Planning our 50th Birthday Party

23 Jun 2020 by Glen Powell in: Features

The Uniting Church has just turned 43 years old.  At first, it seems an insignificant number. We prefer round numbers as milestones.  Yet, 43 is seven years away from turning 50 – and seven years is long enough to totally transform the Uniting Church. 

Unlike the birthdays we celebrate individually, collectively we can choose to be younger when we turn 50 than we are today. 

After all, it took just seven years from 20 September 1982 for the Peace Prayers held in the St Nicholas Church, Leipzig to turn into the people’s peaceful revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall.  The Jubilee 2000 coalition, was formed in 1997, thanks to conversations between a small group of collaborators at Keele University.  Seven years later it triggered the largest people’s movement of the late 20th Century.

Greta Thunberg has shown that you don’t always need seven years to start a global movement.  Her solo “Skolstrejk för klimatet” started in August 2018, and by September 2019 more than a million students around the world had joined her movement.

So seven years is more than long enough for a transformed Uniting Church.  On our 43rd birthday, we can decide if we want to use the next seven years to recapture and enliven the vision cast in our Basis of Union by our 50th birthday.  Or do we simply wait to be seven years older?

I was invited to preach at an anniversary service on 21 June.  As is my custom, I preached on the set lectionary texts.  In this instance, the texts included the Genesis 21 story of Hagar and Ishmael being expelled from Abraham’s family, and part of Matthew’s gospel Chapter 10, including:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 

and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This was a tough text for a birthday sermon. Surely Jesus, our Prince of Peace, would not bring a sword to our birthday party?  Swords cut apart, divide and separate.  The Uniting Church is celebrating the moment three traditions came together.  We shouldn’t be talking about swords which divide and conflict within our own household, should we? 

Jesus talks about setting family members against each other – that we must choose the Way of Jesus even over our family loyalties.  There are few things we value above our families.  We love our children and grandchildren.  Don’t make us choose between our faith and our loved ones.

Likewise, we love our church families.  Perhaps it is our unwillingness to risk arguments with our church family members that has led us to a point where despite our inclusive ethos, our emphasis on social justice, and our creative theological traditions, we find ourselves increasingly elderly, numerically in decline, and quite out of touch with our communities.  Is it because we’re too afraid to have an honest conversation about our future, because it might lead to an argument?

After the Sunday service, it was the oldest person in the Zoom room who called out the complacency in their congregation (and, of course, others). He pointedly remarked that our current worship style was pretty comfortable for the regular attenders.  Young and old alike called for banners to be made which reminded the church of the original vision for the Uniting Church – and to make sure they were outside for the community to see. We have some wonderful elders in our denomination and they are ready to join the movement.

We discussed the importance of choosing to carry a cross and follow Jesus – to give up the life we had, just as Hagar and Ishmael were forced to give up the life they had.  Cast out of Abraham’s community with a waterskin and some bread, Hagar and her child wandered until they ran out of water, then settled down to die.  Instead, God’s Angel opened her eyes to a well of water which sustained them and they were led into a new life, no longer slaves and Ishmael went on to found a nation. 

If we are willing to give up our life as it is, God promises us a future full of hope. God will open our eyes in the wilderness to wells of water which sustain us as we follow where the living God leads us.

Recently an external consultant said to the Synod Leadership Team “The Uniting Church is the Church that cares about the environment.  It’s the church that campaigned for marriage equality and cares about the same issues that young people care about. You should be over-run with young people.  Why is it they’re all at Hillsong instead?”

 Interesting question isn’t it?  

At the School Strike for Climate on 20 September in Sydney, 70 to 80 thousand people participated.  Almost all of them marched past an impressive team of young, passionate, relevant and fun Uniting Church members strategically stationed out the front of St Stephens Uniting Church, opposite Parliament House.  They had custom made T-shirts for the event (“For God so loved the Earth”), drums, banners and loud-hailers.

But if any of those people at the climate strike, attracted by the Uniting Church ethos, showed up at a church service, would they find anything that connected to that young, passionate, relevant presence they witnessed at St Stephens?  That is our challenge.

At our 2019 Synod meeting, we formally decided that we will reorganise ourselves for growth in discipleship, relationship, impact and number.  Now we have to take that seriously and act on it.

Back in 1977 the first Assembly of the Uniting Church made a statement to the nation.  

Here is an extract:  

We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur.

We will work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond.

We affirm the rights of all people to equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available.

We will oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.

We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others

and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.

The full text can be found here and it is worth reading regularly.

What a magnificent vision we had in 1977.  A vision that even today should attract young people to join our movement in order to make the world more the way God intended it. 

If we put our mind to it, and invest our resources appropriately, within the next year or two we could create a network of congregations that were actively focusing their life and witness on being ready to welcome and be changed by newcomers, and being relevant and visible within their communities.  We could see more experiments of new ways of being church being tried out – and some growing.

We would see churches led by ministers who were honing their ability to preach in ways that connect biblical texts to contemporary issues.  They would need to learn how to lead teams of volunteers and paid lay staff with the skills to help our congregations shift from traditional to contemporary worship; to be more focused on emerging generations; to take risks with new ways of being church; to connect across cultural and linguistic diversity; to connect our advocacy messages with the gospel witness; and to be ready to welcome and include newcomers of all ages in our movement.      

In seven years time, when we celebrate our 50th birthday, we could totally change the trajectory of the Uniting Church and be celebrating what God has done with us, through us, and for our children.

Interested  in getting involved? 

Uniting Mission and Education want to collaborate with you, groups, congregations, presbyteries and other parts of the Synod.  Here are suggestions:

So Uniting Church.  In seven short years we turn 50.  Will we reinvent ourselves?  Or just be seven years older?

Glen Powell is the Executive Director of Uniting Mission and Education