An allegedly lop-sided table tennis rivalry led two Uniting Church ministers to partner in an innovative project to connect Christians who feel marginalised from traditional church communities.
Manningham Uniting Church minister Rev Lucas Taylor and Tecoma Uniting Church minister Rev Matt Cutler established Beyondering in 2015, but the history of the project traces back to their time at theological college.
“Back then, I would be well on top in a table tennis battle against Lucas,” Matt said. “We’d pause and one of us would throw up a question about faith or theology and we’d bounce that idea back-and-forth.”
Those conversations continued over the years as Lucas and Matt entered into ministry.
They eventually started the Beyondering podcast to connect people within and outside the church who share their interest in spirituality. The podcast has featured prominent biblical scholars and theologians, including Walter Breugermann, John Shelby Spong and Diana Butler-Bass.
Beyondering has since expanded to include film nights, interfaith dinners and an online book club called ‘Book, Line and Thinker’.
“Our society is finding community in ways that don’t necessarily require physical gatherings anymore,” Lucas said.
“Social media allows all of us to find a tribe no matter how niche it is, so that’s where younger generations tend to go to look for like-minded souls.
“Beyondering is a collaborative project and we see ourselves as co-creators with the wide dispersed community that is emerging.”
Matt said churches had historically struggled to be a safe space for people to have conversations about taboo topics, such as the relationship between religion and sexuality and why God allows suffering.
He recalled one Beyondering listener who felt discouraged from asking questions about God in her congregation.
“Whenever she vulnerably tried to explore those questions, she found that bizarrely the very place that was her life – her church – was not the place she could bring those up,” he said.
“She wasn’t on the fringe of her community because she was against their beliefs – she was for this idea of a God that was bigger and deeper than those around her could encourage.
“With Beyondering, we hope there are other voices you can join with or hear that resonate with you.”
Matt identified the church’s reluctance to evolve its language as a reason why young people felt disengaged from traditional church gatherings.
But he believes that young people still yearn for in-depth conversations about faith and spirituality.
“On the whole, the church has struggled to speak about complex issues with the nuance and rigor it requires,” he said.
“Younger generations realise that and if something doesn’t offer the required depth, that’s going to cause them to look someplace else.”
The church may no longer be at the centre of Australian society, but Lucas said this presents fresh opportunities for Christians to find their voice.
“We’re a marginalised voice, but I don’t think that’s something we should fear,” he said.
“We can discover a new life for ourselves in that space. The podcast is one way we can engage with ideas in the public space.
“We can connect with people at a time that they choose – they can listen to us on the train or in the shower. They can even listen to us in somebody else’s church!”
Lucas believes young people are often feeling excluded from the church.
“Parts of the church are still preoccupied with their own decline in numbers,” he said.
“Because of that, there’s largely a lack of listening to young people – how they want to live their lives and the wisdom emerging from them.
“Young people don’t want to just carry around the hopes and dreams of their parents. They’ve got their own hopes and dreams, so let’s release that and let it catch fire.”
Matt urged the church to become “question-askers” rather than “answer-givers”. This means learning alongside young people rather than enforcing a rigid set of rules that stifles their curiosity.
“We’ve failed to honour and validate the questions of young people and instead tried to answer them,” Matt said.
“In doing so we shut down their sense of enquiry and disempowered them by saying the authorities give you the answer.
“Jesus was asked 183 questions, but only answered three directly. He more commonly offered parables, another question or a story.
“The church needs to recover what the first followers were about – Jesus as a way of life rather than a system of beliefs.”
With Christmas approaching, Beyondering has created a series of “theologically-thoughtful” cards for the season.
The cards are original artwork and some have been inspired by guests of the Beyondering podcast.
“They have sometimes subtle, sometimes challenging or thought-provoking messages,” Lucas said.
“Christmas is a radical message and when we just send clichéd cards that you open and throw in the bin, the bigger message is being lost.
“So our tagline for these cards is ‘it’s the thought that counts’.”
Visit beyondering.com.au to listen to the podcast and purchase the Christmas cards.