Although he’s just started in a newly created role, Craig Mitchell is no stranger to the Uniting Church, having worked in the organisation in various ways for over 30 years.
As the new national director for Formation, Education and Discipleship (FED) at the Uniting Church in Australia, National Assembly, Craig’s job is to resource synods, presbyteries and congregations in their journey as lifelong communities of discipleship. Engaging people in a lifelong journey of faith has been something the Uniting Church has struggled with over recent decades – it’s part of the reason the church is declining.
Craig is hoping to turn that around into the future, building a Uniting Church with members who are active and thoughtful in their faith, from the cradle to the grave.
And it’s no easy task.
Craig said that a culture change is needed in the way the Uniting Church approaches faith formation.
“It’s not just about Sunday school or just about raising the next generation of church members,” he said. “Let’s have a more dynamic view of people growing in faith to be on about what Gods’ on about in the world.”
“In some churches the only serious faith formation happens with children. So you turn 13 and effectively your faith understanding stays like that for 50 years.”
“So what’s it mean to take both children and young people seriously but also to take adult growth in faith seriously?”
The first step is for congregations and faith communities to ask themselves three questions: What does it mean for congregations to be an intentional lifelong community of discipleship? What does it mean for the leadership in growing intentional disciples? and how does our faith formation connect discipleship and mission?
Some years ago, Craig did some research for the National Assembly which involved travelling all over the country visiting congregations to experience their community of faith and to ask and discuss these three questions. He found a lot of congregations were doing great things and growing in faith together.
“I think there are some core practices or key practices of healthy communities of discipleship,” Craig said. “If I think about the churches I visited, there are definitely churches that expected people to grow. They talked positively about people growing in faith; they talked openly about their own faith. So faith wasn’t this closed private thing.”
He also found churches which he named ‘calling’ churches and ‘sending’ churches. A calling church encourages people to use their gifts as a service to the community – unlike some churches with a few key leaders who like things only done a certain way.
A sending church actively sends its members to training, conferences, mission trips and not only pays and prays for them, but wants to learn from them once they return. They invest in people.
And then there were churches that immersed themselves as a whole congregation into a particular project, which was changing and growing them. As an example, he talked about a congregation in Sydney who bought a house and invited young adults to live in an intentional Christian community. Over time this has enriched the congregation as its members all journey in discipleship together.
The FED team is well underway producing a range of resources to help get synods, presbyteries and congregations thinking about how they too can become a community of lifelong disciples in their own contexts. Using a range of social media websites, short video clips and blogs, there is a space for all of us to jump in on the conversation.
Although he’s just started in a newly created role, Craig Mitchell is no stranger to the Uniting Church, having worked in the organisation in various ways for over 30 years. “Our ministers and key lay leaders need to be equipped and intentional about growing disciples because it doesn’t just happen by chance,” Craig said.
“It’s not just about formal learning programs. It’s primarily about how we live as a community of disciples. We talk about formation as the way that we gradually grow in faith over time. It’s gradual, but it’s not accidental.”
• Craig will be the keynote speaker at Summer Spirit, held on Saturday 21 February 2015 at All Saints Floreat Uniting Church. Come and hear him share more of his stories and ideas for how your community can grow lifelong disciples of faith. For more info and to register contact Alice Boomer on 9260 9800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• For more information on FED, visit their website at http://assembly.uca.org.au/education or at http://fednews.org. And to take part in a national conversation on facebook, join their group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/formingfaith/ or follow them on twitter at @UCAChristianEd.