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Art of Association: Facing the Future with Hope

Published / by Dean Eland

Many stories can be told when Uniting Church congregations were important centres of community life. Until the 1960s congregations were neighbourhood gathering places and children walked to Sunday School, teenagers readily joined drama and music groups and local sporting teams. In adult life the local minister served as pastor to church members and others in the local community by conducting family baptisms, weddings and funerals.

In the new post-Christian world, the closing decades of the 20th and early years of the 21st century, churches are discovering ways to respond creatively in a very different context. Profound changes are evident in personal preferences, shifting loyalties, attitudes and outlook on life. Note: these social changes are beyond the control of your church council!

Congregations once shaped with strong identities and cultural homogeneity are now present in diverse, cross cultural and hybridised contexts. The challenge for ministry, the public presence of any faith community today is found in the context of this radical pluralism and social diversity.

In responding to this sociohistorical habitat many congregations are responding to emerging opportunities by forging partnerships with others who are working to strengthen and build community life.  Many now are committed to the “art of association”, helping neighbours to find places where strangers meet, where the lonely and isolated find friendship, experience hospitality and welcome.

In practical terms this suggests that congregations do not need to do it all. Others are also part of being a serving community, neighbours working together to create a better and more just world,

Creative and innovative responses to this new age are expressed in the groups and activities located in church buildings, seven day a week places to meet. Buildings and a committed core of members is a valuable neighbourhood asset. Congregations of the open door are becoming new again when they provide a welcome and join with others as equal partners. Not a ministry of us to them but a collaborative task, together with others, discovering new ways to develop a local culture of community care.

The greatest benefit of civic participation, Tocqueville argued, was not its effects in the world, but on the relationships between people engaged in civic life, the “schoolhouse of democracy”.  This we could name as, “gospel practice”, habits and practices fostered and beneficial changes generated by citizens themselves.

In becoming a servant community today neighbourhood churches are becoming a catalyst for new forms of local association. There are many examples to draw on and the list includes…community gardens, cafes and meals, op shops, interest groups including choirs, book, arts, health and craft groups, English classes, positive aging activates and play groups for children. Networking opportunities also emerge when locals are campaigning to protect open spaces and heritage sites.

Insights and concepts about mission theologies have also challenged congregations to discover they are called to follow and join in missio Dei, God’s mission in the world. “To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.” “Mission as solidarity with the incarnate and crucified Christ.” (Bosch 390).

For further reading…

Diana Butler Bass. The Practicing Congregation: Imaging a New Old Church. 2004.

David J Bosch. Transforming Mission. Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 1994.

Patrick J. Deneen. The Triumphant Failure of Liberalism. ABC Religion and Ethics. Updated 16 Feb 2018 (First posted 15 Feb 2018). http://www.abc.net.au/religion/

Ann Morisy. Journeying Out. A New Approach to Christian Mission. 2004.