A very lively and fully participative discussion took place at the November meeting of the Gold Coast Progressive Faith Community group. Representatives from local Christian churches and the Baha’i movement focussed on the topic of what it means to be Church in the real world. Guest facilitator was Dr Paul Inglis, EO of the Lay Forum.
Paul explained that the concept ‘lay’ has been given the wrong meaning and the Lay Forum has addressed this by using it as a very inclusive concept expressed as it was applied in the New Testament, referring to all people, without any distinction related to status or office and dissociated from the way in which ‘lay’ has been used to mean ‘not clergy’, with overtones of uneducated, untrained and disempowered. As a result the Lay Forum has attracted many subscribers from ordained and non-ordained backgrounds. The term ‘forum’ has been applied to refer to the aim to draw progressive thinking members of the Uniting Church into open, safe and constructive dialogue that brings into focus the diversity of thinking that exists but has not readily found expression in the church or every congregation.
The conversation moved through five elements identified as essentials for a church to be acknowledged as a part of the real world. These were initially distilled from Paul’s own experience in ministry in an urban/rural fringe community together with a lifetime of active involvement in the Uniting and Anglican Churches in Australia.
1. A determination to be relevant
2. Genuinely caring about people, the community and the world
3. A governance that is participative, open and responsive
4. Being innovative, diverse, inclusive and experimental
5. A quality control that is self-critical and reforming
This involves a determination to be relevant and focussed on Jesus as the example for living and can be demonstrated in several ways. A primary or best way is to respond to the needs of the community – for them rather than from them. The community has to be understood and that cannot be done by assumption but by analysis, that is, by doing a real study of the local community. Demonstrating an awareness of the real nature of the community helps to build trust. At the same time being generous and giving to the community rather than taking from it establishes a powerful presence for the church in the community. The key element here is the desire to learn from, be associated with, rather than expect the community to come and conform to the behavioural standard of the congregation. The latter can certainly grow a large church but not always a relevant one that is truly a part of its wider community.
Caring about people, the community and the world demonstrates the agape love that Jesus showed. This involves more than platitudes about caring but calls for real models of compassion, environmental concern, intentionally inclusive strategies, pastoral partnering with professionals and service groups, the development of a friendly reputation, provision of happy and uplifting environments and experiences and interactive and relational behaviours beyond the gathered congregation.
Today’s people are more aware than ever of how their lives are managed by others. Consumer education starts early and today there is less likelihood than ever that they will accept being left out of the decisions and the changes. The governance of an effective church needs to be truly participative, responsive and open. Decisions made by the whole group are endorsed and support by the whole group. Reforms that come quickly as a response to expressed concerns grow support for the leadership. A slow and complicated decision-making process does not keep up with the pace of change in the modern world. There has to be an intentional aim to manage change, involve everyone and encourage flexibility and tolerance. The challenge is to think small rather than big – when the small church stops trying to be a mega church, good things happen. There is real strength in the intimacy of knowing each other and this is difficult in a big church. Leadership that is close and friendly and ‘hands on’ with the congregation’s projects, produces greater harmony and constructive caring than that which is distant and efficiently delegating.
Multi-level approval processes block innovation. We need to be aware of the diversity of perspectives held by any group of people these days. This generation has been encouraged to think as individuals and to be as different from each other as possible. This does not deny the fact that we look for people with some common thinking to ourselves and associate with what appears to be people with similar outlooks, but don’t look too hard or you will find that your best friend has some very different values from yourself. The church that develops relationships beyond the congregation is likely to have a stronger influence in its community. These relationships should include virtual ones. There is no room for complacency and the life of the congregation should be one of continuous experimentation. Failed projects should be abandoned willingly and everyone encouraged to move on. Leaders need to be able to say NO to those who want to hold onto tired practices and to justify this decision publicly. There needs to be a mood of ‘moving forward’ or progressing. The more traditional you are, the less you will value experimentation. Unfortunately many congregations become successful through experimentation but then become complacent and stop experimenting.
5. Quality Control
Critically thinking communities develop tolerances and attitudes of willingness to learn. Personal agendas are reduced once a collaborative and cooperative climate is established. The corporate or group agenda becomes dominant. Leadership that engages with the questions and concerns of the group or individual, that honestly tries to understand what concerns people, what their world views are, what connections and networks they have – produces a remarkable lot of cooperative and willing talent. Questions are the substance of living. They don’t have to be answered immediately and answers evolve through the experience of an open and accommodating congregation. But everything needs to be kept under review with the use of reflectors and opinion sharers can be most beneficial.
Overall, an attitude of drawing the circle larger to accommodate the diversity within any community while making the case for, and living the example of the Jesus way, brings endless rewards.