi-faith society.

Arguably the most visible contributor to this has been the growth of Islam.

It is not news that the multi-faith nature of Australian society has been a source of tension in some quarters. In this context there can be a vital role for the Uniting Church to play in practicing and modelling neighbourliness both at personal and institutional level.

2.5 Indigenous Australia In some ways relationships between first and second peoples of Australia have progressed in recent years, but in others the challenge seems greater than ever.

Again, the Uniting Church is well placed to contribute to our wider society in this space, through continuing to seek, demonstrate and advocate for reconciliation at both personal and institutional levels. This is not to say that we do not have work to do in our own relationship with first peoples, and in particular with the Uniting Aboriginal and Island Christian Congress.

2.6 Issues surrounding broad rural decline The lived reality for many Australians in rural and remote areas is of communities under intense pressure for a host of reasons. The impact on local communities is immeasurable, with increased rates of mental health concerns and suicide are among the markers.

At the same time churches also find it increasingly difficult to sustain traditional presence in rural and remote areas. Churches that used to be part of the fabric of remote and rural communities are increasingly becoming part of the exodus.

6 |Signposts for the Future Church Version 2: August 2015

2.7 Other global issues A range of other global issues impact on the Australian context on a day-to-day basis. Examples include the ever present threat of terrorism, consumerism, the plight and reality of asylum seekers & refugees, and global environmental concerns including climate change. Each in its own way represents both challenge and opportunity for the Uniting Church.

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