Category Archives: Commentary

Facilitation of House Churches – theological or doctrinal orientation

                           From Rodney Eivers

Since last communication I have had some discussion with a number of people who have shown interest in facilitating house-churches in association with the UCA. The idea is to maintain access of the general secular world to our expression of Christian faith without the impediments of doctrine, compliance, membership, finance, personnel and in some cases property, which currently exist.

One Synod Officer described the approach as “organised disorganisation” and perhaps there is something in that. You may be able to help me with one aspect which has been going through my mind.

Doctrinal or theological orientation:

In providing a coordinator who can direct enquirers to an appropriate house-church Contact Person for a given, postcode, town or suburb it will be valuable, indeed wise, to point the person to a group with which he or she will be comfortable. Such compatibility, may be in relation to style of worship. relative ages of attenders, language and so on but for religious celebration the most critical factor, in the long run, is theological orientation.

So, if we accept that the house churches need not follow any specific theological line (that is the point of dissociating them formally from the denomination), what is a simple classification that would have meaning for the average secular high-school-educated student of today?

Here is my attempt at it:
For a start I would limit it to three groups:
1. Literalist/conservative – Characterised by those drawn to the Assembly of Confessing                                                              Congregations
2. Liberal/orthodox – Characterised by the bulk of UCA attenders.
3 Progressive – Characterised by subscribers to the UC Forum

Common to each Group:
Following and seeking to live the Jesus Way of unconditional love as the means to a better life and a better world – The Kingdom of God

Characteristics of each group:

1.Literalist/Conservative  attitude to:

Doctrinal change – reject 
The Bible –
read literally as complete guide to life
The supernatural – 
foundation of Christian faith that fails without it.

2.Liberal/Orthodox   attitude to:

Doctrinal change – resist but modify
The Bible – read in context
The supernatural – accept in Christian doctrine, less so in life

3. Progressive attitude to:

Doctrinal change – explore and adapt
The Bible – explore and analyse
The supernatural – has no validity

So a conversation might go as follows:

Enquirer: I have friends who seem to get a lot of satisfaction through joining a community in a house church. Do you know of any such gatherings in my part of the world?

Coordinator: Yes there are some groups around and they tend to have different ways of approaching Christian faith. It would be good for you to go to a group where you would be comfortable.

Enquirer: Well, what’s the difference?

Coordinator. Well you might put them into three groups:
1. Literalist/conservative
2. Liberal orthodox
3. Progressive.

A .The literalist/conservative values the past traditions of the church and is anxious that her or his worldview not collapse if the supernatural Trinity, and the divine source of biblical writings are questioned or abandoned.

B. The liberal/orthodox which is where the vast majority of mainline denominational participants sit, do not like to question much, are happy with traditional doctrines of faith (e.g. the supernatural Trinity) but tend to yield to current social ethos with respect to personal relationships even when conflicting with biblical rule-setting.

C. The progressive seeks to read the Bible and interpret Jesus’s message with relevance to 21st century knowledge and experience of nature and of personal relationships, at the risk of some uncertainty, confusion and loss of passion.

That these are live issues for people of Christian faith with the UCA can be seen from the correspondence to the Editor in the Winter 2018 issue of the Queensland Synod’s Journey magazine with an exchange of letters between Drs Ken Davidson and John Frederick. That they also tend to divide us can be seen in the debates on same-sex marriage which are about to come up in the National Assembly next month.

House churches of the nature that I am suggesting we facilitate, would allow us to maintain our differences and still in one sense be one body.

This is already happening de facto to some degree. For instance we have the Assembly of Confessing Congregations, we have the UC Forum, we have home study groups and some congregations with a variety of doctrinal stances but all seek to maintain their association with the Uniting Church without having to toe the party line.

I would be pleased to have your thoughts and suggestion on how the A, B, C statements above , while still being one sentence each , encapsulate the description of the three groups.

It is important, that the description be “neutral” in that each group must find it an acceptable wording of where they stand.
Thank you
Rodney Eivers

oOo

Milpara – A Suter-style Scenario No. 5?

Milpara – Suter-Style Scenario No. 5?
Rodney Eivers

3rd January 2016
I had a message from a colleague this weekend who recommended that members of Uniting Church congregations use some available 2-minute video vignettes, to learn of the writings of Dr Keith Suter. Dr Suter has published a doctoral thesis on the Future of the Uniting Church and paints pictures – he refers to them as scenarios – as to where the Uniting Church in Australia might be heading over the next one or two decades. The full thesis may be viewed at
http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/11587/1/suter_ks_thesis.pdf .

I would support the recommendation that people view the 2-minute vignettes by Keith Suter on his study of the future of the Uniting Church. He speaks very clearly and they are a good summary of his wake-up call to the Uniting Church. We have already screened the first of the video series, at one of our Acacia Ridge UC services. We may screen the others later this year.

Suter’s commentary leads me to ponder where Milpara might fit in to all this.
In thinking about these matters I wrote a little piece about where the concept (integrating congregation and local community) might fit into Suter’s scenarios. I came up with a Suter-type scenario No. 5 which is akin to his Scenario 3 – Return to the early church – but retaining, with some sort of building, a visible presence in the community. Such a physical presence could also be relevant in the event of Scenario 2 – Secular Welfare.

With the potential introduction of “contestability” for Government services (compare the current tendering of government services such as School Chaplains and employment services), the Uniting Church could lose its access to Government funding. In that case the provision of community services could be thrown back on the congregations in the way it was to some extent before centralisation took place into Uniting Care.

I post here my article describing briefly a Suter-type Scenario 5.

Scenario 5 – Milpara. A local community spiritual centre and meeting place

 

Dr Keith Suter in his work The Future of the Uniting Church in Australia has outlined four scenarios as to where the UCA might be heading in the coming decades. He does not select one scenario over another as the most desirable or the most likely to be attained. “Preferred”, is the term he uses for such a choice, if it is made.

For the purpose of using these scenarios to develop policies and move forward one needs to either select one of these scenarios, each of which has significantly different outcomes, or develop a scenario of one’s own. Milpara is moving towards this.

As a starter may I suggest that Scenario 3, is closest of Suter’s 4 scenarios to the Milpara approach. There are, however, major differences:

This is Scenario 3 – Return to the Early Church.
Suter summarises it as follows:

“Early Church”: This Uniting Church has discarded its corporate businesslike nature and is run (as was the church in the early centuries of the Christian Era) as a small group of people focused on the more explicitly “spiritual” aspects of life, with no government-funded services

The Milpara “Preferred” Scenario

Scenario 5 – Milpara. A (local geographic) community spiritual centre and meeting place.

It would comprise a slow but steady interpretation of doctrine in tune with educated social attitudes accompanied by visible interaction with the community at the local geographic level. Moving towards the incorporation of all faith positions, including the secular, as the spiritual, ethical, social heart of local communities. Clear identification in the early stages with the Uniting Church but with loose levels of governmental control maintaining the levels of church councils broadly along the lines of the present. The local community may be defined loosely as comprising those citizens within walking distance of the congregation or faith community wherever it may happen to meet.

Remember this is a possible scenario, not a prediction of what might actually happen or is likely to happen. Delineating such a scenario, (I presume this is what Keith Suter is getting at) has a very practical value because, by adopting a scenario, this will colour and guide the decisions which are made and acted upon at all levels of the church.

I don’t think such scenarios are necessarily wishful thinking or, by contrast, giving up. They provide guidance and a direction in which to channel our energies. And, of course one can have several different scenarios operating in parallel.

One of the main differences Milpara has with Suter’s number Three is the low place he gives to a visible location of the church in the community. He does talk of “house churches” and that may well be a welcome part of it. But the dependence on coffee houses, private homes and other ephemeral rented locations for religious practice and community activity is unlikely to give a sense of permanence for the church group in that community. Moreover, if there is no physical base, it makes it that much more difficult to engage in social welfare by members of the faith group (as opposed to Government agencies or the centralised denomination) Nevertheless, we would see such a presence, not being envisioned by the grandly prominent church structures of past eras, but by “meeting houses” needing to occupy no more than a standard house allotment. Of course if the functions of a particular congregation were to expand and the secular community were supportive, more substantial buildings would be warranted.

Place of denominational administration: (Assembly, Synod and Presbytery) We would see the National Assembly playing much the same role as at present, setting such policies as need to be defined and responding to questions of national and international concern.

Presbyteries, which can be seen currently by congregations to operate mainly as a controlling body (monitoring “compliance”) rather than nurturing spontaneous growth, may become less necessary with a loosening up of control and church membership.
Any necessary remaining presbytery roles might be taken over by the regional Synods.

The Synods (regional coordinating bodies – not necessarily defined by State political boundaries) would have an additional role, of providing hands-on services for the small congregations and faith communities. This could include, financial accounting, property maintenance, centralised educational and training facilities and the provision of a pool of preachers and teachers. We anticipate that the funding of these would be provided by a levy (hopefully voluntary rather than required) on the faith groups. Currently only 30 per cent of Synod income at present comes from “offerings” as against indirect Government largesse of some 70 per cent.

To summarise: Rather than a central body venturing out to plant what amounts to fully grown churches Milpara would seek to identify growth points from within the local community (perhaps from existing small home study groups) and nurture their growth. The new Highfields U.C. group may provide something of a model here.

Our vision might be: “A church in every town and every suburb”.

What might the new face of the church look like?

There has been a great deal of conversation about the changing character of “Church’.  Recent conferences in Australia and overseas have tapped into this topic. Not everyone agrees that change is inevitable and will not be determined by churches as organisations or as congregations, but by the natural evolution of social values. Just when we were getting used to the idea of being more community relevant, a confronting challenge has been made by Jamie Manson, columnist and book reviewer to the recent National Catholic Reporter Conference in USA….“the new face of the church won’t have much of a face at all,”

Go to: National Catholic Reporter Conference to read a commentary on her paper.

oOo

Does “local” matter?

“Describe a good neighbour?” a trainer asked her students. The response came quickly: “One you don’t know is there!”

Australians no longer know their neighbours. The reality is that many don’t want to know those they share a fence, a wall or a street with. And so with a only a few exceptions, the days of borrowing half a cup of sugar from a friend next door are well and truly gone; and to be honest, I am to young to remember them, though my grandmother insists that such a time once existed. In their book “Why people don’t go to Church” Bellamy et al., confirm what many of us already experience, that people “find community in the workplace, through clubs and interest groups and through the ‘ready-made’ communities of festivals and other one-off events”. Further, their research has uncovered that “nearly half of all people under 40 have no close friends living in the local area”(Bellamy et al. 2002). It is without question then that, for many, the notion of a ‘neighbourhood community’ meaning anything more than the geographic co-location of dwellings does not fit with experience.

The concept of churches as centres that facilitate and promote the gathering of local believers is also, well, fading rapidly. Continue reading