No scorecard for success

A successful congregation is one that is faithful to the core issues of being church, says UC Minister Sally Douglas.

By Sally Douglas

I could paint a picture of the congregation I currently serve according to the success criteria of our culture. I could tell you, with great flourish, that since I arrived, the church has more than tripled in size and the predominant age group of newcomers is those in their 20s and 30s.

While this is true, this is not the whole story.

When I arrived at Richmond Uniting, there were about 12 people attending. More than tripling these numbers does not make for a large congregation. Furthermore, many of the people who connect with Richmond Uniting find it difficult to attend worship, or other church gatherings, regularly. Some cannot commit to leadership roles. Though, given space and time, it is moving to see younger and “newer” people choosing to take up leadership positions and share their expertise.

While there is much vitality at Richmond Uniting, in many ways we continue to travel through unpredictable valleys. There are multiple reasons for this. A significant factor is that many people who attend this congregation have been through church trauma in other traditions. Others are exploring Christian faith for the very first time. Some have been told by parents, or church leaders, they are bound for hell because they are gay.

Others are trying to make sense of what faith might look like, and how they might approach the Bible, if it is not the literal “word of God”. Others are dealing with mental health issues, highly demanding jobs or full-time study, and some are living through the heartbreaking reality of being on temporary visas, never knowing when they, or loved ones, might be sent back to unsafe countries they have fled. Some people have been serving the church faithfully for six decades, or longer, and are getting tired.

People who are part of Richmond Uniting have a lot going on in their lives. Simply making it to worship amidst life’s challenges, let alone attending to the “regular” demands of life and study and work and unemployment, is rather impressive. I suspect many people across diverse congregations and denominations are living through the same kind of realities.

If we were to look at Richmond, and congregations like Richmond, according to the criteria of the church of the last century, with success predicated on large numbers, choirs and various social groups, it would be deemed a failure. However, if success is based on what (early Christian philosopher) Justin (Martyr) thinks is core to Christian faithfulness and success – sharing God’s kindness and generosity with neighbour and enemy; and worshipping, praying and engaging with Christian sacred texts to be nourished by Christ – we might see things a little differently.

Each year at Richmond Uniting (before COVID-19), we gather for an evening called Pizza Dreaming. We reflect on the previous year and lean in to listen to one another’s dreamings about the following year and eat pizza together. We also hope to listen for God’s dreamings for the congregation.

The questions we ask of ourselves are not “did we like worship?” or “what would make us more trendy?” Instead, we reflect on what has helped worship to be a space for authentic transformative encounter with God and what hindered this; what has helped to create space to engage with and go more deeply into the way of Jesus and what has hindered this, and how have we lived simply, generously and creatively, serving in our local and global village and what has hindered this.

We also spend time reflecting together on what new ways we might live into these core goals.

Kindness and generosity are important parts of faith, says Sally Douglas.

At Richmond Uniting, alongside worshipping and witnessing, we seek to live simply and generously, serving locally, nationally and internationally in a variety of ways.

As a congregation in the inner city, where many people face drug and alcohol addiction issues, we have been local advocates for the trialling of a medically supervised injecting centre. The congregation also runs an ecumenical food centre with our Anglican and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Many congregational members volunteer there, others donate food, and as a congregation we help to finance this project.

We provide low-cost housing to a refugee family and support the work of Boroondara Community Outreach, a Uniting Church mental health program in Melbourne and a UnitingWorld water sanitation project in Papua New Guinea. We have recently begun supporting a theological scholarship program in the Pacific, a program initiated through UnitingWorld, through a bequest that we are responsible for stewarding.

I share these examples of how we serve, not in the effort to prove our worth, or impress with our efforts. Caring is not a competition. When we slip into competing, this is a sure sign that we are not anchored in Christ.

Other congregations will be doing more. We are little and, to some extent, fragile, but we are seeking to be faithful to the core issues of being church, as we seek to worship the Holy One-Sacred Three authentically and journey more deeply with Christ and to love our neighbours and enemies (I often remind the congregation of the need to pray for all politicians, not just those we agree with). We also continue to prayerfully discern how best to do all of this.

One of the challenging things about being a church that is trying to live into this early church success criteria that Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, and that Justin underscores, is that it is not shiny or easily boasted about.

In our culture that thrives on big numbers and virtue signalling, success based on seeking to faithfully gather for worship, being kind and generous to all and praying for those who we disagree with, or who hate us, doesn’t translate easily into a popular tweet or into cultural or collegial kudos.

Furthermore, this work is never complete. If we approach worship, or loving neighbour and enemy like a “to do” list that leads to some ultimately successful outcome, we are likely to burn out or become bitter.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims that being merciful and kind and loving are core, not because we will be successful, or the world will value these things (indeed, Jesus is clear that the world will likely hate us – Matthew 5:11-12). Jesus doesn’t even promise this will finally fix the state of the world. Instead, we are called into this merciful kindness, because this reflects divine reality (Matthew 5:43-48).

When we live focused on the God who comes to us in Christ, experiencing and sharing love, hopefully we will begin to realise that we will never get the “job done” and that this is not the goal. Instead, as Christians we are called into a far more vulnerable way of being – tasting and sharing the good reality at the heart of the universe that is poured out for all things.

In order to enter and sustain this pattern of life that is shaped by open generosity and prayer and leaning into Jesus’s teaching and nourishment, we need to put down the assumption there is some ultimate outcome we will eventually achieve. We also need to rely a little more heavily on God’s energy and learn to rest. This is far more likely, I suspect, when we reclaim the reality that core to being the church is being little pockets of compassion that are reliant upon nourishment from the Source of all.

Worship and service go together for us Christians. In allowing ourselves to repeatedly, week by week, come back to the mat, to the feet of Christ Jesus and to let ourselves be washed and fed, we are emboldened for grace.

In this practice, we are invited, again and again, to step off the treadmill of the lies of our culture: self-reliance, accomplishment and proving our worth via our achievements, and into a whole new way of being grounded in divine homecoming.

In order to enter this, we need to relinquish our desire to be successful, big or impactful and instead engage with the sacred ordinary work of being saturated in divine grace in the middle of our messy lives and sharing this without keeping score.

Rev Dr Sally Douglas is minister at Richmond UC. This is an edited extract from her latest book, The Church As Salt, RRP $26, available from Coventry Press.

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