A new church of humility

Summer Spirit, a Uniting Church WA event, will be held on Saturday 17 February at All Saints Floreat Uniting Church. This year, the event will explore ‘A  different church for a different world,’ in response to the Uniting Church WA’s new Strategic Plan.

Rev Lindsay Cullen, one of the new National Consultants in the Assembly Resourcing Unit of the Uniting Church in Australia, will be sharing his thoughts and expertise on how the Uniting Church WA can become that different church at this year’s Summer Spirit.

The world has indeed changed a lot over the last 40 to 50 years. Lindsay explained that in the Western World, the church has gone from having a strong  voice in the community, to now having a voice more on the margins.

“I think we see all around us that the world is constantly changing. And in particular, in the last 40 or 50 years, we’ve seen not only the changing of western societies, but also the changing place of the church in society,” he said. “In the past, the church was seen as one of the central pillars of society and a natural place where people congregated and where people would turn for spiritual sustenance or to ask big questions of life. I think, we’re seeing very clearly, that is changing and shifting and the church finds itself much more on the margins of society.

“That’s exacerbated by the fact that Australia has an ever increasing number of people who are committed to other faith traditions and also an ever increasing number of people who don’t claim any institutional faith, even if they do have aspirations to be spiritual or to find meaning and purpose in life.”

As our wider culture shifts in this way, the culture of the church needs to also shift with it. Lindsay believes one of the ways the church can make this shift, is by thinking differently about mission. In the past, the church may have engaged in mission thinking it has all the answers, but in more recent times, it has learnt that God is already at work in mission. This approach means the church can look for places where God is already at work in the world and ask how it can contribute to that work.

“I think that has some really interesting knock-on effects because if we see that the world is the place where God is already and continually at work in mission and invites us to join God there, then it gives us a different perspective on people and on things,” Lindsay said. “I think it makes us more open to collaboration, to aligning ourselves with other people of goodwill, which is so necessary given that an increasing number of people don’t hold the same  faith that we do.

“Instead of feeling like we have to be the doers of everything, we are instead focused on looking to see where God is already at work. We have to have that kind of openness to say God might be at work in places and situations which are surprising to us.

“I think that changes the way we think as congregations,” he said.

Linsday said that this approach allows churches to ask themselves if they are offering anything unique to the community, or if they might be able to live out their calling in ecumenism and work together with other churches and community groups who are already doing God’s work.

“In the past, we’ve often been conditioned to look at the wider community and look for needs or lacks or problems and then say ‘well, we’ve got the solution.’ Our whole evangelism strategy has been to try and find bad news and come along and say we’ve got good news to patch it up.”

Lindsay said it takes humility to accept that the church may not have all the answers, and to put that back to God, where it actually belongs. It’s not about offering answers, but about journeying together.

“I think the asset based community development model is an excellent one,” he said, “which starts from you having a good look at yourself and a good look at your community and asking the questions: what is the unique thing that we have, what are the particular strengths or things that we have that are assets? And then, what is it that’s important in our community and how do we blend those together?

“If we genuinely want to have a conversation with the community, we have to be willing to hear what they say. A conversation has to be two-way.”

As well as Fresh Expressions, a movement encouraging new church communities with unchurched people, and thinking about ways of being a new church, Lindsay has a keen interest in the relationship between science and theology. Lindsay was originally ordained by the Baptist Union of NSW, but has been a Minister of the Word with the Uniting Church for fifteen years. He also has experience as a computer programmer, and loves all things tech.

“One of the things I love about the Uniting Church, is that embedded in our DNA we have an appreciation for scholarship; and not just religious  scholarship, but scholarship in science and history and all that sort of stuff. So for me, a large part of my own faith journey has been asking how do I reconcile what science tells me about the world with what my faith tells me about the world? And how do those things interact creatively and dynamically?

“Often they’re seen as competing perspectives, so people tend to say you can believe science or you can believe the Bible; and I think that’s self-defeating.

“Instead, we have to say ‘how do we read the Bible and live out our faith in ways that actually draw from scientific understanding? How do we engage with the scientific world in ways which draw from what we believe as people of faith and people who believe in a creator God who is good and who has good intentions for the creation?’”

Lindsay believes the church has a lot to offer in discussions around ethics as the world grows more advanced in medicine, and other technologies such as self-driving cars.

“I’m excited about the fact that there all these big questions that we can contribute to. Why not have the church and theological thinkers actually contributing to that and say ‘well we know something about ethics, we’d like to contribute to this.’”

Of course, with all these changes in our world, and with new ideas on how to be a different church, the church is going through a period of change. While change can be hurtful, Lindsay reminds us that it also encourages new opportunities and new life.

“The whole process of life is you change,” he said. “We all live that. I think it’s possible that, for some people in the past little while, the church has become a safe haven that we’ve seen as the place we go to that doesn’t change, while everything else is changing. That’s not a strategy for success; what you end up with is museums.

“Many of the Uniting Church people I speak to have a great sadness around the fact that the generation after them and the generation after that are not as well represented in the church as they would like.

“We have to ask the question ‘what kind of church might be relevant and helpful and constructive for the children and grandchildren of some of the people in our churches?’ And that will require change because they view the world differently. They have different priorities, they engage with the world differently.

“If we actually want to be a live institution, it’s about recognising that yes, change can be difficult, and yes, change sometimes brings pain, but change is also what brings growth and new life and future possibilities. And if we want those future possibilities we have to be committed to it.”

Inspired?

Summer Spirit will be held on Saturday 17 February at All Saints Floreat Uniting Church. Cost is $90, including morning and afternoon teas, lunch, happy hour and dinner. For more information and to register contact Alice Boomer on 9260 9800, email alice.boomer@wa.uca.org.au or visit goo.gl/GcBSSk.

The new Uniting Church WA Strategic Plan was presented to the Annual Meeting of the Synod of WA in September 2017. Find out more about this plan at unitingchurchwa.org.au/about-us/strategic-plan.

Heather Dowling

Top image: Rev Lindsay Cullen during the baptism of Charlotte at Bellingen Uniting Church, NSW. Lindsay believes that change is essential for growth. 

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