In 2013, the Presbytery of Port Phillip West adopted its three-year strategy called Regenerating the Church. Following a thorough review in 2016, the next phase of this strategic project, Regenerating the Church 2021 Strategy, was formulated. This current Strategy clearly identifies links to the Synod’s Strategic Framework including the Mission Principles and Strategic Priorities.
The 2021 Strategy gives the presbytery focus and direction in fulfilling its role of: “resourcing, supporting, encouraging and equipping communities of Christ across our region to fulfil our high calling in Christ Jesus” (a quote from the 2021 Strategy).
The five-year journey has been one of surprise, encouragement and inspiration. It has also been a journey of challenge, tough decisions and difficult discernment.
Since June 2012, Rev Dr Adam McIntosh has travelled this journey as Presbytery Minister Mission and Education. Adam has just accepted a call to a placement as Associate Director of Mission with UnitingCare Queensland. As Adam concludes his placement with the presbytery, he has offered some reflections on the key learnings of the past five years. Following is an abbreviated version of these reflections.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Vision creates culture. Hope is the power of vision.
This saying reminds us that no matter what our strategy is, our culture will ultimately win the day. Vision is central to the creation of a flourishing culture as vision is powered by hope.
In Scripture we hear the story of the movement of creation towards God’s vision. A key word that describes this movement is telos (goal). Jesus Christ is the end towards which creation is moving.
My guess is that a clear telos can engender energy and shape the way we act, our values and how we do things.
Ultimately, the power of telos is in the hope that it engenders. Hope can create energy and movement. Hope transforms the way we live. Hope gives us the strength to start walking towards a vision, even when that vision seems blurred and distant.
Part of the Regenerating the Church strategy has been to remind us of our hope in Jesus Christ. Hope that the Spirit of Christ is renewing the church and that we are called to respond, witness and participate in God’s mission.
As a presbytery, and as congregations and faith communities, it is critical to be clear on your vision and the ground of your hope. This can be the driver of a flourishing witnessing culture.
Small steps transform
Hope grows in the church when we take small steps in mission.
I am astounded by the simple small acts that people across the presbytery have taken and the impact of these actions. I’m reminded of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. Small things such as mustard seeds, seeds scattered in a field and the smallest of all seeds. Thinking big is great, however, it can also lead to a kind of paralysis, as we are overwhelmed with what needs to be done and don’t end up doing anything. I encourage each congregation to begin by taking small steps and to celebrate these small steps. As we have said repeatedly in the presbytery: just ‘have a go’! Small steps move us out of despondency, give us a feeling of accomplishment and create momentum and energy.
Encouragement through sharing stories
A critical part of the two strategies has been to support people to ‘have a go’ and to celebrate this.
It is encouraging to see videos of communities experimenting in mission or new forms of church, to hear stories of new initiatives and personal stories of transformation and fresh ways of people encountering the Gospel.
At a recent Messy Church celebration in the presbytery people shared stories about the past year. Listening to people having a go and testifying to the way that God meets us as we start walking in faith is truly inspiring. As we intentionally create space for sharing stories and testifying to what God is doing among us, we are encouraged as God’s people.
‘Spirited generosity’ is powerful and transformative. This is about the way we treat each other; our behaviour, disposition and manner within the presbytery.
Some people are excited by change and new ways of doing things. Other people can feel threatened, challenged and anxious.
This is not about agreeing with each other or avoiding vigorous conversations. It is about the way we have the conversations and our relational engagement with each other.
Do we listen with openness to being transformed by the Spirit? Are we generous in our behaviour, encouraging each other in Christ regardless of our personal opinions? Do we have a respectful tone and curiosity about the opinions of others and what God may be saying through each other?
The role of the presbytery
Although institutional functions and administrative tasks are important, for a presbytery to be effective and relevant it must be an enabler, equipper and servant of congregations across its region. If this does not happen, the presbytery is likely to be another burdensome institution and ultimately irrelevant.
This involves joining with congregations to discern future directions, equipping mission and diverse expressions of church, education, resourcing, pastoral support and encouragement.
This is one of the reasons why the Regenerating the Church strategy has been embraced so widely across the presbytery. It has focused the presbytery on serving, equipping and supporting lay and ordained leaders to engage in new mission, deepen existing mission and explore new ways of being church.
A clear learning for me is that this resourcing and encouragement takes considerable time and investment. Reports and consultations are all very good, but ultimately people need long-term accompanying and leadership investment to engage in the challenging and changing world we live in.
New expressions, novelty and contextualisation
When we began the Regenerating the Church strategy in 2013 there was some reaction to the language of new expressions of church.
Some people felt about the term ‘new’ meant that something was ‘old’, with the implication that it was somehow wrong and irrelevant.
Language can be tricky, especially when trying to express a significant shift from what has been. New expressions of church are not about being different. It is about responding afresh in contextual ways to the Gospel. As people grow as followers of Jesus in community, this community will take a unique shape in worship, community and mission. An emphasis in the Regenerating the Church strategies have encouraged congregations to explore what it means to create diverse ways of gathering and community for people not currently connected with church.
This isn’t about consumerism or cultural captivity. It is about the Gospel being encountered in diverse and fresh ways. The idea that people need to fit in with our tradition and come to us, and our task is to simply be faithful in our worship, is a form of consumerism. It is about everyone else conforming to our ‘style’.
The church doesn’t exist to save the world, or as a group of faithful people letting the world know how secular it is.
The church exists because the world is saved in Christ. God is already at mission in the world; it is only the church if we witness to and participate in God’s mission in the world.
Church growth has become a dirty word in some parts of the Uniting Church.
There are many dimensions to growth: spiritual, social transformation, discipleship, service, mission and community to name a few. Church growth is not about ‘bums on seats’, it is about people transformed in encountering Christ, communities and society transformed.
The Gospel is not static; it is transformative. Jesus didn’t speak about a declining Kingdom of God, he spoke of the expansion of the Kingdom through the transforming work of the Spirit.
Church growth, in this sense, needs to be on the agenda of the Uniting Church.
We also need to do some listening about our decline.
It is too easy to blame the changing world or secularism, consumerism and every other ‘ism’ when thinking about church decline. The key question is what is God saying to us and calling us to as a church in this time and what does it mean to be faithful anew in our changing world?
Innovation, investment and integration
The three core ingredients for new expressions of church are: innovation, investment and integration. Innovation in the church encourages the emergence of something new that adds meaningful value to the life of the church and the community. The task of a presbytery is creating an environment in which innovation happens, is celebrated and flourishes.
Investment refers to resourcing innovative effort. Getting the balance right is critical. This includes financial, property and people resources. Too much investment can lead to a dependency culture and too little can be ineffective.
Integration refers to the way new life is embedded within the various processes and functions of a denomination.
If I was to put a weight on these three areas, I would start with innovation, then investment followed by integration. We need a level of all three in our approach, but innovation and investment are necessary steps for integration to grow within the UCA.
Both presbytery strategies and the 2016 review report are available for download from the presbytery’s webpage at www.regeneratingthechurch.org.au/strategy/.The Synod continues to produce and offer resources to assist your own journeys of participation in God’s transforming mission. Watch out for two resources which will be released this month to gathered community leaders: Understanding the Strategic Priorities (2016-2022), and Engaging the Areas of Focus. Further new and emerging resources can be found on the Synod website at ucavictas.org.au/visionandmission/.
May God’s Spirit inspire you;
May you meet companions in Christ to encourage you;
May we find those small steps to participation in God’s mission.
In the power of God’s transforming hope. Amen.
Rev David Withers
Strategic Framework Minister