Evangelism and Outreach in the Uniting Church
Graham McDonald explores some of the reasons for the dislike of evangelism, along with highlighting the power of the gospel in Australian history.
A listing of ACC references in the Media since just before the 15th Assembly.
If you have other references please email the ACC office.
What is happening in the UCA?
If one went by the PR news and letters, it seems the main idea is to continue on without considering the implications of the 15th Assembly decision to revise marriage. The failure to suspend the Assembly decision was not unexpected as Clause 39 (b) (ii) was hardly designed to actually allow a review. In any case, what was needed from union was a separate independent body that would review decisions, rather than a system that placed any review back with the actual body that made the decision.
It has been a tumultuous few months, though the feedback to UCA publications and hierarchy has probably been more minimal simply because most members would now not even bother. My anecdotal feedback from contact with ACC and other evangelical congregations is that at least 3000 people have left since the 15th Assembly. Sadly, many members have just drifted away in hundreds of congregations, one, two, three or four at a time, perhaps some not even noticed, or worried about by ministers and leaders. I am quite amazed now how this happens when often people have been members of the same local church for 50, 60 or 70 years. I have also been intrigued at the number of phone calls and contact ACC has had from non-ACC members who have left or are trying to work through their future, especially in increasingly divided congregations (our social media and website has prompted extensive contact since the 15th Assembly as individuals seek out others who are considering what is happening).
The disappearance of often key lay leaders is not insignificant at this critical time of the UCA in terms of the ageing of members and viability of congregations, especially in terms of offerings and people resources. What will this mean for the UC in those areas that are not propped up by property income (especially property income that can support stipended ministry)? Simply, 50-60% of UC ‘congregations’ will become non-viable in the next 5-10 years. Many are now more a preaching place (and perhaps occasional at that). The average age of members is such now that in the medium future there will not be the people able to support stipended-ministry and/or undertake many of the normal tasks associated with a functioning congregation (and assets from sales will mainly go to supporting the institutional life of the UCA and not the grass roots – the congregations).
And yes, the evangelical cause has been weakened (not just ACC as the majority of evangelicals are not in ACC member congregations); but, and here is the fundamental point, the UCA is catastrophically weakened as evangelical congregations are the central ones engaged in consistent evangelistic outreach and discipleship based on orthodox beliefs that provides a foundation for the future.
Why do some leaders have no real empathy or understanding of what is happening?
Some have a very different idea of ecclesiology. For them there is simply no distinction between the church and the world. The church is everyone, even if you are not aware you are part – this is the post-modern idea of the village church.
It is also where the context of ‘Uniting’ comes in – the UCA will be a social and community service, providing ‘good works’. The growth of ‘Uniting’ and its increasing secular visibility is clearly evident in its advertising campaigns and branding. (For a comprehensive overview of the ‘Secular Welfare’ scenario, see Dr Keith Suter’s work on possible scenarios for the future of the Uniting Church.
Others though want a new church, which actually means a new ‘faith’ and they believe the present church needs to be cleared out of those who are preventing this new ‘faith’. Some don’t care about congregations and the local witness over many years even if they say they want to keep property for the continuing witness of the local Uniting members. Some are suffering a delusion that people will flock into a truly liberal church, basically one that has no orthodox belief, denying especially the resurrection of Christ, because after all they believe they are more intelligent now and believe Christ was only a simple deluded peasant. It is an ideological orientation towards a utopian life on earth now, and they believe that evangelicals are the deluded ones! Never mind the fact that there is no evidence to support a growing liberal denomination and where there may be the occasional slightly larger liberal church in a city of several million people, this has more to do with it providing a niche-market to often disaffected members and ministers. It is no wonder that one of the main concerns of some leaders is to maintain the larger evangelical and CALD congregations in the UC fold, because if they left, overnight the UC would become a worshipping community with fewer followers than those who now say they are a Jedi.
Peter Bentley is the National Director for the ACC.
Members will be interested in the following -
Dr Keith Suter continues his exploration of the future of the Uniting Church in his latest on-line opinion piece:
"The Uniting Church is in a crisis. Its membership is in decline but the church bureaucrats ignore the signs of impending doom. For example, the publicity material often contains photographs of happy smiling young people – but a person visiting a Uniting Church congregation will find few such young people."
The Liberal Theological Development of the Uniting Church
The current debate about sexuality in the UCA would not have arisen to the extent it has without a prominent liberal theological presence in the wider councils of the church, especially the Assembly. A question I am often asked when I visit congregations is how did we get to this place? Another question is: Why has the UCA developed an overt liberal theological orientation (especially when its membership has been largely theologically conservative)?
While many PhD theses could be written about these questions, I note below some brief points and comments. These points are expanded on in my earlier articles available on the UnitingViews website and in a revised article taking into account more recent developments.
Given the context of union, the UCA was always destined to become more theologically liberal than the antecedent denominations because in the case of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism most of the more conservative ministers, and a good section of the more conservative members stayed out of union. It is worth noting that Victoria was the only state to have more Presbyterians enter union than Methodists. The larger base of former liberal Presbyterian ministers made Victoria into a more overt liberal state that soon overwhelmed Tasmania as well.
The Interim Report on Sexuality (IRS)
Liberal theology was spurred on by the didactic report of the Task Group on Sexuality (1991-1997). The Victorian base of the Task Group, the process adopted, the IRS (1996), and the final report itself (1997), helped to provide a foundation for public liberal theology as well as entrenching the polarisation during these formative years of the UCA.
Leadership of Officers and Members, particularly in the Assembly
Before the Task Group on Sexuality the liberal theological section of the church had strengthened its involvement in the growing institutional life of the church (especially the Assembly), and following it maintained significant influence through membership on key Synod and Assembly committees which contribute to the overall directional leadership of the church. As liberal leaders have moved into Presbytery positions, presbyteries have also come under the influence of the liberal school of direction. Over time, more and more of the theological liberal members of presbytery and synod gained election to the Assembly, leading eventually to the dominance that exists today.
Theological training in the UCA developed towards a general progressive and theologically liberal character (with some individual and Synod exceptions at times) and over time more liberal theological ministers were produced, often then ending up in moderate-evangelical congregations with the result usually being decimation or slow bleeding out and/or conversion of the congregation to a neutered faith or an ideological liberal theology.
Attitudes to Sexuality in a changing society
The growing public discussion, influence and position of homosexual people in society in the 1970s and 1980s provided a pointer to how homosexuality would become a major focus for the church. As the UC became more focussed on ‘loving our neighbour’ through provision of good works and community services and a certain understanding of social justice, sections of the church began to equate ‘loving God’ with ‘loving our neighbour’ and supporting their personal needs a priority. As society moved toward support of the GLBTIQ agenda, parts of the church saw this as a natural step as well.
The dominance of personal story in UCA theology
It is an irony that the UC has produced critics of Pentecostal and charismatic theology because of their perceived focus on experience, and yet within the public voice of liberal theology, personal experience is the cornerstone of UCA theology and personalisation of the debate has played a very significant role in the councils of the church. The bottom line is: personal story today trumps the story and theology of the bible.
Up until the 2003 Assembly there were enough evangelicals and moderates at the Assembly meeting to ensure no major radical sexual agenda crept in at least by defined resolution. The agenda was not forgotten though and by 2003, the sexual agenda pushed again and the start in terms of resolutions, R84, opened the door for the future liberal pattern. The three areas in which the UCA has traditionally been identified:
* Ecumenical Relationships
* Relationships with Aboriginal and Islander members
* Multicultural and cross-cultural relationships
had slowed the adoption of the sexual agenda, but they had become more sidelined in favour of a focus on the place of gay and lesbian people in the church.
In the 1997 Assembly, it was the Church’s broad commitment to these three areas that helped to affirm the church’s traditional understanding on marriage. Since 2003, the increasing focus on the need to make a more defined commitment to gay and lesbian ministers and members in the church eventually produced the outcome at the 2018 Assembly. Once the Australian parliament had changed marriage, it was clear what was the next step for the dominant liberal theological group, even though the majority of UCA members were not supportive of same-gender marriage. For the liberal members at the Assembly they had already moved with the direction of Australia and it would have been more unusual to have not gone down that path.
Published as 'The Bentley Report' in ACCatalyst March 2019
Over a period of time the familiar slogan, ‘unity in diversity’ has blurred the existence of two very distinct and different gospels in the church today. In touching on the themes of theology and culture this short summary concludes with practical hints for members and Congregations concerned about the future.
This summary document (4 pages PDF) from Rev E.A. Curnow provides a reflection in the post 5 January 2019 context.
Rev Ted Curnow's has also compiled an extensive series of reflections on this momentous period in the life of the church: UCA Where are you?
Tracing the personal journey and reflections of Rev Ted Curnow they bring together a wide range of statements and insights related to the position of the church and Christian marriage. Cultural context, lead up stages, Assembly 2018, the aftermath and sorting out substance and myth.
Note: The reflections and views expressed in this series do not represent the official position of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations.
James Haire is Professor Emeritus of Charles Sturt University, Australia and Past Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. He was formerly the fourth President of the National Council of Churches in Australia and the ninth President of the Uniting Church in Australia. Professor Haire's response to the Assembly Standing Committee (and Doctrine Working Group) Report on Same-Gender Relationships is included on the ACC website for the information of all members of the Uniting Church, and also now includes an Addendum in response to the Doctrine Working Group's response to Professor Haire. The full document can be downloaded as a PDF (five pages).
During January, February and May 2018, Rev. Rod James distributed 'Open Letters to Leaders the Uniting Church concerning Marriage'. Rod would be well-known to ACC members as a former ACC Council Secretary and long-serving UCA minister in South Australia and in a wider itinerant ministry. Noting the matters highlighted were being discussed widely, the initial Open Letter was printed with Rod’s permission as a ‘letter to the editor’ in the March 2018 edition of ACCatalyst. Rod's Open Letters are included in this section on the ACC website for the information of members.
(Peter Bentley, ACCatalyst editor)
Rev David Kowalick provides a theological analysis of Western culture. Download as a PDF (four pages)