The Challenge

The Challenge

I came across the article by Swee Ann entitled Love is the way – Love God and Love Neighbor.  I found it an interesting read.  One part of the article stood out to me.  It was this comment. “One of my laments for the church is that we are becoming increasingly corporate.  In the process, we lose our soul.” 

I guess I am uncomfortable with the statement.  But why? I asked myself.  There was a time in my life when as a young man, it came time for me to leave school and get a job.  I became an apprentice mechanic, then after further study an A grade mechanic.  Working as a mechanic, playing football with my mates, involved in the local Methodist church became a means to an end.  Studying to become a local preacher, a building block for a future vocation.  I left my workplace, football, my mates to travel to an aboriginal community (Elcho Island) in Arnhem Land.  A hospital built, I returned to my hometown.  Three years later I volunteered for a second work party to Milingimbi, an aboriginal mission west of Elcho Island.  

After Joan and I were married, I applied to work for the Methodist Overseas Mission (MOM).  I was accepted and sent by my church to Elcho Island, where I become the fixer of anything with an engine.  This, while wrestling with the idea of ordained ministry.  Down at the local store, I watched Japany, an old man with a full head of white hair, flashing eyes, a big smile revealing two lost front teeth.  He was lining up his 31 children from smallest to tallest.  I was intrigued.  He then marched then in a conga line into the store.  Each child handed an icy pole.  He then handed over his money to pay for the 31 icy poles. I asked Japany, “Wawa, (brother) So how much money did all your icy poles cost you?  A vacant look.  I pointed to the icy pole he was holding, then pulled a coin out of my pocket and held it up. His eyes lit up, “Ooo!! that” he said.  “Me know” He pulled $15 in notes and some coins from his shirt pocket and showed them to me.  He replaced his money in his pocket, turned, and left without a word, chomping on his melting icy pole.

While home in Swan Hill having left Elcho Island to attend my sister’s wedding, I chose to move into Vocational Education.  My encounter with Japany in front of the store my decider.  Many doors opened and a lifetime in the field of education continues.  It has been my call.  It is where I have grown, worked, learned, and shared experiences.  I was sent by the church to Arnhem Land then to Zambia as a fixer of all things involving engines.  On my return to Australia, I began a teacher training program, graduating as a TAFE teacher.  Some years later, I established a commercial arm at a TAFE Institute.  Over all those years, I continued to take church services often a service at 9.30 am, and another at 11.00am in small churches and aged care facilities to the north and west of Melbourne.

But then, this is my story.  MUC is made up of many stories.  Many have lived and worked and been successful.  It is they, each individual who brings to this faith community their gifts and skills.      

Over the last 12 years, four congregations merged to create MUC.  It began with an idea; found traction through a process, to be molded into a governance model.   It took many people and the ordained ministry, to create the vision, to build with bricks and mortar to emerge into Manningham Uniting Church and Community Centre.  Many of those skilled and gifted people come from a corporate background.  They worked in a corporate world.  As disciples, we were a visionary people who took risks, worked with opposing views, were supported by senior people in the wider church, who came from the corporate world.  It is these people from a range of workplaces who each day, leave their homes to be the hands and feet of one called Jesus. 

The reality is the old models of well attended churches, funded by the members of the congregation, through the offering plate, supplemented by cake stalls, fat lamb sales, a local produce market are no longer possible.  We are old.  Our congregation ageing, our young people not easy to find.  The world has changed.  We, the faithful people at MUC have changed.  We have become commercial, with a range of funding options that provide income for MUC and the wider Uniting Church because of the gifts and skills of this faith community, and those who came before us.  I am very comfortable with where MUC is focused.  It is a different way of being a faith community.  However, this community is now assembling its financial resources to be an alive, active faith community in this place way past my life on earth.  The involvement and ministry to our faith community through ordained ministries and its disciples is, and always will be at the heart of our faith.  For the people, the congregation, who worship each Sunday, we can employ a ran ge of people to work with us, because of the vision of our people.  

As a member of this faith community, I am saddened as I reflect on Swee Ann’s lament for the church.  That is; we are becoming increasingly corporate. And so we are, brought about by the changed circumstances we find around us.  To suggest we are losing our soul; I find difficult to live with.  The church over the centuries has endured many crises and upheavals, only to prosper.  I have no doubt this pattern will continue.  This reality can be hard to accept.  It is change.  I chose to become a missionary in response to a call, a vague notion of what I might want to do with my life.  I am still at mission, a disciple.  A long time ago I was paid by the church, now I am paid by the corporate world.  My mission involves two parts.  My work, and my church.  Each in my life equally important.  For they are inseparable. 

What I see developing is a different model of Church.  As a young man, I attended church on Sunday.  Worship was conducted behind closed doors. Young people left worship before communion was celebrated.  The building was where God was.  Perhaps, the model has changed.  We now talk about Manningham Uniting Church and Community Centre.  We want to invite the local community to come, to work and live with us.   We want to engage with them to create a safe, welcoming facility, a commercial business within a faith community. This concept is not unique within the Uniting Church. Uniting Age Well is a living breathing example of this model.  With different levels of entry into care, it runs a commercial based business supporting those in community, and our own faith community.  It makes space for those who do not have the financial means to find a safe place to live out their final years in old age. 

The history of Manningham U.C. is written through the lives of its faithful people, past and present who came from all walks of life.  For all have contributed.  All have a place, through their own journey to now call this place home.  But what has changed.  Perhaps our vision has shifted.  Perhaps we are being invited to move our church from the confines of a building to the byways and highways of our community.  As we invite the community to share our space, our resources, we are inviting them to join with us, to share with us the financial and human cost of being at mission, and to prosper.  Perhaps this is now our greatest challenge.