In sure and certain hope…

I attended a meeting of the South Australian chapter of the Australian Asscoiation for Mission Studies today. Steve Taylor, the Principal of Uniting College for Leadership & Theology was presenting findings from research he’s been doing in the UK on “Fresh Expressions” communities and their sustainability. You can see the notes from his presentation on his blog:
http://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz/archive/talking-sustainability-and-mission/

One of the interesting things he’s found is that there’s about a 50% attrition rate in the Fresh Expressions he’s followed over the last decade. He checked this against other writers’ lists of innovative faith communities like that and found a similar “death” rate.

But he also found significant signs of new life – resurrection even – associated with those short-lived churches. Individual participants report being transformed by the experience and prepared to offer significant leadership in mission after the demise of the Fresh Expression they were part of. Other faith communities – both established congregations and other Fresh Expressions have learned from the experience and example of the community that has wound up. And many of those communities have left behind “products” generated in their years of vitality – art, liturgical resources, training modules etc.

So, Steve told us, that 50% attrition rate doesn’t mean that half of the Fresh Expressions initiated weren’t worth the effort. Not at all. They are integral to the dynamic of the church’s discernment of and participation in the life of the Holy Spirit in the world. They too embody the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic movement.

You’d think a movement oriented around the death and resurrection of Jesus would get that intuitively. How many times have I stood by an open grave and said the words? “We therefore commit his/her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life…” You’d think we’d be more confident and comfortable around death – even the “death” of our institutions, innovative and inherited.

I was talking with a Presbytery minister recently and, at one point, she referred to “palliative care” congregations – quickly correcting herself. I certainly didn’t interpret any disrespect on her part towards small, aged congregations that are likely to close in the foreseeable future, but I understand why she’d be cautious about using the term.

However, like that Presbytery minister, I have the highest regard for palliative care institutions and professionals and see the way we care for one another as we die (as inevitably we all must) as a key measure of our humanity and civilisation. It got me thinking about the present situation and immediate future of the Uniting Church as some of our congregations move towards a kind of “death”. I wondered whether there are ways that the rest of us – the majority (I think) of our congregations that are healthy or even thriving as they adapt and grow in response to changing circumstances – can care for dying congregations.

I wondered if there are stories or even policies that show “best practice” in this matter. I wondered if there are ways that healthy congregations can take the journey with dying congregations – to comfort and encourage them at the “end of life”, both caring for the other and growing as a congregation that still has more living to do.

I also wondered if there’s a way there could be a national conversation about this – an on-going one. Just as it’s really unhealthy for families to avoid talking about death and to find ways to integrate the experience of death into a whole-of-life set of values and priorities, the Uniting Church needs to be able to experience the death of some much loved members openly, honestly and “in sure and certain hope…”

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8 comments

  1. Absolutely. One of my recommendations flowing from my research is that from the beginning of fresh expressions a practice of celebrating death is encouraging. And if so for f ex, then for all churches. Ie an ecclesiology that embodies and embeds death and resurrection. Now I just need the time to complete the writing of the book!

    • My experience here in Adelaide has been one of death and resurrection, and the uncomfortable, uncertain space inbetween, when I grieved, a necessary process before new life could emerge. Reading these thoughts from your research Steve, and Andrew’s wonderings about how we tell the stories, I, too, need some time for writing a book, to tell the story of The Esther Project’s life and death, and the birth of sarah tells stories … thanks for the reminder to get on with that task!

  2. During my time a college, and my time in Synod Presbytery meetings, I always felt like I would be a failure at ministry if the congregation I am the pastor of died. Even to the point of having a fellow UCA minister say to me at the end of a Presbytery meeting: “If we’re not in the business of transformation and growth, what’s the point? At in the end, bums on seats is the sign of real growth.”
    How do we also help older congregations, many of who have gone into a “maintaining the legacy” mode and are feeling ashamed because they haven’t been able to continue what (for many of them) they built, be reassured that within our faith that death is not the end but the door opening to resurrection?

  3. Two challenges about how we train our ministers and ministry agents.
    What skills do we need to give them so they can work with congregations who have to change or “die” in some form.
    And what about the ministers who don’t want to work in those congregations but are keen to be involved with the new things that could happen if they were allowed to. Funding is an issue, of course.
    There’s some exciting stories coming out of the Methodist Church in England where lots of churches are closing, but the funds from the selling of the buildings is going back into paying pioneer ministers to start new forms of church, where there is no longer a traditional.

  4. Philip, my study was of fresh expressions in UK, both Methodist and Anglican. What is interesting in the UK, is that some 54% of these new churches are being pioneered not by ministers, but lay leaders. steve taylor

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