Good News for Congregational Change

Blogging has slid down my list of priorities this busy term, but I do want to reflect on a sermon I heard while we were visiting Sydney, Australia, in May. Pitt Street Uniting Church was the nearest to our hotel; I had briefly considered walking a little further to the Anglican Cathedral, where my Dad preached once thirty years ago, but the posted theme of Armageddon did not appeal! Pitt Street Church has a wonderful history. It was the first Congregational Church in the city, founded in 1833 and located in its present site in , of course, Pitt Street, the church has been a centre of major debates and initiatives in social issues like education and justice, and only just survived a plan to demolish it in the 1960's. The church website notes from a 175th anniversary history  "A major church set in the midst of Australia's oldest, biggest and spiritually most confused city trying to make sense of its setting and discern its calling. Be inspired by the story. Just occasionally, be appalled."  I haven't read the book, but that comment makes me want to!

These days Pitt Street is part of the Uniting Church, a blend of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalists,  and leans more to the liturgical, I think, than its forebears would have. It was a lively service, with plenty to think about,  and great organ music. I especially liked the practice of standing for communion in a huge circle around the edges of the large sanctuary, so we could pass the bread and wine around the circle (grape juice on one side, wine on the other, for those who needed to know!) I mentioned to my mum that I had been there that Sunday, and she said "Oh did you see Dorothy McRae-McMahon? That's her church." The name was familiar to me, as I have two liturgy books written by this woman, and have used them many times, but prudently, as she comes across as stridently feminist on paper. But the service was moderated by a lovely grandmotherly type in a white alb, who was clearly a longstanding member of the Ministry Team.  On reflection I have little doubt, this was Dorothy. Don't judge an author by her pages!

The preacher was a guest, Paul Cotterell, perhaps a congregational member, perhaps from a nearby parish. Because he used the readings of the day to offer pastoral  care for the church, which is in a vacancy following the departure (retirement?) of the senior minister. Like all Uniting Churches in Australia, they use the Revised Common Lectionary,  and the two readings chosen for focus were  from the New Testament. It was the sixth Sunday of Easter, and the preacher (or 'witness', as the congregation quaintly terms it) reminded us that this interim period between the drama of the resurrection and the empowering of Pentecost was a time of waiting and wondering. There was grief that Jesus as they knew him was gone, but hope that in some way they would still experience his presence and grace. 

The reading from John 14 (23 - 29) was, he said, a classic “bad news/good news” text. The bad news is that Jesus tells the disciples he is leaving. The good news is the promise of an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will come to remind them of all that he has taught them.  In other words, the Holy Spirit will restore the presence of the absent Jesus. In new challenges and responsibilities, Jesus promises they will not be alone. Holy Spirit power will enable them to carry on. That's good news. And its good news, said Cotterell,  for Pitt Street folk who, despite 180 years of history, are in the midst of their own interim period: 
"A time of waiting and wondering; a time of grief and hope; a time of uncertainty and yet of promise. Brothers and sisters, I am here today to affirm with the gospel writer that we have not been and will not be left alone. The Spirit of God is here present with us now." 

The other reading was from Acts 16, and this provided the theological meat of the sermon. The preacher used historical background material about the 'Godfearers' - Gentiles who were interested in and supportive of the Jewish faith  - to remind listeners about God's call to us today. Paul's strategy was to connect with these synagogue adherents who might be  more responsive than kosher Jews, to the message of Jesus. And people like Lydia did respond  and so in cities like Philippi the Holy Spirit inaugurated through Paul a new era of Christian theology, and community, and mission. I am familiar with the godfearers, but had never quite seen the outreach to the Gentiles as strategic in this way, and found it helpful as we embark on a journey of  exploring the missional mindset in our own faith community in Auckland. I resonated with Paul's vision of Pitt Street as "a place where people can have real conversations about the faith, where their particular journey is honoured, where alternative expressions ...can be explored in honesty and without fear, and where we can be brought into a continually deepening understanding of the loving heart and mind of Christ." 

In both the readings I was also tuning into a different story or discourse. This year my Masters of Business paper has been called Managing Organisational Change, and it has been very engaging. I realise now, that ministers are engaged in organisational change all the time! And if I use the discourse of Business Studies to retell these episodes from church history, I see Jesus was providing the leadership the disciples needed to face up to a rapidly changing environment, a change of paradigm. At the Last Supper, he reassured them that the resources and skills they needed would be provided. In Philippi, they also faced a major strategic change. The good news of Jesus was going to be 'marketed' to a wider customer base, and that would require different attitudes and behaviours. Some resisted, and some departed, but history shows that the change was implemented successfully; now, the vast majority of followers of Jesus are not ethnic Jews. The change was transformative. 

In the back of my mind in all this, was a recent conversation with a relative about change in her church. She too is experiencing a mix of hope and fear, of good news and bad news, as the congregation says farewell to a beloved senior minister, and as they anticipate with much uncertainty the result of the Methodist 'stationing.' As at Pitt Street, this organisational change will not only raise issues of recruitment, remuneration, and communication  but also of resistance, justice, politics and power. The fear is that the new minister will not be a good match, for congregation members' theological perspectives or worship preferences. Sadly, my relative's congregation has in the past experienced the leadership of a tyrant with mental health issues, so no wonder they are afraid. Many people left during that time and the wounds are deep.  But I was able to remind her about John 14, and Acts 16's call from Macedonia, and Pitt Street, and waiting and wondering. I was able to proclaim to her that same good news, that they have not been, and will not be, left alone. The Spirit of God, the Counsellor  is present through it all, and the purpose of God is irrevocable. 

That's the discourse of Jesus, that's the discourse of hope.

To Chew Over: What change are you experiencing with mixed feelings right now? How do Jesus' words to the disciples speak into your life?

God who sets us on a journey
To discover, dream and grow,
Lead us 
as you led your people
In the desert long ago;
Journey inward, journey outward,
Stir the spirit, stretch the mind;
Love for God and self and neighbour
Marks the way that Christ defined.

Exploration brings new insights,
Changes, choices we must face;
Give us wisdom in deciding,
Mindful always of your grace;
Should we stumble, lose our bearings,
Find it hard to know what’s right,
We regain our true direction
Focused on the Jesus-light.

End our longing for the old days,
Grant the vision that we lack –
Once we’ve started on this journey
There can be no turning back;
Let us travel light, discarding
Excess baggage from our past,
Cherish only what’s essential,
Choosing treasure that will last.

When we set up camp and settle
To avoid life’s risk and pain,
You disturb complacent comfort,
Pull the tent pegs up again;
Keep us travelling in the knowledge
You are always at our side,
Give us courage for the journey,
Christ our goal and Christ our guide.

© Joy Dine, from ‘Faith Forever Singing’.