Recently Gordon was asked to write an article on “Turning the Church Around” for a Uniting Church publication called “Grevillea”. Here is the article …
It feels like it requires a rather presumptuous person to write an article on ‘turning the church around’. It feels as if it goes close to requiring hubris to do it by talking about some of the things that are going on in the congregation I am part of. But that is the task set before me and so here it goes.
“Turning the church around” draws well on the biblical imagery of repentance – best understood not so much as confessing or apologizing, but of changing a direction. It’s not primarily an image that suggests personal success but rather a realization that the path that is being followed is not the path that speaks best of the movement of God. So I hope that I am never found to be talking about ‘turning the church around’ with the explicit or even implicit meaning that it will stop declining church membership numbers, or help us reach a more ‘financially sustainable’ future. I fear that if we turn the church so that we can make that happen then we have turned the church the wrong way.
My home congregation is Kippax, in West Belconnen in the ACT. It sits out on the edge of the ACT – in fact the housing development for another 22,000 people that is planned to start next year will spread across the outlying green fields estates and over the border into NSW. West Belconnen is a community that has had historical difficulties with poverty, disadvantage and community exclusion. It is also a community with great strengths and which is making substantial changes as people across the community work together so that everyone has the opportunity to live a decent life.
Kippax Uniting is both a congregation and a UnitingCare community service body. It’s not a congregation that has partnered with a community services body; it is one and the same thing. It’s like the proverbial elephant: what you see and how you describe it depends on where you stand and where you look.
What we do is that we hopefully reflect who we are. We think of ourselves as a community of communities rather than as a congregation or agency. We try to be grounded and consistent. We have a single vision, or sense of calling – we are called to create a loving nurturing community – though what that will look like must depend on the immediate context.
At Kippax we have tried to put into expression our corporate theology. It isn’t necessarily the theology of the majority of people (or even any individual person here), but the Church Council has discerned, and recently re-affirmed that the answer to three questions helps to ground who we are as part of the movement of God.
- What is our primary corporate understanding of God? – Trinitarian: God expressed in community
- What is our primary corporate understanding of humanity? – Communal: People in relationship with others
- What is our primary corporate understanding of the way that God interacts with humanity? – Incarnational: God coming alongside in relationships of inclusion, welcome, trust and respect.
We know that this isn’t the only theology around, or the only good theology around (at least we hope it is good), or the only theology that is consistent with the Basis of Union (again, we hope and believe it is!). We also know that our answers to these three questions aren’t necessarily better answers than others. But it is our answer. It is our theological flavour. It is our identity. And when you mix those answers with the context of West Belconnen in the ACT, you get Kippax.
The one last piece of important background in terms of whatever it means for Kippax to be part of ‘turning the church around’ comes from two decisions made by the Church Council years and years ago. I like to remind Church Councils and leaders from time to time that it really does matter the sorts of principle decisions that you make. Maybe part of turning the church around is to ensure that the councils are released to be able to concentrate on discerning God’s voice and God’s direction and not get caught in the minutiae that too often take over.
So, what were those two decisions?
Firstly, as we were aware that people were linking and relating with us in all sorts of ways, the Church Council affirmed that all people are equally important, no matter how they linked with Kippax, and so we would seek to provide the same quality of care for all. It means that we don’t place higher (or lower) importance on people who come to gathered worship on Sunday mornings, or people who have been connected for a long time, or who give more money, or time, or prayers to the work of the organisation. All people are important.
And the second principle is like it: all aspects of life are equally important – physical, emotional, social, mental, spiritual. If we are going to be a caring community, we will be caring in all of these areas.
Both of those statements have wads of biblical and theological foundation for them. And what’s more they make good common sense. And they have plenty of implications.
For some time – about 25 years – Kippax has been a place for playgroups. And about 15 or so years ago the playgroups became our first real deliberate expansion into working with the community around us. With a small seeding grant for a part-time coordinator we moved from 3 playgroups a week to 12. Two members of the congregation worked voluntarily with each playgroup – or as at least as many playgroups as we had volunteers for. One person would pray for the families in their playgroup (we gave families the option to ask that they not be included in the prayers, but to my knowledge no family has ever done that). The other person would come along to the group as a helper – someone to be there as a friend to the parent, a wise voice when it came to matters of parenting issues and an extra hand when it came to being with the children.
Each person is as important as anyone else. Each aspect of life is equally important. And we had people in the playgroups to develop relationships and to offer and provide care. In our context that led to the discovery that a lot of the families were struggling. Many were struggling financially. Many were finding things difficult with parenting. Many were struggling with things like children’s sleeping patterns or how to help provide good nutrition. Scratching a little further below the surface and we were finding that many were struggling with housing costs, heating costs or being able to get around Canberra – a city definitely built for cars.
We started arranging for parenting support times, and then, through congregational generosity and some external funding, we provided some food assistance. And it was out of that response that a couple of years later we were approached by the ACT Government about taking on one of the major contracts for providing Emergency Relief. These days we support about 4500 people per year through Emergency Relief.
Other services that have grown alongside this, and the playgroups, include a range of parenting and child support services. These community services along with our times of gathered worship, our small group discussions, our advocacy for justice, our pastoral care and things like our work with a major housing development about how to create community, are all equally important. We have a staffing team of 24 and a volunteer (or discipleship) team of over 100. They are all part of who we are. They are all part of the way that we express being ‘church’.
In our setting we have learnt the importance of holding worship, witness, formation and service together. We have learnt the importance of not being too precious about membership or numbers, and certainly don’t measure the size or success of a congregation by Sunday worship attendance. We have learnt the importance of having a sense of where we are going – or at least who we are called to be – and constantly trying to stay true to that call. We have learnt the difficulty and complexity that comes with moving outside a more ‘traditional’ expression of congregational life, and we have learnt the joy that this difficulty and complexity carries with it.
None of this makes Kippax the model for the future of the church. Nor does it make it a place that shows how to ‘turn the church around’. There are many wonderful expressions of the church these days, both within and beyond the Uniting Church. There are probably things that others can learn from our story as there are definitely many things that we can learn from others. But if we are going to turn anywhere, I hope that we are constantly turning towards a way of being the body of Christ that looks like the way of Jesus of Nazareth.